The Philosophy Special (guest post)


“I suspect I’m not alone among philosophers in finding colloquia almost universally frustrating: the speakers are more interesting than the conventional talk allows them to be…”

The following is a guest post by Kieran Setiya, Professor of Philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It is part of the series of weekly guest posts by different authors at Daily Nous this summer.


The Philosophy Special
by Kieran Setiya

My colleague Steve Yablo once described teaching as “standup with low expectations.” He had in mind, I think, the undergraduate lecture. It has the form of the comedy special or Edinburgh show: holding the attention of an audience for 50 minutes with nothing but words. Anticipating boredom, students can be grateful for the feeblest of dad jokes. Steve is much funnier than that—as though a standup comedian had the philosophical firepower of Bertrand Russell.

It’s not just philosophers who see a connection here; it happens the other way around. In a 2015 interview, the fabulous Moshe Kasher was asked what he would have been if he hadn’t been a comedian. “I wanted to be, at one point, an academic,” he replied. “But I started to realize … what I wanted was the part where you teach, and that’s just comedy.”

Now, it isn’t comedy, exactly, but they do have things in common: not just the battle for attention, but the balance of ideas and entertainment, the power of crowdwork or audience interaction, the moments of improv. Of course, there are differences, too: there’s a curriculum to cover when you teach, with new material each class, and standups rarely use handouts—though they sometime use slides.

In some ways closer to the standup special is the colloquium talk: the same material, practiced in advance and delivered to different audiences, roughly an hour in length. But as a rule, few colloquia are very much fun.

There are exceptions. In his Presidential Address to the APA in 1985, Rogers Albritton packed in an awful lot of zingers:

No doubt we’re free as birds. … But how free are birds?

Feed line, punch line, then a topper:

Let no bird preen itself on its freedom. There are cages. There are tamers of birds.

There are plenty more like this: Albritton is a Borscht Belt Wittgenstein. Some of his best arguments are jokes:

I don’t see (do you?) that my freedom of will would be reduced at all if you chained me up. You would of course deprive me of considerable freedom of movement if you did that; you would thereby diminish my already unimpressive capacity to do what I will. But I don’t see that my will would be any the less free. … Suppose I am chained up so that I can’t walk. … Do I have reason to think not only, “They’ve chained me up!” but, “Good God, they’ve been tampering with my will!”?

Albritton is an exception to the rule, then; Yablo is, too. (Feel free to mention others in the comments.)

Perhaps it’s appropriate that the colloquium talk is not a standup set, and is not primarily about fun. After all, the common form does not imply a common purpose. One is meant to inform or convince, the other to entertain.

Yet there’s no inherent conflict between informing or convincing and entertaining. Some standups give what are, in effect, comedic lectures—I am thinking of Mark Watson and Josie Long, or more recently, Hasan Minhaj and Hannah Gadsby.

And there’s a sharp contrast in how far professional standups adapt themselves to the form—how far they think about what it can do and how to do it well—and how far professional philosophers think about the form of the philosophy colloquium. When we do not simply read a paper, we extemporize on a handout or slides that summarize our main points; there is little comedy, or suspense.

Comics sometimes talk about the form of what they are doing as they’re doing it. My hero Stewart Lee is a master of this:

Now this show is called “Carpet Remnant World.” … It was supposed to be about idealized notions of society and how we behave as collective groups… But I’ve been a bit busy with one thing or another. It’s not really worked. So, but what I will do is about five minutes from the end … at about 10:00 … I will repeat the phrase “Carpet Remnant World” over some music and that will give the illusion of structure.

And big laughs down here, for that, people down here. The people who bought tickets first, they’ve seen me before. They’re going, “Of course there’ll be content and structure. We’ve seen him before. This is a comedic double bluff. Ha-ha,” right? But up there, there’s a lot of people they don’t really know what they’ve come to … and they’ve been whispering all through it up there, in the top bit there. Like, “Is this who you wanted to see? It seems like an aggressive lecture.”

