Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Percunctor Primoris Potissimus

There's a certain species of seminar attendant that is a very effective hunter. It is rare for members of this species to hunt in packs, though not unheard of. If you are speaking at a department with a pack of these creatures, be very certain of every word of your talk.

They start circling their prey early, asking innocent enough questions about first principals. And like a great cat wearing down its prey in a chase, the questions never end. I have seen one of these creatures stall a speaker for nearly half an hour over the definition of velocity. Be even more afraid of these hunters if you do multi disciplinary work. They may want you to bring them up to speed on the entirety of the discipline they are not in before you reach slide 3 of your presentation. Beyond the scope! you cry to deaf ear. The hunter has caught its prey.

A key characteristic of these creatures is their ability not to care what the other seminar attendees think. Whether the other attendees are annoyed at the derailing questions, or whether they think the questioner is not up to speed on the literature and therefore they need to ask basic questions. The speakers that most effectively avoid being derailed seem not to be the best at answering the first principal questions, but the ones that are most able to give slippery answers that may or may not actually answer the question, but point the interrogator in the direction that the speaker wants to proceed in.

I do not think that the hour alloted for a speaker to present his/her research is the best place for acquiring in depth knowledge about their field of research that I lack. However, since I was embarking on a new project with a collaborator who knows the subject matter better than I do, I decided that I would try to pin down a few things that confuse me over the course of an afternoon. I had no intension of being the type of ass that the questioners above seem to be at times, but I had resolved to get answers to some questions, no matter how stupid I looked in asking them. The result of the exercise was a few answers (YAY!), exhaustion at having to constantly ask the same questions and get psuedo-answers to them (GRR!), while having the conversation redirected to the matters my collaborator wanted to talk about (admiration at the skill with which he changed the subject).

I've been told that I am more aggressive than other females in my manner of speech. However, I must be doing something wrong when I can't seem to get straight in depth answers from people when I speak to them (I do better over e-mail). I also seem to get eaten alive at presentation by first principal interrogators. Do other people have this problem? Have other people conquered this beast?

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