Ordeal by Inaugural

I gave my inaugural lecture last week, 9th May, which was a very interesting experience indeed and one that I seem to want to share.  Some of you may be wondering exactly what an inaugural lecture is.  Theoretically an inaugural lecture or address is the first lecture given by a newly created Professor.  In reality, they are usually given some months, or in some case a year or so after appointment.  They are a long-established feature of university life and are highlighted as being events of some consequence to the university or Department of which the ‘newly’ appointed Professor has become a part.

They are very much regarded as being celebratory;  here for example from the University of Sheffield’s School of Health and Related Research  The School’s Inaugural Lecture series provides an opportunity to celebrate these achievements with each lecture representing a significant milestone in an academic’s career.

The normal format is for a lecture of about 45 minutes followed by a celebratory wine reception.

And here from University College, London

Lectures will be followed by a reception.
Inaugural lectures are an opportunity for UCL professors to exhibit to the wider UCL community, and the public outside UCL, a flavour of their intellectual activity and research. For professors appointed from outside UCL, an inaugural lecture is an opportunity for colleagues to welcome them to UCL. For newly promoted professors they are an opportunity for colleagues to recognise and celebrate the achievements that have led to their promotion.

And here from my former Institution, Imperial College London

  • For new professors, the lecture provides an opportunity to present an overview of their research career so far, update colleagues on current and future research plans, and introduce their research to wider audiences.
  • For Departments, the event is a chance to recognise new Professors and host a celebratory event to bring Department staff together. It also provides an opportunity for Departments to engage with broader audiences inside and outside College, to establish new collaborations, strengthen existing relationships and catch up with alumni.

I could go on, but I think that this is enough to give you the idea.  Basically a chance for me to celebrate my appointment and to highlight to my new colleagues and the outside world what I am all about.

I was of course delighted to become the UK’s only Professor of Entomology, here at Harper Adams University last September, but at the same time felt a little frisson of fear at the thought of delivering my inaugural.  I have never found it that easy to blow my own trumpet (I was rather a shy child), so the thought of standing in front of an audience and doing just that was a little daunting to say the least.  I do, however, feel that one should always take the opportunity to publicise entomology a possible so agreed to give it a go.  Those of you know me, will know that suits and ties are not my thing; desert boots, rolled up sleeves and blue jeans are my usual attire and have been for the last 40 years.

Simon Leather - expedition to Trinidad & Tobago 1975     Simon Vortis

Although I have of course, had to dress somewhat more formally for events such as graduation ceremonies.

Simon Leather graduating Leeds 1977    Graduation 2010 011

It was thus a great relief to find out that unlike the University of Limerick  whose inaugural lectures are a ceremonial occasion, and academic robes are worn by the inaugural professor and the rest of the platform party. Those attending the lecture do not wear academic robes, Harper Adams had a more relaxed attitude to dress.

Once agreed, events took on a life of their own.  I had to draw up a guest list of a couple of hundred people; who to invite, who not to invite?  I needed a title for the lecture to go on the invitations and also to decide what sort of food and drink to have and when to have it.  Luckily we have a fantastic Events Team (thank you Sarah and Sandy) at Harper Adams and this all went very smoothly.

Inaugural invite front

Inaugural invite back

Of course when I started to prepare my lecture, I found that the title I had chosen was far too restrictive.  Having taken quite a long time to achieve my Professorship, I had a lot of work to discuss and a lot of students and collaborators to acknowledge.  So, in the end I decided to change the title and go for the prosaic exactly what it says on the tin approach.

inaugural title page

Even so, I still has to leave some things out such as my saproxylic insect work (sorry Ig and Sarah). Then I was faced with the real challenge.  How to make it accessible to my audience which was very mixed, ranging from relatives, non-scientists, former colleagues, ex-students and scientists from a variety of disciplines.  Panic began to set in, but as a keen family historian and lover of history in general, I have always found it interesting to know where people have come from and how they got where they are, so I started with my ancestry

ancestry slide

and my childhood and how I got interested in entomology in the first place.

Jamaica slide

Then I talked about a bit my early research, reliving the days of hand-drawn figures in papers as exemplified by my first real publication (I really should have used Letra-Set and not a stencil for that figure) and then worked my way on from there

First paper slide

highlighting and acknowledging as many people as possible e.g.

Keith Day slide


Biofuel slide


Forestry slide

and of course not forgetting the roundabouts

Roundabout slide

before eventually a final section dealing with a slightly more in-depth summary of my more recent work.

Organic slide

I then ended by outlining what I had planned for the future.

Future slide

Eventually after a couple of months and much heart-ache I had a lecture of 95 slides, and only 55 minutes to deliver them in!  Actually at an average of 30 seconds per slide just about right. Then I began to worry about getting the level right and having to resist the temptation to keep tweaking things.  As the day loomed, the tension began to build.  I have to confess that I agonised and stressed over this lecture more than any I have ever given, including my first ever conference talk.  It was the thought that I might forget to thank people and that my audience might find it boring that really worried me.  I knew that I couldn’t actually mention everyone by name so compromised with a mega-thank-you slide at the end for all my students, past and present.

Thanks slide

The big day arrived and guests began to roll-up for the pre-lecture food and drinks, and very pleasant it was too, although I didn’t actually eat and drink very much, having to make sure I was sober enough to deliver a coherent lecture.  The lecture theatre was full and I knew how to work the AV equipment and had also run through it a couple of times to get the timing right so was all geared up to go.  Then our Vice-Chancellor introduced me and blew my trumpet for me, which was embarrassing and pleasurable at the same time, but which actually increased my nervousness. Once I got going it seemed to go alright although I know I was nervous as I almost drank all of the glass of water that I had made sure was to hand.  I always tell my students, don’t be afraid to have a drink of water when giving a talk, nobody will think the worse of you, and I certainly took my own advice that evening.  Then it was over, except for having to answer a few questions and then the traditional humorous

Simon Inauguarl q&a

micky-taking vote of thanks from ex-colleague, collaborator and friend Professor Denis Wright, followed by puddings and cakes and more wine.  I forgot to say the whole thing was filmed so I have that to look forward to; I guess I will be able to send a copy to my Mother who was unable to attend.  Thank you Janine @JanineHarperVJ for making that possible and for taking some great photos.

In summary, a bit of a trial, a definite rite of passage, but really nice to see old friends and colleagues and all in all, actually a great experience, although I don’t think I would want to do another one.

I should also thank everyone who sent me emails and tweets before and after the event.  I greatly appreciated your kind thoughts.  And finally, many thanks to all those who attended and laughed in the right places.  Thank you for a great evening.



Filed under The Bloggy Blog

3 responses to “Ordeal by Inaugural

  1. Pingback: Expiscor (20 May 2013) | Arthropod Ecology

  2. Hi Simon – having gone through the whole inaugural experience back in late March I can empathise with your experiences: very nerve wracking but also a great chance to celebrate and mark a milestone. The most difficult part was for me was getting a balance between a talk which was academically rigorous yet accessible to a very broad audience. Overall I enjoyed it more than I expected to though. Cheers, Jeff


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