Thursday, November 13, 2008

Credit Where Credit Is Due

Is it useful if students read a paper or two written by a department seminar speaker prior to the speaker's talk? Are seminar-focused classes successful in their goal of getting students more involved and interested in seminar talks?

I have never taken or taught a course that was focused on getting students more involved in a speaker series, but I have given talks at many places that do this. My view of this topic is therefore an indirect one.

In cases where I have the opportunity to interact with some of the students who have read a few of my papers in advance of a seminar, I have asked the students whether they thought such paper-reading and accompanying discussion was overall useful. I make it clear that I am not asking them if they liked my specific papers and talk but am asking whether they find that the seminar-focused class is successful in its intended general goal.

I haven't kept track of the responses in any systematic way but my impression is that these seminar-focused classes do help some students be more interested in and get more out of the seminars, but that, at the graduate level, many students don't like these classes and don't think they are a good use of their time.

At the undergraduate level, students tend to be more positive. In that case, discussing a speaker's research before the talk might be the difference between understanding something and understanding nothing. At the graduate level, however, students tend to feel that their time might be better spent on other activities.

I think it must be difficult for one faculty member to handle such a course, but a team-taught course in which various faculty cycle in to help discuss papers/seminars in their field of expertise could easily end up being disorganized. From my limited database of anecdotal experiences, I tentatively conclude that these courses are well-intentioned but are difficult to implement in an effective way.

In some cases when I visit a university with a seminar-focused class, I am asked to recommend the paper(s) the students will read in advance of my visit. I always have a hard time with this because if I have published something, it is by definition old research already, and mostly I want to talk about my new work. I do try to mix old and new in my talks, using published work as a basis to discuss more recent and ongoing work, so in some cases it is possible to recommend a paper that is somewhat relevant.

In other cases it is more difficult. I have had students say to me after a talk "I wish you had talked more about what was in the paper we read." I can see their point, but why would I want to give a talk that was entirely composed of work that is already published? I might as well just stand there and read one of my papers to the audience. I like it better when the students or faculty choose which paper(s) to read because then I don't feel quite so responsible for disappointing them by not focusing specifically on that/those papers.

An even better situation (from my perspective anyway) is when students who are doing research in a field similar to mine read one or more of my papers, either in a class or in a research group meeting. These students don't tend to want or expect me to repeat whatever was in the paper(s) they read, and so are interested in new material. I've had some great discussions with students who have done this type of pre-talk paper reading.

For students not in my field of research, I hope that I give enough of a general introduction and conclusion, with various mid-talks attempts at highlighting the main points, so that even someone unfamiliar with my research topics will still get something out of the talk. If I succeed at that (and I'm not sure I do in every case), then the talk will have accomplished something whether or not students have read any of my papers.


Anonymous said...

I think it can be very useful. We don't have a department seminar series (our department is a bit odd...we could easily be 2 departments, given the research we all do), but we have seminars when people invite others (profs and our grad student organization are involved). My advisor runs a journal club that all of his students (and some others) attend (despite what I hear from many others, this journal club runs well; people show up and there's good discussion). When there is a speaker of interest to us we read a couple of papers and discuss them during journal club.

It's particularly helpful, as we're often getting a chance to talk one on one with these speakers, have lunch with them, etc.

Since it is part of the usual journal club (we usually meet every other week), it isn't an added burden either

Anonymous said...

I was recently in a department (as a grad student) where this was done, and it worked really well. Perhaps because it was well-organized. Sometimes the visiting speakers would have the students read a background paper (their own or someone else's) or two, sometimes they would suggest their most recent paper but explain they were going to present something related but different, and sometimes they would have us read a manuscript draft (which was sometimes provided to us password-protected for confidentiality).

Although as a grad student, ALL classes rapidly became annoying distractions from all my other work, most of us did not mind the way this seminar was handled. We got credit for it but took it by choice. Attending the discussion with the speaker before their talk and the talk itself were required, as was a small research project with a 10-minute conference-style talk given during the seminar at the end of the term. Taking the class was strongly encouraged, a lot of the department faculty came to the talks, and there was added incentive because each year the seminar was followed by a week-long field trip to someplace exotic (hooray for geoscience!). Students (and faculty) were also strongly encouraged to come to the dinners hosted at faculty members' houses for the visitors every week, and those tended to be great. So success might entail: fun trips and good food as rewards, time set aside to discuss the recommended papers with the visitor, and involved departments.

Note that the success and level of faculty involvement varied widely depending on the seminar theme from year to year.

Anonymous said...

When I was a grad student we had an informal group seminar on the same day as the departmental colloquium. Whenever there was a relevant speaker one of the students would be compelled to give a talk on background material. This gave students a low stress opportunity to present science, engaged all the students in the visitor's work and gave our group a very strong reputation in the department as our students were always asking questions in talks in their field.

Now I am at a school where we run problem solving sessions for the grad students. When appropriate, we give them something to work on to prep them for a speaker. These sessions are run by the most foreboding and professional member of the department right after the seminar so attendance is great.

Without some assistance students do not often get much out of seminars other than safety from nasty looks at tea. Because we expect students to attend, we are clear with speakers that the students are their main audience. Those who listen typically give great talks.

We do not give credit for attendance at either of these events. Instead we foster a culture where participation is expected. This sticks with most but not all.

Anonymous said...

Our Department has used this in a limited way--we have had these sorts of journal clubs during job searches, to get students more engaged in that process. I think that has been useful, but feel that a broader effort would be lots of work for students and faculty mentor.

Mark P

EliRabett said...

What lynne and the grad student said.