Conference call: more questions than answers

Q and A sessions, the misunderstood B-sides of conference presentations, can play some peculiar tunes. Allan Johnson listens in and doesn’t like what he hears

August 29, 2013

Another academic conference season has come to an end. Vast mounds of dirty teacups have been washed up in hotel kitchens and miles of microphone cables have been wound up neatly. Rather like the opening scene in Grease, we will soon be returning to our institutional bolt-holes with a song in our hearts and a story to share about our summer adventures.

Much of what happens at conferences is scripted by the rituals, routines and customs that contribute to the curious pleasures of academic life. But are all these rituals productive? For all the work (in many cases a year or more of toil) that goes into a 15-minute conference talk, it is surprising how little regard many academics give to the process of giving and receiving questions – the underestimated and misunderstood B-side of conference presentations.

Cary Cooper, distinguished professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, maintains that “Q&As after a talk at conferences are definitely a rite of academic passage, with in some cases heavy psychological undertones”. While there is no doubt that challenging, provocative and engaged questions are the lifeblood of serious scholarly discourse, some are more peculiar. Here are a few you might have fielded this summer.

The Courtesy Question

If there was silence when the floor was opened for questions, it most likely didn’t last long. It seems that there is always someone in the room who is willing to break the silence with a meagre question on methodology or the future development of your work. This might be the moderator, helping to get the discussion moving, or it might be a kind soul who had themselves been faced with a similarly silent room. Although well intentioned, the Courtesy Question 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 Question

This is the question that you were probably thrilled to receive. The Tell-Us-What-You-Want Question – a close cousin of the Courtesy Question – is so broad that you could have said whatever you wanted in reply. Perhaps it gave you the perfect opportunity to recite the parts of your paper that you hadn’t managed to reach when the moderator called time.

The Talk-To-Me-Personally Question

An audience member may have used one of several well-worn phrases to signal their move into a Talk-To-Me-Personally Question, such as “I wrote an article in 1989 that claimed…” or “It’s not related to your research, but I wanted to ask you about…” Faced with a question such as this, you had little choice but to ignore the rest of the room and begin a lopsided debate with one other person. The Talk-To-Me-Personally Question aims to move a broadly relevant topic into a domain so personal and idiosyncratic that it is only really relevant to the person who posed it.

For a profession established around incisive communication and challenging enquiry, it is surprising that these inexplicable questions form such a visible part of our professional contact

The Wandering Statement

Not strictly speaking a question, the Wandering Statement is an all-too-common feature of the conference Q&A. You might recall an audience member who seized the opportunity to deliver a brief speech of their own, one that may or may not have been explicitly connected to the topic of your paper, or indeed a field even addressed at the conference. Once they had finished, no doubt you wondered whether you should open the floor to questions for them.

The Obstinate Question

While the Obstinate Question might have briefly shown a flicker of formative commentary on your research, it quickly progressed into a public display of tetchiness. There would certainly have been nothing wrong if someone had raised substantial concerns about your research or methodology, but the unique feature of the Obstinate Question is that by revealing the audience member’s irascibility, it also reveals the fact that they stopped listening after you introduced your topic.

The Display of Superior Knowledge

By far the most unbearable of all audience responses, the Display of Superior Knowledge is a technique whereby an audience member reminds you that: 1) they know more about your research than you do; 2) your research methodology falls far short of the rigorous processes they would adopt were they conducting your research; and 3) not only have they gained nothing from your paper but they also feel mildly assaulted by it. In order to disguise the fact that (1) is probably not entirely true, they drive home (3) even harder.

The fundamental problem with these types of question – which we have surely all witnessed or received more than once – is that they are questioner-centric. They create a stultifying exchange between two people sitting in a room of 10, 20 or more, during which an audience member ultimately reveals more about their own inner world than the topic at hand.

For a profession established around incisive communication and challenging enquiry, it is perhaps surprising that these inexplicable, enraged or rambling questions form such a visible component of our professional contact. Susan Bassnett, professor of comparative literature at the University of Warwick, confesses: “I often think there is a tribe of people who go to conferences and ask stupid questions just for the thrill of hearing their own voices and for a fraction of time drawing attention to themselves.”

If we take the objectives of Q&As to be the development of engaged discussion on a specialist topic and the professional appraisal of completed research, then the questions academics ask too often miss the mark.

Tim Birkhead, professor of behavioural ecology at the University of Sheffield, suggests that “conference presentations and conference questions can be explained in terms of sexual selection. That is, people (generally men) go to conferences to display their quality as scientists; those who ask questions (or many of them at least) do so to demonstrate their quality. Big conferences in particular attract this kind of competitive behaviour.”

What begins as an opportunity for the invaluable dialogue that advanced research requires frequently devolves into isolationist displays of distance, indifference and disdain.

This is not to say that cuddly questions are any better: the Tell-Us-What-You-Want Question silences scholarly dialogue just as quickly as the Display of Superior Knowledge. It may be pleasurable responding to questions that allude to our brilliance and just how cutting-edge our research may be, but they similarly kill thoughtful discussion and evaluation, and create, once again, a one-sided commentary that ignores the context of the conference setting.

