Remember that time you, or your supervisor, invited that awesome scientist who gives great talks – and you promoted it widely with enthusiasm – and then the speaker came and only half the department showed up? Oh, right, that has happened multiple times, yes? What’s up with that?
Oh, wait, perhaps you also remember that time when someone else in the department invited that awesome scientist who gives great talks (at least that is what they wrote in the email) – and promoted it widely with enthusiasm – and then you didn’t go because you were busy, or because it was too far away, or because it just wasn’t that relevant to your work. Oh, right, that has happened multiple times, yes? What’s up with that?
The main reason is that people don’t attend seminars is because they quite reasonably weigh the immediate perceived benefit of each seminar attendance against the immediate cost of that attendance. These benefits and costs are nearly always weighed on the basis of a person’s immediate research or teaching. “Will attending this seminar help me understand my science or give me new ideas?” Is weighed against “But I could use that hour to do this analysis, or write this paragraph, or talk to my student.” Or it is weighed against “I have to give a new lecture tomorrow” (or in an hour). Weighed in these ways, yes, it is true that the cost of seminar attendance will sometimes outweigh the benefit.
While I could make the usual point that long-term research and teaching benefits are gained by attending lectures not in your immediate area of research, that point has been made frequently and – seemingly – to relatively little effect. Instead, I am going to make an entirely different, although obviously complementary, point.
My main argument is that benefit-cost calculation based solely and teaching and research is NOT the only important factor to consider – and, in fact, neither might be the most important factor. Instead you should also view seminar attendance as a service – echoing the research-teaching-service triumvirate of university obligations.
Seminar attendance is a SERVICE because:
It reflects on the department to speakers and visitors, who will remember vividly if attendance was low. Remember that visiting seminar speakers are independent subsequent (dis)advocates of your department. Indeed, I am sure I have spoken to my colleagues in some context or other about every single seminar I have ever given.
It benefits the person who invited the speaker. That person will be embarrassed and disappointed if attendance is low, which will then reduce their inducements to invite more speakers and to attend the seminars of your invitees.
It sends an important signal to graduate students. I am sure nearly all professors would agree that their students benefit from attending a diversity of seminars and, yet, failure of a professor to attend seminars surely sends a signal to their students that attendance is not that important.
It sends an important signal to the administration that funds the seminar series. Every single seminar series struggles with funding to invite external speakers and, if a strong case can be made that your seminar series is well attended, then it is a much stronger case for funding.
So, put that seminar series in your calendar. Don’t ever schedule anything else for that slot. Assume you can’t use that hour for anything else. Just go. You will see cool research. You will get new ideas for research and teaching. The seminar speaker will appreciate it. The host will appreciate it – and reciprocate for your invitees. The grad students will see that seminar attendance is important and expected. Everyone benefits – and all you “lose” is an hour a week when you would otherwise have spent half of it just tweeting anyway.
If the seminar sucks, sneak out early and apologize later for that other obligation you had. If you are bored, discretely look at your facebook feed on your phone. If you are tired, take a nap. These imperfections are much less irksome than skipping the whole thing. Your seminar series needs you; and your department, your colleagues, your students, and you all need your department’s seminar series.
1. Some obviously good reasons to not attend seminars include not being in town, fixed family obligations (day care closing times, hockey practice starting times, etc.), medical problems (e.g., a broken leg), a conflicting class or lab, and the like.
2. This post is not intended as a dis of my department, where seminar attendance is kind of middle of the road, nor of particular people in my department (sometimes I miss too without a good reason).
3. Many places have many seminar series you could attend and I agree that it would perhaps not be optimal to attend them all. Pick a one or two to ALWAYS attend and attend the others more haphazardly if necessary.
4. This post is equally directed at profs, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students.