“Dirty Tricks” for Seminars and Talks (guest post by Josh Parsons)


The following is a guest post* by Josh Parsons, associate professor of philosophy at Oxford University.  It’s “a slightly jokey collection of what I called ‘dirty tricks for seminars’ (including some to use liberally, and others to beware of) that I am apt to dispense to graduate students and colleagues after a couple of drinks.” He kindly agreed to share it with Daily Nous readers. It was originally posted on his own website, here.


How to Win Arguments and Look Good in Seminars
by Josh Parsons

This collection of “dirty tricks for seminars” is mostly relevant to philosophy (and has a couple of philosophy jokes in it) but some of it could be adapted to other disciplines I imagine.

Here they are…

Point-scoring and how to avoid it

In the bad old days philosophers used to invite speakers to seminars just in order to show off to each other by tearing strips off the speaker. It was a wonder anyone ever accepted an invitation to give a talk anywhere! The most prized skill a philosopher could have was to be able to utterly demolish a speaker’s argument; a good speaker would be one who could resist this process, or if that was not possible, then accept defeat with good grace. You’ll still hear old-timers reminiscing about this fondly: “Back in ’58, X gave us a lunch time talk on whether or not jars were a kind of bottle! Y interrupted 15 minutes in with a counterexample, and X said that he was refuted and there was no point in continuing so we all went to the staff club early for cigars and sherry!”

Point-scoring was big then. The idea is that philosophical discussions are a zero-sum game: either someone wins a point and looks clever and someone else loses one and looks foolish, or it is a stalemate, and no one likes a stalemate. This is of course completely false – philosophical discussions are not any kind of game, but a collaborative attempt to uncover and solve serious intellectual problems.

In my view, point-scoring behaviour is one of the biggest blights on the philosophy profession. The way philosophers are trained to conduct conversations in seminars lends itself to point-scoring, which is how the whole sorry idea got started in the first place. Think back to graduate school. At first you were afraid to ask questions in seminars because you had hardly understood a word of the talk, and everyone who was asking questions seemed to have understood it better than the speaker and have a trenchant criticism. Then your supervisor told you that the only way to learn was to muck in, and that she was expecting you to ask a question at the next seminar. At the paper, you listened very carefully to find something that you were sure you understood to ask a question about. You tentatively asked your first question. To your surprise, the speaker took you seriously and famous Prof X asked a follow up on your question. Your supervisor was proud of you. That was good! After that you tried your hardest to think of a question in every seminar. A few years later you had mastered the technique, not only thinking of a question, but anticipating the speaker’s response and ready with a follow-up too.

Now there’s nothing wrong with disciplining yourself to always think of a questions in a seminar but when you combine that with the fact that philosophy questions are often objections, it’s easy to get sucked into the practice of always trying to demolish the speaker while not looking foolish yourself, and that’s point-scoring.

Don’t do it. You may win arguments, but only other point scorers will be impressed (and you don’t want to have philosophy conversations with them, they will just try to score points off you). You’ll never get that first time buzz you got from your supervisor’s approval again. Instead you can get your colleagues’ approval by asking co-operative questions, intended to advance debate instead of to win it. You can use the technique you learned in graduate school to do that, instead of scoring points: see reverse point-scoring below.

What if you’re the paper giver and you’re surrounded by point-scorers in the audience? Most of the time they will be un-self-conscious point-scorers and you can win them around with the Tour-guide Technique. If you are unlucky enough to be surrounded by point-scorers who cannot be won over that way, you will just have to admit defeat early and let them take you to the staff club for cigars and sherry.

The Get-out-of-jail-free Card

There’s a great episode of Yes, Prime Minister where the PM, Jim Hacker, is facing a difficult grilling in parliament – the government has made an obvious U-turn on an important campaign promise. His aides are waiting for him to anxiously. Hacker returns from the debate jubilant. He says “I aced it. I simply said that we had made a mistake, and that we had changed our minds. That took the wind out of their sails!”

This is the get-out-of-jail-free card. It stops any objection in its tracks, but you can only use it once. In academia, saying that you have changed your mind isn’t the way to do it though. This is because the get-out-jail-free card has to be an honest admission of something, and it’s rare that you’ll actually change your mind about what just said five minutes ago in your paper. (Though if this does happen, it’s great. You just revise your paper, prefacing whatever provoked the objection with “I used to think that”; insert after it “…until X gave me the following objection…”. That way you are happy because you don’t have to revise your paper too much; X is happy because they get an acknowledgement; and your readers think you are clever, fair, and generous).