When philosophers talk about the form of the colloquium, we often conclude, plausibly enough, that it’s discrepant with its purpose: an hour-long monologue is not the best way to communicate an intricate line of thought. There is a strong case to be made for a read-ahead format in which the reasoning is put in writing.

I suspect I’m not alone among philosophers in finding colloquia almost universally frustrating: the speakers are more interesting than the conventional talk allows them to be. I tend to be impatient for the Q&A, a form much better suited to its purpose—like a roomful of hecklers, but they have to raise their hands, and the speaker has to invite the heckle. Even better, I think, is the conversation at the after-colloquium dinner, when more informal questions can be asked. (It was partly missing this under lockdown that inspired me to start a podcast.)

So the situation is not good. What can we do to improve it? There are two questions here. First, what other formats should we try? We rarely have panel discussions in philosophy, but they can be freewheeling and fun. We rarely have one-on-one debates, or structured Q&A, like a talk show, in which one philosopher interviews another before opening things up to the audience. Why not experiment with these formats, among others?

The other question is what to do with the colloquium talk if we hold its format fixed. What philosophical projects are best suited to the hour-long special? Should colloquium speakers tell more jokes? Should they do more crowdwork? Should they err towards the sorts of claims and arguments they wouldn’t make in print—taking advantage of the intimacy of the venue, as a comic might try new material in a club?

What would it be for philosophers to think of the colloquium as intellectual performance art?

guest
29 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
aaron goldbird
1 month ago

Successive speakers take their seat in a dunk tank and get to talk until someone in the audience hits the target.Report

Jennifer Morton
1 month ago

Amen! I often give talks at ed schools where the norms around talks are different. In those spaces, I’ll usually have a question halfway through the talk that I ask the audience to discuss with each other (pair and share) and then solicit answers from the audience. It gives the audience a chance to think through the material and gives rise to some ‘intrigue’ about what will come in the second half of the talk where I offer my answer to the question. I have not dared do this in philosophy talks, because the norms are much more rigid.Report

Platypus
1 month ago

Here’s one idea: ditch the norm of presenting exclusively unpublished work.

If the point is to have good talks — not to give clever audience members a shot at seeing their name in the acknowledgements — we should let speakers explain their research program, including recent publications. (This seems to be the norm in economics and neuroscience, but I’ve only been to a few talks in each.)

I’m not saying every talk has to be like this. But why not allow the option?Report

Georgi Gardiner
1 month ago

> … the speakers are more interesting than the conventional talk allows them to be. I tend to be impatient for the Q&A… Even better, I think, is the conversation at the after-colloquium dinner, when more informal questions can be asked. … First, what other formats should we try?

1000 times yes!

I have stopped (for now) organising normal talks. My most recent event was a philosophy retreat in an off-grid mountain cabin. And I facilitate a lot of micro-events, with only about six participants. Here are some thoughts, fwiw.

At the philosophy retreat:
1.) For each session, we went for a walk between the “talk” and the QnA. The aim of the walk was to collaboratively discuss what comments would be most constructive for people to hear during the feedback sessions.

2.) Every morning we had a L’esprit de l’escalier session, where we discussed any philosophy ideas we had about the previous sessions of the conference.

3.) About half the “presentations” were ones that people didn’t know they were giving before the event started. They were “popcorn” sessions, because they were for ideas that sprung up.

4.) I use scare quotes around “talk” and “presentation” because all the sessions were extremely informal: Sitting in a circle on the floor, QnA’s during the picnics, etc.

Only one talk was at a table, and that was because it was reflections on self harm.

5.) For one session, I assigned the researcher what they would present on, just to see what would happen. (She is a very close friend.)

6.) In the lead up, I invited all participants to run any discussion sessions they wanted to. I asked them to take their best teaching strategies and use them on the research group. If our teaching strategies are good in the classroom, why not let research communities also benefit from them.

7.) For my session at the retreat, I stopped halfway through and asked the other participants how the paper should end. (Every participant had as many sessions as they wanted, so I had more than one session.)

8.) In my session, after my response to every QnA question I asked whether anyone else had anything to add. It was a small group, which made this feasible.

