Smoking Lectures

I am down in Sunny Sussex. My seafront hotel satisfies all the Brighton cliches. Expecting to meet Dickie Attenborough in the pub with Julian Clary any moment, after an invigorating windy spray-sodden walk following my greasy spoon breakfast.

Anyhoo. I was here last night for Seb Oliver’s inaugural public lecture, and a jolly fine occasion it was too. It was called “Smoke signals from the distant universe” and featured Herschel heavily as well as some fun demos involving TV remote controls, infra-red cameras, and smoke bombs. Rumour has it that the VC was pleased, which is what really matters of course. Chatter afterwards over the canapes was that he was heard to note that Scientists did these things better than Humanities types. Some of my fellow chatterers nodded, reminiscing about English and History inaugurals where the New Prof offered a dry reading-out of a written script, like a spoken essay, before a bemused public.

As a student, I can remember crashing the lectures of some arty friends and being a bit shocked – same thing… stand at lectern, read out essay, no eye contact. Is it still like that ? Any Humanities-type readers out there or is this purely a nerd-filled zone ?

It was suggested that lively public lectures is a scientific tradition because we all had childhood radio/TV role models – Fred Hoyle, Carl Sagan, Brainy Cox etc. But hang on, what about Kenneth Clarke, Bettany Hughes, Neil Oliver etc ? So perhaps the two provocative questions would be :

  • Why is TV History so wonderful when Academic History is so awful ?
  • When Historians do public lectures, they treat it as a version of academia; whereas when we do public lectures, our instinct is to treat it like TV … why ?


17 Responses to Smoking Lectures

  1. chrislintott says:

    I think the real difference is that humanities types think of their lectures as publishable things, and so they’re often written for the page not for the audience.

    • andyxl says:

      Chris – I think this is true, but it begs the question. Do humanities academics have fewer opportunities to publish, so that they won’t waste a lecture ?

  2. Tony says:

    I think, in terms of historians, it is the personality that counts. My daughter went to a public lecture by David Starkey which was apparently just as entertaining as his TV stuff.

    As for science vs humanities, all us science-y types were raised on whizz-bang experiments and demonstrations – cause and (dramatic) effect – while humanities learning is mostly from books. Maybe we carry on as we are taught until someone shows us a different way, as TV presenters are shown.

  3. When I was in Groningen, there was a conference on Kapteyn organized jointly by astronomers and historians. For astronomers, it was the usual conference: show up, give your talk, recycle bits of it as well as other stuff for the proceedings which are submitted near the deadline several months later. This surprised the historians, since they showed up at the conference with the final copies of their talks for the proceedings. Their talks consisted of reading said manuscripts.

  4. Dave says:

    I’ve been to some science/arts meetings and you’re definitely right about the practice of reading a paper – in fact this is often what the conference blurb says these people are doing.

    At some level I think we scientists expect our data to speak for itself, so elegant phrasings are unnecessary. I’ve discussed this difference with arts friends/colleagues over the years but still don’t fully understand it, and it makes their conferences less interesting.

  5. Norman Gray says:

    I’ve been at informal departmental seminars in the arts faculty where the speaker has read out — it’s not just set-piece conferences. You could also tell, from their deliberate body language, when they were interjecting an off-script remark, so it’s not as if they were unable or unwilling to extemporise, or unfamiliar with the idea.

    I was about to say it’s because science tends to show graphs and pictures and stuff, so that there’s plenty of scope for articles and talks to have pronouncedly different rhetorical forms, but I don’t think that can account for all the difference. I wonder what the norm is in art history, say, where they’ll naturally want to have pictures displayed.

    • ian smail says:

      but in art history – the pictures they show are rarely ones which the speaker created…

      maybe its because they put more weight on the words and their juxtaposition than we do in astronomy? my talks tend to be random walk attempts to connect the figures into a coherent story (which is never the same path twice). [as i’m sure the poor audience will attest to].

      • I’ve heard a few talks by John D. Barrow, the famous writer. Although they probably aren’t, they seem totally rehearsed, as if he had practiced in front of the mirror. Even the sips of water seemed timed for dramatic effect. I can imagine that the text is identical if he gives the same talk more than once.

        Just to be clear, I mean this positively. His writing, also, not just popular books but also technical papers, shows that he puts a lot of thought into the presentation as well as the contents.