In philosophy, the get-out-of-jail-free card usually sounds like this: “Hmm… yes… that is a difficult problem, and I will have to think about it. Let’s talk some more later.” This is good because it’s almost always true — your seminar interlocutors are clever people who’ve chosen to come and see your paper, had an hour to think about it, and so if they give you an objection, it almost certainly does deserve your consideration outside the stressful environment of a seminar.

Academic seminars, like parliament, are an environment where adversarial behaviour is tolerated, but at the end of the day, the aim of the exercise is to collaboratively seek solutions to common problems. Everyone accepts that the norms of seminar Q&A are not always the best way of achieving that aim, and the get-out-of-jail-free card works by appealing to this. That’s why you can only play it once per seminar: because if you are at the seminar, you have implicitly agreed that the norms of seminar Q&A are mostly a good way to address the issues in your paper.

Trapping

Imagine you’re preparing your paper to read, and it’s too long. You are trying to edit it. Do you have a section titled “Objections and replies”? Cut it: the whole section – pretend it doesn’t exist. In fact, even if your paper is just the right length, do this. At least cut the most obvious objections, or the ones to which you have the best reply. If you don’t have a section titled “Objections and replies”, find the place in your paper where you anticipate the most obvious objection and cut that.

Here’s what will happen in the Q&A. Someone, I guarantee it, will ask a question which states the objection you have cut. In reply, you pretend to think for a bit. Then you say “Have I understood you: do you mean…” and then, (haltingly, as if you’re making it up on the spot) read out the statement of the objection from your paper. They say “Yes, that’s a very good way of putting it!” You pretend to think for a bit again. Then you read out (haltingly, again) your reply from the paper. Wow! The questioner is happy: they asked a very clever question that really made you think. The audience is happy: they are in the presence of genius. You are happy: you got to cut material from your paper without losing any of the content.

That’s trapping: you dug a hole in your paper, covered it over with some straw, and your questioner fell right into it. The audience members who fall into traps are most likely be unproductive point-scorers, too (they are ones whose noses were twitching for the killer objection during your talk). So you avoid getting a difficult and annoying question from a point-scorer, as well.

I love trapping. It’s my favourite dirty trick; and it is a dirty trick, because it is deceitful and manipulative. But unless you are some kind of crazed Kantian, that is no reason not use it, because it is harmless; and, usually, beneficial to all concerned. The only person being manipulated is the questioner, and you are probably only manipulating them into asking a better question than they otherwise would have, and they enjoy it.

You might think that a disadvantage of trapping is that you don’t get helpful feedback from it – the questioner doesn’t give you anything that you don’t already know. Not so. The questioner will often think up a better, clearer, or more incisive way of stating the objection than you could (unproductive point-scorers are especially good at doing that). You note this down and use it to revise your paper. In fact if your paper is already very polished, you’re more likely to get a useful contribution to it out of someone falling into a trap than you would out of a normal question.

Reverse Trapping

The worst thing you can do when editing your paper is to leave the anticipated objections in, but cut your replies to them. During the talk you end up saying “In the written version, I have a reply to this, which for reasons of time I can’t discuss now, but if anyone would like to ask me about it in question time, I’d be happy to discuss it then.” This guarantees that no one will ask you about that objection in the Q&A. They’ll go away from the seminar knowing that you had some reply to it, but two months later, if they even remember your view, all they’ll remember about it is this obvious killer objection. Audience members like to appear clever; and they like to have some input to the conversation. No one wants to waste an opportunity to do that by inviting you to read out another section of your paper.

Trapping is a much better way to edit anticipated objections, so you should do that instead… Unless you have anticipated some nasty objection that you don’t have a good reply to. Then you read out the objection and claimto have a reply to it, which for reasons of time blah blah blah… This, of course, guarantees that no one will ask you about the nasty objection, no matter how obvious it is.

That’s reverse trapping. It’s a darker art than trapping, because it is more deceptive, and it depends for its success on the deceit (deceit is not just a foreseen consequence of reverse trapping but a necessary means). I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you will be able to live with yourself after using it.

If you do decide to use reverse trapping, the key to doing it effectively is to use it just once, on the nastiest, most obvious objection you can think of, and be prepared for the highly unlikely outcome that someone asks you about the objection in Q&A. There are two circumstances under which this can happen: 1) your questioner wasn’t paying attention during your paper and didn’t notice the reverse trap; or 2) your questioner knows about reverse trapping and is trying to catch you doing it.

