Asking Questions at Talks and in Seminars

“It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it” (Maurice Switzer). Thoughts like that have inhibited many a young academic from asking questions in seminars or at talks.

I tell my students, if you have a question you’re nervous about asking, you should ask it, since there’s a chance your fellow students have that same question, and you will be a hero to them if you have the guts to ask it. That doesn’t apply to all questions, of course, and at the graduate level or for faculty, people’s experiences and research interests prompt less common questions. But at any level there may be some reticence about asking questions, and there are better and worse ways to do it.

In a recent column at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In acknowledges that what you ask and how you ask it can make an impression, for better or worse, on your professors and colleagues, and offers a typology of questions and tips on how to ask.

She recommends writing your question down. I think this is excellent advice. Even better would be to phrase the question in the actual words you plan to use and memorize it, saying it silently to yourself. You will then be more confident when you ask it.

If you can’t memorize your own question, there is a good chance it is poorly formed or too long for others to easily follow. If you are objecting that memorizing your question is impossible, since you need to preface it with a long explanation of something you or someone else said at some other time, or because you first need to engage in a lengthy argument to convince the speaker to take seriously some ideas that seem irrelevant to the paper, then you should either save your question for when no one else has a question to ask, or just discuss it after the talk (perhaps by email). In my experience, people underestimate by about half how long it has taken them to ask their question. In a context in which others have questions, this lack of self-awareness is very annoying. If you fail to take steps to make sure your question is clear and concise, you are being rude to others who have questions for the speaker.

Kelsky gives some advice for settings in which some assertiveness is needed:

I… learned that I could not wait for a pause in the conversation, because such pauses rarely occur among academics. So I learned that I had to really insert myself with a loud and assertive (but still collegial) tone, no matter how awkward that felt… I observed the gendered norm that women tend to raise their hands and wait to be called on, while men tend to just shout out questions or comments. Eventually I learned that if I didn’t want to be continually ignored or talked over, I had to stop waiting around with hand meekly raised, and just start talking. If that feels uncomfortable to you, master such conversational gambits as, “Oh, and expanding from what David just said …,” or “Right! I had that thought as well, but also would argue that …,” or “That is such a terrific point. The way I saw that manifesting is ….” Go ahead and practice such interjections with friends or in front of a mirror, or in a role-play exercise, or in low-stakes environments like your own classroom. The idea is to have them down for the higher-stakes context of a departmental seminar.

You can read the rest of her advice here.

The locus classicus on asking questions at academic talks is this post at PrawfsBlawg. Read it.

Sometimes reticence is not the problem. Sure, usually, you can have a follow-up question, but don’t jump into the conversation without first taking a moment to see who else wants to participate—especially among those who haven’t yet asked a question or don’t typically participate as much. I have found that actually sitting on my hands helps as a reminder to stop asking further questions.

Relatedly, for guest talks, I think it is usually a bad practice to ask or allow the speakers to field their own questions. You need a moderator who can tell an audience member to get to the point, or to stop interrupting, or that no, they cannot have another follow-up, and it is not kind to give that job to your guest.

Further suggestions welcome.

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