Silences in Teaching

Les voix du silence dans l’académie

dead silence
Carol-Ann Courneya

The data-rich PowerPoint presentations given by a visiting or local researcher to an audience made up of graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and faculty members are the hallmark of basic science departments. Regular attendance at these seminars is generally mandatory for graduate students, and often a tacit expectation for post-docs and junior faculty members. The goals of these seminars are: to provide talks on a variety of cutting- edge research topics given by experts in the field; to create learning opportunities for graduate students, thirsty to broaden their scientific and professional expertise; to engage in a dialogue with senior colleagues in their fields. Good in theory, but in reality there is a deadly silence taking the place of that longed-for dialogue.

If you have attended these seminars, you may have noticed that the questions posed are almost always by faculty. Having made that observation over a number of months of attending departmental seminars, I decided to ask faculty members whether they felt their seminars were opportunities to teach students and post-docs. Their most common reply was that they hoped the audience was learning something during their seminars. When probed further, however, they commented, “I don’t think of it as teaching . . . it’s imparting information, showing off data,” “It is an advertisement for my lab . . . . I am thinking, what can I get out of this . . . not, what I can teach.”

I then proceeded to ask the graduate students and post-docs, in focus groups, two questions: (1) When you attend departmental seminars, do you ask questions? And (2) why, or why not? Both graduate students and post-docs answered with a resounding “No/Never” to the first question. To the second question, graduate students explained their silence by saying, “I don’t want to look stupid in front of my supervisor,” and “I don’t want to be seen as not knowing the fundamentals.” Post-docs said, “I don’t want to make a fool of myself by asking a stupid question,” or “Often I am completely lost and don’t even know where to begin.”

I began to question what exactly was at the root of their fear. Are basic science faculty members inherently judgmental and adversarial? I don’t think so. I do, however, think that we have lost sight of the seminar as an opportunity to teach. The average departmental seminar includes only the shortest of introductions, after which the speaker launches into detailed descriptions of data: slide after slide of graphs, histograms, molecular arrays, with few pauses for reflection. To complicate matters more, the data is often accompanied by scores of very similar UIAs (unidentified acronyms). Rarely is an effort made to create an atmosphere where the dialogue of learning is encouraged to take place.

Sparked by my intrigue about how we might make seminars more a site of educational inquiry and less a site of self-protective silence, I enlisted the help of a topranked senior scientist to review the focus group data. I challenged him to design a seminar which would both engage and educate graduate students, post-docs, and faculty about a cutting-edge topic in research. He took up the challenge.

The structure and approach he subsequently used in his presentation to our seminar was as follows:

  • He began with a broad introduction to the topic with an emphasis on the relevance to the students at all levels in the audience.
  • He told a story which emphasized “big-picture” concepts.
  • He used very few acronyms, and those he used he clearly defined.
  • When he used original data he described its significance.
  • He planned for only 45 minutes of delivery. • He paused frequently, inviting questions of clarification, and left 15 minutes at the end for questions from the audience.

You may be wondering: Did it make any difference? Yes. It did. The noticeable difference during the seminar was confirmed by a questionnaire filled out after the seminar. The evaluation was overwhelmingly positive (on average 4.5 or greater out of 5). Most encouraging, the majority of questions asked during and after the seminar were from students and post-docs. Based on the comments section of the questionnaire, it was clear that when they perceived an authenticity in the invitation to join in the dialogue, students and post-docs were energized, excited. They no longer remained silent.