Midd: Invite fewer speakers



In J-Term and the spring semester of 2019, 194 lectures occurred at Middlebury College.

Of these lectures,  nearly share two characteristics: First, the speaker giving the lecture was highly skilled in discussing their topic; Second, the lecture overlapped with other events such that students would not attend the lecture unless they were fulfilling a course requirement, or had the same focus or interest as the lecture and prioritized the lecture over everything else.

I would guess that students going to lectures on topics outside of their majors do so very infrequently, perhaps once or twice per semester. This state of affairs is unfortunate because it is unreasonable to invite experts to the college for a few students take up the large numbers of seats we have available, in consideration of the effort that goes into planning an event of any magnitude on this campus. In order to remedy this unfortunate state of affairs, I suggest a modest proposal: Invite fewer speakers.

Having attended several of these lectures over the past three years, two observations seem appropriate, especially so it does not seem that I do not appreciate the availability of lectures in general. First, hosts would generally like more students to attend lectures. Hosts employ creative means to increase attendance, like adding extra credit to their syllabi, announcing lectures in class or emailing their students directly instead of by all-campus emails. These strategies are only partially effective because they are almost always limited to people in the hosts’ academic department. Guest lectures should be a wonderful opportunity for humanities students to interact with the natural sciences and vice versa.

Second, the obscurity of the talks’ topics is not the problem because they are often genuinely interesting, even when their titles or descriptions might suggest otherwise. For example, last week, the campus hosted over a dozen lectures (an average week), some of which included “Historically Hot: Reimagining Beauty from Japan’s Past,” “Katrin Bahr: East Germany in Mozambique 1979–1990” and “Whale-watching from the Masthead off of New Zealand.” It is possible that beauty in Japan, East Germans in Mozambique, and whales in New Zealand could make for interesting lectures, but most people will never know, since most people simply do not have the time to attend the lecture, the lecture description, or even knew that such lectures were occurring.

At nearly 200 per semester, it seems to me that we simply invite too many speakers relative to the goals that hosts have for bringing them. To come to this number, I counted the events which could be categorized as “lectures” on the featured events calendar from the beginning of the January term to the end of April 2019, covering about a semester. (It is possible that many lectures never made it onto this calendar, so maybe even more occurred.) I believe this count is a roughly representative sample of how many lectures the college is likely to host this semester, if not more. This number works out to an average of about 50 speakers per month and about 12 speakers per week.

I would prefer to have six or fewer speakers per week, or around 25 per month and 100 per semester. This number would allow us all a reasonable chance to look at the title of the lectures, read their descriptions and make informed decisions about whether or not to attend.

Right now, it seems as though hosts are forced into untenable situations in which they feel the need to advertise against all of the other lectures being hosted that week in order to have any students attend at all. Hosts plaster the campus with ecologically wasteful paper posters and fill our email inboxes with all-school emails. All this is not to mention the scheduling conflicts, space restrictions and event management resources that go to waste when not enough people attend lectures. If it is still the time of the year in which people encourage first-years to do things, then I would suggest that all first-years resolve to attend at least one lecture on a topic that seems uninteresting to them. You might end up interested.

I would bring this idea to this newspaper, perhaps unasked for and certainly crudely stated, in the hope that it provokes some better writer to publish a direct reply against it, for it is apparent that there is some problem with the way the college currently handles lectures, and I think it is that we have too many of them, but there could be another cause that I have not considered, or it could be that all lectures are as good as we want them to be and I needn’t have written in the first place.