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Invited non-speakers?

October 20, 2011

With the main annual Australian combinatorics conference (ACCMCC) scheduled to be held in Perth in two years time, we’re starting to think about choosing the invited speakers. Of course, the ideal invited speaker is a prominent, first-rate mathematician who gives entertaining, informative and comprehensible talks to a reasonably broad audience.

After all, a well-chosen list of prominent first-rate mathematicians encourages many people, particularly students, to make the extra effort to attend, while a smorgasbord of entertaining and informative talks makes them glad they did.

The problem for conference organisers is that not everyone has both of these qualities – there are still far too many great mathematicians who give basically lousy talks. I’ve left far too many plenary talks feeling that the speaker spent 5 minutes talking to the 95% of his audience that had only a passing acquaintance with his topic, and 50  minutes devoted to the 5% of experts. And that’s not even counting the ones who (still) do things like put up a photocopy of the first page of their paper (in a 10pt font) and proceed to read from it.

But of course, the problem stems from the apparently universal assumption that an invited person must give a plenary talk to the entire conference. However if we challenge this assumption, then the solution becomes clear – let’s have a new category of attendee called the invited non-speaker.

The invited non-speaker will be a prominent mathematician whose presence will add lustre, and encourage other people in his (or her) area to attend the conference, and for this he (or she) will get the usual perks that come with an invitation – airfare, accommodation, waived registration. He (or she) will be available for informal discussions and perhaps even give a short talk in a suitably focussed parallel session. However under no circumstances will he (or she) be allowed to give a plenary talk.

Then the time slots for plenary talks that are no longer used up in this ritual fashion can be allocated to speakers chosen purely for their excellent talks.

Win-win, I think!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 27, 2011 10:44 am

    There is an obvious loser – the bruised ego of the invited nonspeaker. Of course this might be mitigated by the fact that they probably don’t enjoy giving talks. But still, they might not enjoy the public affirmation of their weakness…

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