Making Math Talks More Accessible

By Katharine Merow

In the waning hours of MAA MathFest 2013, in Room 12 of Hartford’s Connecticut Convention Center, James Freeman addresses a sparse crowd he has dubbed “the few, the proud, and the brave.”

Then, as if to determine whether “the candid” ought to be added to that list, the Cornell College professor poses a touchy question: “How many of you have heard bad talks at MathFest?”

Getting some mathematicians to admit the impenetrability of, say, an invited lecture borders on impossible, but folks at this session—“Great Talks for a General Audience: Coached Presentations by Graduate Students”—have no qualms about calling out less-than-stellar attempts at mathematical communication.

In response to Freeman’s question, every hand goes up.


Organizers of the “Great Talks” session and the “What’s the Story?” workshop associated with it recognized a problem—too many math talks are incomprehensible—and decided to do something about it (see “Knowing What It Means to Know Your Audience”).

Starting at the 2009 MAA MathFest, the workshop/session combination has coached the mathematicians of tomorrow in the art of making mathematics research accessible to non-experts. It is sponsored by the MAA Committee on Graduate Students and the Young Mathematicians Network.

While established mathematicians might bridle at the suggestion that their speech-making skills could use some work, graduate students accept pointers more readily. They’ll soon be on the job market, and many colleges and universities, particularly those that emphasize teaching, require applicants to give a talk targeted at undergraduates as part of the interview process. A soon-to-be-minted Ph.D., therefore, had best learn to knock one of these out of the park.

And Rachel Schwell of Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) wants to help. For the past five years she has brought to MAA MathFest a workshop she and Aaron Luttman, then of Clarkson University, first held locally. In “What’s the Story? A Graduate Student Workshop on Formulating a Research Presentation for a General Audience,” Schwell provides participants with guidance galore.

Schwell dispenses advice freely—“Get rid of all that jargon, she counsels, and find and start with the cool part”—but she leads workshoppers to discover many of her recommendations for themselves. She shows example slides from her own research talks and encourages workshop participants to critique them.

The group lists common pitfalls—too much text, too many details, insufficient context, undefined vocabulary—and possible fixes.

General principles include: “Think in terms of processing time, not physical amount of text.”

Reminders ensure the goal doesn’t get muddled: “The audience should not come away knowing how to do what you did; they should come away wanting to learn more about what you did.”

Then participants pair off with someone with a different research specialty to bounce ideas off each other and dry-run trouble spots of talks-in-progress. The bottom line, however, hearkens back to the title of the workshop: Decide what story you’re trying to tell and include in your talk only what is necessary to tell that story.

Great Talks

A grad student can participate in either the workshop or “Great Talks,” but many do both. In the latter session, grad students deliver a 20-minute expository talk and get immediate feedback. Each presenter is assigned a faculty mentor and an undergraduate mentor.

Auburn University’s John Asplund, who at the 2013 “Great Talks” session spoke about balanced incomplete block designs, afterward decamped to a pod of chairs in the convention center hallway with CCSU undergrad Jonathan Galligan and Juniata College mathematics department chair John Bukowski.

Galligan called Asplund’s obvious enthusiasm for his topic “really infectious”; Bukowski balanced overall praise with a handful of “nit-picky” suggestions. For his part, Asplund said of Schwell’s workshop: “It made me more confident about the way I built my talk.”

Although Asplund had a clear motivation for spending his Saturday afternoon participating in “Great Talks”—he was planning to apply for more than 80 jobs in the coming year—it is less apparent why the faculty mentors squeezed the session into their schedules. But asked why they volunteered, the 2013 faculty coaches—some of them session veterans—readily rattled off a list of reasons.

Jeff Johannes of SUNY Geneseo cited his desires to “see better talks” and “give back nationally” and noted the value to grad students of the “completely objective feedback” they receive.

Ryan Gantner, math department chair at St. John Fisher College in upstate New York, views the session as a chance to educate graduate students about life in a non-research-based institution.

Johannes’s Geneseo colleague—and Rachel Schwell’s onetime professor—Olympia Nicodemi summed up the general sentiment among the faculty mentors: “I think we really like students, we like to teach, and we are really excited about the next generation of profs.”

Parting Words

Schwell, Freeman, and the faculty mentors had a chance to offer general commentary and address any lingering questions in the panel discussion that followed the student presentations.

They advised incorporating audience participation into a talk only if it seems natural, not gimmicky or forced. They advocated sparse PowerPoint slides over cluttered ones. They told the grad students that in figuring out how to present mathematics in a compelling way, they would likely learn a lot about themselves and what drew them to the subject in the first place.

Freeman stressed the importance of not letting stage fright or the pressures of the job search diminish the pleasure derived from mathematics. “My rule on job talks,” he said, “is that if there’s not a clothing malfunction, that person is not very passionate about mathematics.”  He’s referring to things like a shirttail that doesn’t stay tucked or a big smudge of chalk across the presenter’s rear.

“If they’re passionate about mathematics, something will not go exactly right,” Freeman says. “And that’s a good sign, because they care about the mathematics.”

Original version published in MAA FOCUS, April/May 2014, pp. 4-5.

The 2014 edition of “What’s the Story? A Graduate Student Workshop on Formulating an Effective Mathematical Presentation” will take place on Thursday, August 7, and “Great Talks for a General Audience: Coached Presentations by Graduate Students” will take place on Saturday, August 9, at MAA MathFest in Portland, Oregon.