Thursday, August 13, 2009

Didn't ya mama teach you any manners?

WARNING: This is a rant--which ran longer than I had intended, but I was on a roll. If you don't want a rant today, then stop reading now. Otherwise you may continue.

The title of today's post is the question I so desperately want to pose to about half the people (PIs included) in my department.

The summer months brought a break in seminars, so I had forgotten/repressed how disrespectful/impolite people at BRI can be. Granted, it is not just BRI, although I certainly never noted the punctuality problem at PSU--haven't figured out if that one's a discipline/subfield, regional, or academic affluence thing.

In case your mama (or advisor) didn't teach you any manners (or you just FORGOT THEM), here is Biochem Belle's Guide to Seminar Etiquette (First Edition):
  1. Be punctual. At least make an honest effort. I understand that on occasion, your experiment takes a few minutes longer than expected, someone stops to talk to you on your way out the door, you forget to check the room number before you leave and go to the 'usual' location to realize/remember that it's somewhere else. This may cause you to be a few minutes late. But not 20 or 30. You should NEVER show up more than 15, really 10, minutes late for a seminar. If you are more than 10 to 15 minutes late for a seminar, then you have missed the majority of the introduction which means, unless it is in your specific area of expertise, you're not going to know what's going on. More than that, however, it is distracting AND disrespectful to the speaker and your colleagues. Despite what you may think, you're not that much more important than everyone else.a
  2. Better yet, arrive early. You should not be leaving your office or lab at the time the seminar is starting. You should rather plan for the 'commute' time--sometimes down the hall, sometimes across campus--and give yourself a buffer. It's ok if you're there a few minutes early. It gives you a chance to chat with your colleagues, even if it's just casual small talk, and, yes, generally this is a good thing.
  3. Move toward the center of the row. Lecture halls/seminar rooms are generally set up with long rows. Not the optimal setup, but we have to deal. Thus if you arrive early/on time, move on toward the center. It may not be your 'favorite' seat, but this provides a way for the precisely punctual (e.g. almost late)/latecomers to take a seat without having to climb over top of you and ten others, thus creating another distraction. Don't want to sit in the middle of the row? Sit in one of the first two rows. You'll always have your choice of seat there.
  4. If you must leave early, plan for an unobtrusive egress. Obviously the optimal situation is remaining through the entire seminar. You should, most assuredly, not be one of those butt munches that comes late and leaves early. My rule of thumb is that if you can't stay for more than 75%, then don't come. If you do need to leave early and are aware of that, choose a seat that is close to the exit so that you don't create a huge scene (read, distraction) when you depart.
  5. Turn off the ringer on your cell phone/pager. If you are a clinician, I will concede the fact that someone may need to get in touch with you at a moment's notice. Likewise you may have an ill family member or a pregnant wife. But you're also pretty smart--I have confidence that you can figure out how to put that device on vibrate so that it doesn't disturb the audience/speaker. If you should forget to turn it off, at least know how to mute the thing (so that you don't make more noise trying to get it to stop).
  6. Pay attention... or at least pretend to. Not all seminars created equal. Sometimes seminars are great: The speaker and his/her material is interesting, exciting, coherent... Other times they are a bust: You can't understand a thing the speaker is talking about (even if he/she is a native speaker), there is insufficient background, too much material for the time... There are many points where a seminar can crash and burn (which I will address in a separate post). BUT this individual has committed a significant amount of time to present his/her research to the audience--if from outside the university, we're talking anywhere from a few hours to a day (or more) for travel to and from, time to prepare the slides, time to meet with you and your colleagues before and after the seminar. The least you can do is try to pay attention, which brings us to some additional rules...
  7. Stay awake. If you're too tired to remain conscious for an hour talk, why did you come?
  8. Leave the Blackberry and the laptop in the lab/office. A huge pet peeve that Bear and I share is the under-the-table-message-checking practice that has emerged with smart phones. At this point, I don't care if it's on vibrate. You think you're being 'subtle' with your chin tucked to your chest, staring at your lap. Well, you're not. You're distracting everyone around you with your bright screen and fidgeting. Not to mention (do I really need to say it again? yes, I think so), it is DISRESPECTFUL. If you cannot physically go an hour without checking your email, you've got problems and need professional help.
  9. Don't read papers or do crosswords during seminar. Need I say more?
  10. Don't carry on a conversation during the middle of the seminar. Even if it's about science. Because it is... can you guess... why, yes, it's distracting. Have a question? Jot a note to your neighbor. Or ask the speaker at the end. Or look it up on Wiki-friggin'-pedia or PubMed when you get back to the lab.
  11. Save your questions for the end. Maybe this is just from the field of my graduate work, but unless the speaker indicates otherwise at the start of the seminar, you should save those burning questions until after the completion of the talk--because there's a good chance that your question will be answered or that it will be altered by what's said later in the talk. (PhysioProf and I have been debating the finer points of this guideline in the comments section.)
  12. Regardless of how many 'brilliant' questions you may have, restrain yourself to asking just one or two. There are a lot of smart people in the room who have a lot of 'brilliant' questions. Give them a chance. Pick your top question and ask it. If there is time left after others have had their chance, then you can ask another question.
  13. Ask your question in a succinct but polite and comprehensible manner. It should not take more than 30 seconds to ask a good question.
  14. Don't make the Q&A portion all about you. The worst way to start a question is "Well, we showed _______" or "We observed ________", particularly when what 'you' showed/observed/demonstrated is completely unrelated to what the talk was about.
I will note that these guidelines were written with reference to invited speakers, but in my opinion, guidelines 1 to 10 (and usually #13) apply to any seminar--whether it's a PI from another department or a postdoc or grad student in your department. It's about respecting your peers, colleagues, and mentors. If you can't manage that even for an hour, then don't bother showing up.

