Friday, April 13, 2012

Postacademic Rant 7 - On Academic Seminars

I am swamped at work (yes, I'm going to take the raise - still negotiating with my boss) and don't have any ideas for new posts right now ... but I don't want to leave you all hanging for more than a week with nothing new! So I thought I'd post another postacademic rant for you.

Standard disclaimers: these were written about a year ago when I was freshly dealing with my anger at academia and was working through my feelings with a therapist. I don't really feel this strongly about most of this stuff now ... although I certainly don't denounce any of the thoughts or emotions expressed in these posts, either. :)

This one will probably be more relevant to folks who are earlier in their grad programs - people who are still mired in coursework, or who are at the phase in their grad student careers where their cohort-mates line up eagerly to go to every Friday seminar and take notes excitedly on whatever topic Famous Scholar X is dishing about that week.

(Notes that will simply migrate home to your office, to sit on top of the other piles of notes from presentations you listened to that had absolutely no bearing on the work you're doing or the research you're interested in or anything else relevant to you. And yet, you have to hang onto them forever and ever and ever, filed away in some cabinet. After all, they represent academic work!!)

It's titled, appropriately, F*ck Your Pointless, Endless Seminars... language NSFW. Obviously. :)

Fuck your pointless, endless seminars

One thing that truly makes me really, really happy? Knowing that I will never again feel pressured to go sit through some boring ass academic seminar or lecture again.

Don’t get me wrong – obviously, I know I will have to sit through meetings and training sessions and lectures at whatever job I get in the future. Every job has these.

But I truly believe that very few work meetings are as genuinely pointless as the academic seminar is, almost every single time.

What's an academic seminar? Well, it's basically just an excuse to blow departmental money on bringing some outside scholar to campus. They will fly some big-name (or not-so-big-name) scholar into town for a few days, and schedule meetings for them with scholars and grad students who they will forget as soon as they get onto the plane to go home, and will wine and dine them around town on the departmental dime during their visit.

Oh, and somewhere in the few days when the scholar is visiting, the department will reserve a room and have the scholar present some of their research. Because it's all about the groundbreaking research, you know. Not the dinner and wine and free trip and the networking with other professors; no way. Absolutely not.

(As an aside: Obviously, I'm referring to a specific type of academic seminar here. There are other seminars that focus around grad student or departmental faculty presentations. These are generally less awful, since everyone knows each other and therefore, there is less showing off and preening by all parties).

Anyway, I'm specifically referring here to the seminars where outside scholars are brought in and where everyone is expected to show up, regardless of whether the speaker's research is interesting to you or whether you have anything else to do that day. You show up, or else the department looks down on you and thinks you aren't dedicated enough - even if you spend the afternoon in your office diligently working on research. End of story.

Every now and then, you hit pay dirt and the speaker turns out to be great, the research interesting, and the questions from the audience fascinating. Every now and then. In my eight years, I think I saw three or four really, truly engaging and interesting presentations.

But more often than not, you'll observe these basic elements of any academic seminar:
1. Academic blowhard gets up and rambles on for 90 intolerable minutes, probably reading from their notes and/or not able to follow along on the powerpoint they put together the night before in their hotel room, after three glasses of wine at dinner at Fancy Grad U Restaurant with Fancy Faculty Members. You'll struggle to follow along and take notes ... all the while wondering why you're taking notes, since the talk is unrelated to your research interests. But everyone else will expect you to have a notebook out and write on it ... so you do.

2. Since the research being presented is likely unrelated to your research or to the research of 80% of the room, none of you are truly qualified to comment on or to judge their work on the merits. But this will not stop untenured faculty and eager-beaver graduate students from asking 15 minutes of pointless questions so that they can show how Interested and Engaged and Intelligent they are ... followed by meandering commentary from the speaker as he or she struggles to make some sense out of whatever verbal vomit has just been thrown at them, and to answer the question in such a way that it won't be followed up by 5 more equally confusing follow-up questions.

3. The grad students will also ask questions, because they need to show their departmental faculty that They Too Care and They Are Also Engaged Scholars. Their questions will usually sound smart but really don’t mean anything. “Have you considered how postmodernism might contribute to the social patterns noted in your work?"  "Have you considered that there might be some relevant themes in Argentinian literature from the 18th century? My research shows that Writer so-and-so has espoused on some similar themes...” The scholar will struggle to answer these questions as well, with a somewhat patronizing tone to the little grad student. And everyone else will shuffle around, bored and somewhat embarrassed for Eager Beaver.

4. Once the grad students are talking, you might think that the faculty members are done. Oh, no. A few blowhard faculty members* will save their questions for the end. Just as you think you're free to go, Professor Blowhard will begin questioning the visiting scholar about why they don’t study the blowhard’s exact line of research or why they didn’t include their personal variable of interest. Some of them will be nice, but some of them will be real assholes, clearly trying to find some grounds on which to criticize the scholar to pump up their own fragile ego. Again, everyone else shuffles around in embarrassment and boredom.

