One of the things I love about living in Philadelphia is that there are a lot of colleges here, and that means a lot of math talks. I could easily fill at least half my time just attending (and navigating public transportation to get to) talks in the area. Going to good talks makes me feel connected to the world of mathematics in a way that nothing else quite does—seeing “live math” can be a little bit like seeing live music crossed with solving a puzzle, two of my favorite things. In the best of all math talks, I have to remind myself not to interrupt with loud cheers at the good parts. I take this as a sign that I chose my job well.
That said, it happens sometimes that I go to talks and find myself just not engaged for one reason or another. Maybe I had an intense day teaching and spaced out for a few crucial minutes at the beginning. Maybe I followed for the first 20 minutes and then the speaker stepped to a whole other level of specialization. Maybe the speaker is very quiet and I can’t hear what they are saying. I’m assuming this happens to you sometimes, too? However it happened, there are still 40 minutes left and you realize you have no idea what is going on. What do you do (besides play Seminar Bingo)? How do you make the most of those 40 minutes of your life?
Here are some of my strategies:
1) My first priority is not to fall asleep. So I will do anything at all not to fall asleep, even just draw circles on a piece of paper, get up and stand up at the back of the room, or leave if necessary.
2) Sometimes I start working on my own math on paper or on a computer. This can feel productive, but I honestly don’t enjoy this much because it makes me feel self-conscious and somewhat silly. It just feels weird to blatantly ignore someone who is speaking in front of me. Why am I there? If I’m really going to check out to that degree, and the room is large enough that it wouldn’t be noticed, maybe this is okay, but I might as well just slip out of the talk and work somewhere quiet. If it is a fairly small room and it is possible that the speaker can see my lack of attention, I feel like I should keep looking back up and give the appearance of following the talk, which actually feels kind of creepy and ridiculous—I feel like I’m lying if I nod and smile when I really have no clue what is going on. So maybe it is better just to commit to checking out and be obvious (though quiet) about it. Just to be clear, I don’t always think other people are being jerks when they are clearly working on something else during talks. It just feels wrong for me. However, if the room is fairly large it can still feel better than leaving the talk.
3) Sometimes I work on my own math in my head. This feels less productive than working on paper or computer, but also less silly and embarrassing. I just maintain general eye focus on the speaker while my mind wanders.
4) Sometimes I try to take lessons in style from the speaker. If they are a really good speaker, I try to figure out why I enjoy listening to them even if I don’t understand the talk. If the talk seems ineffective, I try to figure out why. Oh, maybe it’s because they never explained any of their abbreviations! Oh, wait, I think I did that in my last talk. Never again! Sometimes this study can get so interesting that I take notes, then find myself a little bit in situation 2 above, and then need to check myself and go back to 3.
5) If the talk feels like it should be accessible, because it is for a general audience or it is close to my area, I just refocus and try to filter something, anything mathematical from the talk that I am watching. I make it a sort of game: I am a detective, what can I figure out about this story given these clues? That makes confusion less frustrating, partial understanding much more rewarding. If I have a lot of energy I will take notes and organize the information as much as I can; if not I will just listen to it as a story, look for the big picture.
Number 5 is the most satisfying, and this practice has really paid off for me a few times in the last two years. One of my projects is implementing an algorithm (mostly devised by many other people) to solve a particular equation in the group of S-units. My collaborator and I had to solve this equation to do another project, and we decided to try to generalize our code. It turns out that solving the S-unit equation shows up in a lot of other people’s work as well. In the last two years, it has happened 4 or 5 times that I find myself a bit lost in a talk, trying to get some big picture idea of what is going on, when all the sudden here comes the S-unit equation. So then I suddenly have a strong connection to this part of the material and tons of questions spring to mind. In some cases I then get to talk with the speaker about our project, and through this conversation manage to fill in the blanks that left me lost in the talk, so I learn a lot of new, very relevant math. Even if I don’t manage to talk to the speaker or totally understand their talk, I can connect my work with another general area and have a new example of how our work is valuable in the larger world! Hooray!
Every time method 5 pays off, it makes reinvesting in talks easier. But I mention 1-4 because I am being realistic—I don’t always have the energy or desire to really wring all the content out of a talk when I feel confused. So, I would really like to know—what are your seminar strategies? Thoughts on getting the most out of talks once you realize you are lost? Is it better to leave the talk or to fall asleep? What do you think about working on other stuff during a talk? Is it worth being there even if you are not paying attention?