Show the Love

By Sean Carroll | January 17, 2008 2:10 pm

410634aa0.jpgYesterday we went to see a chat with Alan Alda and KC Cole at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, as advertised by Clifford here. Alda was apparently some kind of TV actor back in the day, but he is also quite the science aficionado — hosting Scientific American Frontiers on PBS, and originating the role of Richard Feynman in Peter Parnell’s play QED.

The most interesting story we heard was one that happened just the day before, when Alda and Cole visited with some students at USC’s engineering school. Apparently it was quite a day, beginning with short presentations by each of the students about the work they were doing. After the presentations, Alda led the students through a series of improvisation exercises from Viola Spolin’s classic workbook. After which, the students were asked to give their presentations again! Apparently (I have to take their word for it), the first time around the students were pretty darn good, but the second time they truly came to life.

Giving talks, or presenting ideas more generally, is one of the necessary skills of academic life that we usually presume one just picks up on street corners. The idea that, for example, college professors should learn how to teach classes would be an anathema to most actual college professors. But there is a lot of skill involved, and practice and learning can really make a difference. (The same would go for writing papers, or being an advisor, or a thousand other aspects of being a professor.)

My favorite part of the chat was Alda’s admonition to scientists to “Show the Love.” He was moved by the evident passion for their work exhibited by the students, but recognized that it didn’t always come through during scientific presentations. So here is some simple advice to young scientists giving talks: show the love! (Good advice to old scientists, too, but there’s no hope they would listen.) Let it be clear that you are absolutely fascinated by this work you are doing. You’re not in it for the money and fame, one presumes. Don’t look at a talk as a terrifying ordeal to be stoically survived; look at it as a chance to share some of your passion with other people who haven’t delved as deeply into the material as you have. I know we’re not supposed to use icky words like “love” in the rigorously austere corridors of professional physics, but this is a case where a little culture-changing wouldn’t hurt anybody.

And if you’re not all that passionate about what you’re doing — switch to doing something you really do love.

Update: Jennifer adds more words, plus an amusing cartoon, and an annoying poem.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Advice
  • spyder

    The idea that, for example, college professors should learn how to teach classes would be an anathema to most actual college professors.

    This is the one that got me most over the decades (improved significantly in the last fifteen years or so for the most part). The most egregious example was found in university education departments; vast numbers of the professoriat, assigned to teach new teachers how to teach, had never been taught how to teach themselves. The promotion to tenure of education faculty based on their great research and authorship created (for many years) quite unsatisfactory models of good pedagogy and praxis.

    These sorts of workshops are really beneficial, and need to be expanded across the curricula and academe.

  • http://sansfaith.blogspot.com godma

    I entirely agree regarding the importance of this. I’d go so far as to say that communication and persuasion skills should be taught as mandatory subjects in pre-college education. It’s fundamental and will be useful regardless of what subject a student ends up specializing in.

  • http://www.iidb.org RBH

    The best training I had for professoring was accidental: my freshman year roommate was a drama major and I got roped into playing any number of roles in directing class one-acts, culminating in carrying four (!) spears (minor roles) in a departmental production of Hamlet. Learning how to move onstage and project one’s voice and use gestures was invaluable. (Plus there were a whole lot more girls in drama than in physics!) There was only one drawback: 8:00 a.m. calculus classes after rehearsals lasting until 3:00 a.m. the night before.

  • a mathematician

    The last 30 years I’ve seen many “show the love”-type presenters who were
    eventually shown the door. Too much “love” and not much “substance” a
    positive tenure decision does not make.

  • http://disorderedcosmos.blogspot.com Chanda

    just wanted to express my amusement at your characterization of Alan Alda as “some kind of TV actor back in the day.”

  • http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/ Larry Moran

    So here is some simple advice to young scientists giving talks: show the love! (Good advice to old scientists, too, but there’s no hope they would listen.)

    That kind of comment isn’t necessary. Us old scientists have heard it all before and we have often tried to “show the love.” Here’s the problem, it’s easier to tell people to behave this way than to actually do it repeatedly.

    Some people. like Alan Alda, have the gift for acting enthusiastic while others don’t do it naturally. I am one of those who don’t do it naturally. For those who are naturals, it’s easy. For those who aren’t, you are asking them to become good actors as well as good scientists and that’s not as easy as you might imagine.

