Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Listening Skills

There is a blog called The Benshi by Randy Olson, a marine biologist turned filmmaker. One of his posts is about scientists’ inability to listen and why it can make science communication ineffective. I mentioned this inability to listen to another scientist who immediately thought of scientists’ behaviour in seminars, where, frequently, scientists are only listening in order to make their own points at the end.

I had been puzzled by the phenomenon where, at the end of a seminar, someone, usually a man, gets up and rambles on using up most of the question period on a subject of tangential relevance to that of the seminar, until I came across Ms. Mentor’s explanation. This phenomenon is called ‘peacocking’ and is a display behaviour. (I first read this in the report of a workshop on Gender Issues in the Sciences held at Colby College in Maine in 2003. The report of this workshop is available at http://www.colby.edu/~bbrown/2003Workshop.html. Emily Toth’s paper, ‘Successful Strategies for Advancement’ is on pages 22-23 and the longer transcript of her workshop starts at page 60.)

Our discussion turned to graduate student seminars. The other scientist described what happened in one department where, at question time, Prof. A. would ask the student giving the seminar a devastating question and Prof. B. would follow-up ‘like a hyena with a carcase after the lion has made the kill.’ The point of this style of questioning is to discover which students ‘have the balls’ to progress in science. There is no doubt that coping with hostile questioning is something that scientists have to learn. Is this really the best way to ensure graduate students acquire that skill? Could there possibly be gender-bias in which students are weeded-out?

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