    • Martin E. says:

      “rhetorical forms” hits the spot – I expect that this form is the one that sounds most convincing to practitioners in the field. Also its a shibboleth – if you don’t do it you aren’t in the tribe. But it doesn’t have to be boring. Philip Conisbee gave some great Art History lectures at Leicester. Our papers are more formalized, a clearer rhetorical form designed to convince peers who want (correctly) to find fault. But astronomers do try to tell a story in the Introduction section, which physicists don’t seem to feel is proper. (Or their shibboleth is that “of course, we all know this important problem”. Only we don’t.)

      • andyxl says:

        Martin – I think you are right its a shibboleth thing, and indeed thats why we write very dry formal papers, as opposed to our lively talks. So the remaining puzzle is the public lecture thing. Why do humanities academics still feel they have to impress their colleagues, as opposed to Joe Public, at such lectures ? They may be trapped by role models like AJP Taylor (or good ole Phil) who could both simultaneously.

      • Norman Gray says:

        I don’t think it’s a difference in formality, quite, but the observation that, because we have two manifestly different forms, there’s more scope for them to diverge into very different performances.

        My wife lives on that side of the campus, and reports varying practice. In some parts of philosophy, for example, you’ll get post-talk questions like “Half-way down page seven, you say X rather than Y, would you care to comment on why I shouldn’t regard you as a psychopathic imbecile [or somewhat more flowered words to that effect]?” (they count the speaker turning pages, and are not always terribly polite to each other). That is, it’s perfectly formal, and precise, but it is the full argument of the paper.

        So it’s not that we do papers or talks _better_ on this side of the campus, or are free of shibboleths; but because we have given up reading out papers (or because the content has effectively forced us to give up reading out, over the last half-century), and so because we’ve severed the link between a paper and something that’s ‘readable’, we’ve been free to let papers become more unreadable, and to let talks become entertainments, or adverts for the paper or papers which will be plugged during and at the end of the talk. I think ‘ours’ is a better strategy, because we’re exploiting two different media to their respective strengths, but it’s historical contingency (graphs and maths?) that has forced us to change our shibboleths, probably very slowly.

        And thinking about fine public-lecture performances in the sciences, it might be that the original home of these is physics and chemistry lecture demos: someone who’s good at these has the showmanship to hold a hundreds-strong first-year audience with occasional flash-bangs, and that’s going to precipitate out the science-faculty Barnums more effectively than any amount of opportunity for actorly diction or incisive verbal flourish.

  6. Clive Page says:

    I don’t think lectures in the humanities have to be boring just because they don’t show lots of pictures and snazzy graphics. I can remember from 20 or 30 years ago being riveted by the history lectures of A.J.P. Taylor. His technique was just to stand in front of the television camera and talk without notes and without a teleprompter (which I don’t think had been invented then). But what he said was just extremely interesting and beautifully put together (and I say this as someone with so little interest in history that I only just scraped an O-level in the subject).

    On the other hand some science programmes on the television are to me now unwatchable. I have completely given up on Horizon, which I always used to watch. It’s now so full of pointless ge-whizz effects, and they seem to insist on flying their presents all around the world to deliver short sound-bites for pointless reasons, that I just wish my licence money weren’t being wasted on it.

    Science programmes often benefit from graphics and lab demonstrations, which means that radio isnt the ideal medium. All the same, I can remember from my schooldays radio lectures by the likes of Fred Hoyle and Bernard Lovell, which almost certainly influenced my career choice. They didn’t give the impression of reading out a script, although I expect the BBC insisted on it, so they got the timing right.

    • andyxl says:

      I always avoid Horizon these days too. Shallow, gimmicky, formulaic, and there is always the “then suddenly, dramatic new evidence…” bit. Every bloody time. Oh purleaze. My ideal science programme was Local Heroes. But I do like Brainiac and never fail to buy a ticket for Dr Bunhead when he is in town. Meanwhile, back on the humanities, perhaps the problem is precisely that they all think they are AJP Taylor, but they ain’t.

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        Brainiac would be fine if it could get over its misogynistic nonsense poorly dressed up as laddish fun. For my money, “Mythbusters” has it hands down: lots of explosions, car crashes and decapitations, with an ample sprinkling of the scientific method (experimental design, statistical significance, control samples, etc) thrown in.

      • I did watch Local Heroes with pleasure during my couple of years in Blighty.

      • ian smail says:

        yep – mythbusters is by far the best “science” programme on TV for my money… and its a US production.

  7. Mrs Trellis says:

    Dear Jim,

    Could you fix it for me to become the next Savilian Professor of Astronomy at the University of Oxford?

    Yours sincerely,

    Mrs Trellis

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