Monday, January 19, 2009

My two cents on how to behave as a seminar spectator

Usually my irritation with any seminar is directed at the seminar speaker. This is because, in my experience, the vast majority of scientists and scientists-in-training give awful talks. However, today I want to post about the other end of the spectrum, the seminar attendees. During my final stretch of graduate school I barely attended seminar and as a result started forgetting about all the little annoying and rude things people do while someone is trying to present their data. After attending exactly two seminars, my annoyance level is right back to where it was when I started my vacation from seminar last September.
At my last institution there were a couple of people that just didn't seem to get it. One faculty member arrived late for every single seminar by at least 20 minutes. Frankly, if I miss the first 20 minutes of a seminar I don't even bother attending. Not only is it rude to the speaker and disruptive to walk in so late, I would have missed all the important background information. Another regular offender was a faculty from another department. This person slept through every single seminar they attended. Thankfully there was no snoring, but this person would be completely leaned over into the seat next to them. I think this is extremely rude, especially for a faculty since it gives the impression that sleeping at work is OK. Why not just tell the speaker that their data sucks and is so boring you couldn't be bothered to stay awake. The invited speakers don't know it happens every time, so what else are they going to think.
In my new department, I already know to avoid sitting next to one person in particular during seminar. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way...I sat next to them in one seminar and behind them (not by choice) in another.
The behavior exhibited by this person is extremely offensive and way worse (in my opinion) than sleeping or arriving or leaving late or early. This person is on of those who, for whatever reason, feel the need to comment on the talk, out loud, for the duration of the seminar. Unfortunately, they are also the person who answers questions for the seminar speaker, before they get the chance themselves. In seminar #2 they were even shushed by the person next to them.
First of all, the constant comments: If you have something to say, then raise your fucking hand, wait to be called on and then say it. If you don't have the balls to do that, then shut your pie-hole. Second, don't answer questions for the speaker while they are answering. Sure, you can answer a question if no one else knows the answer, but the first voice heard after a question is asked should be the speakers, not some random audience member. * It is not your seminar. If you want to answer questions, then you need to give a talk.
I think most of the people that do this are just insecure and really want the people around them to think they are smart. For me, this backfires, just like it does when people regularly talk about how awesome, good-looking, or smart they think they are.** Frankly, if you are that awesome, smart or hot, then you wouldn't need to tell me, because I would easily figure it out. I also feel that the amount of times that you mention these things is in direct proportion to how awesome, smart or hot you are not.
The take home message: Suck it up and act like a professional. Try not to disrupt everyone with your late arrival or early departure, don't use seminar as your personal nap time and please, for the love of god, realize that NO ONE wants to hear your color commentary on the seminar. And finally, know this: if we wanted to hear your answers to the questions, we would ask you.

*This goes for advisers whose students are presenting their research. Let them take a crack at answering the question before you swoop in and save the day.
**This applies to parents who constantly talk about how their kids are geniuses. Statistically speaking, it is unlikely every single kid is a genius. In fact, if a parent uses the word genius (not in a kidding way) while speaking about their child, I just stop listening and go into the regularly scheduled head nods with a "wow" and a "really" thrown in every now and again.


post-doc said...

Completely agreed. I was generally torn between being appalled at the quality of the presentation and horrified at the behavior of some members of the audience. So far, seminars in Industry seem much better (but far, far fewer).

Thomas Joseph said...

As a totally hot, totally genius-y graduate student, I used to be able to judge whether a talk was done well or not (in my estimation) by my ability to stay awake during it.

Nowadays I don't have to attend seminars any longer since I don't work in academia. Now that my life consists of me being a regular old scrub eking out a living working for Uncle Sam, when I want to sleep ... I just close my office door.

Ok, not really. I take some annual leave instead and go home.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

My old institute also had someone (a senior postdoc) who slept through every. single. seminar. He actually had the nerve to congratulate me on my first ever presentation as a PhD student - despite the fact that he'd sat in the front row and was blatantly asleep through the whole thing! At least I knew not to take it personally.

I also know a couple of people who insist on commenting on the talk, usually quietly (i.e. just to the person sitting next to them). It's still very disruptive if you're sitting close to them though, and yes, it is just to show off to other people about how smart they are. Save it for the question period!

tig said...

Agreed on all counts! Same goes for students attending a lecture - why even bother if you're 20 minutes late?! It always amazes me...


Eppendork said...

