TED Conference Turns Professors Into Stars

March 04, 2011

Professors are treated like movie stars at TED, an annual conference on technology and society taking place here this week. With Hollywood-quality production values of lighting and sound, the stage at the conference promises researchers a kind of stardom—since organizers later upload recordings of the presentations to their popular Web site for free, where some are viewed more than a million times.

Attending the conference in person feels like being in the studio audience of a television show—there's even a sign in the lobby warning that the sessions are filmed, so even the audience might end up on the Web videos. Researchers aren't the only ones on the program: They serve in relatively equal proportion with artists and business leaders. Speakers are expected to keep talks to 18 minutes, and they go through rehearsals to hone the delivery.

So it's not surprising that David Christian, a history professor at Macquarie University, in Australia, was nervous the morning before taking the stage, even though he was giving a version of the course he has been teaching for more than 20 years.

Other researchers who have spoken at previous TED events, though, point out that it is the friendliest audience they may ever face. People really want to be here—the relative price tag is higher than even the most elite university (with tickets costing about $6,000 for the week). And no one is being graded.

There is no question-and-answer period either, as there would be at any academic conference, so no one will stand up to challenge a professor's research methods.

And as in a Hollywood film, most stories told here have a happy ending. One speaker on Thursday even seemed to apologize when hitting a downbeat note. "I have a somewhat negative slide, and then I'll be over the negative part," said the speaker, Ed Boyden, assistant professor of media arts and sciences, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in a talk about new developments in neurobiology.

Some theories of education argue that lectures are not that good at conveying complex information, and that they are best suited to inspiring students to care enough about the material to do the hard work of learning on their own time.

TED—short for Technology, Entertainment, Design—overtly focuses on this inspirational aspect of the lecture form, and its leaders appear to have an activist mission of sparking viewers to take action by supporting promising research and art.

For those in attendance, perhaps the most valuable aspect of the event happens between sessions, during long breaks between blocks of talks. Venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and other TEDsters (as participants are called) are quick to jump in to participate in conversations they overhear, and researchers say that the unusually diverse mix of disciplines represented can lead to cross-fertilizations that are unlikely to happen at academic conferences.

AnnMarie Thomas, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of St. Thomas, says that she saves up money each year to attend and that one year she found a collaborator on a project that later won grant support.

One session on Wednesday showed the networking power of the event. Organizers announced that this year's $100,000 TED Prize went to a Parisian street artist named JR, who then gave a passionate explanation of his work. Chris Anderson, the "curator" and emcee of the event, then asked if anyone in the audience was willing to help with the artist's latest project. Several people took the microphone to offer studio space in buildings they said they owned. An official from the Sundance Film Festival promised JR a grant on the spot for a documentary about his project, which challenges people to take photographs that represent an issue they are passionate about, e-mail them to a central Web site, and then paste a large-scale print of the photograph (sent by the artist) on the outside of a building. And the leader of Google's StreetView project said he was interested in working with JR to get the artist's works, which are all on the outside of buildings, featured in his popular system.

Seeing the production left me wondering: Will the videos of TED talks change what happens in traditional classrooms? Because so many students have likely now seen these recordings online, perhaps they will come to expect something similar at a college.

Or perhaps they simply remind academics of the economic value of occasionally putting their projects in the plainest language possible—someone listening may want to throw in some support. Would a bit more storytelling help?

C. Brené Brown, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Houston, touched on the issue at a talk she gave recently at TEDx Houston, one of the low-cost satellite events affiliated with TED.

A conference organizer wanted to invite her to a public event to discuss her work, but the organizer told her that she didn't want to identify her in the program as a researcher: "I'm afraid if I call you a researcher, no one will come because they'll think you're boring and irrelevant," Ms. Brown related. "She said, What I liked about your talk is that you're a storyteller, so I think I'll just call you a storyteller."

Correction (3/7, 3:55 p.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that AnneMarie Thomas, of the University of St. Thomas, sometimes teaches an adjunct course for another institution to save up money to attend the TED conference. She did that as a graduate student, but not now.