9.) I introduced a lot of community practices from my circus life and applied them to conferences. We also had things like a litter pick. (We also had shared bedrooms, four cooks, stargazing, and a no-flashlight night hike. There was no wifi or phone signal, and it was off grid. It was a very unusual philosophy event.)

10.) Every session was in a different location in nature. I am interested in the ways that location and body position affects thoughts and conversations. My best conversations are on the floor. My best thoughts are walking. So I injected those contexts into the event.

One of the sessions was *in* a lake, and another on a beach. One was meant to be around a campfire, but the weather was too hot.

More generally:
11.) There is a disconnect between when we receive expert feedback (when a project is polished) and when feedback can be most influential and helpful (the beginning of a project). So I *strongly* encourage participants in my research circles to present embryonic work.

(Not my graduates’ research group. That serves different functions, so they have to circulate an essay in advance.)

12.) I think of myself as trying to build doula communities, but for ideas: Nurturing them from embryos right through the process.

13.) I am also interested in challenging why publication is seen as the main, final value: Talks are good because they lead to publications, etc. What about if a great conversation, or lifting a confusion about someone’s life experience, is a wonderful value, even if it is a fleeting moment between two people that is never shared with anyone else?

14.) One challenge I encounter a lot is that the values I am aiming for don’t scale up easily. Zoom-based research communities need fewer than eight people, for instance. This is a deep struggle for me: How to negotiate invite lists.

As for other session styles:
15.) I try to run a variety of kinds of session for research groups. In “break it down for me” sessions, for example, an expert explains a topic that is relevant to the group. It is basically a 50-minute master class, for example.

fwiw,
16.) I think my funniest — that is, most humourous — philosophy research sessions are the ones about trauma and sexual violence. It’s not a coincidence.

Thanks for this original post, Kieran!Report

tjcanavan
tjcanavan
1 month ago

Brian Magee’s interviews with philosophers were and still are (on You Tube now, since his death in 1919) intelligent, informative, and entertaining, with a hint of understated humor from time to time. Good model for what you are suggesting.Report

Aaron V Garrett
1 month ago

It also tends to give preference to presentations of views which are already very much on the radar of the audience due to the fact that there is little time for backstory and for showing why something is interesting or relevant (unlike a seminar). If I talk about Frege/Geach lots of opinions already in the room, and so the backstory is already there and we are ready for vigorous Q & A. If I talk about Pufendorf on moral imposition or Wiredu on Akan ethics, not so much. Audiences only seem to start to get a handle on what is compelling in Q & A. This has a negative gatekeeping effect, both in restricting a wide-range of views and in replicating status hierarchies.Report

Kenny Easwaran
1 month ago

I do think the conversation at the after-talk dinner is the best, and then the Q&A, and then the talk itself. And this is what a poster session is meant to provide, I think – philosophers just haven’t yet learned the art of creating a visual poster that will draw people in to create this conversation. (It doesn’t help that the only visual representation we have of our ideas is usually words, unlike the scientists and mathematicians that have been doing successful poster sessions for decades.)

There’s something slightly strange about the fact that although many subfields of philosophy have abandoned the idea of a lecture literally consisting of a reading of a paper, we still hold on to the idea that there is a single paper that a talk corresponds to. I don’t know how best to structure a talk to correspond to a thread in one’s work, or something else that isn’t one paper (or one chapter of a book), but it seems that there ought to be good ways to do it.Report

Georgi Gardiner
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
1 month ago

I think the walk to the restaurant/bar and the final conversations with the last remaining people late into the night are the very best parts. Then dinner is next best, etc.

So my recent event organising aims to recreate that vibe more. Walking philosophy sessions, campfire research sessions, etc.

> I don’t know how best to structure a talk to correspond to … something else that isn’t one paper

I have given presentations that sketch an area and then aim to quick fire the possible research questions that it generates. i.e. “Here are some properties of the normativity of attention, and here are five ways that (I think) thinking about attention affects existing debates in epistemology.”

I can’t pursue all those research ideas myself, so I aim to quick-fire explain them to an audience, in case they inspire anyone to take them up.