Prepare yourself by having something that sounds vaguely like a reply to the objection that you can read out confidently if anyone asks. Then, when they follow up by pointing out that your reply doesn’t work, as they will, play your get-out-of-jail-free card. (That’s why you should reverse trap only once per paper). If you are very lucky, your questioner may be following my advice below and reverse point-scoring, in which case, they will follow up by telling you the great reply to the objection which they have figured out for you. Then everyone is happy.

If you think reverse trapping is evil, and you would never use it, now you know how to spot it and punish people for using it. But then, if reverse trapping is evil, using questions to punish people is definitely evil.

The Matador Technique

Think about what happened the last time you had an argument with your partner or housemate (and I mean here the ordinary sense of “argument”, not a philosophers’ argument, but a fight). Everything you said annoyed and frustrated your partner, and they just wouldn’t listen to you, and kept repeating themselves more and more angrily. You tried to explain yourself, but they just wouldn’t listen, and this frustrated you and made you angry. The emotional tone of the conversation ramped up and up and up until you were both exhausted and agreed that it was all a storm in a teacup, and then (if it was your partner) you had really good sex. (At this point, peoples’ housemates sometimes become their partners.) This is a symmetric fight. Both you and your partner were doing the same thing: not listening to each other, but giving voice to your anger and frustration with each other. That’s OK: people sometimes get angry and frustrated with each other.

Asymmetric fights are rarer and more dangerous. In an asymmetric fight, one person’s emotional tone ramps up (they are the hot party); while the other’s stays right where it started (they are the cool party). The hot party will get exhausted before the cool party; the cool party ends up sleeping on the sofa with the bitter satisfaction of having won an argument.

If you really must win an intellectual debate, there is one sure fire way to do it, and that is to engineer an asymmetric fight. Here’s how to do it – I call this “the matador technique”. Each time your interlocutor objects to something you say, give them the best reply that you can, but deliberately screw up one of the premises in your reply – make it too strong, or misstate it. You have to do this absolutely deadpan so that they don’t figure out what you are up to. Like a bull tormented by a matador, your interlocutor will charge after the false premise, forgetting whatever it was they were arguing about before. Eventually, they drop from exhaustion. Or they stop trying to argue with you and start trying to punch you instead. In the matador technique, the point of your arguments is not to convince your interlocutor, but to frustrate and anger them while giving the appearance of trying to convince them. Since you are staying cool while your interlocutor gets pissed off, they will run out of energy first.

You will see people using the matador technique without realizing what they are doing, or because they don’t care about intellectual honesty or happiness or the good but only care about winning arguments. You don’t want to be one of those people. But, like, a karate black-belt walking through a rough neighbourhood, your knowledge that you could use it will sustain you if you are surrounded by uncooperative dickheads.

Reverse Point-scoring (or how to have the last word)

Here’s how questioners point-score in Q&A: they carefully note what they think is the paper’s weakest point, or the point they understood best, formulate an objection in their heads in advance, anticipate the speaker’s possible replies, and formulate their own follow-ups to each. It’s just as if they were writing a short, rather negative, philosophy paper in their heads during the talk. The aim is for them to have the last word, and have it be the winning move in the conversation. Point-scorers always assume that the person they are talking to is trying to point-score as well, so trying to have the winning move is the same as trying to have the last move.

We’ve all done it: it’s perfectly normal to anticipate what someone will say in reply to you, and to want to have the last word on the matter. What happens if you do this, but instead of doing it the point-scorer’s way and try to have the last word and win a point, you try to have the last word and concede a point?

Here’s what I mean: anticipate in your head a series of objections and replies. But instead of stopping with an objection, stop with an objection-reply pair, so that you’ve already given the speaker the reply to your objection. Or to put it another way, instead of holding your anticipated replies back and waiting to see if the speaker tries to use them, make them part of your question and ask if that is how the speaker would reply to that objection. Let your rule be, not “I never ask a question to which I don’t know the answer” but “I never pose an objection to which I don’t know the reply”.

This technique has many advantages. 1) It uses all the resources and training you got in graduate school that might lend itself to point-scoring. 2) It is helpful and constructive. 3) It bamboozles point-scorers, since they can’t make your question seem foolish by objecting to it – they would have to argue against themselves.

The Tour-guide Technique (or how to get people on your side)

How can you write a paper so you get the best and most helpful comments on it in a seminar? The worst thing you can do is to try to drag your audience kicking and screaming over to your conclusion. But it’s surprising how many people try to do this. I think that this effect is produced by the fear that people won’t like a paper, and the author’s determination to rationally convince them to like it. But that is impossible – as David Lewis once said, “that would take not an argument, but a magic spell”.