11 comments:

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Save your questions for the end. Maybe this is just from the field of my graduate work, but unless the speaker indicates otherwise at the start of the seminar, you should save those burning questions until after the completion of the talk--because there's a good chance that your question will be answered or that it will be altered by what's said later in the talk.

Bullshit. There is absolutely no reason not to take questions and comments as you go along in a departmental seminar. (Platform presentations at meetings or special invited "name" lectures in front of massive audiences are a little different.)

biochem belle said...

Future experiences may change my mind, but at this time, I disagree. The occasions that I have observed questions during the seminar they generally have not been relevant or insightful. Admittedly if there is an extreme issue of clarity, maybe it's useful to interrupt at that point. But I haven't seen one of those situations yet.

biochem belle said...

And I'll also add that I cannot recall having ever seen a PI ask a question/make a comment in the middle of a formal seminar-either in my current or past lab.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Your experience is not the norm. Especially at more prestigious institutions, chiming in during seminars is the norm.

biochem belle said...

Perhaps it is a differs between disciplines and formats. Department/institute seminars I've attended have been pretty large audiences and usually held in large lecture halls, which admittedly are not exactly conducive to questions in the middle of seminar.

That being said, the questions during seminar is a relatively minor point and one that I will keep an open mind about in the future.

Half the audience showing up late for seminar is something I won't budge on though.

Genomic Repairman said...

Most people encourage questions throughout their talks so as to clear up any misconceptions and not let them linger on until the end of the talk.

We even do it during lab meeting, it is pretty much the new status quo.

biochem belle said...

Lab meeting is a different beast all together. I think there are some forums where it is appropriate to interject questions or comments. There distinct differences of 'status quo' for different forums, and I think for different disciplines. I'm not sold on these interjections at formal seminars with large, diverse audiences. Maybe the real issue here is the relevance of the questions... which in the situations I've observed weren't particularly pertinent to the topic or were very technical and perhaps best reserved for a conversation after the meeting.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Maybe the real issue here is the relevance of the questions... which in the situations I've observed weren't particularly pertinent to the topic or were very technical and perhaps best reserved for a conversation after the meeting.

So maybe your rule should be, "Don't ask stupid questions", rather than, "Sit there silently during all seminars even when the speaker is making no sense."

biochem belle said...

I could go with that, PhysioProf.

Acid_Storm said...

I can ask a lot if I propose but I rather prefer to sit there silently during all seminar even when the speaker is making no sense.

Asking will not make the speaker clever or even making sense. I'd rather standup and going outside even when I'm not sure if that's fine according biochem belle's rules.

biochem belle said...

Acid Storm, there are probably varying opinions out there, but generally I feel it's bad form to walk out during the middle of a seminar (there might be one or two exceptions). Occasionally there are reasons that you have to leave before the seminar is over, but these you know before hand. There have been many times that I wanted to leave a seminar, but I soldier through.