Colloquia and opera

Have department colloquia lost their relevance to academic life?

this is something like the Pavarotti Effect of greater global connectedness: local opera singers are going to go out of business because consumers would rather listen to a CD of Pavarotti. It's only after it becomes cheap to find the Pavarottis and distribute their work on a global scale that this type of "creative destruction" will happen. Similarly, if in order to get whatever colloquia gave them, academics migrated to email discussion groups or -- god help you -- even a blog, a far smaller number of speakers will be in demand. Why spend an hour of your time reading and commenting on the ideas of someone you see as a mediocre thinker when you could read and comment on someone you see as a superstar?

Here’s a problem: if that’s true of faculty members’ attitudes toward visiting lectures, it is doubly true of undergraduates’ attitudes toward classes. Why spend your time sitting through a boring lecture, when you can download MIT OpenCourseware?

Maybe just as important: giving local colloquia and other talks is a really important way to get ready for giving talks at professional meetings. Now maybe meetings are just going to go online. Would it be better to arrange a 3-day program of online panels and slide-enabled podcasts? Would you rather have a recorded talk with online supplements, and a designated time for online chat?

UPDATE (2009-10-26): A reader writes:

A useful part of colloquia you and the Gene Expression author didnt address: they provide networking opportunities! ... Colloquia in our department always end with a reception for the speaker, which gives students the chance to introduce themselves to the speaker. Not the same thing as stalking them online through their blog, or just reading their paper and emailing them thoughts. In anthropology especially, personal networking is key for job-searching, integrating ideas, etc. For this reason the opportunity for personal interaction colloquia and conferences arent going anywhere anytime soon.

I think this is an interesting conversation. Because there’s a dark side to “networking”: it disadvantages people who are outside the existing power structure. How do you network your way up if your institution can’t afford to invite prestigious speakers? Or if you can’t afford to attend the conference?

It is a fact that networking is necessary for job-searching. But that may exclude people more often than include them.

There is a formal distinction worth considering: A YouTube is not a two-way conversation or a turn-taking opportunity. It is a broadcast. A colloquium (and a conference presentation) is also a broadcast, with some opportunity for comment. True two-way conversations are necessary to integrate and test ideas – if you don’t listen to people outside your research group, chances are you will make mistakes. My best ideas come from these kinds of interactions, and so scheduling lots of one-on-one time with interesting people is very important to me. But is traditional networking the best (or only) way to make such two-way connections possible? I don’t have an answer, but it’s a question worth some thought.