Besides, the more you try to rationally convince a philosopher of something, the more they will try to think up every possible reason against it. If you try to convince a seminar room to like your metaphysics paper, everyone in that room will turn a neo-positivist. This means that the strategy of convincing an audience to like what you are doing is self-perpetuating. The more you try to defend metaphysics as worth doing, the more apparent positivists you will encounter, and the more you will get the feeling that what you need to be doing is refuting positivism before you begin every paper.

(It’s not just metaphysics that gets this by the way. Every philosopher thinks, falsely, that their subdiscipline is the biggest victim of the “your subdiscipline is rubbish” phenomenon. Ask a metaphysician, they’ll say “oh, yeah, there are all these neo-positivists around”; ask a philosopher of language it’ll be “everyone thinks that what I do is boring apriori linguistics”; ask an ethicist, they’ll say “people don’t appreciate that ethics is just as intellectually demanding and rigorous as other branches of philosophy”; ask a logician they’ll say “people think that my work is just a game with no application to the Real World”; ask a philosopher of physics they’ll say “people think that my work is glorified science journalism”.)

The key to giving an effective presentation is two-fold. 1) Remember and and follow the advice that you give students when they have to write an essay or give a presentation. Y’know, “imagine that you are writing / presenting to a group of students who have also studied philosophy but have not taken this module”. 2) Use your teaching skills. My supervisor told me (wisely) that one should pitch a generalist seminar at about the level of a third-year undergraduate lecture, and that has served me well. Your aim in giving a paper (at least in a generalist seminar) should be not to convince anyone of anything, but to show them how the game is played in your corner of the field, and invite them to play it with you.

Your audience is going on a magical tour of… whatever, say Xology, with you as tour-guide. Your argument is (hopefully!) valid, these are its premises and conclusion. Isn’t that interesting? You happen to believe the conclusion and the premises, but some people (perhaps in your audience) might choose to reject the conclusion and one premise. Here are the sorts of considerations Xologists advance in favour of premises or against their rejection. You are not trying to convince anyone (a waste of time): you are teaching your audience – a bunch of very clever and qualified people – to do philosophy the way you do it. Then, in the Q&A they will try their hand at it and you get to profit from the results.

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Elizabeth Harman
Elizabeth Harman
6 years ago

The picture of philosophy offered here is one that does not resonate with me. I went to grad school in an environment in which people were very serious about philosophy but there was a cooperative effort to figure things out. (This was at MIT.) This often involved raising objections to student papers that were being workshopped, which the authors welcomed. I myself just try to ask the questions that come to my mind, the questions that would help me to understand the paper better, or which I modestly think might help the author. I try not to think about whether my question is a “good” question, and am perfectly happy to ask merely clarificatory questions. (I assume that if I need clarification on something, then someone else would probably find it useful too; and I think everyone should make that assumption about their own clarificatory questions.)

I also have some more specific disagreements.

I agree that some questions at philosophy talks are obnoxious, mean spirited, or counterproductive, on the one hand, while some questions are cooperative and helpful, on the other hand, but I think this distinction cuts across the distinction between those questions that are objections to the stated view and those that are not. A question that raises an objection can be a helpful and cooperative question. A question that does not raise an objection can be obnoxious. In general, questions that raise apparent objections are incredibly useful. They help us to understand what the view really is, what implications it really has, and what commitments the author wants to be taking on. They help both the audience and the author to understand the view.

I disagree with the idea that saying “Here’s a worry. I have a response but I don’t have time to talk about it” is a good way to avoid talking about that worry. In my experience, audience members often ask follow-ups to remarks along those those lines, and such questions are typically welcomed by the author and helpful to everyone. (I’ve never seen an author caught off guard by the invitation to elaborate on a topic she/he claimed to have more to say about, so I don’t think people in general make such comments to avoid having to talk about the stated worries.)

I disagree with the claim that one should always cut the “Objections and Replies” section of a talk. Such sections often help to clarify what view is being offered. Such sections never cover all the objections or questions that audience members thinks of. A good paper leaves the audience with plenty to ask and talk about, even when it includes an “Objections and Replies” section.
But I do agree that it is good to have thought about questions that one might get asked that one does not cover in the paper. It is best to avoid saying every thought one has about the subject matter in the talk itself. It is good to have thought *a great deal* about the topic of one’s paper, and to have more to say beyond what one covered in the talk.
At the same time, it’s absolutely fine if people bring up questions and issues the author has not thought about in advance. Let yourself think about a new issue in the moment. That is part of what happens at talks, and it can be wonderful what emerges in these moments.

