The Questions Academics Ask: Conference Edition

Steve Macone, The New YorkerI have always been a fan of New Yorker cartoons, and this Steve Macone piece from 2010 seems to hit closer to home than most.   Macone’s cartoon perfectly captures one of the several strange things that can happen during a conference Q&A.

In addition to the ‘shorter speeches disguised as questions’ there are also a number of other distinct flavours of questions–some good, some bad, but all of which we have seen before.

  • The Courtesy Question: There is always someone willing to fill the awkward silence when no one has a question to ask.  The Courtesy Questions is flimsy at the best of times, and asked merely as a kindness to the presenter.  Thank you and moving on.
  • The Tell-Us-What-You-Want-To-Tell-Us Question: This might be only one step above the Courtesy Question, but it is a question everyone is thrilled to receive.  The Tell-Us-What-You-Want-To-Tell-Us Question is so broad that you can say whatever you want.  It’s a great opportunity  to recite the parts of your paper you hadn’t gotten to when the moderator called time.
  • The Factual Actual Question: There is no harm in wanting to know a bit more.  Sometimes an audience member actually does genuinely want to know more about something you said: a particular source, a particular concept, a particular line of reasoning.  These might sometimes look like Courtesy Questions, but when you see more than a handful of pens scribbling during your response, you know that you have probably just been hit with a Factual Actual Question.
  • The Tell-Me-What-Your-Paper-Was-About Question: This question might be disguised as a Factual Actual Question, but its ultimate goal is quite different: to get a summary of what you have just said.  Usually this isn’t  because someone wants you to do all the work for them.  It’s more likely that, although your paper works fine when written, it is genuinely  too challenging to follow when read.  The lesson from this question is that reading and speaking are two very different things.

  • The Developmental Question: Sometimes questions actually do offer an insightful new way to think about your topic, and it is a wonderful feeling when that happens.   The Developmental Question offers hard but appropriate feedback on your work, and often comes with a hint that your work is engaging and on the right track.
  • The Wandering Statement/The Recap: Not strictly speaking a question, the Wandering Statement is an all-too-common feature of conference Q&As.  An audience member uses the opportunity to deliver a brief speech of their own, which may or may not be explicitly connected to the topic of your paper.  Once they have finished, you wonder if you should open the floor to questions on this new topic.
  • The Obstinate Question: While the audience member who poses an Obstinate Question might not be hoping to completely destroy your sense of self-worth, they usually do.  This question poses a direct challenge to your research, from which can come some important feedback that can strengthen and refine your first insights.
  • The Display of Superior Knowledge: By far the most obnoxious of all audience responses, the Display of Superior Knowledge is a technique whereby an audience member reminds you that: 1) they know much more than you about your research, 2) that your research methodology falls far short of their own rigorous process were they to be you and conducting the research that you do, and 3) that they have not only gained nothing from your paper but feel to have mildly assaulted by it.

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