It’s like a “break it down for me” session, but instead ok describing existing debates to experts, I sketch (what I take to be) new avenues for potential research.Report

Brian Weatherson
Brian Weatherson
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
1 month ago

The cog sci talks at Michigan (especially by outside speakers) usually involve explaining research programs by stringing together extended abstracts of papers (most of them published). These talks can be great – I get to learn what someone is doing, and where to go for more details on any point. Talks as a work-in-progress of a single paper seem much less useful, especially to outsiders. I think we should be encouraging more of that kind of thing; talks don’t have to be ways of generating ideas or papers, but of advertising and explaining research programs.Report

Sam Duncan
1 month ago

So here’s what I think might be a fruitful question: What’s the best colloquium you remember and why was it good? I think for me it’s probably Michael Della Rocca giving a paper on the paper of sufficient reason when I was a grad student at UVA. What was good about it is that Della Rocca was actually advancing a hypothesis he wasn’t sure about himself and really wanted to have a conversation about it. He also seems like a truly nice guy. Both of those meant he’d take questions from the audience very seriously, sincerely ask the questioner what they thought, and would sometimes even admit that he didn’t quite know what to make of them. That’s a far cry from the all too common speaker response of trying to utterly refute if not humiliate anyone with the temerity to challenge them. After a while even the more usually dickish… ahem aggressive faculty and grad students started asking questions in that spirit and it was one of the relatively few times a colloquium seemed like an actual dialogue to me and not some sad, sorry game for intellectual dominance. It also helped that in having the guts to defend not just a big idea but a big idea that a lot of people think is crazy he gave even those of us who weren’t convinced a lot to think about. The really scandalous thing I suspect is that so many colloquium talks are boring because the subjects they’re about is just fundamentally not all that interesting or important.Report

Nate Sheff
1 month ago

When philosophers talk about the form of the colloquium, we aoften conclude, plausibly enough, that it’s discrepant with its purpose: an hour-long monologue is not the best way to communicate an intricate line of thought. 

I’m not so sure anymore. If Postman is right in Amusing Ourselves to Death, this might be more a reflection of TV culture than anything inherently limiting to the medium of the colloquium. How would the Lincoln-Douglas debates fly with Americans today? A snippet from Wikipedia:

Each debate lasted about three hours; one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, followed by a 90-minute response and a final 30-minute rejoinder by the first candidate. The candidates alternated speaking first. As the incumbent, Douglas spoke first in four of the debates. They were held outdoors, weather permitting, from about 2 to 5 p.m. There were fields full of listeners.

And Ralph Waldo Emerson made his name as a lecturer; he wouldn’t have had a career as a public intellectual at all if he didn’t draw out big crowds willing to pay money to see him. And if you’ve read Emerson, you know that his lectures aren’t digestible by today’s standards, and that’s just reading them.

So, I don’t know.Report

Neil Levy
1 month ago

“The speakers are more interesting than the conventional talk allows them to be.” Not me. I’m exactly as interesting as the talk allows me to be.

Some of us aren’t brilliant on our feet. We like the structure of the seminar, both for presenting and for receiving ideas. I’m sure other formats suit other people, but don’t think ditching the talk would free philosophy from its cage.Report

Neil Levy
Reply to  Neil Levy
1 month ago

I suspect you’ll get supportive comments that are disproportionate to the number of actual supporters, because admitting you’re not brilliant (in the kind of way that allows you to shine in less structured contexts) is uncomfortably close to admitting you’re bad at philosophy. Maybe that’s right. I’d like to believe there’s more than one way to be respectably good, though (I would, wouldn’t I) and wonder if further promotion of the already dominant conception of brilliance is really in the interests of the profession, its members or of the pursuit of truth.Report

Gary Lawrence Murphy
1 month ago

“If you’re going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh; otherwise they’ll kill you.”

– Jesus of NazarethReport

Prof L
Prof L
Reply to  Gary Lawrence Murphy
1 month ago

“Even if you make them laugh, they’ll kill you.”

