Monday, December 04, 2006

presentations, miscommunication and bias

recently i've been giving some presentations. giving a presentation is more difficult than one first thinks: you need to gauge the audience, determine what you want them to take away, meet time constraints, and in those few moments, convey the major ideas.

now i was giving a project presentation today and must have done this somewhat poorly in what little time i had because at the end a student asked, "and what did you do?" the implication being that i essentially just presented background work, when in fact i had actually connected ideas and done much thinking. the presentation was supposed to convey that. i guess it didn't -- i think there were a few chuckles in the audience that felt to me like people agreeing that i hadn't done anything.

sigh :(

first, i need to take most of the blame. it's my job as a presenter to make things clear, and i clearly didn't gauge a somewhat sizable portion of the audience. that being said, i think the question and the laughter betrayed something about what people think are the "proper" activities of a graduate student in a computer science class.

one of the problems is that engineering folks often think that a project is about a tangible output. indeed, in this class most of the projects had neat visualizations, or programs that did something. my project could have gone in that direction, but i decided to do something quite different: read much of the background theory in my area and try to construct a framework for reasoning about the design that i initially set out to build. if i had more time, i might have built something. but to me, the more interesting thing was rigorously reasoning about why what i conceived may or may not work, prior to digging in deeply and designing and building it. that can wait, in my opinion. you can disagree with that, and think my line of reasoning is unproductive, but acknowledge that there is work in my ways!

if it isn't obvious at this point, i'll come out and say it: i felt hurt when i was asked the "and what did you do?" question. it made me feel like an outsider, and it made me feel like my work isn't valued. but then again, i guess in the same way that most engineers don't think about their bridges as cultural artifacts that engage people (and how!), many computer scientists seem focused on doing things with computers (or computing automata, you theory folks), and not so interested in what others do with the things they create, beyond that it is functional/useful, if that's their goal. the creation comes first! though i suppose my creation came first as well, it just wasn't the tangible creation venerated by many people.


neha said...

awww. it sounds like that guy was a bit of a jerk, trying to show off. you shouldn't take what he says too seriously.

that said, i know that you would have been capable of "making" something quite impressive if that's what you had decided to do -- the framework sounds more interesting and well worth the effort.

omar said...

thanks for your confidence in me. i think it's well place. :)

of note, the person who said it was actually a woman.

bea said...

yeah that guy sounds like an asshole---what matters is what your project mates thought. If they thought you contributed, that guy can go **** himself.

Halldor said...

but it's not a guy, and she cannot physically go and **** herself...

having said that I think Omar´s strength is exactly in his capacity as a thinker, to devise the intellectual concepts behind things. Sure he can implement things, but I think you should focus on your strength.

james said...

Hey man... don't feel down. Sometimes computer scientists / engineers could really use some tact. This should be the first thing you learn as an audience... ask constructive or clarifying questions. Asking "what did you do?" is obviously designed to provoke.

Besides, we all know you can implement.

Grant said...

I think that the person probably didn't mean to be mean (but I could be wrong). As a scientist (who does science like things... when I work) it is hard to understand and appreciate something like a paper. The problem is not (strictly speaking) in you, Omar, but in the lack of education that most of us "scientists" receive. We don't understand the true power of idea, but really only of things. Ideas only have power insomuch as they can make things. I definitely understand your frustration at the question. But you better get used to it! Because you are in a computer science department where no one really understands what you do, and I am sure this will come up many times. I suppose you can begin now in trying to think of creative ways to explain to us idiots why what you do is interesting, important, and relevant.

My point is (attempting to be) that you should not take this as an intentional insult or even an unintentional insult on your work. Rather take it as a cue that many do not have the background to readily appreciate your work. (This is why they asked, what should have been a stupid and insulting question...but was really only misguided).

Sorry if I insulted scientists too much, but clearly there is a non-negligible subset who deserve insults.

twm said...

I was thinking about this post, and the kind of comment that woman provided is exactly the kind of comment some of the people in my (previous) lab would say, and sometimes itching to be first said. I think its mean spirited. It also reflects how some people don't want to (or can't) think outside of the perimeter of their own work.

Anyways, keep the chin up! I think its wonderful that you're spending the time to think things through (and that your advisor(s) are giving you the opportunity). There are so many times when things get implemented with little thought, and don't prove anything except the capability to build.

seema said...

i agree with what everyone says omar.

as your sister, i know from long experience that you are highly intelligent and that many other people can't keep up with your thoughts. me being one, definitely!

so listen to what i think grant wisely put: you need to learn to be able to explain your ideas to others who can't see the big picture.

and i'll beat that girl up next time i'm down in CA.

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