I disagree with the claim that the following form of question is somehow a sure-fire way to avoid having a “point scored” against you: “One might object as follows to your view . . . but then you could reply as follows . . .” There are many ways that someone could respond to such a question obnoxiously, or by making the questioner look bad. (“Actually, that reply won’t work at all. . . “ or “Actually, that reply assumes that the objection is on target, which it isn’t . . .”)
This can be a fine way to ask a question, but there is the danger of taking up a lot of space and going on too long. Since short questions are best, this form of question should usually be avoided.Report

Komal
Komal
6 years ago

This is horrible and wonderful.Report

Josh Parsons
6 years ago

Elizabeth Harman, thanks for your comments. Of course I was being a bit provocative with my guide. I too was philosophically raised in an environment (ANU) where co-operation was valued, but we (the graduate students) were also encouraged to push visiting speakers. I think that’s fine – it’s part of how you learn to ask a good question. I agree there’s nothing wrong with raising an objection or asking a genuine question of clarification, but I see a lot of people, still, using their questions to try to show off or to embarrass the speaker.
In any case I wasn’t intending to write a complete guide to seminar behaviour and paper presentation, just to highlight a few things that people might not have thought about.Report

Sporto
Sporto
6 years ago

My worry is that this approach reinforces the idea of talks – and especially the Q&A – as a kind of game that you can win or lose, where winning and losing depend on public perception. This is exactly the kind of attitude I think we need to stop reinforcing. Yes, philosophers sometimes (or, in certain groups, often) ask philosophical “gotcha” questions to try to “score points”. Yes, it’s important to have strategies for dealing with difficult questions. Yes, it’s good to think about whether your paper is tailored in such a way as to lead to a productive Q&A. But we need to stop thinking about the Q&A as a competition. In its best form, it ought to be like Elizabeth Harman describes above – a constructive enterprise where people work together to make someone’s ideas better.
I often raise objections in my own talks that I’m *not* sure how to answer and specifically ask for suggestions in the discussion. This has been invaluable for my work, and to my mind makes much more sense than to “hide” the fact that I don’t have answers to certain questions – or to “bait” members of the audience – in the service a maintaining some sort of false semblance of philosophical invulnerability. I understand that the current discussion culture can be rather aggressive, such that one feels like one has to preemptively go on the offensive – or at least be really really good at defense. But this kind of me-vs.-them/speaker-vs.-audience attitude is one we need to stop reinforcing. And part of this is going to involve working to change the discussion culture, not just “adapt” ourselves to it in ways that propagate this kind of behavior.
One final word on the “get out of jail free” card. I think admitting that you’re not sure how to answer a question and that you have to think about it is a perfectly legitimate response to a tough objection, but I also think it’s important to repeat the objection back to the audience – to show that you’ve understood *why* it might be a problem. You might even give some possible responses, even if you *know* they’re not successful, and then state why that kind of response might *not* work. If it’s an objection you’ve thought about but don’t know how to answer, SAY THAT. Audience members who care about the philosophical enterprise won’t just drop the mic and walk away; they’ll actively try to help you come up with solutions.Report

M K
M K
6 years ago

Totally not my experience at my University. I would not still be studying philosophy if the environment was so harshly competitive and combative. The more I hear about Oxford philosophy, the more I feel sorry for their philosophy students. The more I also feel bad for the discipline of philosophy as Oxford produces philosophers that every university in the world seeks to hire. Therefore this poisonous culture is spread around the world. No wonder philosophy continues to be almost the worst discipline in the world for diversity. As classist as Britain seems to be these days, this situation is probably A-Ok with Oxford philosophers. Therefore no change coming. Not aiming to point score. Just lamenting at the lack of prospect for real change within our discipline.Report

Josh Parsons
6 years ago

MK and Sporto: if you read the first section of my post, you’ll see that almost the first thing that I say is that I am opposed to the idea of Q&A as a competition, and that the purpose of the post is to (1) to enable people to spot “dirty tricks” and point-scoring and avoid them (2) to offer some tools for counteracting them (like reverse point-scoring and the tour-guide technique).Report

anon grad student
anon grad student
6 years ago

I think some people are missing some basic things about Josh’s post, e.g. that it is essentially satirical (even while providing helpful information and strategies for dealing with jerks, etc.).Report

E
E
6 years ago

My favorite response at a philosophy job talk was when a senior job candidate very brusquely replied to a question from a junior faculty member by telling them they clearly didn’t have a grasp of rudimentary logic.

