Gas station without pumps

2010 October 7

What college students (and professors) do wrong

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:25
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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numbers of postdocs and researchers (actually there was a census a few months ago, but it is undoubtedly already out of date).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?


  1. I’m a grad student and I go to one seminar a week, though usually not the same one. The reason I don’t go to more is that I go to the ones that look like they’re going to be interesting and I avoid the ones that look like they’ll be a waste of time. If I went to more, I’d be wasting my time. Contrary to your experience, I have found that the majority of talks are uninteresting — either because I don’t have the appropriate background (the majority of the time), the research question being asked doesn’t interest me, or the speaker themselves isn’t able to communicate. And while I acknowledge that chance encounters can lead to valuable collaborations, and that by attending diverse talks one can diversify one’s set of ideas and approaches to problems, I have found that this does not mean that one should attend every talk offered in a given week.

    To begin with, in a given week there are more talks offered on this campus than a productive researcher could attend. With that fact in mind the issue becomes how do you select the subset of talks that you will attend? You’ll get as many answers to this question as people you ask.

    To shift the focus of the inquisition a bit, I might gently point out that at our Fall quarter department seminar our own faculty have a tendency to present the same basic presentation every year. “This is my lab, this is what we do.” It’s informative the first time you see it.

    Outside of Fall quarters the quality of the outside speakers has varied wildly depending on the faculty organizer. I can recall a quarter where it seemed like every other “talk” was from some company rep extolling us the wonders of their new product. That experience made it clear to me that I needed to be very, very, careful with my time, since there were organizers and speakers who would happily waste that time if I let them. [To avoid any misinterpretation, I think our present organizer is doing a fine job.]

    My excuse for not going to more seminars? I go to seminars that seem like they’ll be interesting or relevant to my work and I avoid the ones that look like they’ll waste my time. If I go to only a few seminars in a given week it is because there were only a few seminars that week that seemed worth the investment of my time.

    As a side comment, it probably isn’t a fair characterization of our undergraduates, your exemplar to the contrary, to imply that if they don’t want to go to our departmental seminar then they are somehow damaged by being either too crippled by intellectual self doubt, too worried about being properly stimulated, or that they are too concerned with their own hedonism. There is the possibility that they’ve found more productive uses for their time that don’t include them being virtueless.

    Comment by dearl — 2010 October 8 @ 13:03 | Reply

    • I think that one or two seminars a week on average is a good target to aim for. I certainly did not mean to imply that I go to a lot more than that. Those who go to one or two a quarter are limiting themselves to too narrow a range.

      I do go to seminars that I don’t “have the appropriate background” for and ones that are outside my current research interests. Some of these have been duds, but some have expanded my knowledge in new directions. I would never have ended up teaching any of my current courses if I hadn’t done that.

      You’re right that I was being deliberately insulting to those who weren’t attending, in part to trigger a reaction. I do think that a lot of people are avoiding seminars for the wrong reasons, though probably not the extreme reasons that I listed.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2010 October 8 @ 15:37 | Reply

  2. I don’t. Nearly all of the seminars on my campus are at 4pm. If I go to them, given my morning class schedule, my eldest child’s school schedule and the time it takes to get to children’s schools from campus, they are in school or childcare for over 10 hours. I would like to go to more–in fact this year I have full time childcare for the first time since the eldest was born and I had thought I was finally going to be able to go to the departmental seminar (held on a day when I was home with a toddler last year). But 10 hours in school/non-family care is just too much.

    I would like to see more brown bag lunch type seminars.

    Comment by ramy — 2010 October 9 @ 08:08 | Reply

  3. I agree that having all seminars in the same time slot could make it hard for some people to attend.

    Our seminars are at noon on Thursdays, Microbio and Environmental Toxicology are noon on Tuesday, MCD Bio are 12:30 Monday and Friday, Chem is 4 on Wed, Physics is 4 on Thursday, various monthly meetings (RNA club, Santa Cruz Archaeal and Bacterial Society, Stem Cell Journal Club, …) tend to be around 4 on different days. Talks that are not part of series tend to be at 10:00 or at 2:00. So we have a diversity of different times, and even people with very restrictive schedules can usually make at least one seminar, though not always the series they want.

    Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2010 October 9 @ 08:35 | Reply

  4. I studied at UCSC for my undergraduate degree and, when possible, I would attend the undergraduate mathematics colloquium. Most students were confused when I told them how I was spending my time. I have always believed that college is what you make of it. It seems that most of the people I interacted with at UCSC only wanted to make it into a degree; learning has dropped so far down the list of priorities that it doesn’t seem to play into the picture anymore.

    Though it sounds like your audience is very different from mine.

    Comment by zshiner — 2010 October 17 @ 09:22 | Reply

  5. […] time ago I posted a plea to students, postdocs, and faculty to go to more seminars: What college students (and professors) do wrong. In response, a postdoc just sent me a link to the humor piece Experimental Error: Lies, Damned […]

    Pingback by A counterpoint to my plea « Gas station without pumps — 2011 February 2 @ 23:02 | Reply

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