-SocratesReport

Barry Lam
1 month ago

I think a “menu” system for talks , conferences, colloquium, sessions, etc, would be really worthwhile. “We’d like to invite you to MIT, two hour event plus dinner, what do you think is the best way for you to present your ideas?” A. 1hr talk+Q&A? B. Two other faculty read-ahead and you have a panel discussion C. Talk show followed by Q & A D. Audience read-ahead + symposium. E. Other?Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Barry Lam
1 month ago

This reminds me of “unconferencing“, which was/is a minor trend in some sectors: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unconference

The basic idea is that there’s no set program until the first day of the conference, when the participants create the program and self-organize by interests. This is supposed to maximize the odds that the meeting will be relevant, interesting, and engaging to the participants.

Lots of tips online on how to host and participate in one, e.g.: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4310607/ and https://unconference.net/unconferencing-how-to-prepare-to-attend-an-unconference-2/

That idea always seemed interesting to me, but I’d be reluctant to plan on a conference with an unknown agenda. But maybe it could work with a fairly well-defined community of participants who values socializing/chatting with one another, and not just absorbing a string of talks?

Here’s an unconference last year at Stanforddoes anyone know this meeting went?: https://philosophy.stanford.edu/events/ethics-society-technology-unconference-0Report

Georgi Gardiner
Reply to  Patrick Lin
1 month ago

Yes! This is kind of what we did at the recent Appalachian Philosophy Retreat: Every participant could choose how many sessions they had and what kind. (There was a default, but they could depart from it.)

And the actual days were “unconference” inspired. People signed up to give talks day-of, etc.

It felt very experimental.Report

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Georgi Gardiner
1 month ago

Interesting, Georgi! How did it go?Report

Georgi Gardiner
Reply to  Patrick Lin
1 month ago

Hi Patrick,

It was intense. It felt so long, and so much happened. It reminded me of the adventure holidays I did as a teen, where six days felt like a month. It was three full days, with a half-day either side. It felt far longer.

I underestimated how challenging it would be to facilitate, to be honest, because so many new questions arose. Every “facet” of a conference & accommodation was re-thought, so we couldn’t revert to normal social scripts and habits. That was a lot of work, but it was extremely fruitful.

(Just little things, like that I had to tightly plan what we would need, because we were in the mountains. But forgot to translate what “tea” meant from British to US english, and so the cook had to drive a long way to the store. And (simplifying slightly) I spent a day planning the hiking routes on site in the mountains, but I didn’t notice poison ivy on one of the tracks, so we had to reroute in the mountains. Or that I forgot to account for how long a giant floaty takes to inflate, for the session on the lake.)

I think it went really well and was very fruitful. There was a *lot* of philosophy. But (personally speaking) on top of presenting at and attending a full philosophy schedule, I also felt like I was simultaneously an activity provider for an adventure trip, and at the same time looking after off-grid accommodation. That was a lot of work.

But I am not sure what I would have cut. It all felt really valuable. I guess mostly I have a lot of advice for others who want to innovate.

We did a lot of weird things. And so some activities were good for some people, and didn’t appeal to others. We did a labyrinth meditation walk, silent reflection time every day, check ins, gratitude circles, a litter pick, a local history session, etc. (Lots and lots of weird things.) And I know some participants intensely liked some parts and intensely disliked some parts.

If you’re considering organising something innovative, then bear in this mind: If you’re experimenting, then expect some “misses”, but also expect some things that look like failures to actually be valuable. I thought the labyrinth meditation walk was a bust. But it was one person’s favourite part, for example.

We had a games night, and I think it was needed. After philosophy and deep conversation from waking until sleeping every day, the games night was a much needed break. We played Code Names. It was dope.

Hope that helps!
G Report

JTD
JTD
1 month ago

I think it is a good idea for the profession to experiment with different formats. But I am not convinced by the argument that, because post-talk dinner > Q&A > actual talk, the standard model is a bad one.

There are two reasons why the post-talk dinner is best for most of us. First, sometimes we like it because you get to talk about personal matters (how’s your family? Do you enjoy living where you live?) and thus get to relate to someone as a human rather than an argument machine. Second, sometimes we like it because you get to talk with the speaker one-on-one, or in a small groups, which allows you to focus the discussion more on what aspects of the speaker’s research programme and presented argument are of most interest to you.

