The Intersection

In the past three months, I have done three separate events on university campuses that have involved, in some way, panel commentaries upon books. Two of the books were my own; one was Mike Tidwell’s (see here and here).

As a result, I have gotten some sense of what I think works in these contexts, and what doesn’t. So I have designed this post–which I’d planned to publish much earlier, before Cyclone Sidr and Thanksgiving, but have kept on hold until now–in the hope that it might help professors and administrators across the country who are trying to put together these types of fora.

First, let me describe my recent experiences in some detail, without bias (yeah, right). Then we will proceed to generalize about what works, and what doesn’t.

1. At Cornell University on September 20–my 30th birthday–I did a Provost’s Lecture structured as follows. First, after an introduction, I spoke for thirty minutes and–at least in my own opinion–gave the best talk I’ve ever given about The Republican War on Science and my sense of the issues it raises two years after the book’s original publication. The talk was entitled “The War on Science: What Have We Learned.” (Video is available here.) After the talk, there followed responses from a group of expert panelists: Kurt Gottfried of the Union of Concerned Scientists; Steve Hilgartner of Cornell’s Science and Technology Studies Program; Ted Lowi, John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions, Government Department, Cornell; Jon Shields, University of Colorado; Ron Herring, Government Department, Cornell; and Janice Theis, Associate Professor of Soil Biology, Cornell. Then we went on to audience Q & A.

The Cornell event–with an attendance that I’d estimate at between 100 and 200–was sponsored by the Institute of Social Sciences at Cornell University. The book had been assigned in advance to at least one class–Ron Herring’s Govt 429 “Politics of Science”–and some students were present. The panelists discussed the book and the issues it raises from an interdisciplinary perspective, but were not all equally focused on responding directly to it. Some did more of that, some less. I did not have time set aside to respond directly to their comments; instead we went on to audience questions, which were generally pretty on point (or at least so I recall). This was a single two hour event, followed by cheese/coffee and then dinner with the panelists and some others where conversation could continue among a smaller group.

2. At the University of Maryland-College Park on October 22, I participated in an expert panel to comment on Mike Tidwell’s book The Ravaging Tide, which had been given as the “first year book” to the entire freshman class. The panelists were climate scientists Raghu Murtugudde and Dan Kirk-Davidoff of the University of Maryland, Dork Sahagian of Lehigh University, and myself. Tidwell was not present. Instead, he gave a lecture the next day to what I understand was a huge audience of perhaps as many as 500 people. In contrast, the audience for the panel was very small–I doubt it was even thirty people. I was disappointed in this, because I thought we articulated some serious criticisms of Tidwell’s book and approach–especially in my presentation which was in many ways a direct response to the book. Murtugudde and Sahagian had critical comments on the book but did not spend a lot of time talking about it in particular. Following my presentation, Kirk-Davidoff had some defenses of Tidwell, and he and I then engaged on some of those points during the Q & A. In my view, that’s the kind of exchange that should have dominated the entire panel–with Tidwell himself present.

Just a note, incidentally: My understanding is that there wasn’t going to be such a panel at the University of Maryland-College Park originally. Rather, it arose because a scientist on campus, chemistry professor Jack Tossell, was concerned about the freshman book and thought there should be some responses to it. However, given the tiny audience for the panel compared with the hundreds who apparently attended Tidwell’s campus lecture, and the thousands who were given his book in the first place, I don’t think “response” is really the right word to describe what happened. Indeed, I was inspired to blog a two-part response (see here and here) to Tidwell’s book over at DeSmogBlog, largely because I was unhappy with this and wanted what I’d said on the panel to reach a broader audience.

3. Last but certainly not least: At the University of Alabama on November 8, I participated in two events. First came an expert panel’s reaction to my book, Storm World, which all of the panelists had clearly read and which, indeed, had been assigned to perhaps 100 University of Alabama students through various classes. The panelists were Dr. Lynne Adrian, professor of American studies; Dr. Fred Andrus, assistant professor of geological sciences; Dr. Walter Misiolek, professor of economics and Dwight Harrigan Fellow of Natural Resources Economics; Dr. Utz McKnight, assistant professor of political science; Dr. Jason Senkbeil, geography instructor. After each spoke for 10-15 minutes, I in turn responded to their very diverse and interdisciplinary reactions. Each scholar’s comments were on point and responsive to the book–but because each came from a very different field, of course the responses also differed greatly. I worked hard taking copious notes and then tried to provide, on the spot, a reaction that discussed topics ranging from scientists’ communication skills to the plight of the developing world under climate change and how frequently we ignore that because of our western/American biases. That panel worked me hard–but as had been the case at Cornell, I ended up feeling deeply appreciative and indeed even honored by the serious effort spent by the panelists.

There was an audience of about 200 present, I estimate, many of them students who’d been required to attend because their classes had discussed the book in some way. The Q & A, however, derailed significantly in my opinion. After so many stimulating and on-point responses to the book, we appeared with the audience to actually move backward intellectually into vaguer and not particularly novel global warming-related inquiries. What kind of car should I drive–that sort of stuff. Then came a fairly quick dinner with many of the panelists–and then it was off to give my full lecture about Storm World. There was nothing else but me on the menu for this second event, so I talked for probably 45 minutes. Again, the audience was 200 or so–and not the same people by any stretch. And again, there were many students present who had read the book; but also again, many of the questions were about general global warming related matters–and indeed, it seemed that few of the questions were coming from students. Which is too bad.

