Academic Attention Deficit Disorder

Photo by Adriaan Bloem

At conferences I sit at the back of the room. I’m a people watcher, and from the back I can observe the spectators as well as the speaker. I like to see what the audience members are up to. Are they captivated by the presentation, or are they taking a nap? Are they jotting down main points and clever questions, or mindlessly doodling on the schedule sheet? Are they actually listening to the speaker? Or are they compulsively checking their email and Facebook? Based on what I’ve witnessed at meetings this past year, things are looking very bad. Audience attention is at an all time low.

One of the best, and sometimes worst, parts of being an academic is going to conferences. They are where we learn about the latest developments in our chosen field, what’s cutting edge, what’s obsolete, where to build collaborations, meet potential supervisors or students, and connect over muffins and coffee or maybe beer. They are also one of the few settings where we can openly engage our peers, get their feedback, and voice our own. But all of this is contingent on a single thing: that we actively participate in the talks and discussions.

Last summer I attended a meeting in Ireland at the beautiful Dublin Convention Centre, with its massive, state-of-the-art lecture halls. When I arrived for the first talk, I was surprised to find rows and rows of empty seats and groups of people sitting in the aisles at the sides of the auditorium. When the lights darkened and the speaker began, the halo of laptop screens revealed that these floor dwellers were huddled around the few available power outlets. I shook my head in disappointment. Then, about halfway through the talk, I realized that my iPhone was almost out of juice. So I did what any experienced conference goer would do: closed my email browser, shut off the phone, and took out a fully charged iPad.

The more meetings I go to, the more I think we are all turning into serial multi-taskers and inefficient workaholics. It’s hard not to be impressed by what some people try to accomplish while listening to a lecture. At a recent conference I had the privilege of sitting behind superwoman. During a thirty-minute presentation she replied to a dozen emails, submitted a manuscript online to an academic journal, and filled out a university expense claim form, all while keeping abreast of international news headlines. Even more remarkable, she asked a thought-provoking question at the end of the talk. I, on the other hand, distracted by the flurry of productivity from the seat in front of me, had no idea what the presentation was about.

Sometimes multi-tasking can be useful. This past February, at a workshop between biologists and physicists at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, I sat beside an iPad-addicted postdoc. But he wasn’t twiddling away his time on social media. He was learning about the speakers, Googling them, visiting their webpages, scanning their CVs and publications, reading their research papers. Not surprisingly, during the coffee breaks, this postdoc was easily able to engage the speakers about their work. Later that day, when I was giving my talk, I couldn’t help looking his way and thinking: have fun Googling “David Smith”.  

At this same workshop I was able to observe Michael Lynch, evolutionary biologist extraordinaire. Mike has more high-impact papers than some university departments, wrote the go-to textbook on genome evolution, and travels around the world giving keynote lectures. I figured that if anybody would be multitasking during the talks, it’d be Mike. I was wrong. From the fist day to the last, he sat front row, center, and never once touched an electronic device during a lecture. He sat quietly with his hands on his lap and listened, and then bombarded the speaker with interesting questions.

Public speaking is hard enough without having to compete against tiny screens that transport the audience to a world of endless information. Lately, when speaking at conferences, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to gain and maintain the audience’s attention. I’ve even resorted to skits. For instance, at my last talk I pretended I was a genome addict confessing my issues to other recovering addicts. These days I know I’ve said something interesting, funny, or inappropriate when the clitter-clatter of keyboards stops, the retina screens dim, and a horde of bloodshot eyes look up—even if for only a moment. Maybe we need to reevaluate how we give talks. We could take a Twitter approach, 140-second presentations, punctuated by 3-minute email breaks. Or maybe, if we can’t pay attention, we should just stay home. Neither of these options sounds very appealing. So how about we turn off our cellphones, notebook computers, and tablets, look up from our laps, and listen to what our colleagues, students, and mentors have to say? But whatever you chose to do, just remember, somebody might be watching.

David Smith is an assistant professor in the biology department at Western University

Photo by Adriaan Bloem