Friday, April 18, 2014

Rough treatment of seminar speakers is so 20th century

In a post on civility in academe, Nigel Thrift writes:

There is good news. As universities have become more diverse, I think they have become more civil. As a result, a firmer line is being drawn between disagreement and abuse.

In particular, I am struck by how much the conduct at research seminars has changed over the years. When I was starting my academic career, these seminars sometimes seemed to be regarded as blood sport. The idea was to undercut the speakers, not work with them. The atmosphere was driven by a combination of the testosterone-laden antics of young (nearly all male) radicals, the crustiness of some older professors, and a general presupposition that there must be something wrong with whatever work was on show, if only you could find the error. It was not just tiresome but often intimidating as well.

I have seen this sort of alpha male aggression in action, where a nutty professor interrupts the speaker (invited by the department, no less!) with a needlessly aggressive comment like "this is quite elementary; you should perhaps look it up in my intro text." His colleagues could only squirm in their seats while this charade played itself out in seminar after seminar. I've also seen this other fellow who would heckle the speaker with a loud laughter after asking some inane question or the other.

We seem to have come a long way from the bad old 1990s. The seminars these days do see some tough questions, but they rarely cross the line over to irrelevancy and/or intimidation.