Last semester, I took the initiative to formally start a system of Student Talks in CMI. The student talks started off well but then due to some technical glitches with transportation (this was before CMI got its hostel), the frequency of talks went down and there were in fact only four talks in the second half of the August – November semester.
In January, CMI shifted to its hostel, and we started off Student Talks with a fresh slate, scheduling the talks in the evening when all students were free. Soon the logistic issues with the talks got settled and it was now only a question of finding a steady stream of people who could give talks. This proved a challenge for a variety of reasons.
For one, a large number of people who were in principle interested in giving talks, either didn’t have a topic they wanted to talk about or didn’t feel they had enough knowledge in the topic to given a talk on. Some people who actually came up with talk plans realized that they don’t have enough time to prepare a talk in proper depth.
Towards the fourth month, there have at last started coming some other people who plan to give student talks. However, most of the talks were delivered by me (mathematics), Ramprasad (computer science), Anirbit (mathematics and physics). Sometimes I wonder if my overenthusiasm to give student talks myself is leading to a misuse of my power as student talk coordinator, but since there are hardly any others who compete with me for student talk slots, I don’t see any reason to feel guilty about giving too many talks myself.
This whole business of student talks really makes me wonder: what really is the goal/achievement of a student talk/student presentation? How does it help that particular student? And how does it help students to listen to talks from other students when they already have so many courses to attend and so many seminars by far more qualified people to go to?
I explore some answers based on my own experiences with student talks.
First, how the process of giving a student talk helps me. I have so far given ten student talks, some of them being on subjects that I already know or that are “pet” topics, while others were on topics which I didn’t really know but wanted to learn.
The very act of trying to express what I have to say in slides helps me sharpen my thoughts. For one, the total space available in a slide is limited, so I have to break all my ideas into small enough chunks so that each chunk carries a central theme that can be put into a slide. I often don’t do a very great job of this (as per the criteria of each slide having a central theme) but at least keeping that in mind helps me better understand the subject.
Also, while giving a talk, it is important to create a story, a build-up to the subject, that I may cut out on completely while learning myself. For instance, while I read up on Fourier series myself, I just picked up a collection of separate isolated facts: Fourier series, Fourier transforms, dual groups, Fourier transforms on reals, Fourier transforms on finite fields. While giving a student talk, I had to organize all these ideas into a particular thread so that they seemed to flow naturally. Similarly, my talk on approximating solutions to equations was based on many tidbits that I already knew, but while giving the talk, I had to formally understand each part and I also ended up doing experimentation by writing the codes in Haskell.
Another aspect is that the very act of delivery of a talk often makes one feel good, particularly when one is able to share certain insights (however trivial) with others and feel the joy of their understanding the stuff. For me at least, student talks have been an important way of getting me to feel a greater sense of enjoyment in studying the subject. This is a bit like the cook for whom having the food eaten by others gives an altogether different quality of satisfaction from simply eating the food oneself.
I also think that being able to talk on a technical topic to an audience composed of peers (rather than junior people) is an exercise in developing the confidence to express and present oneself. Many people are (rightly, perhaps) reluctant to give student talks on account of not having much to say, or not being sure whether what they will say will be useful to others. However, those who do end up giving talks realize that once you come up on the stage to say something, you can usually say it. And I suppose that since mathematics involves a lot of teaching and learning, student talks are a genuinely good preparation for a later life of mathematics.
Coming to the other half of the question: what are the advantages of attending a talk by a fellow student?
I have observed that by and large, I tend to feel less sleepy while attending talks by other students as compared to attending regular lectures or seminars or expository lectures by more senior people. One reason for this possibly is that in the student talks, I tend to feel more involved with what is being discussed, and feel more of a commitment to try to follow what is being said. This is because, firstly, students usually make a sincere effort to ensure that what they are saying makes sense to other students, and secondly, they may be a better judge of how their fellow students are understanding what they are saying.
Another interesting thing about the student talks is that they are generally more relaxed. This is probably beacuse student speakers don’t have the same baggage of expectations in terms of rigour, speed and correctness that more senior speakers might. For instance, I myself, while giving my talks, use prepared slides but I don’t try to rush through any slide or finish each side in a particular allotted time; I also avoid “leaving things as exercises” and I feel free to go into digressions and tangent if they will help my cause.
In more formal talks, the speaker has to keep in mind that the audience comprises people who are already well-versed with the basics and that if he/she spends too much time on basic stuff, the others may lose interest. Also, many of the formal talks are actually a way for the speaker to present some original work or ideas, and the contents may be used by others to evaluate the rigour of the ideas. Hence, there is more pressure on the speaker to go fast, be more rigourous at times when rigour compromises understanding, and not go into tangents.
Student talks do fill an important niche, but despite this, participation in student talks is rather low. This is where there could lie a possible disadvantage with an event that involves only the students: student do not feel any kind of compulsion/moral obligation to attend student talks, and therefore may choose to not attend if they are feeling tired, etc. Personally I don’t think this is a serious and important problem, because, after all, if a person doesn’t feel that he/she will get much from the talk, then it doesn’t make sense for the person to come all the way to attend the talk and fatigue himself/herself. Nonetheless, it is important for the phenomenon of student talks to create enough of a reputation for itself that people feel more enthused to attend a student talk and more confident of the irreplacable value/enjoyment they’ll get out of it.
I’ve also been wondering what will happen to the student talks initiative once I leave CMI (this is my final semester at CMI). More than 50% of the talks are being given by me and Ramprasad, and once we both pass out, it may be difficult to sustain the momentum of student talks. This actually brings about the more important question — how important is an individual to a community initiative, and what kind of steps should and can be taken to make sure that community activities continue even when the individuals change?
I’ll explore these issues in a later post.