We had our annual undergraduate research symposium this past weekend, which included presentations from students doing work in all different disciplines. We have enough physics and astronomy majors these days that I spent most of the day Friday listening to them talk, but I did have a break in the morning when I saw a few engineering talks, and it’s always nice to see work in other fields.

At lunchtime, there were two things I wanted to do: see the dance performances (which included a couple of physics students), and have lunch at the student-run organic food cafe, which I really enjoy, but don’t usually get to because I play basketball during their normal hours. I looked at the official program for the day, and saw that the two students I wanted to see were performing in the next-to-last group listed in the dance program, so I went to lunch at noon. The dance performances were scheduled to run from 12:20-1:30, so I figured I had plenty of time to have a nice meal, chat with colleagues, and wander over to catch the end of the dancing.

At 12:40, a couple of physics students came in while I was lingering in conversation with a few colleagues from another department. “Did you see S. dancing?” they asked, “It was amazing!”

It turns out that the order printed in the program given to all symposium attendees wasn’t the actual order of the dance performances. The real order was printed on a different program, that was handed out at the performances themselves. The students I had wanted to see were on second, not second from last.

This happens all the time– a similar problem cropped up at NCUR— and on reflection, I think this is really a Two Cultures issue.

Scholarly conferences in both the sciences and humanities are divided up into sessions consisting of presentations related by a common theme of some sort– Cold Molecules, for example. At a large meeting, there will be several such sessions running in parallel at any given time.

The difference between disciplines comes in how these sessions are treated. At scientific meetings, the talks are held to be completely independent. Each speaker gives a presentation, and then answers questions about it, and then they’re done. As a result, people commonly move from one session to another– if you’re only interested in one of the five speakers in a session, you go to that session for that one talk, and then go somewhere else. At a typical DAMOP meeting, I spend a fair bit of time skipping around between sessions to catch an array of different speakers in different fields.

I’ve never been to a humanities conference, but my impression based on conversations and blog posts is that they run their sessions more like panel discussions. Each speaker gets a certain amount of time to present their prepared material, but there’s also some expectation of interplay between the speakers, and there can be questions asked of all of them at the end. As a result, people attending these meetings tend to go to one session, and stay for the whole thing.

These two different approaches to sessioning lead to two different approaches to scheduling. Scientists expect people to be moving from talk to talk, and thus hold rigidly to a schedule. If you look at a contributed session at DAMOP, you’ll see talks scheduled to the minute, and session chairs are expected to keep that schedule. In caes where one speaker doesn’t show up for some reason, they’ll often just sit and wait for the time to elapse, rather than moving the later talks up, and throwing the schedule off.

Humanities types, on the other hand, don’t tend to move between sessions, and so the schedule really doesn’t matter that much. If you’re going to stay for the entire session no matter what, it doesn’t matter if a given speaker goes first or third– you’ll hear them either way. Accordingly, there’s really no particular reason to worry about having the printed program accurately reflect the order or timing of the talks.

As a scientist, I find it absolutely maddening to not know for sure what order things will happen in. I like to see talks in as wide a range of areas as possible, which usually means running around from one session to another, and requires precise scheduling. Humanities faculty, on the other hand, probably find it incredibly rude for science types to bustle in and out of sessions all the time.

Interdisciplinary conferences thus provide another opportunity for academics from different parts of campus to drive each other crazy.


  1. #1 Rob Knop
    May 8, 2007

    Interdisciplinary conferences thus provide another opportunity for academics from different parts of campus to drive each other crazy.

    Isn’t that the goal?

    ‘Cause normally it’s just academics within our own field driving us crazy.

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    May 8, 2007

    You’re right — at English meetings (even when we’re talking about prepared lectures), it’s considered rude to pop in in the middle of a session.

    Psychology seems to be a middle ground: lots of people pop in and out, and lots of people think that’s rude.

  3. #3 Scott Spiegelberg
    May 8, 2007

    At music conferences I see both types of behavior. At the national music theory conference it is quite common to hop from session to session. At regional conferences it is less common. But we still schedule things at specific, same with most classical concerts. Jazz and popular music concerts are more likely to list a set of works with no intended order, with some expectation of interaction with the audience to clarify the work being performed or an assumption that everyone will recognize the piece.

    I like Rob Knop’s definition of interdisciplinary goals.

  4. #4 Kapitano
    May 8, 2007

    I’ve been to a few conferences on philosophy, and on political science (which were generally neither political nor scientific) and they are as you describe.

    They invariably overran becase one speaker couldn’t stop talking, and often ended with the speakers “agreeing to disagree”, being unable to convince each other.

    In the humanities this makes sense, because often academics create careers for themselves by arguing endlessly over some minor point with each other. If the point ever gets settled, their careers as academics (but not as educators) can be effectively over, so it’s in all their interests to not find definitive answers.

    I’ve also found that conferences on economics often work the same way – accompanied by ritualistic affirmation that economics is a science, not an art.

  5. #5 Jonathan Vos Post
    May 8, 2007

    The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959) by Charles Percy Snow, Baron:

    “… But what about the other side? They are impoverished too-perhaps more seriously, because they are vainer about it. They still like to pretend that the traditional culture is the whole of ‘culture’, as though the natural order didn’t exist. As though the exploration of the natural order was of no interest either in its own value or its consequences. As though the scientific edifice of the physical world was not, in its intellectual depth, complexity and articulation, the most beautiful and wonderful collective work of the mind of man. Yet most non-scientists have no conception of that edifice at all. Even if they want to have it, they can’t. It is rather as though, over an immense range of intellectual experience, a whole group was tonedeaf. Except that this tone-deafness doesn’t come by nature, but by training, or rather the absence of training.”

    “As with the tone-deaf, they don’t know what they miss. They give a pitying chuckle at the news of scientists who have never read a major work of English literature. They dismiss them as ignorant specialists. Yet their own ignorance and their own specialisation is just as startling. A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”

    “I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question — such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read?-not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.”

    “Just one more of those questions, that my nonscientific friends regard as being in the worst of taste. Cambridge is a university where scientists and non-scientists meet every night at dinner.[8] About two years ago, one of the most astonishing experiments in the whole history of science was brought off. I don’t mean the sputnik-that was admirable for quite different reasons, as a feat of organisation and a triumphant use of existing knowledge. No, I mean the experiment at Columbia by Yang and Lee. It is an experiment of the greatest beauty and originality, but the result is so startling that one forgets how beautiful the experiment is. It makes us think again about some of the fundamentals of the physical world. Intuition, common sense-they are neatly stood on their heads. The result is usually known as the contradiction of parity. If there were any serious communication between the two cultures, this experiment would have been talked about at every High Table in Cambridge. Was it? I wasn’t here: but I should like to ask the question.”

    “There seems then to be no place where the cultures meet. I am not going to waste time saying that this is a pity. It is much worse than that….”

    [it is so much worse that the two galaxies cannot even agree on what a printed schedule means, or how to organize a scholarly conference, or whether Science Fiction is agitprop or literature, or why blog at all…]

  6. #6 marciepooh
    May 11, 2007

    My mother is/was an educational psychologist so I (a geologist) understand your frustration at the meeting of the galaxies. I’m suprised that the performances were moved around since students were, at least potenially, involved in multiple activites throughtout the day. I’ve been to conferences where some speakers were speaking at multiple sessions on the same day, to change the order (or go skip ahead when a speaker doesn’t show) could mess up the schedule in other sessions.

    I’ve also been to a conference where several sessions had to take hour or more breaks because ony on or two of the chinese speakers made it that year. (I hope everyone makes it this year or ICBM will be very short.)

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