I knew exactly then that I didn’t give a shit about being involved in that field as a profession.Report

Christopher Gauker
Christopher Gauker
6 years ago

Here’s another comment along the same lines as Elizabeth Harman’s, Sporto’s and MK’s. If, as anon grad student says, the post is satire, then it has to ring true in some way, but it does not. The article represents a mindset that I do not share and that I have not observed in others. Good presentations are those in which the speaker tries to solve problems. There is usually more to say than can be said in the alloted time. So the speaker tries to make the best use of his or her time to lay out the problem, and the necessary background assumptions, and to explain his or her solution and persuade the audience that it is correct, and that is all. Not everyone can manage a good presentation of this kind, but when they don’t, it’s not because they are playing the game that Prof. Parsons describes, but because they don’t have clear ideas or because they value other things, such as appearing profound. Prof. Parsons, in your replies you say you don’t endorse the practices you describe. Well, at some points it looks like you do. But anyway, my point is: it doesn’t happen. I am sorry that Josh Parsons’ Tractatus prose generator no longer seems to be on-line. That was very funny.Report

Another Anon Junior Person
Another Anon Junior Person
6 years ago

I have to say, in contrast with Elizabeth Harman, that I *absolutely* resonate with the picture sketched here. This was absolutely my experience in graduate school and it still affects how I think about my role in Q&A periods in talks. My advisors in graduate school were more or less explicit about the Q&A periods being about a certain kind of academic pageantry, and not at all about collaboration. (Indeed, if you present yourself as too much of a collaborator, you will be perceived as not being very sharp.) Q&A’s are about breaking kneecaps. The best talks, in the eyes of the department, were talks where the speaker was thoroughly humiliated (not personally, but intellectually) by a questioner.

This is no longer my experience in talks, but I also do not work at a top research department. It has taken much time to get used to the different environment.

I should say that I think that this way of approaching talks and Q&A is terrible, and that it had detrimental effects on me personally and as a professional philosopher. But like anything you experience during your coming-of-age in philosophy, it is incredibly hard to get rid of.

I was in graduate school just a couple of years ago in a US top-10 department.Report

NN
NN
6 years ago

It’s quite funny that some commenters seem to have employed classic point-scoring techniques in their criticism of a humorous post about point-scoring… By which I mean they completely disregarded the very obvious fact that this text is meant to be funny and light-hearted in order to go off on righteous tangents about how superior their own universities are/how classist the author’s country of residence obviously is/how alien the point-scoring mentality is to them and to every corner of the philosophical profession they’ve deigned to illuminate with their presence.

Guess what? This is actually how some academics behave. Of course not all and not everywhere, but this culture is far from ancient history. And if the formative years of your academic career were/are being spent around tyrannical point-scorers, it’s good to know how to parry their attacks–and to make fun of the point-scoring instincts you may be developing against your own better judgement.

And if your first instinct upon reading this post is to brag about how different things are at your university or to chastise the author, you’re probably more of a point-scorer than you’d like to believe.Report

Tom
Tom
6 years ago

It’s also my experience that (in all so-called “core” philosophy areas I’ve been around) talks at the various APAs are still more often than not point-scoring endeavors. Occasionally something nice and collaborative happens. More often someone (either in the audience or on the stage) tries to collaborate and ends up humiliating themselves because a point-scorer seizes the opportunity.Report

Josh Parsons
6 years ago

Christopher Gauker: what do you think about the “tour-guide” model of a philosophy talk I sketch at the end of the post? I agree that philosophy is about problem solving and argument, and I agree that the method of stating your problem, your solution, and inviting questions / objections / contributions is a good way to go in a specialist conference. But I don’t think that it is always best in a general philosophy seminar, where most people in the audience may be still struggling to get up to speed with the material if you do that. Also, the two methods need not be incompatible. You can state a problem and a solution as a way of illustrating how your corner of the discipline works. When you say I appear to endorse the dirty tricks, well… appearances can be deceptive… I am fascinated by lots of things I take to be immoral. I like gangster films too. Also, perhaps you are picking up on the fact that I have caught myself engaging in point-scoring, recognised it, and found ways to avoid it.Report