However, each of these reasons for liking it has its limitations. The first is good for us personally, but would be inappropriate to prioritize in more narrow professional contexts such as the main event that justifies hosting the speaker in the first case and merits the institutional funding. The second, is nice and in some cases may be more academically productive than the talk and Q&A. However, the problem is that it is granted only to a small elite. If you get to go to post-talk dinners and talk extensively one-on-one with a distinguished speaker, then you are almost always part of a small academic elite. By contrast, a talk and Q&A allows productive academic exchanges to happen with a much wider audience which may include graduate students, professors from less prestigious nearby universities who don’t get to invite fancy speakers, and members of the public who have an interest in the philosophical questions being discussed. So, productive one-on-one/small group discussion comes at the expense of excluding most of the typical audience (indeed, given that this time is most often “diner” is also tends to exclude other elite academics who happen to have a life/family outside of academia and thus are generally unavailable to attend such diners).

What about: Q&A > actual talk? Well, I also typically enjoy the Q&A more than the talk. However, imagine the Q&A without the talk, or with only a short amount of time for the speaker to introduce their key ideas. In such circumstances the Q&A would often be unproductive, boring, and frustrating, because it would be full of misguided questions that people wouldn’t ask if they had only heard the speaker first present the relevant background, or clarify the key concepts, or give extra detail on important parts of the argument, or warn against certain common ways of misreading the thesis, etc. So, part of the reason why Q&A is more enjoyable is that the audience has had the discipline of sitting through 45-60 minutes of such things and the common understanding that this creates for the audience then allows for a more productive Q&A where interlocutors get straight to the heart of the key issues and avoid getting bogged down in these kinds of side-issues and misunderstandings. Now, I grant that a pre-read paper followed by Q&A could have the same effect. But many people would prefer sitting through a 45-60 minute talk over reading a 5,000-12,000 word paper in order to get to an productive Q&A sessions.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  JTD
1 month ago

I basically agree with all this. Part of the reason I pursued philosophy is that I like philosophy talks. I agree that dinner > Q&A > talk, but some of the comments here seem to suggest that people don’t like the talks themselves. Of course, there are bad talks–lots of them! But such is life. Getting rid of talks to avoid the bad ones doesn’t make much more sense than getting rid of articles to avoid the bad ones, although I have to admit that it’s much easier to “exit” from a bad article than a bad talk…Report

Matt
Reply to  JTD
1 month ago

imagine the Q&A without the talk, or with only a short amount of time for the speaker to introduce their key ideas. In such circumstances the Q&A would often be unproductive, boring, and frustrating, because it would be full of misguided questions that people wouldn’t ask if they had only heard the speaker first present the relevant background, or clarify the key concepts, or give extra detail on important parts of the argument

This is what happens in “pre-read sessions gone bad” all the time. If people really do pre-read the papers, you can get something that’s much more useful than a “normal” philosophy deparment talk. But, if you have a non-trivial number of people who both don’t pre-read, but who still feel entitled to ask questions (often based on the abstract of the paper or the very short summing up that people do before the questions) then you get this sort of stuff. For “general” department workshops I think this would be even more common. I like pre-read workshops, but think they work best with a fairly small group of people interested in specific topics. They work much less well with “general” lecture series, I think.Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Matt
Mark van Roojen
Reply to  Matt
1 month ago

My department does pre-read talks w 10 minute introductory remarks and 1 hour and 50 minutes of Q&A. It works because of social pressure to actually pre-read and because of encouragement of short intro remarks so people can’t fake having read the paper when they haven’t. Presenters often don’t believe us when we tell them to presuppose people have read the paper, but a good number have also remarked on the quality of the conversation afterwards. It isn’t foolproof but I would not trade it for another format. (As compared to workshops this has a higher chance of working because there are fewer papers to pre-read.) Of course this depends on our actually getting the paper in advance. We generally also do a sit-down with the visitor at which people ask more general questions about stuff they have written and worked on which helps people be in a position to think about their work..Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
1 month ago

I would prefer to read the paper beforehand and then just have the Q and A. When I’m reading a paper, I can stop and think about the ideas, or go back over passages that aren’t clear.Report

PHILIP GERRANS
1 month ago

I agree that the Q&A is often the best part of the session but the Q&A depends on the thoughts prompted by the presentation. I have seen a lot of bad and many very good presentations. A good one introduces the topic for non specialists ( undergrads, beginning postgrads people from other disciplines) and proceeds to develop an idea that is also interesting to the (minority) of non specialists in the audience. the balance here depends on the audience.

