Is the university seminar dying?
When I reminisce about the educational experiences that most prepared me for a career in academia, attending the weekly seminar series was one of the more important influences. I had the opportunity to be exposed to such seminars at a number of different universities and research laboratories throughout my career, and they served similar purposes. Being exposed to the visiting scientists from outside our university, seeing other approaches to science, and having my mind expanded beyond my own research interests all served to prepare me for the academic career that I have now. After many of the seminars, debate would occur in the hallways or in the pub, inspired by the provocative talk given by the speaker. Sometimes, we lowly students even had an opportunity to go out to lunch or dinner with these visitors, providing a personal experience and expanding my network.
Most of the academics or researchers would attend, even the busiest and most senior ones. Students were expected to attend. As people left their offices to go to the seminar room, those who were still in their offices typing away at their computer were eyed suspiciously, wondering what was so important that they would miss THE event of the week.
And, then, there were the seminars that bored me to death or were given by egos who took advantage of their audience by running over time and speaking over their heads. Sure, I might have wasted the time, but it was a lesson that I hoped I have learned: never be as bad as any of these speakers.
Years later, the importance of seminars to my academic development led to me organizing the seminar series at the NOAA/National Severe Storms Laboratory for two different periods at my former research laboratory. During the first period (2000–2002), we kept a regular schedule, attendance was high, everyone loved the donuts, and the seminar was one of the highlights of the week at the lab. When I spent some time away from the lab, someone else ran the seminar for the next two and a half years.
When I took over the seminar series again (2005–2006), I was given a budget to bring in invited speakers. I used this fund to highlight both established scientists (e.g., Ed Lorenz) and underexposed, up-and-coming, early-career scientists. I still kept up the regular weekly seminars, but now a well-attended seminar was much harder to achieve, even for invited speakers. I thought that something had changed, but couldn’t put my finger on it.
I now recognize that it was around this time that many seminars at different places around the world were experiencing the same struggles. Whether it was my visits at other universities that had less than stellar turnout or attending my local seminars at some of the other affiliations that I have had since 2006, I noticed that attendance was not as high as in the past. There was less of an effort for individuals to leave their office and attend a seminar. What has happened?
I suspect that others, like me, can’t rationalize devoting an hour of their time to seminars anymore. As the amount of my free time has been winnowed away by increasing responsibilities, I find it difficult to attend seminars, even on topics that I find interesting. Interesting is simply not a strong motivator anymore when I have emails to answer, papers and grant proposals to write, and meetings to attend. What’s worse is that I see my students and postdocs adopting this same attitude of only attending the most relevant seminars. No longer is supporting the school’s seminar series enough. Even among our undergraduates, students forced to attend research seminars often did not see the point and viewed it as a waste of time.
Perhaps because of nostalgia, I am saddened by this slow death of the hour-long seminar. Whether the cause is our increasing busy-ness, the lack of interest in topics directly of relevance to our own research, or our ever-decreasing attention span, these seminars are just not as vital to the health of an academic unit anymore. While many funding bodies encourage interdisciplinarity, one of the already-existing mechanisms to inspire cross-discipline interactions is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
Is there anything that can be done to arrest its eventual demise? Or, should we let the seminar die and replace it with something else?