Why I love the lecture (at academic conferences)

There is a narrative that goes like this: most educators promote active learning. Educators present at conferences. Therefore they should use active learning approaches at conference talks. Practice what they preach, and all that.

I disagree. I love a good lecture. Good lectures can be memorable and informative. Yes, that was me stifling back a tear when Martyn Poliakoff gave his Nyholm lecture at Variety. Yes, that is me falling in love with chemistry again every time I hear AP de Silva talk. And yes, that was me punching the air at the final Gordon CERP talk by [redacted] at [redacted].

Requesting audience activity at conferences is confusing the process of learning by students on a module with identified learning outcomes, with learning by an academic who define their own learning outcomes when they look at the book of abstracts. Worse still, it is confusing learning by novices with learning by experts. As experts, we are in a position to go to a lecture and immediately scoop up information that is relevant and useful to us. We have the prior knowledge and expertise to call upon to place quite complicated information in context. That’s what being an expert is. The purpose of the presentation is to place the work in context of the speaker’s overall research programme; bring what might be several publications under one umbrella, and present it as a narrative. Argued with good data. Links to publications for more information. Hopefully with a few jolly anecdotes along the way.

Audience participation is a folly. Consider an education talk where the speaker requests the audience to have a chat about something that’s being discussed and predict what’s next, or offer ideas. Academics are blessed with many talents, but we’re not social beasts. The little chat is prefaced with social niceties as we try to get over the fact that we have to speak to other humans, followed by some discussion on what we’re meant to be talking about as we were too busy checking our Twitter feed to see what people said about our talk earlier. Of course, some amazing gems might come out in the feedback to the presenter. But are they really things the presenter isn’t aware of? Was it worth the time? I don’t think so.

I say this with hand on heart, as I have given a lecture at a conference which relied on audience participation. It was a lecture on the flipped lecture, and I agreed with conference organisers that it would be a fun thing to immerse the audience in a flipped experience. As a Friday morning keynote after the conference dinner the night before, the slot made sense. It was great fun and we had some great discussion – but was there anything that came back from the audience that I couldn’t have discussed in my talk? Probably not. It was very popular (thanks Twitter) and I did learn lots, but that’s not the purpose of the conference. Speakers aren’t there to learn. They’re there to inform. Especially keynote speakers – hey we paid for your fees y’know! Now let’s all discuss this over coffee.

(c) The New Yorker
(c) The New Yorker