Christopher Gauker
Christopher Gauker
6 years ago

Apparently, some of you have witnessed some bad behavior, but I doubt that that bad behavior often managed to score points. This very comment is an example. It is a snarky, anonymous blog post aimed at shutting down discussion. By contrast, Tom, below, reports his own experience without sarcasm, and that experience deserves to be taken into account.Report

anon grad student
anon grad student
6 years ago

The internet makes it impossible to enjoy even the most enjoyable things.Report

Sporto
Sporto
6 years ago

I’m kinda bummed out by the response that this post is satire. Don’t get me wrong, I did think the “jokey” elements were funny. And I like Josh’s attempt to point out some of the ridiculous things that academics do. Further, it was clear that Josh is not endorsing *point-scoring* as a practice. But, like C. Gauker, I thought there seemed to be an implicit endorsement of the other “dirty tricks” advised above, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that.

I think my worry is that all the “strategies” here take place within the context of a discussion culture that is highly problematic, and instead of figuring out how to play this crappy game, we need to figure out how to change the game itself. This criticism isn’t itself an attempt to “score points” – it’s to note that the culture that Josh is gently poking fun at (?) is one that needs to be recognized as genuinely worrisome.

Maybe some of you think I’m just being a “Spoil-Sporto”…and you’d be right, in the sense that I think the best way to combat this is not to teach philosophers to “play dirty” but not to play the game at all. Or, what might amount to the same thing, to change the rules.

Maybe this is what’s being advised in the “its-just-like-my-opinion-man” Tour-Guide Technique, but I think one can forcefully and confidently push a philosophical view without setting up a hostile environment. (And I doubt Josh disagrees.) Likewise, I think it’s totally legit to raise objections you don’t know the reply to in order to make the philosopher getting the last word say something constructive. Maybe this just is a form of “reverse-point-scoring”, I’m not sure. (Josh?) Anyway, I’m taking my ball and going home. (<— Example of a super a-hole-y way to cut off discussion! :D)Report

John Appleby
John Appleby
6 years ago

Many years ago, I read a biographical account of the behaviour of G.E. Moore and his circle in these sorts of situations – Apparently they all had their own trait to express disapproval and put the speaker off their stride during the paper. One would hold his head in his hands in disbelief, another close his eyes and look bored, etc. Unfortunately I can no longer remember where I read it. I wonder if anybody here could point me to the source of this account?Report

Christopher Gauker
Christopher Gauker
6 years ago

My last comment (14) was entered as a reply to NN (11). Apparently the reply function does not work. Yes, Josh, there are various models for a good talk, and, you are right, a common mistake is to presuppose too much specialized knowledge on the part of the audience. But it’s fine too to try to convince people of something. I was not taking issue with the last section of your post. What I object to in your post is that it paints a horrible picture of what people are trying to do when they give a talk and in my experience it’s a false picture. It was the paragraph that began “I love trapping” that especially gave me the impression of endorsement.Report

John Appleby
John Appleby
6 years ago

Thanks Justin!Report

Josh Parsons
6 years ago

NN: Thanks for your support. I don’t want to second guess the motives or personality of people online (a famously unreliable enterprise), and I take it that most commenters here are saying what they are saying in a spirit of fair discussion and inquiry. (And if anyone does want to score a point off me, they are welcome, I have a thick skin). Here’s a way of putting your last paragraph that I think I can agree with without pointing the finger at anyone. Aggressive seminar behaviour is like implicit bias. While no doubt some people are completely innocent of it, the belief that one has never been guilty is more likely to be a sign of un-self-awareness than of innocence.

Sporto: I agree we need to address some of the harmful features of the way philosophers (sometimes) behave in seminars (and they don’t do it as often as they used to) and not just poke fun at ourselves. But, as a very wise man (and by all reports, a very rude seminar participant) once said, we are like sailors who must repair their boat in the middle of the ocean. We can’t remake the norms of the profession all at once or force people more powerful than us to behave differently. We have to do it bit by bit.

