The Fate of the Research Seminar in 21st Century Academia: Against Churchification

When considering the future of the research seminar, it’s best to begin by recalling that ‘seminar’ relates to words like ‘seminal’ and ‘seminary’. No, I don’t mean the politically correct point that it is focussed on the male semen. Rather, I mean that it is focussed on the early stages of research, where one is sharing initial findings with others who might or would like to offer input into its further development. It follows that a research seminar should be exploratory and relatively non-threatening in character. Invitees should be discouraged from reading already published works in this context, and no one should be required to attend if they do not feel they have anything useful to say. Both of these conditions add up to a relatively open intellectual environment. It is also in the spirit of teaching seminars, where students are normally expected to set the terms of the discussion in light of a lecture. The difference here boils down to voluntary attendance in research seminars and compulsory attendance in teaching seminars. At least that’s the theory…

However, the research seminar is too often turned into a church service where a department’s identity is reinforced in the presence of an outside speaker, who may or may not be a willing celebrant. This is the source of stories about certain departments being supportive, hostile or indifferent to outside speakers. If research seminars did what they should be doing, these stories would not be in circulation. Those who share the speaker’s concerns would not be reduced to ‘witnessing’ in the face of half-informed sceptics in the audience: A more productive exchange would result. To be sure, attendance might be lower. But outsiders would not be invited to where they are not wanted, and locals would be able to decide whether to attend an advertised event without fear of violating some imagined sense of collective identity.

The last point raises the crux of the matter: namely, that as long as departments are seen as units of research assessment, there will be a tendency to ‘churchify’ its activities into opportunities for collective expressions of a common faith, albeit often expressed in a more pedagogical way: ‘You should learn what your colleagues are doing’. This is a big mistake, albeit one that the current UK assessment regime encourages. In contrast, I believe that a sharp line should be drawn between a research seminar and a public lecture – basically the private/public split, but inscribed within academia itself. Public lectures, the stuff of academic conferences, should operate on the principle of widest participation, encouraging no holds barred performances from both lecturer and audience. This is where people should see a field at the top of its game. However, research seminars should be much more like incubation spaces. At the moment, academics blur the two contexts to the disadvantage of both sides – and to the misery to all who get caught in the mixed messages.

Categories: Committing Sociology, Higher Education, Sociological Craft

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