We often have visiting speakers at the university and recently efforts have been made to make the Wednesday afternoon organic slot a bit more engaging, with several academics or industry representatives on the bill, tea and coffee, and a few custard creams. (The Boss wanted jammy dodgers, but the shop had sold out.)
The one aspect of these things that I have never been entirely sure about is the “Questions” slot at the end of each talk. They say that students never ask questions, which is usually true. Personally that’s because 1) I nodded off or 2) I haven’t had time to digest the content of the slides and come up with a query. Frankly it’s easier for faculty because they’ve had more practice at this business of understanding stuff quickly and without the aid of Clayden, Greeves, Warren & Wothers.
There are one or two who ask questions out of a genuine interest in the topic, or have a helpful suggestion to make, but on occasion a more irritating voice will pipe up with a smug comment designed to shoot the speaker down mercilessly. I’m always impressed by the way people handle whatever is thrown at them. However, surely there must be a way to improve on this Question-Answer format.
For example, let’s look at a little scenario that occurred at today’s mini-symposium.
Speaker A mentions in his talk that Palladium doesn’t do The Thing.
Prof X knows a lot about Palladium. He shakes his head during the talk. We all wait for the inevitable question at the end.
Speaker A and Prof X get into quite a meaty exchange over The Thing, and whether or not Palladium can do It. Prof Y attempts mediation, then gives up and suggests they carry on in the pub afterwards.
Are you kidding me? No way, have it out right here and now please, this is the most interesting bit! Healthy chemistry debate is not something I get to see much of (weirdly enough), and this is what academia is all about, right? The Boss, who enjoys this kind of thing, throws a whiteboard marker over four rows of the audience to Prof X, who starts scribbling Palladium intermediates on the board. This is more fun than I’ve had all day.
So here’s my suggestion. After the talk, get a debate going, hand out the board pens, get some drinks in (preferably beer) and let’s all get stuck in. You might even hear a PhD student say something...