Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Seminars and YOU (by Bob Hanson and Beth Abdella)

The St. Olaf Catalog lists as one requirement for the chemistry major, the "attendance during junior and senior years at 12 departmental seminars." This means 12 seminars over 2 years, not 12 seminars each of 2 years.  Our goal is to explain the reasoning behind this requirement and to share with you some tips that will help make this experience a good one for you, your professors, and your invited seminar speaker alike. First the why, then the how.
First, seminars are educational. Speaking for the faculty in the chemistry department, we strongly believe that all of us—students and faculty—benefit from taking the time each week to listen to the story of science being told by someone from beyond our local environs. It’s simply impossible for a group of about a dozen faculty members in a department to cover all of the various perspectives of chemistry. By bringing in speakers from other academic departments, various companies and chemistry-related governmental agencies, we try to gain insight into what chemistry is like "in the real world." We want to learn about areas with which we aren’t very familiar. By setting aside this time and encouraging you as a student to join us, we are saying to you, "Learning chemistry is a life-long endeavor. Keep it up!" In addition, just as anyone learning to write should read, those hoping to better their own speaking skills should listen to others speak.  Listening to seminar speakers do their thing (some of whom will be great) gives us useful tips for making effective presentations ourselves. If nothing else, it gives us an appreciation for how hard it is to get up in front of a group of strangers and say anything meaningful.
Second, quite frankly, the reason we have the requirement of seminar attendance is that it’s necessary. We all have the same tendency to do only what we need to do to get the job done. In the case of earning a chemistry major, that means taking the courses and getting the grades, right? Seminars are a bit like brushing your teeth. Their benefit may not be immediately obvious, but, done regularly, listening to seminars will really produce results. Seminars are such a different sort of experience—one few high school students ever have—that it takes some time to understand how much can be gained from them. By requiring twelve seminars attended over the course of two years, we figure that you will either (a) realize how important (and difficult!) speaking and communicating science is, or at the very least (b) learn a little about the world that you never would have learned listening to the bunch of us rattle on in class about how cool chemistry is.
Now for the How: Virtually all of our seminars will occur in rooms that have doors at the front of the room (RNS 310, 390, 150). This is problematic for speakers and listeners alike.  Here are a few tips for handling a late entry to or early exit from a room where the doors are at the front.  First, it’s OK to come late or leave early.  We all have busy schedules.  But, what should you do in order to remain as unobtrusive as possible?  For a late arrival:  take a peek in the window of one door and see where the action is--usually projection will be happening in the center of the room, but check to be sure before sneaking in.  Also, while peeking in the window, be looking for which door gives easier access to a seat.  Turn off your cell phone while still in the hall.  Dig through your backpack for paper and pen before coming into the room.  Quietly enter the room from the door that interferes least with the presentation and find a seat with as little commotion as possible.  The doors close rather noisily when left to their own devices...try to minimize the noise by staying just inside the door and helping it close gently.  Do not stop to sign the seminar book or get a treat to nibble...you’re late...just find a seat!  You can take care of signing the seminar book when the seminar has been completed.  Especially if your entry brings more upheaval than you planned, it would be appropriate to apologize to the speaker for your late entry, after the seminar is over.  It can be unsettling to a speaker to be processing major upheaval in the audience and trying to maintain their train of thought.

What about leaving early?  This is often a bigger problem.  Our seminar speakers are asked to keep their presentations to 45 minutes plus the ever-present question and answer session.  This does not mean that they all manage to wrap things up in a timely fashion.  Common courtesy requires that the audience stay present and attentive until a speaker is finished AND while others are asking questions.  If you know in advance that you will need to leave early it is most polite to introduce yourself to the speaker before the seminar and simply say, "Hi, I'm Bonnie Hills.  I just thought I'd let you know that I may have to leave early in order to catch my ski team bus for practice this afternoon, but I didn't want to miss your talk."   EVERY speaker appreciates this.  Now, follow this up by sitting at a place from which a quick and easy escape can be made.  There's simply nothing more unsettling for a speaker than to have people sneaking out of a seminar half-way through.  What did I say?  Is my presentation that boring?  Not pleasant thoughts when you are up in front of a crowd of strangers.  Faculty members often forewarn seminar speakers about our schedules, needing to keep tabs on lab students, running to a meeting in another building, etc.  You can join us in trying to make every speaker’s visit to our department as pleasant as possible.

What about asking questions of the speaker?  Please do!  It's a good idea to always plan to ask at least one question.  Always plan to stay for the question/answer period and make it more fun and educational by asking your question.  The question/answer period won’t be shorter if you don’t ask your question, because faculty members will step in with questions of their own.  It’s actually polite to ask a few questions...the speaker will feel better connected to the audience.  Questions can be about the science, how the science fits in to other topics, or about the person's career or institution, etc.  One easy question to ask is how the speaker became interested in the topic, whatever it is.  Speakers love students who ask questions.  You'll be surprised to find how pleased you'll be with your efforts.  Some speakers invite questions during their presentation.  If this is the case, raise your hand, wait to be acknowledged, and ask a question pertinent to the current topic of the presentationIf the speaker doesn’t notice you and moves on...lower your hand and save your question for after the presentation.  If your question will be asked after the presentation, it is a good idea to jot it down (come prepared with paper and pen) and make a note about the current slide, if appropriate to the questionBe thinking about questions during the whole seminar. 

If the question/answer period has already gone on for some time and you have a really important question to ask, consider keeping it to yourself to allow the seminar room to be dismissed, and then approaching the speaker with your question (introduce yourself first) after the room has emptied.  You will have the benefit of the speaker's full attention and your colleagues will be free to pursue their other commitments.

Did we mention lunch?  Very often our seminar speakers are here for lunch and are most interested in being accompanied by students.  You can explore their area of science or their area of the country.  You can get their take on what courses are most important for your interests.  You can find out what they like most about their jobs or what jobs their graduate students seem to prefer.  There's a lot to learn about the world out there and this is a great opportunity to perform a bit of research for your future.  If you are interested in an occasional lunch-time chat with a seminar speaker, just let Karen Renneke know!  Its fun to eat at the King's Room instead of Stav Hall from time to time.  Some of our seminars are on Thursdays, others on Fridays...so if you are free at lunch time on either day (or both), volunteer to take speakers to lunch.

See you soon, enjoy the donuts!  

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