Christopher Gauker: OK, but what’s so bad about trapping? As I say in the post, it is at worst deceitful in a harmless way; but actually it doesn’t even have to be deceitful (you don’t have to pretend to be making up the reply to the objection on the spot). At bottom it’s just the advice to leave the “objections and replies” out of a talk. Liz Harman gave some reasons above why you might not always want to do that, but ceteris paribus I think it’s good advice.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
6 years ago

You are probably thinking of Keynes’ essay ‘My Early Beliefs’ which is extensively quoted and dwelt upon by MacIntyre in ‘After Virtue’. Leonard Woolf also comments on it in his Autobiography.Report

Ruth Groff
Ruth Groff
6 years ago

I just try to answer all questions in a genuine way, as though the person asking the question were also being sincere. It either brings the person around to being sincere themselves (if they weren’t being so at first) or it doesn’t, but it’s usually instructive substantively, and … I don’t know … I sort of think that being direct in that way communicates its own kind of performative self-confidence, though perhaps it’s less splashy than other kinds.Report

Robbie Williams
Robbie Williams
6 years ago

Re Chris Gauker’s thoughts—-confession time for me. It’s definitely a mindset that *I* am prone to falling into, and one I had to learn how to get out of. In informal conversation with others in the profession, I gather this isn’t an uncommon experience. I think we’re very good in my department at fostering the sort of cooperative spirit that everyone in this thread I think desires, but that had to be worked at and structures put in place that encourage it. The pointscoring mindset is certainly one I *think* I’ve seen in various places as an audience member. It’s always possible that what I’ve seen is an illusion of point scoring, generated by people who really have virtuous motives—but even the illusion of point-scoring could be alienating for others. And it can have pernicious influence on people who, when figuring out how they’re expected to ask questions, misdiagnose what they see around them as point-scoring.

Let me reiterate one thing that Liz Harman said—asking short questions is definitely a good thing. One thing I’ve done as chair is keep an eye on the timing of exchanges. Typical question length varies enormously—from 30 seconds to 3 minutes (and so if the reply takes, as is typical, 2-3 minutes, you’re looking at the difference between e.g. 3 minutes and 6 minutes). If you keep the question short, then there’s much more likely to be space within the same total exchange for a bit more further interaction. I’ve seen back-and-forths two or three levels deep that take no more time than a lengthy question with a fairly standard response. And so I sympathize with Liz’s concern about that demerit of the “here’s an objection, here’s a reply” question structure. Until we cut out the “I have three points to make…” form of question it’s probably not our worst issue in this respect. But to temper this: short questions can easily seem terse, and unless you’re really good at them (or have a lot of shared background to lean on), they can be cryptic. It’s a real skill to ask questions in a *concise* way that still is both polite and communicates exactly what’s intended not just to the speaker but to all participants in a general seminar—I’m in awe of those who have this down pat. I’m not sure that “asking short questions” is the best advice when you’re learning the ropes. So I don’t think we should say that such question-templates should usually be avoided, on grounds of shortness.

I guess an underlying issue here is what you do once you have an objection-reply pair in mind. One thing to do is ask the objection, and then if the person replies as you anticipate, you are in a position to respond. Another thing to do is to give both as Josh suggests. Another thing to do is take that line of thought, and then use it to frame a question in a different format. E.g. if the reply would have the person endorsing position p, which you think is interesting/controversial/problematic, you could ask—“I was wondering whether you thought your view was compatible with/committed to p, since it seemed to me that the following consideration put pressure in that direction….”.

Also +1 to the suggestion that purely clarificatory questions are good in all sorts of ways.Report

Cathy Legg
Cathy Legg
6 years ago

Hi Josh! Thanks for putting forward these thoughts, particularly at a time when there are a lot of conversations going on in our profession about its mores, and a growing self-consciousness about whether there’s anything we’d like to improve.

I worry that there is something disingenuous about the structure and the pragmatics of your posting, in terms of what it is saying exactly about the mores of our discipline. This is the issue of whether your posting is “all a joke”. It seems as the thread has developed that you want to take credit for your posting helping those more junior than yourself to make their way and impress in seminars. But at the same time, to those who have said, with Christopher Gauker that your post “paints a horrible picture of what people are trying to do when they give a talk”, you want to say that your posting was merely satirical.

But what about those who think that conscious game-playing and manipulating the audience of philosophy presentations is the sort of thing that might cause at least some of the young people with the best philosophical minds (who are arguably the most likely to see through the games) to get fed up with the discipline and leave, so that the brilliant insights that they might have been able to add to our tradition will be lost – and that is no laughing matter?Report

Josh Parsons
6 years ago

Cathy (and others I think): I wasn’t being “only satirical”. I’ve said to a couple of people that I was being “provocative”, which is a bit different: I broadly agree with everything I said; I wasn’t adopting the persona of someone I disagree with. No one is saying that all philosophy seminars are or ought to be places of conscious game playing and manipulation. I’m saying that some game playing goes on in philosophy seminars, and that understanding how it works and having a good laugh about it is a good way of ameliorating the situation.Report