Seminar power and willy-waving
When I go to a lecture or seminar paper, I expect it to end on time. If it is billed for 30 minutes, and Professor X is still talking at 45, I feel very itchy. Likewise if what Professor X says is plain wrong, then I expect to say so (politely enough) in the discussion session that follows.
All this seem to me to be quite “natural”. But actually, I’ve learnt, these reactions are distinctively British. Although at first glance academic seminars look much the same anywhere in the world (a group of people banging on about subjects that would leave most of humanity quite cold), they are in fact governed by all kinds of culturally specific rules.
When I first went to such gatherings in Italy, for example, I couldn’t understand why the chair didn’t just shut a speaker up when he (or occasionally she) was still in full flood 30 minutes after he should have stopped. And I couldn’t understand why the rest of the audience tolerated rambling responses from the audience lasting almost as long as the paper, and often on a quite different subject.
It took me years to see that in Italian terms this was the whole point of the occasion. For here academic power was calibrated precisely according to how much of the audience’s time you could grab for yourself. If your junior colleague spoke for 8 minutes, then you were losing out in status very publicly if you didn’t take at least 10 for yourself. And so on. Aggressive chairing and timekeeping would not only be breaking the implicit rules of the seminar; it would be disrupting the very roots of the academic power structure which the seminar supported.
In the UK (or at least in Cambridge, which may be a particularly extreme version of the British case), things are much briefer and – to put it politely – punchy. How often have I heard my colleagues coming out of a seminar, one saying to the other “I thought you made a good point”? What “good” means in this context is, “a comment that in two witty sentences completely demolished the whole paper of the poor visiting speaker and showed how much cleverer you were than her”.
I confess that I am becoming increasingly ambivalent about this kind of display. On the one hand, I grew up with it and am still half attached to its style. I remember as a young lecturer thrilling to the displays of wit and smartness which the then professor of Ancient History would put into his responses to dull papers given by speakers. “I have three reactions to your talk and the first is boredom” is a direct, memorable and (as I now think) memorably nasty quote. And I am sure that I am sometimes guilty of playing such lines myself.
On the other, it’s fairly obvious that what’s driving this kind of discussion is not an engagement with the topic of the lecture or paper delivered, but peacock-like preening. It’s very male set of responses (even when done by women). It is, as one of my female colleagues has aptly put it, an exercise in “willy-waving”. Power games in a non-Italian form.
That said, the seminar-style in the States leaves me feeling rather at sea too. There are (as I found at Stanford) some examples of the British mode, but by and large everyone is seamlessly polite. It’s not that they don’t have strong views about the quality of the lectures they hear (as you discover when you talk about it afterwards), But round the seminar table, it’s flattery all the way: “Thank you so much for that masterly performance . . .”/ “I learned an enormous amount from your excellent paper. . .”
To start with, it makes you feel very warm. But then you think: how would I know if I had done a really lousy lecture? Would my best friend tell me? Or is there a subtle code among all this eulogy, that I just haven’t mastered yet?