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The Duties and Privileges of an Academic Speaker

Eszter Hargittai writes:

Clueless? Rude? Neither? Both?: [A]n incident I experienced years ago. I was surprised economists didn’t get more of a mention in the thread following John H’s post earlier given what I’ve seen in their colloquia. I have close-to no experiences in philosophy exchanges... but I’ve attended quite a few talks among economists so I’m used to their style of Q&A.... [I]t often starts a few slides in – or in some famous cases the speaker doesn’t get to proceed past the title slide for most of the time allotted – and being rather aggressive seems standard. If that’s the local norm, they are likely used to it and it doesn’t raise any eyebrows. However, what if you put such an economist in a room full of sociologists? Is it okay for him to import his style or should he take a moment to familiarize himself with the local norms?

What struck me as rather curious was the way an economist behaved during a job talk I attended in a sociology department.... The economist engaged in the usual norms for his own department’s culture: interrupting at pretty much every slide. He didn’t take any cues from the rest of the group.... [S]ociologists don’t tend to interrupt a speaker, certainly not a slide or two in, and certainly not for questions that are more than mere points of clarification.... [T]his was a job talk, which in... this particular department meant that people would... more courteous [than] usual. (Do not confuse courteous with lack of very serious and difficult questions, of course.) The audience was listening intently and the room was quiet for the most part except for the economist’s questions.... [I]t is a bit surprising that he did not pick up on the fact that his approach was not in line with local norms. Perhaps he did, but just didn’t care. I was clearly not the only one bothered by the economist’s style. The uneasiness in the room was palpable. In the end, a senior sociologist stepped in. She turned to the economist and explicitly stated that this is simply not how we do things and asked that he hold his questions until the speaker had finished his talk. You could tell that everyone (presumably other than the economist) in the room was quite relieved to have had her do this...

Eszter seems to me to be getting three things wrong:

  1. Economists are used to situations in which you are supposed to be quiet until the paper-giver has finished speaking, only those are not "workshops" but rather "conference presentations." A conference presentation would, typically, have the presenter speak for 30 minutes, an assigned discussant speak for 10, the presenter respond for 5, and then 15 minutes for questions from the floor and answers by the presenter. It's not a discipline-wide norm that economists follow in workshops, but rather one specific to the format of the "workshop."

  2. The difference between interrupting and non-interrupting cultures is not a simple and arbitrary choice of social norm, but instead reflects a judgment about whose words are likely to be most valuable to hear. In an "interrupting culture" the presumption is that everyone has read and thought about the paper beforehand, and that to spend half or more of the available time with the presenter simply summarizing the paper (or, worse, reading large chunks of it) is a waste of everybody's time. Much better to have people raise and argue the points that puzzled them or that they think need to be expanded at their appropriate place in the argument. Moreover, when questions are asked in non-interrupting cultures at the end of the seminar, they don't lead to any discussion: questions come in response to things the presenter said 15, 30, or 45 minutes ago, and lead to formulaic thrust-and-parry-and-end rather than any more complex discussion. Now in a conference, where the presenter and the discussant are up at front for a reason, and where many in the audience have indeed not read the paper, the noninterrupting culture format makes a certain amount of sense. But in a workshop it does not.

  3. The noninterrupting culture format is, in the last analysis, one that does even the presenter no favors. It greatly diminishes the fraction of the audience that will read the paper beforehand--for everyone knows that the presenter is going to eat up the lion's share of the time going over it with everyone else sitting around like bumps on a log. A good presenter is more interested in what an intelligent and thoughtful audience thinks of his or her argument than in listening to himself or herself summarize the paper one more time. And if for some reason the presenter gets off on the wrong foot and does not make contact with the audience, then an interrupting culture gives the presenter clues that may allow him or her to adjust on the fly and reconnect. In a non-interrupting culture--no chance of that.

This last was brought home to me when I heard about a job talk in another discipline than mine at... let me call it Potlatch State University...

The young presenter was, the story goes, making an argument that the British classical economists in fact had as much of the milk of human kindness and as much of a desire to build a better world as any group--but just found themselves by their observations and by the logic of their discipline led to conclude that lots of policies that you might think of as good were in fact counterproductive. And he went through example after example, while the audience sat silently. And then he got to the end of his presentation with ten minutes left, because he had gone over. And, the story goes, one of the most senior people asked the first question, which was:

It is said that Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College, was seated at High Table next to British classical economist Nassau Senior during the Irish Potato Famine. And that Jowett asked Senior how many people would die in the famine. And Senior replied: "About one million--and that is not nearly enough..."

Now if there is a better anecdote to back the claim that the British classical economists were Enemies of Humanity--shills for the ruling classes, social darwinists before Darwin, who sought to exalt the wealthy while gleefully grinding the bones of the poor into meal in the Dark Satanic Mills of the Industrial Revolution--I don't know what it is.

If this question had been raised at the start or even in the middle of the seminar, the speaker could have scrambled to recover--qnd would have had a chance of fitting that story into his broad argument. He would have said that Nassau Senior:

  • believed that Irish land was good enough to support 4 million people at a reasonable standard of living, but that at the start of the Potato Famine it had 8 million.

  • thought that at a population of 4 million average labor productivity in agriculture would be high enough that children could be released from farmwork to go to school, where they would learn self-respect and the fear of God, that as a result the people of Ireland would be prudent and chaste and marry relatively late, and the population would be stable and the island prosperous.

  • thought, on the other hand, that at a population of 7 million average labor productivity in agriculture would be so low that children too would have to work digging potatoes and would grow up illiterate and unchurched, that not fearing God they would have sex as often and as young as possible, and that the population would then grow back to its pre-Potato Famine level of 8 million--at which Ireland was starving even when the potato harvest was good, and at which population was kept from growing further only because babies were so malnourished that their immune systems were compromised and women so thin that they stopped ovulating.

Senior believed that Ireland was trapped in a bad poverty-stricken Malthusian subsistence equilibrium at a population of 8 million, and that while a fall in population to 4 million would knock it out of that bad equilibrium and put it on the road to a better one, that a fall in population to 7 million would not and thus, as Jowett later quoted Senior, "would scarcely be enough to do much good." This was, Jowett said, why he had "always felt a certain horror of political economists."

Now Senior was wrong: Ireland in the mid-1840s was no longer hopelessly trapped in a bad Malthusian equilibrium. And Senior's policy advice was wrong because his analysis of Ireland was wrong. You can judge Senior harshly: he ought to have figured out that the Age of Malthus was over. But Nassau Senior did not think that with each Irish famine death an angel got its wings.

That was the argument that the presenter could have made had he been embedded in an interrupting culture and figured out that the most senior people he was talking to were starting from Jowett's High Table at Victorian Balliol. But in a noninterrupting culture in which you have two minutes to respond to each question at the end because there are ten other senior faculty members who want to ask their questions that they have been nursing since minute 20? In a noninterrupting culture you are dead if your audience is starting at a different place than you think they are starting.