And now to generalize. You will have noticed that I’m pretty critical of how things went down at the University of Maryland-College Park. I definitely wouldn’t recommend replicating that model if you want students and scholars to engage with a book and then profit further on an intellectual level by hearing and weighing the author’s own response to those comments. By contrast, I think both the Cornell and University of Alabama events went extremely well, albeit in different ways. I hope that neither event sponsor will be offended if I go further and suggest that combining together the best aspects of these two talks might give the ideal intellectual/book-centered event. Consider:

Cornell did it best when it came to having everything take place in one large event, rather than two. My view for a long time when it comes to on-campus events has been that you want to do one big thing rather than several medium-sized things. Dinners, breakfasts, classroom visits are fine–but don’t split your central audience between two major events.

The University of Alabama, however, did it best when it came to bringing an author into direct back-and-forth exchange with expert discussants from different disciplines. What Cornell lacked–and the University of Alabama featured–was a chance for me to respond in a structured way after a bunch of very smart people had had their say about my writings. Cornell also didn’t have the book assigned to very many student members of the audience, although there were some. The University of Alabama had assigned the book to many more students, and required attendance.

So the ideal event would, I think, start with the author’s lecture–kept to about 30 minutes max–and then follow with expert commentary on the book and/or the talk (probably something like 4-5 panelists, and 5-10 minutes each). Then, the author (having taken copious notes) would in turn respond on the spot to what the expert discussants–or, perhaps, a few really gung-ho students–have said. And then you would go to Q&A, but it ought to be structured in a way that neither the Cornell nor University of Alabama events offered. I suggest that audience questions ought to be submitted in writing on cards, rather than passing the mike around. Then, the questions ought to be read to the panel by a screener who selects those questions that are most relevant to the discussion that has just taken place. All of this, I think, could be done in two hours. Or longer, with a short break inserted somewhere.

And after that? Well, of course: The author attends a social event with the panel and selected students. Serve the famous scientists and distinguished scholars a drink and shoot the bull some more. Toga! Or whatever.

But in all seriousness–having done a number of these things by now, I do have my opinions about what works and what doesn’t. And if the goal is to walk students through an intellectual exchange and then involve them in it–by which I mean, learning–then my view is that all will be best served if it goes like this: 1) Students are assigned read the book; 2) author comes to lecture; students expected to attend and engage; 3) university experts comment directly on said talk or the book in real time; 4) author replies further in real time; 5) structured audience Q & A further advances the points raised in the discussion, students submit written questions (they could even be graded on them); 6) people finally relax and get to have a drink.

And if anyone wants to put on an event like this–well, sign me up!

Thanks to Ron Herring of Cornell, Jack Tossell of the University of Maryland-College Park, and Julia Cherry of the University of Alabama for their hard work in planning these events, and for answering follow-up questions so I could get all my facts straight for this post!


  1. #1 SLC
    November 26, 2007

    The Real Media version of the Cornell presentation can be downloaded, using a streaming redirection program such as NetTransport, Streamdown, Streambox, or Flashgot (I personally use NetTransport). To my knowledge, the Quicktime version can only be downloaded if one has Quicktime Professional.

  2. #2 Fred Bortz
    November 26, 2007


    You may be wrong about the way things worked out at Maryland. It’s quite possible that the students, having read Tidwell’s book as a course requirement, had come up with some of the same concerns that you discussed at your presentation and challenged Tidwell in the Q&A. Perhaps someone reading this can tell us whether that indeed happened.

    My son had a similar program as a freshman at Alfred University in 1989. They were assigned a Jeremy Rifkin book that went overboard as Rifkin is prone to do. When we asked him about his reaction and the reaction of his classmates, he said they were prepared to challenge Rifkin when he came to speak about it. They didn’t dispute all of Rifkin’s conclusions, but they saw through the hyperbole.

    I was very proud of my son. I still am!

    In short, if you want the students to develop critical thinking, give them a widely-read book that has provocative material and draws some overly simplified conclusions.

  3. #3 Jim Hall
    November 28, 2007

    Thanks much to Chris for both his visit to Alabama and for these very helpful remarks. Some of us spend a great deal of time in shaping such events, but rarely get an opportunity to reflect publicly on what works and what doesn’t. . . and rarely does a speaker take the time to give this type of feedback.

    Our weakness, I think, was probably not taking what we know to be best classroom practice and applying it in these less familiar (to our students) surroundings. Sad but true to say that an overwhelming majority of our students rarely get to see academic exchange in action… and most certainly have not had the experience as part of their high school career. So for good or ill, I’d venture that the vast majority of the good sized audience we had at both campus events were likely immensely intimidated and would not even think to challenge experts…. or even more pertinent for the polite South…would never challenge a guest.

    So what to do? Well, my classroom practice dictates that students that won’t speak up can still write and, in doing so, can choose anonymity, or simply the comfort of having the opportunity to get their thoughts together and ordered. We should have had students submit questions in writing in advance. Needless, to say amongst 3 or 4 hundred written responses, we certainly would have seen plenty of evidence of the thought Chris stimulated, and no doubt would have found plenty of complicating questions.

    Organizers, of course, have the benefit of sticking around, 2, 3, 4 and more years, and seeing the impact of thoughtful speakers on student lives. We know that Chris has played an important part in explaining what we know to be the messy business of the science, politics, and drama of human choice with regard to climate change and its impacts.

    Thanks again. Jim Hall, University of Alabama

  4. #4 Cheryl Shepherd-Adams
    December 3, 2007

    Thanks for this useful summary, Chris. Greatly appreciated; we’re looking forward to putting these points into practice out here in the boonies.

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