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Saturday, August 01, 2009

More thoughts from the ICHST: Good talks, PowerPoint, and Bad Questions

Posted by Darin Hayton on 08/01 at 09:56 PM The ICHST is huge, perhaps too big: if you attended every session you would see 65-70 papers in addition to nine plenary lectures. I chose to attend historical papers at the expense of the more methodological and philosophical sessions. What follows is a sampling of the papers I heard.

Tuesday I popped in on the “Islamic Science in Context” session to hear two talks on medieval astrology in Islam. The first focused on the astrological uses of astronomical instruments; the second argued that mathematical astrology permeated the astronomical handbooks in medieval Islam.

Wednesday afternoon I ran between two sessions: “The Commerce of Science: Exchanging Objects, Instruments and Ideas in the Early Modern World” and “Ptolemy, his Writings, and their Transmission.” In “The Commerce of Science.” Suzanne Karr Schmidt continues to work on printed astronomical instruments—mainly printed astrolabes and sundials. She argued that there was a thriving trade in printed scientific instruments that grew up around the work of Georg Hartmann. I ducked out to go hear Anne Tihon’s paper on an unedited astronomical papyrus and how it related to Ptolemy’s works. Back to the “Commerce of Science” session to hear Daniel Margocsy’s fascinating paper exploring the costs (financial and time) and difficulties of transporting exotic animals and plants.

Thursday and Friday I attended most of the “The Middle Ages (Western and Byzantium) and Renaissance.” In part because my own work typically falls in this category; in part because I was presenting Thursday afternoon and chairing on Friday. Lilia Campana’s paper on “Mathematics and Venetian Naval Architecture” was very good, connecting the theoretical mathematics of Venetian shipwrights to architectural styles. Dóra Bobory’s paper on horoscopes as biography reminded us that astrologers had considerable versatility in constructing and interpreting horoscopes. Astrologers frequently recast, and presumably re-interpreted horoscopes throughout their careers. Consequently, she argued, horoscopes provide considerable information about the astrologer’s social context and political and religious commitments. Time and energy permitting, I sampled other papers as they seemed interesting.

Saturday’s “Global Visions? The Telescope between Competition and Collaboration,” organized by Sven Dupré and Al van Helden, had some interesting papers. Jim Bennett recovered the tacit practices and skills speculum grinders used in making mirrors for their reflecting telescopes. His reading of John Mudge’s work on grinding mirrors along with William Herschel’s provides just the sort of evidence that historians like Dóra would love to find: efforts to codify tacit and perhaps oral knowledge that were used by contemporary practitioners. Steve Ruskin used the discussions around the solar eclipse of 1878 to uncover the early debates over the benefits of high-altitude astronomy, as long as it wasn’t too high, and the efforts to shift the center of gravity for astronomical observations from the east coast of the United States to the west.

Listening to the papers prompts me to think about two issues: the ubiquity of PowerPoint and the paucity of good questions.

PowerPoint Presentations—
PowerPoint, or some other similar presentation software, seems to have become essential for conference presentations. The vast majority of papers I heard relied extensively on slides (One presented who did not use slides was asked, at the end of his talk, if he had any pictures to show). Slides should contribute something to the talk: either illustrate a point, help clarify a particularly difficult aspect of the speaker’s argument, or draw attention to significant similarities or differences between sources that the speaker used. At the very least, a nice slide can give the audience something interesting to look at.

Some presenters used slides in precisely these ways. Lilia Campana’s paper on Venetian ship building benefitted from her slides that explained visually the various geometrical methods ship wrights used to build ships. Indeed, without the slides her paper would have been difficult to follow. Anne Tihon used slides to present tables highlighting where three sources differed and then explained why this information was relevant. To illustrate the complaints of astronomers who had dragged their telescopes to the top of Pikes Peak in the hopes of observing the solar eclipse in 1878, Steve Ruskin used a series of slides showing how quickly storms can cover the mountain. While not strictly necessary, his slides nicely reinforced this part of his talk.

Regrettably, in many presentations the slides were either unhelpful or a distraction. Commonly, people would project a slides covered in text that they would then read. Some people used slides to project long quotations, but then would begin reading the quotation somewhere in the middle, forcing the audience to hunt around for the bit of text being read. Other speakers flipped through their slides, never pausing to explain why they had selected this particular slide or what point it was supposed to illustrate. These speakers would often flip through 6-8 slides at a time, leaving the audience to guess how these slides related to the talk.

It would be nice if speakers would ask themselves the questions: What is this slide supposed to illustrate? How does it contribute to my talk? Will it help my listeners? Alas, speakers are probably no more likely to think about such questions than they are to finish their talks within the allotted time.

Dreaming of relevant questions and helpful discussions—
Presumably speakers want the audience to ask germane questions. Many people use conferences to try out early versions of essays that they would like to develop into book chapters or articles. Moreover, it shows a degree of respect for the speaker if the audience engages with the material. Unfortunately, in talking with some friends and colleagues, we lamented the lack of helpful feedback at conferences. As Anke pointed out in her discussion of the recent conference at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, the discussions that follow presentations rarely engage with the paper presented, either at the level of methodology or content. In the same post, Anke celebrates the “heated discussions” and “challenging” questions she heard at the “Composition to Commerce: Chemistry, History, and the Wider World” conference. Perhaps the focused nature of the CHF conference encouraged or at least facilitated useful questions, but the sprawling ICHST discouraged such questions. Too often members of the audience failed to engage with the substance of the talk. Typical questions fell into one of two categories: tangential and largely irrelevant questions that came from the person’s own research, or opaque riddles that forced the speaker to divine the actual question. The audience was only partly to blame for the lack of interesting discussions.

Presenters must assume some responsibility for encouraging discussions. At some of the sessions I attended members of the audience asked pointed and challenging questions. The very type of question that speakers claim they want to hear (for example, see Anke’s post). In most cases, when I heard a helpful if challenging question, the speaker retreated into assertion and repetition, or merely ignored the question and droned on about some unrelated topic. Being challenged in public is uncomfortable, but it is far better to be challenged in a reasonably amicable environment than to send off a potentially flawed article. Even if your claim or argument is valid, challenging questions point out where you might be jumping too quickly to conclusions or might have presented your material in a misleading or confusing way. Speakers should encourage animated discussions.

Given the wide range of scholarly backgrounds and interests represented at the ICHST, we should perhaps not be surprised that most papers were followed by 5-10 minutes of people speaking past each other (Babak pointed out a similar result at the Galileo symposium). Anecdotal evidence suggests that the ICHST is not unusual. In conversation with colleagues and friends, they weren’t particularly optimistic about the question-and-answer period. Maybe the problem is systemic.

I will post my final thoughts on the ICHST after Sunday’s plenary.

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