01 June 2016

The Colloquium Learning Experience

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I recently visited Cologne to give a talk in the university. I was invited by some folks to give a colloquium talk in their department. And overall, while the talk was quite successful, there were also things that I could have done better. Nevertheless, it was a learning experience for me as well.

One major thing that I think I could have addressed better is tailoring my material for the audience. This is a skill that is quite important irrespective of what material you're presenting. Whether you're an academic or not, one must think about the audience in some form. I did that, but perhaps not enough. I gave a very interdisciplinary talk, touching on issues within and outside of Linguistics, and since the audience was the Linguistics Department, there were issues that were at times not so obvious to the audience. Someone pointed out suggestions to me privately later on how I could have presented things in a more accessible way.

The interesting and curious thing is that, if I had delivered the talk to a Psychology Department, then everything would have been fine. I have to say that was a major oversight of mine: the psycholinguists in the room followed my talk, but some of the non-psycholinguists struggled a bit. I guess that just shows how varied the field is. And that is definitely something which I could do some more work to improve.

I was wondering about this the other night, and it dawned on me that this didn't occur to me mostly because I haven't had an audience like that before. Most of the time, I would give talks in conferences, where there is a set topic, and everyone there would be familiar with the general issues at hand. This was actually the first time in which the audience was very varied, and came with various different backgrounds. So that is something I need to think about in the future.

This also made me think about the pros and cons of working in a research institute as opposed to a university. Back when I was in graduate school, there were regular colloquium talks that happened, and the topics were very varied, some were interesting, some were not too interesting, from the point of view of whether they were related to what my main focus was or not. But regardless of whether they were related to what I was doing or not, there were some talks where they managed to make not only a subset of the audience interested in it, but everyone, where even outsiders realized that their topic was interesting and worth talking about.

I realized that because I work in a research institute, sometimes I don't have opportunities like these to be aware of these issues. There are so many talks happening in our institute. If one goes to all of them, there wouldn't be time left to do research. So what happens is that people only go to talks that are relevant to them. Which means that the audience isn't really the most varied audience out there.

So I guess this was a learning experience. It's not learning about the field per se, but mostly about how to be a better academic. No matter what you're talking about, it is also a useful skill to know how to tailor one's topic to the audience as much as possible.

That being said, there were also positive feedback about my talk. I should say I appreciated the constructive comments, and the suggestions for further improvement, as well as further research directions. Overall, I think it was a good experience, and I would definitely do it again.


  1. Did you have specific info on the audience beforehand? I completely understand the necessity of knowing your audience and tailoring the material to it but sometime, you just can't guess who you are dealing with exactly.

    1. Zhu,

      I sort of know what kind of people the audience would consist of. But since my research straddles two fields, looking back, I think I favored one field over the other, and if you're background is the other one, then you'd have some difficulty following. Overall, it's something to keep in mind for future work.