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.

guest
12 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
some person or other
some person or other
3 years ago

I seriously hate this advice. The advice should be: hey, people who allow people to talk in their seminars/talks/classes without raising their hands first: don’t do that! Don’t reinforce the norm that KK is talking about!

It’s not *meek* to raise your hand before you speak; there is a coordination problem if we don’t enforce hand-raising, and it’s a coordination problem that encourages overconfident (typically but not always) men to speak and discourages (what other people might describe as “underconfident” but I would describe as “normal”) (typically but not always) women from speaking.

The solution to (typically but not always male) dominance behavior in philosophy is not for us all to fight as hard as we can to be the alpha whoever. Report

CW
CW
Reply to  some person or other
3 years ago

With respect to coordination issues, at Amintaphil we used to have two raised-hand signs, one for questions on the point under discussion, and another for questions raising new issues. (They may still do this. I just haven’t been for years.) Seemed like a helpful system.Report

Lizard
Lizard
Reply to  some person or other
3 years ago

I think perhaps the ideal answer to this is to generally have stricter chairing. Don’t let people ask questions unless they’ve been called upon, and limit follow-ups.

But that’s not to say that I don’t think the above advice can sometimes be useful. Suppose there *isn’t* a good chair, and men shout out and dominate a certain Q&A session. On those occasions, where the problem still exists, I would want other women and grad students to take the above advice, and try to assert themselves more. A “two wrongs don’t make a right!” approach here would, it seems, disadvantage certain groups. Report

John Raykowski
John Raykowski
Reply to  some person or other
3 years ago

“what you would describe as ‘normal’ ”

Exactly. I would also add, people who are merely being polite.
The implication being those ‘overconfident’ interrupting loudmouths are what I would call ‘rude’ and they should be called on that.Report

grad student
grad student
3 years ago

I agree with the advice except the suggestion made in the quote on assertiveness. Kelsky’s advice may be useful for someone (perhaps especially an early-career researcher?) who is trying to figure out how to get involved in discussions and have their voice heard.
But I agree with ‘some person or other’ that, as a profession and academic community, we should refrain from reinforcing the current habit of allowing more dominant attendees and speakers to talk while ignoring those who are raising their hands/fingers. It happens so often and is incredibly frustrating and discouraging for those who are simply respecting the rule and end up not having time for their question.

Perhaps it’s harder to have more inclusive discussions in informal settings, but I don’t think there’s a good excuse for allowing this to happen during an official Q&A session. You may still have dominant individuals in the audience that are unable or unwilling to make sure that everyone receives the time and attention they deserve, but chairs are in a position to make a difference — obviously, we should have an environment where chairs are respected, but I feel like often they don’t know what to do or are afraid/unwilling to do that.Report

Karen Kelsky
3 years ago

Thanks for sharing my column, Justin. The Prof Is In blog and book, and thus also the Vitae column, are dedicated to new academics who struggle with anxiety, imposter syndrome, and finding their voice, with an overwhelmingly female readership. My advice is always oriented toward those readers’ needs, which I know well from my own career, client and reader remarks, and continual discussion on our FB page ( which you can see here if you want: https://www.facebook.com/TheProfessorIsIn/ )

If advice like this weren’t necessary for many, terms like mansplaining, manterrupter, and the latest, hepeating, wouldn’t have achieved their widespread usage! Those who don’t need it can feel free to disregard.
Report

Wayne Fenske
Wayne Fenske
3 years ago

I allow anyone to talk in seminars/talks/classes without raising their hands beforehand the first time they do it.
The second time they do it, I will override them saying ‘You’ve already ready had a chance to speak, Hortense. Is there anyone else who wants to chime in here? Report

Matt
3 years ago

I’ve also found the “write it down” advice to be good. I can’t say that every question I ask is golden, of course, but I have found that it helps me focus on what I think is important and ask a sharper, more concise question. I’ve also found it useful for helping me avoid the annoying and useless throat-clearing rambling that often comes before questions and makes them harder to follow and harder to answer because less clear. Report

some other person or other
some other person or other
3 years ago

‘some person or other’ wrote: ‘Don’t reinforce the norm that KK is talking about!
(…)
The solution to (typically but not always male) dominance behavior in philosophy is not for us all to fight as hard as we can to be the alpha whoever.’

I think this was an interesting and plausible challenge of the wisdom of the advice to not put your hand up when others aren’t bothering.

Karen Kelsky wrote:

‘If advice like this weren’t necessary for many, terms like mansplaining, manterrupter, and the latest, hepeating, wouldn’t have achieved their widespread usage! Those who don’t need it can feel free to disregard.’

This seems to me like a disappointing non-response. Clearly the objection was not that the advice is superfluous for some people. And the objector’s viewpoint is clearly compatible with the view that those terms have a sociologically important use. The point is that maybe the advice is bad, insofar as it perpetuates the problem.

Report

JDRox
JDRox
3 years ago

I would guess that there are just different norms and expectations in Karen’s discipline. Men in our discipline certainly don’t “tend to just shout out questions or comments”. Maybe a few bad actors do, but it’s frowned upon, and the number, and percentage, is quite low. The other commenters here are certainly right that we want to stigmatize and suppress that, not encourage it. It’s puzzling that Justin quoted that that passage given its irrelevance.Report

Lizard
Lizard
Reply to  JDRox
3 years ago

I am still a grad student, but I’ve sure been to my fair share of talks in which people like to shout out questions or comments. It’s nearly always been men (with only one exception) and always been men who appear to be more senior in rank. Sometimes the Q&As seem to be more like an excited discussion between three men in the room, at the expense of many of the rest.

I personally think that this is bad practice, and that the answer to this problem is stricter chairing, but some people seem to see it as a good thing: “If someone’s gone to the effort of organising a workshop, for example, don’t they deserve to have much of the discussion concentrated by the three people in the room with the most expertise?”

Overall, I definitely don’t see the quoted passage as being irrelevant. Not from my experience.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Lizard
3 years ago

I’m not trying to be pedantic, but I agree that many people might *like* to shout out questions and comments. I’m just denying that this is at all common at talks. I’ve only very occasionally dropped in on a seminar in the last ten years or so, so I have less knowledge there, but that’s still not how they tend to work in my experience. (Although shouting out questions is much more common in seminars than at talks, I think. But still not common.)

Later you go on to mention workshops. Not sure how formal these workshops are, but I grant that the less formal the setting the less likely there is a hand raising norm at play, for people of any sex though. People don’t tend to raise their hands at many reading groups, for example.

As an aside, I also think it’s silly to suggest that questions that are too long to be memorized are too long simpliciter. Perhaps long unmemorable questions will be too long for other people to “easily follow”. But the question is for the speaker, who will presumably be much more familiar with the issues, and hence better able to follow long questions, than will be others in general. I would say: if your question is so long that you’re unable or unwilling to write it down, then it’s too long.Report