One of the joys of spending every day on a college campus is the ability to keep learning new things without expending tremendous amounts of effort. One of the best ways to do this is to attend the weekly research seminars given by different departments. There are dozens of such seminars, and in any given week I can usually find 2 or 3 that might be interesting to me. I make it a habit to attend at least one every week (usually the weekly seminar for my department, but often a different one).
Our department has about 35 grad students, somewhere between 10 and 200 undergrads (depending on when you decide to count them as part of the department), between 10 and 15 faculty (depending how you count adjuncts, lecturers, emeriti, joint appointments, HHMI investigators, …), and uncounted numbers of postdocs and researchers (actually there was a census a few months ago, but it is undoubtedly already out of date). So if everyone who was able to came to the department seminars, we should have between 50 and 100 attendees.
We don’t. On a good day we might have 30 people attending, and on a typical one about 20.
It used to be that all our faculty came to every seminar. Now many of the faculty come only when they are speaking or when someone they have specifically invited is speaking. What message does that send? “All I need to know I learned in kindergarten“? “I’m so full of it, I don’t have room to learn anything new”? “Learning is for peons”? “Grants are all that matter, I don’t have time for anything else”?
It used to be that almost all our grad students came to every seminar, eager to hear what new and exciting things were happening outside the narrow focus of their theses. Now many don’t. What message does that send? “I’m just here to get a union card, I can’t be bothered to actually learn anything”? “My PI doesn’t go to the seminars, so they must be a waste of time”? “Once I finish my classes, I’ll never have to learn anything ever again”? “If it doesn’t have a grade, I won’t be earning points, and everyone knows that only the points matter“? “I want to go into a field where everything worth knowing has already been collected into textbooks and taught in classes”?
I could understand that attitude if our seminars were boring or hard to follow. (I’ve vowed never to go to a chromatin talk again, because every one I’ve been to has been excruciatingly boring, assuming that everyone in the audience has memorized all the dozens of histone marks and what they are believed to mean and is terribly fascinated by minor changes in methods for measuring them or statistics on the different marks in different tissues.) But our speakers are actually astonishingly good at stating the problems they are working on, describing the techniques needed for addressing the problems, and explaining what the results mean. It helps that we are in a broad interdisciplinary field, where it is expected that half the audience will not know the background, so every talk, even at the cutting-edge research conferences, gives a short tutorial on the essential ideas needed for the topic.
I have tried to talk undergrads into attending the talks, with rare success. (A freshman who attended last week’s talk thanked me afterward for suggesting it—he found it fascinating and plans to attend the seminar regularly—he was there again this week.) Most students seem to fear that they won’t understand anything (unlikely, and who could tell anyway?), be bored (if so, it is better that they find out now, rather than wasting 4 years of college before finding out), or not have enough time to spend on beer and pot.
I can understand having schedule conflicts (one of the required classes for both our undergrads and grad students was foolishly scheduled to conflict with the department seminar this quarter). For the past couple of years my schedule has kept me from attending Microbiology weekly seminars, so I’ve missed several talks by my collaborators and potential future collaborators.
But there are many other departments also giving seminars worth attending. In recent years, I’ve gone to a lot of MCD biology seminars, chemistry seminars, and even a few physics seminars, as well as our department’s bioinformatics and biomolecular engineering seminars. I’ve also hit an occasional math or statistics seminar, and even one electrical engineering seminar (that had more bioinformatics students attending than EEs). In addition to the weekly seminars, some labs often have guest speakers (postdoc interview talks, for example).
If you are at a college (as student, faculty, or research staff), how many seminars do you go to each week? Why so few? What’s your excuse?