Even in the web age, academic get-togethers remain relevant, says Alice Bell

There’s a lot of talk about the ways in which digital communication might help academics talk to each other and find new ways to connect with those outside the academy, too. Much as I find this incredibly exciting, I’d like to speak up for the humble seminar.

I don’t mean seminars run as part of taught courses: I mean the departmental seminar, the work-in-progress seminar, the seminar series linked to some cross-institutional research strand – discrete little academic events where a group of people get together to share their scholarship.

Done well, a seminar should be the highlight of any academic’s week. It offers a chance to hear from a scholar directly, to enjoy their humour and asides, and the special tone they reserve for particular phrases (or for the names of certain colleagues…). Best of all, it’s a chance to ask questions afterwards, and to chat about it with others over a drink, too; a chance for a department to get together and invite friends; a chance to collectively experience something new, and learn from each other in the process; a chance for diverse and exciting conversation, not the dreary reading out of notes.

Sadly, however, they rarely are this good. I think the low point came a year ago when I realised that the guy sitting next to me (a highly educated and expert colleague, I might add) was holding his phone, watching a video of cats playing bagpipes. Others were checking emails, quietly marking essays or playing Sudoku. I was concentrating hard on this badly presented paper, giving it the benefit of the doubt, trying to find something original and coherent in it. Everyone else had switched off. Moreover, jaded by previous experiences, they’d expected to. They had brought along something “to play with”, just as they might do for a long train journey. And those are the ones who turned up at all.

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