November 30, 2017

“Flashtalks” - The Compact HSS Experience

Alexander Greff and Reba Juetten are 4th- and 3rd-year students in the history of science. Here, they write about their experiences with HSS's new Flash Talk format.

     Historians aren’t often subjected to the exercise of the elevator pitch. Our entire profession takes pride in nuance and reminding the world that most narratives aren’t as simple as they seem. So how would you deal with having to engage an audience explaining all the details of your latest research in under five minutes? At this year’s History of Science Society conference, we (along with nine other graduate students) were tasked with doing just that in a pilot panel format called Flash Talks. 

     Built around the concept of snappy speeches, Flash Talk participants were allotted five minutes and one slide to illustrate the significance of projects in progress. The aim was to provide graduate students with an opportunity to both showcase and workshop their research. Each five-minute presentation was followed by ten minutes of Q&A, in which audience members could ask questions or offer advice on the directions of the project.  As a whole, we think the Flash Talks were successful in their aims of helping graduate students present and make connections within the field but that there are some ways the panel could be improved.

     A striking difference between the Flash Talks and a normally organized panel was the diversity of topics, chronologically and disciplinarily.  Subjects included medieval astronomy, modern urban botanical gardens, romantic physiology, and LIGO (a twenty-first century gravitational wave observatory). There are certain risks with this organization, most notably that you may not have many well–informed questions from an audience without knowledgeable scholars in the room.  In fact, this was somewhat of an issue in practice, as presenters outnumbered the audience for the first few presentations. Fortunately, perhaps because they were interested in one or two specific topics, scholars flowed in and out of the room between presentations, leading to a full house by the final talks. 

     As someone early on the agenda, Alexander’s talk experienced some of these challenges during his Q & A period. He discussed the role of a physician, August Winkelmann, who worked to combine elements of iatro–mechanical and vitalist physiologies at the turn of the eighteenth century. Winkelmann himself made very little impact during his lifetime, but Alexander presented him as an interesting snapshot of the medical innovations of his era. Though the message of Alexander’s presentation was engaging—enough that a few audience members suggested screenplay angles for the research—he received few specialized questions about the content. Though it would be cumbersome to try and solicit at least one specialized historian for each of the ten Flash Talks, it is worth considering how the work shopping angle of this format could be improved. 


     Despite the challenges of the Flash Talk format, the organizers Janet Brown (Harvard) and John Krige (Georgia Institute of Technology), excelled in their roles as MCs. In contrast to normal panel chairs, Janet and John served as MCs directing the entire process and keeping it at a steady and energized pace. After the presentation, one of the chairs would open the floor to questions, but if none were immediately forthcoming they would have a question at the ready to get the room going. If the questions lagged, they would solicit one from an audience member they knew was knowledgeable in a related topic. By the end of the ten–minute limit, the other chair would inevitably have a question which gracefully tied together elements of the talk while leading into the next, giving the entire process a clean sense of flowing between various topics. This gave the overall impression of a well-rehearsed stage show. It didn’t hurt that nearly every presenter nailed their time limits. And while we might see timeliness as a common professional courtesy, it becomes all the more essential the more presenters you place on a panel.

     In contrast to timeliness, which was a strength of the Flash Talks, timing within the overall schedule of the conference was more of a challenge.  Putting the panel on Saturday morning, during the third day of the conference likely affected audience size and participation. One would be hard–pressed to find a time where at least one of the Flash Talk subjects didn’t overlap with a similar talk elsewhere. For a format that was designed to court the input of experienced historians, a better way to draw in a broad crowd might be to host the Flash Talks at a high–traffic time slot. Making the Flash Talks concurrent with the poster session, for example, could encourage greater attendance, especially by senior scholars with expertise closely aligned with each of the speakers. Loosened up by food and not having to make a hard choice about where to spend their time, these attendees would be in the best position to fulfill the potential of the Flash Talk format. It would also allow graduate students to more easily choose between submitting a poster or a Flash Talk, rather than presenting the same research twice in one weekend.

     As it was, the Flash Talks offered graduate students the benefits of the most carefully crafted panels—a forum to spark discussions during Q & A that continued on long after the session.  Reba’s talk focused on her dissertation research on the history of community horticulture programs at the New York Botanical Garden and Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  Her connections and continuing conversations following the panel were more diverse, including a research contact suggestion from Janet Browne, dinner with one of the other graduate presenters, and multiple email exchanges with another graduate student presenting on a topic in a similar time period but very different area of scientific study.  While these connections were primarily with junior scholars, they were a particularly valuable outcome of the talks.