Meetings that are not evil

Not all meetings are useless. Academic research seminars are often good meetings. Here why I think they work, when they do:

  • There is a clear meeting leader—-the seminar speaker. It is obvious who should be in control at the seminar.
  • The goal of the meeting is not to make a decision (except about the speaker quality, I guess) but instead to learn.
  • Since the speaker knows that he is going to be judged, the speaker prepares.
  • The audience knows that they are going to be judged too—-by the quality of their questions. So they pay attention.
  • Someone in the audience has usually paid for the speaker to come, and so at least one person in enthusiastic about the seminar. (Unlike many other meetings.)

Here is when they don’t work:

  • One of the audience members tries to show superior intellect to the speaker. Sometimes it works. Sometimes not. But it’s always tense.
  • The seminar speaker loses control of the seminar——deferring to the audience (I routinely did that when I started out. I gave terrible workshops.)
  • The seminar speaker assumes that the audience knows more than they do. Also a big problem when teaching.
  • The seminar speaker really does know less than the speaker thinks (I have seen this one many times.)
  • Someone asks a question that demonstrates that the paper is wrong or the results are not new. And everyone in the audience—-including the speaker—- knows it. If that is your goal, ask that question nicely. I once had a senior colleague who was killer at this. That person is probably the nicest person you will ever meet, and usually asked the question because of genuinely trying to figure something out in the paper (I think)—-at least that’s the way that it came across. Which is why it usually killed the speaker.
  • When the crowd is too small, or when no one asks questions (that one is probably discipline specific.)

I am sure there are more. But I cannot think of them now.

Update: Unknown Professor has a good follow up, and the advice he gives from Ben Franklin is good too. I will be ‘jonesing’ during the next workshop.

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3 responses to “Meetings that are not evil

  1. You give a great description of good seminars or presentations.
    But to quibble, I don’t think of these as *meetings*.

  2. Great analysis. Unfortunately, I have a colleague that is determined to show everyone how smart he is. So, in research seminar/presentations he asks question after question (usually in a challenging manner).

    The best counter example to this style was a former professor of mine (and one of my role models). He would almost always start by scratching his head and saying something like “I’m sure this is just me, but there’s something I don’t understand. Why is it that…” Then, he’d ask an extremely intelligent question that cut right to a serious weaknes of the paper. It got so that whenever he scratched his head in a seminar, the grad students would start smiling, since we knew what was coming. To this day, we all still use that approach.

    More important, he would then usually suggest ways to fix the problem. Pointing out problems is easy. Giving solutions is hard (and oh, so valuable).

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