    My advice to young people is to do what’s natural for you. Don’t put on an act that you are uncomfortable with. That won’t work in the long run.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    “a mathematician”, by imagining that love and substance somehow crowd each other out, embodies a great example of the problem we face.

  • fh

    “The promotion to tenure of education faculty based on their great research and authorship created (for many years) quite unsatisfactory models of good pedagogy and praxis.”

    It used to be that at the University level it was not expected that people taught by performing but by example. The transition from small elitist Universities to mass Universities has necessitated some sort of pedagogy. In a way that’s a pity.

    One thing I find immensely useful is that at my undergrad degree we were forced to present problems and solutions from day one in front of the other students and a tutor. That way everybody who finishes the degree at least has ample experience in presenting stuff.

    The kind of “skills” seminars mandatory at my current university though are rubbish, complete bullshit. (Which brings me to another subject entirely: The markedly anglo-saxon focus on training people to have *skills*… I shudder at the very word)

  • http://www.website.com Yahoo

    “some kind of TV actor back in the day.”

    He was brilliant in MASH, where he lampooned knee-jerk liberalism mercilessly. What’s that you say? It wasn’t satirical? Damn.

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  • BLABLABLAAAAAAA

    The sad thing is that the so called “big theoretical physicists of the day” are writing comments in blogs and are watching plays instead of trying really hard to do something worthwhile in physics-or maybe they just can’t do it ?

  • The Almighty Bob

    I have to ask, BLA; when’s the last time you had a day off?

  • Emanuele

    Dear Sean, I have a question for you. In your opinion, during the inflation, in the slow rolling phase, what does the entropy do? It increases or decreases? And during the reheating what happens to the entropy? Thank you. I would appreciate your help. Regards,
    Emanuele.

  • Lazy, well-paid, junk-theories creating physicist(former:BLABLABLAAAAAAA)

    All of my days are days off- but at least in these days I don’t write tons of papers full of unoriginal thoughts, pretending that I am the guy who revealed the secrets of the Universe for the uneducated public- whatever….

  • Rick

    Alda was apparently some kind of TV actor back in the day,

    Is this meant as a derisive remark? Alda was certainly no Peter Ustinov, not even a Peter Sellers, but I can’t believe you’ve never seen one of his movies. Ever heard of M*A*S*H?

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    On the subject of performance, it’s shocking how irony just vanishes as soon as it enters a data port. Black hole unitarity looks trivial by comparison.

  • Ike

    “And if you’re not all that passionate about what you’re doing — switch to doing something you really do love.”

    Unfortunately, doing research costs money, and while love is free, funding is not… Congress Slashes High-Tech Physics Budget, Jan 18

    “The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), one of the premier U.S. physics research centers, expected $120 million in high-particle physics money from DOE. Instead it got $95 million, forcing it to lay off 125 people and curtail the activities of Babar, its major high-energy physics experiment. “This is going to be bloody,” one scientist said. “And you’re cutting into the lab’s core competencies.”

    Meanwhile, the Iraq occupation is running at $5 billion a month in up-front costs, with the interest steadily accumulating…

  • Sleeth

    “Apparently some kind of TV actor back in the day”.

    Just wait. Some day someone will say “Apparently Jerry Seinfield was some kind of TV actor back in the day”, and then you will officially feel old.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    I heard a tape of Feynman’s bongo playing on NPR a few years ago. I sounded great, and if Alda could simulate that it would be really cool. Feynman’s Lecture’s series were a joy to read, and I felt like things were being explained to me better than anywhere esle. I assume almost all of them (not counting literal errors, note the many corrections being added to the latest revisions) are still valid, anyone care to point out where we’ve had to revise and change course?

  • Metal

    My love is too sacred to show

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  • http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/ John Baez

    Alda was apparently some kind of TV actor back in the day…

    I’m hoping Sean is just being his usual witty ironic self. Otherwise, I must be really old.

  • andante

    And if you’re not all that passionate about what you’re doing — switch to doing something you really do love.*

    *This commentary was not directed at the 95+% of humanity who has very little choice in how their passions are utilized.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Actually it was addressed to “physicists,” who you will note constitute far less than 5% of humanity.

  • http://www.dorianallworthy.com daisy rose

    Here

    “But my own wings were not enough for this
    Had it not been that then my mind there smote
    A flash of lightning where in came its wish
    Here vigor failed the lofty fantasy
    But now was turning my desire and will,
    Even as a wheel that equally is moved,
    The love which moves the sun and the other stars” Dante Canto XXXIII

    as well

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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