Diary of a Visiting Speaker


The audience at a talk sees the visiting speaker ushered into the room to check the connection dongle for the projector and greet a few faculty acquaintances in the front row. A brief introduction, a 50-minute talk, and a small reception and perhaps a hosted meal. Two or three hours, all expenses paid. Easy work?

Not exactly. For the speaker, the experience is quite a bit longer. I have about a dozen lecture trips this year, the most recent at the Christian Albrechts University, Kiel, Germany. The lecture slot (unusually early) was at 10 a.m. on Friday, April 24. Travel was unusually fast and trouble free. It went like this:

  • –28h (lecture time minus 28 hours: 5:00 a.m. British Summer Time, Thursday, April 23): Wake, shower, dress, finish packing.
  • –27h (6:00 a.m.): Sunrise. Call for a taxi; it arrives within minutes as usual. Great weather, light traffic. Taxi takes freeway bypass route because of roadworks in town. Speedy, but $15 more than usual. (Receipt fails to include the tip; that’s a few dollars of expense I won’t be able to document or claim. Memo to IRS: My travel expenses are always understated. On every trip I end up spending a little more than I can actually get reimbursed for.) At the airport by 6:45, and through security by 6:58.
  • –26h: Egg-and-bacon roll and black coffee at the airport (neglect to get a receipt: another unclaimable expenditure). Café has a view over the runway: beautiful flying weather. Also free Wi-Fi that works. Check email, Lingua Franca, Language Log, Dilbert, Google News. Spot new Jack Reacher story in paperback on the bookstall at half price! Can’t resist buying it. Choice of reading matter now: brilliant formal semantics monograph, Continuations and Natural Language by Chris Barker and Chung-shieh Shan, or fast-moving suspense novel, Personal, by Lee Child. Which one will dominate my en-route reading?
  • –25h: SAS flight to Copenhagen. Three-seat row to myself! Can’t remember when I last had such luxury. But only coffee and tea are free; even orange juice costs a euro. I choose black coffee; as does Jack Reacher.
  • –23h: Descend into Copenhagen, a city I want to visit someday. But not today: just changing planes, and time zones: Here it’s not 10:00 a.m., but 11:00. Central European Summer Time. The transfer center is a bright atrium full of fresh green trees, quieter than a cathedral, the nicest airport space I’ve ever seen. But I’m on a mission: Grab a salami sandwich and find gate B10. Alleged free wireless Internet doesn’t work; registration programming glitch.
  • –21h: Board an SAS flight for half-hour flight to Hamburg.
  • –20h: Into Germany with no passport check (Schengen agreement). Heading north from Hamburg to Kiel on a shuttle-van service called Kielexx.
  • –19h: Check in at Hotel Berliner Hof. Clean, functional room. Wireless works. (Neat fact: Showing my hotel key card gets me free rides on any bus in the city! All those rental cars kept off the city streets. Europe really knows how to do public transport.)
  • –17h: Meet my host, Professor Lieselotte Anderwald; stroll along fjord to a rowing-club harbor-view restaurant where we watch huge car ferries leaving for Scandinavia while we dine with two faculty members and two smart graduate students.
  • –13h: Back from dinner; final email check, then time for rest.
  • –4h (6:00 a.m. Central Europe, Friday, April 24): Rise, shower, shave, excellent buffet breakfast. Check slide file; add a modification responding to the views of a colleague I know will be at the lecture.
  • –1h: Get to campus, meet host. Desperate 15-minute struggle by three experienced local faculty to get projector responding to properly connected laptop. AV guy finally arrives and solves everything by pressing a single counterintuitively labeled key (“Enter|Mode”) on the remote. Slides immediately appear on screen.
  • 0h: Showtime. Lecture roughly an hour (tried to compact it to 50 minutes but couldn’t).
  • +1h: Question period. Intelligent questions from students; try to give answers that combine courtesy, content, and concision.
  • +2h: Relax with host, chat awhile.
  • +3h: Taxi back to Kielexx stop.
  • +4h: Back at Hamburg Airport. Free wireless that works, courtesy of Turkish Airlines.
  • +6h: Plane for nonstop flight to Edinburgh arrives late, but soon ready for boarding. Reading still alternating between Barker and Shan’s beautifully clear exposition and Lee Child’s almost unputdownable suspense.
  • +8h (6 p.m. BST): Land at Edinburgh. Through passport control, out into the street, and onto airport bus in 10 minutes. Fantastic.
  • +9h: Back in my own kitchen.

In total, then, not just a two-hour commitment for the speaker, but more than 37 hours in this case, over and above several days of lecture preparation. Don’t get me wrong, I like visiting new places and giving invited lectures, and this one was eminently worth doing. But being a visiting speaker is hard work.

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