Ten years ago, I gave a talk at a university (that will remain nameless) and nobody came out to see it except for the person who invited me. Actually, there was a second person there, but the organizer had dragged her into the event. We blinked at one another for a few giggle-filled moments, hoping against hope for some stragglers, and then, 20 minutes later, our hope decidedly dashed, we simply went out for drinks.
At the time, I didn’t know who should have been more embarrassed by the entire thing: me, because even despite all the flyers I saw plastered throughout the hallways, I couldn’t entice a single member of the school’s faculty, staff, or student body to hear my talk; or them, because they didn’t fulfill their unwritten obligation to get even a few warm bodies in those seats. I was ashamed, mortified, but my host was, too.
That was by far my lowest turnout as an invited speaker, but I’ve given my spiel in front of very small crowds since then. And over the last few weeks, I’ve been to other people’s woefully under-attended talks. These have been colloquium events where many of the sponsoring faculty and graduate students are absent. Or they have been free-standing lectures that have boasted numbers rivaling my aforementioned talk.
I helped to bring in a major scholar from overseas a couple weeks ago to talk about his controversial and engaging new book, and we had far fewer people come out than the room’s 60-seat limit could accommodate. It was a decent group, probably about 15 people, maybe even 20, but it was far fewer than I’d expected (especially given the fact that five different academic units had cosponsored the event and publicized it to respective constituencies).
The media celebrities, of course, always draw an audience. That’s the reason we invite them—and why we pay their exorbitant speaking fees. Newt Gingrich recently gave a speech at Penn, and I heard that the students had to conduct some kind of special lottery to determine how to choose between the many clamoring to get inside the huge lecture hall.
I know that everybody is super busy (and that we all complain about universities being over-programmed), so maybe we should have a moratorium on campus lectures for a few years, at least those lectures not presented by Gingrich and other celebrities (and not linked job searches).
Of course, one of the major differences between student-sponsored events (like the aforementioned Gingrich talk) and faculty-sponsored ones is that students usually get good turnout for their affairs. Students have a better sense of how to fill seats. They know what fellow students want to hear. They understand how to circulate the necessary information most effectively (and compellingly). And they can even guilt-trip their friends into coming (as a last resort). So, maybe we should leave the lecture-sponsoring to them. (And, of course, when I say “students,” I mean undergraduates, not graduate students. For many reasons, graduate students might even be less successful at this speaker-sponsoring thing than faculty.)
But I did just give a faculty-sponsored talk at a small college in Connecticut last month, and it was packed. Maybe 75 people. Even more. I was surprised, mostly because the event took place at 7 p.m., and I knew that they hadn’t had tons of time to advertise it. Sure, a few instructors must have given their undergrads incentives to attend, or even made it mandatory, but the students stayed all the way through the Q&A (not something they usually have to do to fulfill the letter of such mandates)—and many of them were genuinely interested in continuing the conversation well after the formal program was completed. Not only that. But it wasn’t just a student-attended event. Faculty came out as well, and I can’t remember the last time I saw a lot of faculty and undergraduates sitting side-by-side at a lecture given by a relatively unknown scholar.
So, what’s the trick? How did they pull it off? And can that formula be bottled and exported? If not, the rest of us should think about giving these talks a rest, at least for a little while.
(Photo from Flickr Creative Commons)