It would of course be good if people read the paper first but is this practical? often the paper is not complete and many turn up at the seminar to hear something about a topic outside their specialisation.

So although it is not ideal it has some virtues. But I can guarantee that a truly terrible presentation is one in which the presenter self consciously tries to “entertain”or import some lame-ass presentation tricks to grab attention. Ideally the content of the talk should be the focus and tryhard presentation “schtick” is actually horrendous to watch.

Of course some people are naturally amusing. others are serious. some are extreme nerds, some are socially competent. I don’t mind as long as the presentation covers some interesting ground.Report

Bharath Vallabha
1 month ago

Interesting post! The strict analogy between stand up and a colloquium would be if a stand up was doing their act for a room full of other stand ups. Imagine Seinfeld doing an act with an audience of Chapell, Chris Rock, etc and two dozen junior stand ups who want to have careers like Seinfeld and Chapell. Would any sensible stand up accept such a gig, let alone have that be the main form of performing their art?

Central to stand up is most of the audience is not mentally measuring themselves with the comic in terms of how funny they are – the acceptance of hierarchy in skill creates an atmosphere of relaxation, where the audience can let themselves go with the collective unconscious in the room. In colloquium this mode of collective unconscious is hard to achieve because, no matter how nice the presenter or the audience is, the issues of status and one’s place in the hierarchy are ever present because they are all in the same profession.

This suggests why the after talk dinner conversation can be more interesting and fun. It’s like when Seinfeld, Rock etc gab about their profession and laugh at each other’s jokes and appreciate how funny they are. It’s a self selecting group of people who are comparing notes – they are not doing a set. They can relax because they accept and recognize each other’s place in the hierarchy, and people not at that professional status can at best be there with a wild eyed appreciation.

Can the colloquium be made a space of the type of collective relaxation a stand up performance aims for? Hard to see how given the current distribution of status, income, etc. It’s likely that the ability to treat the talk as a performance is itself another perk of the institutionally secure. But still, better if the secure used their security for something fun and different than the same old, and opened the chance for others to experiment.Report

dcw
dcw
1 month ago

I don’t see this reflected in the post or the comments, so I thought I’d point out that, for some of us weirdos, talk > Q&A > dinner. I certainly endorse alternative talk formats – including those that attempt to capture the magic (or whatever it is) of the Q&A or dinner – but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there are other ways to be interesting that don’t show up on the usual menu of options (which generally restrict themselves to combinations of telling and discussing; showing is notably absent).Report

gull
1 month ago

Terrific post and comments. Georgi Gardiner — your contributions in particular outstanding. A few random thoughts:
1) Funny material and funny delivery are distinct. Some people can write a joke but not deliver it; others are great at telling but cannot generate their own material. Some extremely funny people are funny merely by virtue of their manner or physicality ( John Cleese is an example). What we can read about Albritton is that he could write funny material; what his friends will tell you is that his delivery was even better.
2) on talks vs pre-reads: the pre-read format works less well for those of us who are bad at reading. I absorb and comprehend material much better when I hear it than when I read it. I need the author’s voice to tell me where the emphasis falls, what’s a concession, what’s an aside. I have sometimes pre-read papers and had no idea what they were getting at until the speaker read them aloud. And I would have gotten just as much without the first silent reading, which just left me perplexed. It’s great that people are trying new formats, but some of us like to hear the author read their paper, and some of us need to hear the author read their paper in order to understand it.
3) let a hundred flowers bloom — what works for some people will not work for others.Report