In an earlier post, I had described the system of student talks that I had initiated at Chennai Mathematical Institute, I’ve now passed out of CMI and the student talks are still continuing; in fact, they are flourishing better than they were in my time, thanks to the efforts of Swarnava and Kshitij.
Student talks at CMI were a small-town affair in my time: audience sizes ranged from 3 to 10, the speaker (usually I) would wait for all the people he/she knew would attend, before beginning, and the talk had no scheduled end time there was an estimated talk duration but nobody was accountable for it). Talks were schedule on arbitrary days, at the convenience of those who were interested in attending. The talks were usually delivered in a seminar hall, which had a seating capacity of around a 100 people, and I often used slideshows. With an audience of only 4-5 people in the huge hall, it was almost like a luxury event.
The student talks (dubbed Pizza Seminars) at the University of Chicago are a completely different affair. The first major thing is that the lure of mathematical knowledge is not the only incentive for attending: there’s free pizza too, and the talk is scheduled during the lunch hour, which, for the first-years, is the break-time between two lectures. Many of us, tired from the previous night’s assignment slog, used to grab pizza, finish it, and fall off to sleep.
(The pizzas are not funded by the speaker; they’re funded by the Math Department and the Physical Sciences Division of the University).
Secondly, the talks are held on a fixed schedule: once a week, at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays. This isn’t surprising; if pizzas are being offered, one can’t schedule an unlimited number of talks based on whims and fancies. Speakers have to start on time, break on time (for a second serving of pizza) and end on time.
Thirdly (and I wouldn’t say this is independent of the first reason) the talks are much better attended. The Barn, which can seat around around 50-60 people, is nearly full for every talk.
This leads to a lot of differences in the way the talks are conducted. In our undergraduate institution, people were often quite passionate on the topics they were talking about; here, the talks are largely viewed as a supplement to the pizza, and speakers, even the good ones, appear more indifferent to the impact they make on the audience. With a long line of speakers and only one talk per week, it’s very different from the situation in CMI where a talk slot was actually fixed based on the convenience of those who regularly attended. Finally, with such a huge audience, it’s much easier to get lost in what the speaker is saying, although there are a number of spirited interruptions to the Pizza Seminar in the first five minutes when the audience hasn’t given up hope.
An example can be the talks I myself gave on the same topic, one in CMI, the other in Chicago. The topic was extensible automorphisms. In the talk I gave at CMI, I spent a large amoun of time defining groups, inner automorphisms, extensible automorphisms, and developing machinery of representation theory as well as some leading ideas. The audience was much younger, and I’m not sure how much they understood of the talk, but there was a slow-world air about it. My talk in Chicago was a light-hearted but quick-styled affair; I jumped from here to there, throwing in some wry humour at various points, and trying to give a quick peek into the topic to a significantly smarter and more knowledgeable, but on the whole more preoccupied and less interested audience.
A more fundamental difference between the Pizza Seminars in Chicago and the student talks in CMI, however, is the backdrop. In our undergraduate institution, students often have little or no opportunities to teach or explain in a formal setting; graduate students in the University of Chicago, on the other hand, get to teach or assist in teaching regular courses. Thus, there is hardly that much novelty value in addressing a large audience. Further, there is not much one can do to “teach” graduate people in one hour. Student talks in CMI were actually teaching and learning opportunities, even if what was learned was eventually forgotten.
A few weeks ago, I asked the current coordinators of student talks at CMI, about the possible directions these talks might take if pizzas were offered at each talk. He said that attendance would certainly rise, because people cared more about pizzas than about math. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is debatable. The debate here is not about the health impact of pizzas, but rather about the issue of what the goal of talks is, who the target audience is, and what kind of value (over and above the pizza) is to be imparted to the audience.