Two Cultures Divided by Scheduling

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.