Rebooting the seminar

Last week in the Times Higher: My little paean for the seminar, including some notes on I think digital communication might help ‘reboot’ them.

Some background: I used to love seminars. As a PhD student, I’d fill my diary with listings for these little academic get-togethers, full of excitement about what I might learn, what new area of scholarly work might be opened up to me, what new bibliographical trails I might fall into and new shelves in the library I might find myself drawn to. Of course, I’d often get stuck working on something else, and wouldn’t get around to going, but my diary lived in hope at least.

A couple of years ago though, I lost that hope. It wasn’t just that as a lecturer I was simply busier. It was too many seminars had left me digging my nails into the desk with intense boredom. The low point came about a year back when I realized the chap next to me (a highly educated and expert colleague, I should add) was watching a video of a cat playing the bagpipes. I didn’t blame him. In fact, I passed him a note suggesting he googled “fainting goat kittens”.

I don’t even like cat videos.

It’s not just the distraction of YouTube that threatens the seminar. Increasingly, academics are going online to get the professional interactions that the seminar used to (or should) provide: there is research blogging, for example, and I think the recent development of a twitter journal club is fascinating (and ripe for extension to other professions/ areas of research). However, I still think there is something to be said for events where we meet in person. Moreover, I don’t think we should see this as online vs traditional. Indeed, digital communications may be used to improve the quality of seminars, in particular opening them up (which I think will have the effect of improving them).

So, please do share any tips on improving seminars, digital or otherwise. Maybe you disagree, and think we should dump the idea entirely and just congregate on the blogosphere? Or maybe I’m just going to the wrong seminars. What’s it like in your bit of academia?

4 thoughts on “Rebooting the seminar

  1. Nathan

    Yes to more interesting seminars! In my experience, presenters are often pleasantly surprised when I ask if I can record / upload their stuff. I sometimes also sense they feel the pressure of that, in a good way.

    That said, it does take time & a little knowledge (probably less than most people think) to make things available online. I wonder how many people don’t do it, just for the lack of a bit of learning and some basic equipment/software?

    1. alice Post author

      yep, I think more people would if they knew how easy it was

      (that said, i can take time to do well, and I think it’s the sort of support that should really be provided by professional such as yourself – we expect research groups to be given admin support, why not mediation support too?)

  2. Lxs / Alexis

    I’m all in favour of disseminating research beyond the (sometimes) siloed walls of academia! Often the academic publications become tricky to find, requiring access to paid-for e-journals. Insights into these documents, via blogs or video seminars, might serve to attract interest in the researcher, the research group – and perhaps seed not only academic collaboration, but also entice the next generation of researchers by being accessible to the younger generation!

    There remains a case for face-to-face social-mixing amongst researchers! _sometimes_ the enticement of cakes & refreshment can tease the shy/focused researcher away from their lab or computer, so as to share their experiences and ideas with their local community ;o) Whilst a great supervisor is a massive advantage for a PhD student (or RA), it should not be forgotten that the hub of nearby academics can also greatly enhance the experience of being engaged in academic research and growing the world-wide knowledge!

  3. Luke Robert Mason

    Could be worse. As an undergraduate I sat through a 2 hour ‘seminar’ which involved watching a DVD of “Dirty Pretty Things”.

    When Universities start charging £9,000 fees that works out at almost a £1 a minute. Which, interestingly, is THE most expensive cinema I have ever sat in (and I didn’t get free popcorn).

    Needless to say 70% of the class opened laptops to finish e-mails and check Facebook, pleased that they had been given an afternoon off.

    In the meantime 30% sat their fuming wondering, “What the Hell are we paying for?”


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