THE Scholarly Web - Question time

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

September 12, 2013

Last month, Times Higher Education published a list of the six questions that every academic has encountered during Q&A sessions at conferences – from “The Wandering Statement” to “The Display of Superior Knowledge”.

We took the discussion online and used our Twitter feed to ask our 82,000 (and counting) followers to tell us some of the most memorable questions they had ever heard while attending an academic conference.

Some people, it seems, use the Q&A to be utterly dismissive of the speaker’s work. “Tell me, X, what was the point of your paper?” was one question heard by Peter Stockwell, professor of literary linguistics at the University of Nottingham (@PeterJStockwell). “Does what you’ve been talking about really matter?” was another, recalled by Simon Knight, a PhD student at The Open University (@sjgknight).

Gerard Gorman, lecturer in earth science and engineering at Imperial College London, proved that some people simply miss the point. He heard a maths professor ask how it was possible to get results out of a supercomputer “without a printer connected to it”. The response in the conference hall? “Silence” and “disbelief”.

Tommi Himberg (@tijh), a researcher at the Brain Research Unit of Aalto University in Finland, introduced a new genre of question: the “job application”. This, he said, is “asked by almost-PhDs” and includes “long intros about their work”.

Some questions were blunt. “My favourite ever #HEQandA: ‘Don’t men get chlamydia?’” tweeted Rachel Forsyth, who works in curriculum development and innovation at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Others were pernickety. “I wondered, could you go back nine slides? The fourth data point in the cluster to the left of the axis, are you sure it’s correct?” was a question tweeted by Craig Holmes (@craigpholmes), labour economist at the University of Oxford, who presumably has heard such nit-picking in action.

Some took the discussion away from traditional conferences. Jo Gavins (@lyricsheffield), senior lecturer in literary-linguistics at the University of Sheffield, recalled how one professor had said to a PhD student undertaking a public viva in the Netherlands: “I have a question in 6 parts. Do you want each part separately or all 6 at once?”

Setareh Chong (@etceteraChong), biochemistry teaching fellow at the University of York, told the story of a presentation that was moving too quickly for one delegate.

After asking the speaker to slow down and being told that doing so would mean there would be no time to conclude the presentation, the questioner replied: “I’d rather understand 100 per cent of 50 per cent of your data, than 0 per cent of 100 per cent.”

Jamie Christie (@jamie5on), a research fellow at University College London, couldn’t recall any grating questions – but he has witnessed an audience start clapping during a talk in order to force the speaker to stop. “He was 10 mins into lunch!”

Jack Rosenberry (@JackRosenberry), journalism professor at St John Fisher College, New York, has also seen speakers displaying less than impressive time awareness. “Once saw presenter with 40+ slides for 10 min presentation,” he tweeted. “What was he thinking?”

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to chris.parr@tsleducation.com

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