In the past few weeks I had a few opportunities to be at cross-disciplinary events, and I noticed something interesting. Scientists have a particular way of speaking in front of an audience, and it’s different from speaking styles in other fields.
When I was on the blogging panel at Columbia, all four speakers did their little introduction thing before the discussion. We had already been introduced at that point, and I just gave a tiny bit more background about how and when I started blogging. It was maybe 2 minutes long, if that. Next up was Tedra Osell, who no longer works in academia. She already said much more than I did, but also just off the cuff. But then the two next speakers, Claire Potter and Alexandra Vazquez both read their introductory statements from something they wrote before. There will eventually be a video of the whole panel discussion, so you’ll be able to see it for yourself, but I wasn’t the only one to notice it. Tedra livetweeted the panel, and spotted the same thing.
When I started my graduate program at UofT, we were explicitly told to not have any written notes when giving a seminar for the department. You just use the slides as a framework, and explain as you go. Many people still memorize (and get horribly stuck when they forget a sentence…) but nobody reads out loud. When someone is considered a “good speaker” in science, it means that your slides aren’t boring, and you tell a good, coherent story, using eye contact and moderate physical animation. If you go to an international conference, you judge people not only on their science (you’ve read the papers anyway – you know what they do) but on how they talk about it.
In the humanities, though, people go to conferences to “read a paper”. They write a paper, and read it out loud at the conference. So for the two panelists who were still active in these fields, writing their intro statement full of philosophies and ideas (much longer than my brief intro), and reading it out loud, was a normal thing to do.
Lab meetings are another place where you learn to speak off the cuff. We had 12-15 people in our lab, and every week we got together to just update each other one what we did, and troubleshoot a bit.
“This is what I did, look here are my results. They look weird, I don’t know what happened. Any ideas?”
Every week a new thing happens that you need to talk about, very briefly. You get used to giving short little updates, with little preparation. Other fields don’t have lab meetings, and their graduate students are mostly left to themselves. They are certainly not meeting with their advisor and other grad students every week to say things like “I read some more Wittgenstein and I renewed my library books.”
I didn’t realize it, but being forced to constantly talk about what you’re doing and taught to speak about your work as if you were showing friends a slideshow of your recent travels – with the stories behind each slide coming seemingly naturally – might be a very “scientist” thing to do.
Then last week, I noticed it again, at a completely different panel. I was in the audience of an Art Meets Science plenary lecture (summary up tomorrow!). Two of the speakers were artists, and one was a scientist. They were all talking about the same thing: how art and science can collaborate.
Both artists had written their talks out and were reading from the paper.
The scientist, even though his slides were full of art, was giving a typical “scientist”-style presentation. He spoke casually, but knew exactly what to say when. He showed a slide at the start, told us he would get back to it, and he did, at exactly the right moment. He didn’t have notes, he didn’t have it memorized, he just knew what he wanted to say, and he had put the images in the right order beforehand, to aid his narrative.
What was odd, to me, in that set of lectures, was that in his talk (as second speaker) he made a point that was almost literally repeated by the third speaker in her talk, and she didn’t refer to him already saying it. It was something very specific: A particular example of a word meaning different things in different disciplines. They both dwelt on it a bit. But because the third speaker was reading her notes, she couldn’t say “as we just talked about”, or anything along those lines. It wasn’t in her notes.
All of the people I’ve recently seen read a presentation out loud were animated, interesting speakers. What they read wasn’t dull. They had great ideas, they hardly said “ehm” and they never lost their train of thought. But it’s so…well…alien to me to see someone “read a paper”.
Is this maybe the so-called culture clash between disciplines?
There is certainly something different in what a “paper” is in humanities and science. At the Columbia panel, the most interesting new thing I learned was that in the humanities a paper published in an online-only journal, even if it is peer-reviewed, is not as prestigious as a paper in a paper journal.
The obstacle to “blogging for academic credit”, high as it is in science, is much higher in the humanities where online publishing as a whole is still somewhat looked down upon.
And yet, in those fields a “paper”, even though it needs to be “on paper” to count, is something you can read out loud at a conference. Can you imagine reading a scientific research paper out loud?
“Materials and Methods. Cell Culture. Cells were grown in Dulbecco’s Modified Eagle Medium supplemented with 10% fetal bovine serum and…”
PowerPoint Karaoke isn’t looking so bad right now, is it?
1. And in tomorrow’s blog post, you’ll learn even more words that have different meanings in different fields!
2. This line is in every cell biology paper ever written. Exaggerating? Hardly: A quick Google search for “Cells were grown in Dulbecco’s Modified Eagle Medium” and variations thereof (“cultured in”, “DMEM”) give about 3 million hits altogether. Only two hits for “we grew cells in DMEM”, but one of them is a Nature paper.
3. PowerPoint Karaoke is the nasty habit of some speakers to type full sentences on slides, and then read them out loud while pointing to the words with their laser pointer as they go along.