02 December 2021

CADE Speaker Series for 2022 - Formats, Topics, and other thoughts

One of the things I’m thinking about for 2022 is the CADE Speaker Series. I thoroughly enjoyed the 2021 speaker series, and I’d be happy to do more of that, but I also want to reflect on what should (or can) change, and whether that would help or make the whole experience better. If you’re not super interested in event organization and logistics, you might absolutely will find this post unbearably tedious, but if you invite speakers to events and/or if you’re interested in this stuff, you might be able to tolerate it. In particular, if you’re a person who gives talks, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Okay, in my head I think of the 2021 speaker series as filling more or less the same mold that in-person talks filled. Mostly it was a speaker giving a 45-minute talk in real-time with slides or some other kind of visual, followed by some Q&A. The differences were usual pandemic-related stuff - everything was virtual, we hosted everything over zoom, Q&A happened over chat, and we uploaded a video to youtube after the fact.

Why do we do talks?

This might sound like a dumb question, but I try to ask who this is supposed to be serving in the first place, and whether this is actually serving their interests or not. I see 3 major groups of stakeholders - the inviting institution; the speaker; and the audience.

Why does CADE invite people to give talks?

Is it to elevate the voices of people working in an area we know a bit about? Is it to connect multiple threads of work together to identify and draw out the converging interests of seemingly-different research agendas? Is it to start a professional connection between CADE and the speakers we invite? Is it to promote CADE through some convoluted promotional agenda?

I think the answer is varying degrees of all of the above (except the last one because those were just nonsense words to me), and probably some other motivations that I haven’t thought to write down. I want to be conscious of how those goals are being achieved (or not achieved) by the current format, and how different formats might do better or worse, especially if they also move the needle on the next two questions.

Why do speakers accept invitations?

Do speakers accept because we’re paying an honorarium? Do they accept because having a platform helps advance their work or their cause? Is it because they want to find other like-minded people to collaborate with? Is it because they just love chatting with anyone about their work? Do they not care about any of that, but feel like they want to support CADE, or agree to do me a favor?

I know some early career researchers (ECRs) care about the honorarium, but in particular are motivated by the line on their CV that says they spoke at a speaker series at a university, especially a prestigious one that has had estimable speakers in the past. They’re both a kind of currency - an honorarium is literally currency, but the latter serves to bolster this person’s claim that they’re a serious figure in their area when they apply to jobs. I want to be cognizant of all the reasons people accept invitations to speak at something I’m inviting them to, and not undermine that motivation by doing something stupid (to say nothing of seriously unethical) like eliminating the honorarium or something.

Why do audiences come to these talks?

This might be the toughest question to answer because people wander in off the cyber-street for all sorts of reasons - maybe they’re interested in the speaker’s work, or the topic the speaker is giving their talk on, or maybe they just attend all of the talks hosted by the organization because they trust the organization’s judgment in curating a speaker series.

I guess I want to keep my eye on this question only because a totally self-indulgent series that is of interest to nobody but myself and the person I invited seems solipsistic and wasteful. Or maybe it just feels a lot like a phone call to catch up with a friend. And I’m pretty sure I can’t give my friends an honorarium to talk with me on the phone.

As you can tell, there are a few moving parts just to the motivations of doing academic talks. And I think different formats support different goals and motivations more or less than others.

Let’s take an example: the format we’ve been using - real-time talks presented on Zoom and uploaded to YouTube - has the advantage of resembling the kinds of talks we used to do up until the pandemic. The resemblance is so close that I think it currently has equivalent status on someone’s CV. Which is great if that matters to you.

But if we made the format a pre-recorded talk followed by live Q&A, how would that change things? I think, for one thing, it might mitigate the stress of giving a talk by at least a bit. I might enjoy being able to take a second or third try at some part of my talk to get a recording without a fire engine passing by my apartment; or I might want to change my shirt if I realize I’m sweating and nervous and need to relax. These are things you can’t do in a live talk, and a pre-recorded talk might make these talks more feasible.

That’s just one example. Another example is to cut the video feed entirely - since some people don’t really like revealing the interior of their home to an entire wider audience - and making the talk more of a podcast. Maybe we have a host converse with the speaker, having done some advance prep to know what would be interesting to talk about, and publish those. Tressie McMillan Cottom recently hosted a talk with Louise Seamster to discuss the student debt crisis and its racial dimensions, and it was like getting to overhear two extremely interesting, brilliant people just talk with each other. I miss the experience of being at a conference and finding myself just getting to listen to two brilliant people talk shop about their work, and this could get me that feeling back.

There are a lot of parts that would move around based on these changes. For one thing, I think if we’re going to go in the direction of pre-recorded content, then it might be an opportunity to pay professionals to produce and finalize the audio and/or video. I’ve gone down a rabbit hole on video and audio production, and all I’ve come away with is the very acute sense that it’s absolutely untenable to expect academics to become competent at all of this stuff in addition to everything else going on. So if I can pay someone for their expertise to work with a speaker to get the best audio or to help produce the video, then that might be great.

And then there’s the aspect of this that’s arguably a little risky to the speaker. I don’t know what social status a podcast appearance has versus a live talk versus a fireside chat. Maybe this is a dumb distinction to make and I’m overthinking it. But I don’t want to ask ECRs to participate in a thing that they think will basically not advance or benefit their careers because of its perceived lesser status compared to frantic, nervous, real-time zoom talks.

Okay, I’ve written a lot, and I haven’t arrived at any conclusions. I honestly haven’t made much progress on this except to outline a few of the directions that this could go, and a few of the dimensions that could be affected. But that’s kind of the point. If you’ve read this far, and in particular if you’re a person who has given talks in the past few years, I’d really like to know if you have thoughts about what formats appeal to you and what you get (or would get) out of them.

Ultimately, I want this to be as rewarding an experience as possible, and I’m frustrated by how challenging and stressful the status quo is. If I can lower the stakes and difficulty of these events, and if I can hire professionals to make the hard parts easier, and if the series can be just as meaningful and important to people in this new format as in the old format, then I want to try and get that.

If you have something to say about this post, email me or tweet at me.