Talks to spark better communication from academics

When scholars talk to people outside their fields, it can sometimes seem like they’re speaking different languages.

Cornell University Library is hoping to improve those conversations with SPARK Talks, a new series of five-minute lightning talks given by a multidisciplinary selection of graduate students and postdoctoral associates to general audiences.

“I’ve been in many social situations with graduate students and postdocs where I ask ‘What do you do?’ and the answer is so detailed and specific that I have no idea how to react to it. It is a conversational dead end,” said Erin Eldermire, veterinary outreach and scholarly services librarian, and one of the organizers of the program. “Scholars tend to be so deep in their worlds that it can be hard for them to communicate outwards.”

The issue isn’t limited to the sciences, said humanities librarian Virginia Cole, another organizer of the series.

“Nowadays it is just not enough to be really brilliant, you need to be able to communicate, and when a grad student gets a job as a faculty member he or she needs to be able to speak to all layers – freshmen, fellow scholars, funders, government leaders, alumni, as well as the general public,” Cole said. “It’s just such an important skill for the 21st century.”

Modeled on a similar program at the University of Washington, known there as Scholars’ Studio, SPARK Talks – short for Scholars Present about Research and Knowledge – aims to help graduate students become more adept at speaking about their research to diverse audiences. Before their talks, presenters will attend a workshop with David Feldshuh, professor of theater in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Performing and Media Arts, who will introduce performance techniques to enhance presentations and conversations.

Organizers hope to choose a diverse mix of eight to 10 presenters on the theme of “Intersections” for the initial installment of SPARK Talks. The first event, which will be followed by a reception, will take place Oct. 22 in Olin Library, but planners envision moving it to a different unit library each semester.

“Cornell is so invested in entrepreneurship and innovation, and SPARK Talks really addresses those areas. When people from different disciplines come together, big discoveries, innovations or collaborations can be made,” Eldermire said. “SPARK Talks is going to bring people together, get them out of their comfort zones, and get them to think in a different way.”

Applications for Spark Talk proposals are due Sept. 25.

Melanie Lefkowitz is staff writer, editor and social media coordinator for Cornell University Library.

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John Carberry