How to Make the Most of Guest Speakers or, Dinner with Ron Numbers

I wrote this post last fall but never got around to finishing & posting it. It’s dated but has a few valid points still worth putting out there.

I always tell my students that I get more out of our guest speakers than they do because I get so much exposure to them, but that doesn’t have to be the case. I think a lot of students don’t realize that we bring these speakers to campus not just for them to hear but for them to interact with. And it’s the interacting with that pays the biggest dividends. It’s not a magic formula, but there is a catch-22 in that I probably get more out of speakers because I have more general background to build upon than they do. But that’s a process, & I was once an undergrad & grad student fumbling along too. In fact, I’m still fumbling along, but here’s how to make the most of that fumbling when your department invites a speaker.

Google the Speaker
We’re all taught to beware of internet sources like Wikipedia, but what we really want you to do is be a critical reader. Wikipedia & other sources can give you a gloss. Not all speakers are gonna have the clout to have a Wikipedia page, but most will at least have a faculty page or something online that will tell you a little bit about who they are. Start there. Reading their academic work is well & good, which I will get to in a second, but read about THEM first & foremost. You’re going to be talking to them, & it’s much more interesting if you can get under the hood, so to speak. For instance, our guest speaker today is historian of science Ron Numbers. He is an eminent enough scholar in his field to be the no-brainer invite for anyone doing a lecture series on evolution that desires a historian. Never heard of him? Guess what? I hadn’t either. I’m not a historian & am not as well read outside of, uh, well, I’m not as well read as I would like to be. That’s why we have a committee to organize our series. Every single historian we’ve had on our committee has said, duh, invite Ron Numbers. So I Googled him. Wow. He grew up as a Seventh-Day Adventist! His father is a pastor. As he told me last night, his whole family are church bigwigs, he went to a Seventh-Day Adventist college, & by the time he reached the turning point in questioning his faith, he was essentially a bigtime officer in the church & an academic theologian teaching undergraduates.

Let’s pause right there. What do you know about Seventh-Day Adventists? If you’re like me, you may be thinking, ‘Not much.’ Is that important? Well, it just so happens that one of our GOP frontrunners right now is a Seventh-Day Adventist & neurosurgeon who claims Muslims are unfit for U.S. public office & that the Egyptians pyramids were really just grain silos.

So, back to Ron Numbers. Just Googling him gave me fodder for a good hour of interesting conversation at dinner last night. For instance, on this side of the evolution-Creationism debate, we often wonder, ‘the evidence is so clear, & not everyone over there is unaware of it…how can they seemingly just ignore it?’ The answer, according to Dr. Numbers, is very simply, some just CAN because it’s their agenda to ignore or explain it away. But many just need to keep their jobs. There are lots of theologians who are teaching in colleges who read & are critical thinkers, but it’s just like any of us who don’t quite agree with our bosses or institutional policies—‘Is that a windmill I really feel strongly enough to tilt or would I prefer to continue earning a salary & ensure I can feed my kids & pay the rent?’

Read Something by the Speaker
Don’t have time to sit down & read anything? Guess what. Nobody in academia does until they have tenure, then it’s just because we can get away with ignoring other things. Even now, I get around this by listening to things. Spend $5 on the vBookz app & listen to an article.

Volunteer to be a Driver or Go to Dinner
Make yourself memorable & indispensable but read the first few items here first because if you don’t have anything to talk about, this won’t work.

FINALLY, Go to the Lecture (if you can)
Sometimes, you just don’t have time, but you did all those other things. I ask my students if they made it to the ALLELE lectures & always scold them when they admit they didn’t. Honestly, honesty is overrated. If you did all of the above, what more will you learn at the lecture? Probably not much, but you will earn brownie points with your professor who put so much effort into hosting the damn thing. So go to the lecture & make sure you’re seen or have a good sack of bullshit at the ready to quell his or her ire when you tell the truth.

Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he founded the Evolutionary Studies program.  Chris teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in biological anthropology, human sexuality, evolution, biocultural medical anthropology, and neuroanthropology.  He received his Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology in 2009 from the University at Albany, SUNY, where his doctoral focus was on the influence of speaking in tongues on stress response among Pentecostals.  Chris runs a human behavioral ecology research group where the objectives include studying fun gimmicky things like trance, religious behavior, tattooing, and sex as a way of introducing students to the rigors of evolutionary science.  In all his “free” time, he breaks up fights among his triplet sons, enjoys marriage to the other Loretta Lynn, strokes his mustache, and has learned to be passionate about Alabama football (Roll Tide!).  Follow Chris on Twitter: @Chris_Ly
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