Imagine, if you will, the following scene. Three world-leading experts in an unusual topic – indeed, perhaps the only experts in this field – sit around a large table with microphones while a radio journalist reads her lead-in and a production assistant, behind glass, monitors the sound levels. The journalist knows that she has 15 minutes to open up these experts’ ideas, to challenge them, to pair and then fragment their individual positions, and to lead them in directions that will reveal fresh insights.

She is lucky to have booked such eminent guests and the last thing on her mind is talking about herself. She knows that her questions will be provocative and might cause irritation, but she is confident that in 15 minutes’ time the sum of the parts will have turned out to be more valuable than any one view on the topic.

Broadcast media can provide a valuable model of speaker-centred questioning, a style that seeks to open up rather than close down and which aims to be productive rather than numbingly self-serving. While a journalist’s questions might be designed in such a way to lead subjects towards a projected response or to challenge a particular position or fact, their mode of questioning recognises the subject’s inherent value as a figure implicated in the enquiry itself. They understand that their subject has a viewpoint to share and recognise that with questions that reveal the speaker’s objectives rather than their own, they might be able to move towards a richer understanding of what that viewpoint may be.

But, of course, the goals of the conference Q&A are different from those of a media interview, so this style of questioning must be carefully adapted to the academic context rather than slavishly followed. Francis O’Gorman, professor of Victorian literature at the University of Leeds, believes that when academics turn to the model of broadcast journalism it can have “deleterious effects…on academic questioning”. O’Gorman argues that “we need to regain a sense of intellectual rigour more generally in the profession and we should consider conferences more ambitiously as places of intellectual debate that start with a high level of knowledge”.

Academic questioning must certainly commence from a position of knowledgeable critique: done properly, the conference Q&A is a valuable opportunity to rigorously evaluate research and open up fruitful dialogue. Let’s hope that when next year’s conference season is upon us, we remember that the Wandering Statement and the Talk-To-Me-Personally Question reveal far more about us than they ever will about the latest research in our field.

Answering back: how great and good survive the Q&A

Cary Cooper, distinguished professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University
“The question that appears at every conference I have been to is the Let-Me-Show-You-How-Clever-I-Am Question. An extreme one happened to me. I went to an international conference, gave my talk and the Q&A followed, then a questioner began a diatribe that lasted at least 20 minutes: in fact, it was a mini-lecture. At first I thought I heard a question begin to emerge, but it disappeared – after that the ‘lecture’ was in full flow. The chair was a very nice person and the conference was in a country where it would be rude to stop someone talking, so the speaker continued until the audience starting leaving the room. Luckily, his Q&A mini-lecture extended into lunchtime, so finally the chair rose to stop him by thanking him and saying it was halfway through lunch, to much relief. As the chair slumped back in his chair there was rapturous applause, not for me, but for him stopping the questioner!”

Tim Birkhead, professor of behavioural ecology at the University of Sheffield
“Big conferences in particular attract competitive behaviour. Young researchers should go to conferences with this in mind – and be well prepared if they are giving a presentation. Indeed, learning how to handle questions – especially nasty or difficult ones – is an essential part of graduate training.

“For the show-off speaker, big conferences are best because their showing-off reaches more people. The reason I prefer smaller conferences is precisely because there is less posturing and strutting about, so as a consequence they tend to be more friendly, more productive and more likely to result in collaborations.”

Susan Bassnett, professor of comparative literature at the University of Warwick
“The after-lunch slot at a conference is never promising, and on one occasion I was lecturing in a smallish room when a man in the front row not only fell asleep but also snored like a pig. The snoring was so loud that people at the back began to crane their necks to see where it was coming from, and the chair was mortally embarrassed. But sleepyhead was sitting in splendid isolation and nobody could have reached him without getting out of their seat and walking across the room, which would have drawn even more attention to him.

“As the snoring continued I found myself fighting to control my laughter, so much so that my voice started to shake and I thought that any moment I would collapse and make an idiot of myself. I managed to finish, and there was a big round of applause (probably also occasioned by relief), which woke the man up. The chair then called for questions and the man’s hand shot up straight away. The chair, exerting a bit of petty revenge, ignored him completely and managed to continue ignoring him until time ran out. Nobody afterwards had a clue who he was so I never did find out what he might have asked me, given that he hadn’t heard anything I’d said.

“I have had aggressive questions, idiotic questions, sycophantic questions and (frequently) incomprehensible questions, all of which I have tried to field with diplomacy and humour. If I can’t understand what is being said, I use a formula such as: ‘If I understand you correctly, I think you are suggesting…’; or: ‘Let me endeavour to unravel this question…’, and then I just say something related to what I have been talking about, which always seems to satisfy the questioner.”

Gary Thomas, professor in the School of Education, University of Birmingham
“The inevitable ‘We have time for one more quick question’ translates to: ‘I know this has been stultifyingly dull and everyone wants to get out for coffee, but to help create the illusion that the session has been a roaring success, can someone who would like to get their voice heard please think of something vaguely relevant to ask?’.”

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