research talks as theater

I’ve gone to a number of job talks lately, since the department is interviewing people, which brought up something I’ve been mulling over since I started grad school. I’ve gone to a huge number of engineering talks aimed at “a general audience.” There are levels of generality, from “control theorists not studying distributed control of hybrid dynamical systems” to “people who look at systems engineering” to “electrical engineers” to “engineers” to “technical people” to “layperson.” A shockingly large number of people I’ve seen talk fail to grasp the fineness of these gradations.

One problem is the “intelligence of the group” issue. In order to pitch their talk to a wider audience, the speaker will dumb down a portion of their research or will abstract away some details. In the former case, they obscure their own contribution by making the problem seem easy. If they then go and introduce some complicated algorithm to solve the problem, the audience may wonder why they went to all that effort. In the latter, they often make their problem seem very similar to another problem that is very simple. When pressed on the point they may fumble because it’s easier to abstract away than to put in the details afterwards. Both simplification and abstraction are important to make the material accesible, but I’ve seen many talks run afoul of underestimating the audience’s ability to follow the argument and find the inconsistencies.

Often times speakers mis-focus their attention. I’ve seen this happen in several ways. Sometimes they wrote the talk for some one hour seminar to a more general audience and then tried to give it to a narrower group in less time. Other times they have just one set of slides for all versions of the talk and get bogged down in the beginning. These can be fixed by just making a fresh set of slides for every talk. Slightly less frequently, they feel the problem needs 5 motivating examples in order to get people interested and they spend all the time explaining their examples. This also happens when work is interdisciplinary. For example, do not give a talk to machine learning people by emphasizing all the points that are more of interest to cancer biologists.

The last and most egregious problem, I think, is that speakers do not have an objective to their talk. Maybe it’s the actor in me, but giving a talk is like doing a monologue, and you can’t just get up on stage and read the text of the monologue without pointing every line and without making the whole thing have an overarching objective. The objective of a job talk should be self-evident (although not to everyone, it seems). Conference talks need objectives too. Most importantly, if you have a poster you better have an objective or people will leave while you’re talking, a truly disheartening experience, as I well know.

I’m not saying that giving a talk is easy — it is a piece of theater, and like all pieces of theater it can be amazing, terrible, or “not quite work.” But thinking about all these talks really reminds me that these aren’t things you can just “phone in,” especially if they are about your research. And some people just don’t think about that enough before getting up there.

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Simpsons and math

I was completely bogged down with work so I missed some friends’ Simpsons Math Party in honor of last night’s episode, in which Principal Skinner is removed from his position after a Larry Summers-like incident in which he said girls are bad at math. His replacement divides the school along gender lines — the girls’ half is beautifully landscaped with famous women artists’ works on the walls, and so on. Unfortunately for Lisa, math class is now about how numbers “make you feel.” “Is the number 7 odd, or just different?” asks the teacher, before leading the class in a self-affirmation conga line.

Lisa decides to sneak over to the boys side, which, in typical Simpsons fashion, has been turned into a post-apocalyptic warzone. The boys are savages, running around playing “guns” and drawing robots made of guns blowing up things with guns that shoot guns. The one saving grace for Lisa is that they study real math there. With Marge’s help she dresses as a boy and goes to math class where she (gasp!) actually learns that +5 and -5 are solutions to X2 = 25. When Lisa gets into a playground fight Bart discovers her secret and helps her become more like a boy. Lisa gains acceptance by beating up Ralph and “becoming all that she hates.”

In the end, Lisa wins the prize for best math student and unmasks herself, saying that it proves girls are good at math. Bart responds with the point that it is because she “became a boy” that she could learn the math. As Lisa tries to wend her way through these opposing points the auditorium descends into chaos. As the credits roll we’re treated to Jethro Tull’s masterpiece, Thick As A Brick.

For me, the credits were probably the best part of this episode. While I have to give credit to the show for taking a difficult issue and trying their best to satirize it, it misses the point, I think. To the writers, the public discussion of the Summers case focused too much on him and not on what the underlying problem issue, which is that of mathematics education. Correspondingly, Skinner is disposed of in a matter of minutes (his pandering nature could be another subject of discussion). The new principal, a hard-talking cariacature of a feminist, decries inequity but is uninterested in real reform. The episode kind of moves from there on out in the logic of The Simpsons world. In a way, it all justifies Skinner/Summers, since the most vocal critics are uninterested in the real issue at hand (math).

The issue of gender and learning and whether there are “gendered” school subjects is just brought up at the end of the episode and never addressed! Perhaps to the writers it lampoons itself by its absurdity and we’re supposed to laugh Bart out of the debate, but Lisa takes him seriously and so do a huge number of people. Indeed, the gender-labeling of academic disciplines is probably one of the more harmful effects of our current public education system. When Bart claims that you have to be boy-like to learn math, is this a pointer to the debate we should be having, or just a garnish for the episode? I would argue that the chaos of the “chair-fight” at the end points gives the latter effect — the last thing the show wants is to seriously moralize. But to leave it so ambiguous is a bit dangerous, I think.

What the episode does do is bring up a whole barrel of ideas to play around with and fodder for discussion, so it wasn’t a total wash. Plus, how often do you hear Thick As A Brick on TV?