We had on of those must comment during every seminar as well and then proceeded to answer himself at length.

microbiologist xx said...

post-doc - Color me jealous, fewer and better seminars sounds awesome.

TJ - Lucky you. My grad. avisor always tried to dissuade me from going to work for a govt. lab by informing me that I would not be in a position to attend as many seminars. I didn't have the heart to tell her that was actually a huge bonus.

cath - What would kill me about the particular faculty that slept through everything was that at the end of the seminar he would ask the speakers questions...and they would usually be good questions. I had this guy on my committee and he nodded off during my committee meetings, so I removed him.

tig - I just can't get up to speed on a topic when I miss the first 20 minutes and then I end up staring at the wall. I figure at that point my time is better spent in the lab anyway.

Eppendork - Wow - comments AND answers. Just when I thought people couldn't get more annoying...I'm glad I haven't sat by that type of person yet. I think my head would explode.
As an aside - There uses to be a darts team in town that called themselves the eppendorks. I always thought that was a great way to describe a bench scientist. :)

AA's BH said...

Agreed with people turning up late. What's the point?

I do have to put in a word for the people that fall asleep. I've attended a great number of obligatory seminars in the past and I really struggle to stay awake. When a room is darkened, poorly ventilated and also a bit warmer it comes to resemble a bedroom. If the subject matter is not riveting then there's a very good chance I'll nod off sometimes against my best efforts. I usually try and hide at the back for this very reason though. I've found that ingesting large quantities of strong coffee doesn't seem to affect this. I think as long as seminars are going to be obligatory and held under these circumstances then people falling asleep is inevitable. If they were held somewhere that was bright and breezy I'm sure it wouldn't be such an issue, at least for me.

microbiologist xx said...

AA's BH - You are completely right. Sometimes falling asleep in seminar can't be helped...especially when you are forced against your will to attend. Mainly, I just don't think it is right to sleep through every single talk you attend, especially when you are a faculty member.
Personally I've never slept during a seminar, but that is only because I cannot sleep in a chair. (and I've tried.) Hmmm...Maybe I am just jealous.

Thomas Joseph said...

Definitely sounds like jealousy to me. :P

Ambivalent Academic said...

Yeah, sometimes seminars are just for nap-time. There are several people in my lab who are notorious seminar-sleepers. They didn't become so until they had children. I think that having an infant forces them to take any opportunity to catch a few zzz's. TO their credit they always sit in the back where it is less of a distraction to the rest of the audience...and in a big enough auditorium I don't think that the speaker notices either.

Candid Engineer said...

I have long believed that seminar is the place where academics turn into little kids.

rpg said...

"his goes for advisers whose students are presenting their research. Let them take a crack at answering the question before you swoop in and save the day."

oh sweet Mother of God, *yes*.

Way to kill someone in public.

Rhea Miller said...

hahaha, our department chair nods off during seminars...and he totally asks rocking questions at the end. My biggest pet peeve is when faculty sit all slouched and act soooo board through your talk...Oooo boils my blood.

microbiologist xx said...

Rhea - I agree, that sucks too. I have a hard time controlling my facial expressions when I disagree with something or find something to be awfully dull, so I just try to sit toward the back where the speaker can't see me...just in case.

moujou said...

I think I have to stress even more the point of some seminar attendees some times simply not managing to stay awake: I'm actually kind of always falling asleep during seminars; Believe me, I'm always feeling very bad about it, but simply can't help it. And this even if I'm (i) really interested in the given talk and (ii) -purposedly, as a desperate try to really not being able to fall asleep- sitting right in front of the talker.
Thus, I have to apologize, but it seems to be like an illness that I (and seems that many others too...) have; our behavior might seem rude, but we simply can't help it, no matter how much we'd like to... (and to some of the authors of the earlier comments: no, one doesn't have to be father for this...)

microbiologist xx said...

moujou - Yes, you're right. Sometimes it can't be helped. I have horrible insomnia, so I understand how exhausting the day can be. Also, it only makes it worse that most people give awful and boring talks. I've sat in the back of many a seminar wishing I was asleep.
I just feel bad for people when they are trying to present their work and look out to see a bunch of people sleeping. On the other hand, maybe that is just the kick in the ass some of them need to realize that their presentation skills need serious work. :)
I bet this this inability to stay awake comes in handy on long trips by car or plane. I'm usually awake for every boring minute. Good luck.