|A Gong Show Preferable to a Long Show
August 28, 2014
"She would have been a good woman, " the misfit says at the end of the fantastic Flannery O'Connor story "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." For me, this line always resonated to me that it is only upon our death beds that humans strip away all of their pretense and interact with the world in the most natural of ways.
I wish to amend that line for academia: "She [or he] would have been a fine academic, if it had been somebody there to gong her every minute of her life." Allow me to explain.
This week SMC had its full-day of professional development. Motivated by the inevitability of long presentations and questions/comments dominated by one or two people, as well as encouraged by my dean's exposure to a conference where people had 10 minutes to speak before being cut off, we created our own Gong-Show-day of professional development.
Each presenter had 10 minutes to give a mini-lecture--a "Lightning Strike," we called it--then sat down, while 2 or 3 other "Lightning Strikes" struck. Then for 20 minutes or so, the audience was encouraged to go have more casual conversations with the speaker who most struck a chord with them. Perhaps surprisingly we had plenty of volunteers, some even wanting to go over their 10 minutes to get gonged, or to challenge me to dare gong them. In the end, though, the results seemed to be positive. Most faculty have said they really liked the format, and some even have already said it should be repeated.
Why did it work? More importanly how did it work? Academics have no concept of elevator pitches. As I joked in setting this up, your average academic can't get his or her credentials out in 30 seconds. Most of us have just reached the colons of our titles when we hit 30 seconds. Academia has been plagued by diarhhea (speaking of colon problems) of the oral or written word.
So, I suggested that these were our escalator pitches, a lengthy ascent of 10 minutes, not 30 seconds, to present an idea, provide some explanation, and then leave the audience wanting more.
As a result, even I, who had volunteered to go first and had material that when practiced took me to 11 to 12 minutes, so that we could have fun with the VP being gonged (and thus reducing the anxiety for anyone else) completed in 9:45. Several others who said they were sure they would be gonged actually never were. Once gonged, presenters had to find appropriate quick endings ranging from the not surprising "ask me questions if you want to know more" to my personal favorite, an abrupt "amen." In all, knowing that there would be no pardon by me to go longer, presenters performed exactly as hoped.
The topics ranged all over the place, from highlighting the way money dominates higher education challenges, to mentoring veterans, to working with electronic texts, to narrating Powerpoint presentations, to explaining a new math course, to weaponizing plants (yes, you read that right), to understanding the problems of waste water in Mexico, to pondering the "legacy" of Yeats in modern culture (and these aren't all of the topics). If a topic didn't typically tickle your fancy, by the time you had made that determination, you really only had to wait out 5 more minutes or so. There was no rude getting up and leaving during presentations, and if nothing else, restless attendees thrived on a loathsome interest in seeing if the presenter would be Roger Taylor'ed (as in the end of "Bohemian Rhapsody.")
I suspect we will continue this with future development days; early feedback suggests much appreciation for the concept. However, I wish to find a pocket version of a gong and carry it around with me 24/7. End up with the boor dominating the committee meeting? Gong him. Stuck with the chatty co-worker in the break room who won't stop talking about her garden? Gong her. Part of an interview team stuck with some long-winded ass talking about her strategic planning experience? Gong her.
In fact, we need a way to gong academic writing in the same way. Reading some idiot's rambling blog about education?
Staring down a 13 page letter and curriculum vita from some academic wanting to work at your institution? As soon as you hit the bottom of page two, probably the equivalent of 10 minutes of speaking, then (For every misplaced comma or typo, feel free to sooner.
If you need a celebrity gonger, I hear Jamie Farr is looking for work.