It'll get to the point with these seminars where you will be able to predict exactly who will speak up among your grad students and faculty, and - almost to a T - what specific questions they will ask. It's boring and predictable and awful.

And yet it plays out this way, every single time.

Please tell me - what the hell are any of us supposed to be getting from this? Sitting quietly in a seminar room, taking notes on something we don't know anything about, and either asking random questions or sitting quietly, listening to other people ask stupid questions, and trying to make sure we make eye contact at least once with our departmental advisors so that they know that We Care About Our Discipline and that We Are Serious Scholars.

What is the point of all of this? Answer: it has none.

But for some ungodly reason, every grad student and faculty member (especially those who are not yet tenured) is expected to go to these things. It doesn’t really matter if you speak up – you’re just supposed to show your face, to show that you “care.” And it’s bullshit. 99% of the time you get nothing from it – you’re just wasting time, and giving the scholar a bunch of warm bodies that don’t care about and can’t ask intelligent questions about their research. And even if you do give the scholar an awesome piece of criticism or ask an insightful question? Chances are that they will throw their notes from the seminar to the bottom of their briefcase, so your question will never be incorporated into their paper.

Or better yet? Maybe they will take your great idea and use it ... but since they don't know your name and they'll never see you again, Eager Beaver Grad Student? Your great idea just became theirs, with no attribution. This happened to me twice, once with my own advisor. Welcome to the world of academia.

It’s awful. And even when you’re presenting, you know it’s all a charade. People ask you pointless questions that either reveal their political biases (as someone who studied a hot-button social policy, you could almost pick out questioner's political leanings based on the questions they'd ask me) or that are obviously just intended to challenge you with “gotcha” questions.

Believe me. 99% of the time, seminars are (1) obnoxious academic posturing that (2) teaches no one anything, (3) gives the speaker absolutely no useful feedback, and (4) wastes everyone’s valuable time.

And yet, you'll *have to* go ... and will then have to spend your Friday night working until midnight to make up for the time you lost to that seminar when you could have been working on your own research.

Academia is a joke.

(*Note: all of the faculty in your departments will not be blowhards. But I promise, the blowhards will be the ones who ask the most questions in every seminar, and ramble on for the longest about pointless, unrelated topics).


  1. So true... So true... Keep it coming, JC

  2. Wow, so it's not just a Biology thing! Don't stop writing - I want to hear more of what you have to say! :)

  3. Your post seriously had me laughing out loud just because of how well you uncovered the ridiculousness of most academic seminars. I especially liked your formula for questions asked by the audience! My department also follows this pattern, and I'm in an interdisciplinary field, so I definitely wonder why everyone uses it. My professors have used the power of networking line on me as to why I should attend, and also that it is a way to practice asking questions, but I have always despised how much these events waste my time. Many times attending the events meant compromising on my sleep and whether to take a shower that day. If doing the academic work I need to do along with going to these seminars results in such decisions, there's definitely something not right about academia. I appreciate these rants insofar as they confirm that I'm not crazy for wanting to leave.

  4. Uh...Uh... So true, and don't forget that later (in my experience) it feels like a competition between your classmates regarding: Who is going to deliver the best seminar? In my case, nobody wanted to do it, ;P so they made it MANDATORY, and... I have to deal with that plus living in a dorm with undergrads to save money (don't ask me how I ended up there, please ;D ) Anyway, so glad that I left with debt and all, proud to be ABD :D

  5. This is the best blog ever.

  6. I have to say that seminars (we called them "brownbags") are the only things I miss about formal academic R1 culture. I loved learning new things about my discipline from the top researchers all over the country. It really hit me when I moved into a SLAC that I would not have that level of intellectual engagement with my discipline except for yearly conferences. (I'm about to go into my terminal year with said SLAC and love your blog.)

  7. Nice rant! I've got my own blowhard horror story to tell, but I'll save the details for now.

  8. This was posted right as I was on my way to an all-weekend linguistics conference! You really hit the nail on the head though. My (former...graduated last month!) department had weekly required seminars as well and they went exactly as you said. I will never attend another one again!

  9. Holy cow, this is comedy genius. And so painfully true. Our seminars are three hours long.

  10. I've been reading through your archives lately and I usually agree with a lot of what you say, but this post could actually have been written by me! I can especially relate to knowing exactly what questions certain people are going to ask and exactly what sort of posture they are trying to achieve by doing so. How can intelligent people play along with this little game so wholeheartedly?

  11. I often participate in 'validation Googling' and this is one of those days for one of those topics. I am five years into my PhD program and I am going to take the consolation prize at the end of the semester. I am over all of this. I have despised every ridiculous second of my program from the beginning to this very moment. I absolutely hate seminars and quit going after my first year. All of them were pointless, uninteresting, not relevant in the least to me, and an overall colossal waste of time. I am going to one today because we got an email telling us all to show up because that is 'the way a professional behaves'. Academia IS a joke and the payoff is dismal, if not non-existent.