Good & Bad Ways to Run a Question-&-Answer Session


Over at the Blog of the American Philosophical Association, Muhammad Ali Khalidi (CUNY) raises objections to “the finger,” that is, the convention at philosophy talks “whereby a member of the audience, instead of raising a hand to ask a question, raises a finger to indicate that they have a follow-up question to the one that’s just been asked.”

Among other things, Professor Khalidi says, the practice is easily abused. And further, it’s unclear that it serves much of a valuable function:

Fans of the finger might protest at this point that the practice serves an important purpose. It enables questions along thematic lines to be grouped together and lets us avoid circling back to something that’s been covered before. But what’s wrong with shifting gears to a different question then coming back to some earlier issue later in the Q&A session? Maybe by then, the speaker has had time to think a little more about it and can come up with new things to say, and maybe it’ll retain the audience’s interest to mix it up a little. 

Is Professor Khalidi right? More generally, what’s your preferred way of running a Q&A at a philosophy talk?

The finger is an “optional” suggestion on a list of “Guidelines for Respectful, Constructive, and Inclusive Philosophical Discussion” compiled by David Chalmers (NYU). It’s in the “Procedural Norms” section. Wisely, that’s just one of several sections of the guidelines, as the quality of a Q&A depends not just on the rules in place but on how people act within them and how they’re enforced. If you’re going to be at a philosophy Q&A anytime soon, I’d recommend looking at the other sections. Also, check out this now classic post on how to ask questions at conferences and colloquia.

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Tom Hurka
10 days ago

I entirely agree. As an audience member I’m more interested in hearing a new question than yet more on an old question, where too often there are diminishing returns. For the same reason, I favour a limit on follow-ups by the original questioner, e.g. a maximum of one. (None of those lengthy back-and-forths between the speaker and one audience member.) This would allow more people to ask their questions, and also provide an incentive to ask one’s initial question as clearly as possible (think it out in advance), so there’s no need for a follow-up to clarify it. (And did the finger convention perhaps originate at ANU?)Report

David Chalmers
David Chalmers
Reply to  Tom Hurka
9 days ago

i believe the consensus among finger scholars is that among philosophers, the convention got started at the ANU, having been brought to philosophy from economics by geoff brennan. here’s a history that geoff sent me a few years ago (reposted by permission):

I first came across the practice in Liberty Fund colloquia (say 1978-83) — though it wasn’t a universal practice in that setting and what constituted a ‘finger’ varied. I DID seek to promote the practice in pretty much any collective setting I was involved in — just because it seemed to me to maintain a certain continuity in large number conversations — and certainly that would have included any ANU things I chaired when I came back from the US in 1984.

My spheres of influence when I returned were initially pretty much restricted to the Econ department in the Faculties — though I was friendly with Philip [Pettit] right form the start of that period and got a bit involved with RSSS in that way. I came to RSSS in 1988 and became Director in 1991. From 1990, we started to run Liberty Fund gigs in Australia (two a year) and I was certainly decisive about the protocols in that setting.

One school of thought in LF circles insisted that fingers must be “short” — no more than a couple of sentences. That was not my view. I was happy for people to make “finger” points of quite an extended kind providing they were “on topic”. But as the practice was picked up “around the traps”, interpretations varied. And of course some people (who could never see a theme even if they fell over one) could never grasp the practice at all. (Since it requires LISTENING as well as thinking about what one is going to say oneself next time one gets the call, some people can never quite manage it!)

I think RSSS Phil has used the practice for a fair while — certainly since the early nineties. And it may well be that many philosophers got their first experience of it in that setting (given how extensive the RSSS visitors’ program has been over the years). Some philosophers especially the libertarian types (political not free will ) would though have had direct contact with the practice via Liberty Fund participation. Gil Harman is one guy that comes to mind who would have had contact with LF but has never as far as I can recall visited RSSS. So he might be a test of the ‘double route’ theory.Report

Doris
Doris
10 days ago

Too often, it’s not a finger. In my experience, “finger abuse” is rampant, and the finger is frequently no more thematically proximate to the previous question than the next hand in the queue would have been, and sometimes less so. (That you and the previous questioner are, say, seated approximately the same distance from Poughkeepsie is not a similarity sufficient to secure relevance.) In spite of — or because of — not being guiltless on this score myself, I humbly propose abolishing fingers.

Tom’s point about follow-ups is also well taken, though I’d implement it a bit less strictly than he: some of the most rewarding moments I’ve witnessed at talks have involved iterated exchanges where the interlocuters share an expertise. The appropriate number of iterations inevitably a matter of judgement, but the questioner is morally obligated to appear satisfied after the appropriate number has been reached, which will only seldom exceed two follow-ups.

I’m thinking here of in-person talks (again, someday, one hopes). My perception is that patience on Zoom runs shorter, and Tom’s stricter standard may be especially apt on that platform.Report

Kenny Easwaran
9 days ago

I do think “finger abuse” is a very real thing, but I also think that the finger convention has some very real value. It’s not uncommon that a back-and-forth between a questioner and a speaker goes on longer than it should because there’s some equivocation in their terminology, or they’re otherwise misunderstanding each other. When someone else in the room notices this is going on, being able to jump in and clarify the discussion often makes it a lot more productive.

However, it does require an effective moderator. I’m not sure what it takes for a moderator to be effective – probably at least sometimes they need to actively step in and say “that’s not a finger, moving on”. But hopefully, if you’ve got an established group that can learn this about the moderator, doing this a couple times is enough to ensure the moderator doesn’t have to do it often.Report

David Wallace
9 days ago

My experience with the hand/finger convention is pretty positive: normally the third party interjecting is bringing up some relevant technical or literature observation, or else clarifying something usefully.

Obviously it can be abused, but ultimately it’s down to the chair to make sure interjections are brief and on-topic, and the audience to behave well and be responsive to the chair. (And that’s a special case of a general thesis: a badly-behaved audience that the chair can’t or won’t control is going to lead to a disappointing discussion, whatever the formal rules might be.)Report

Sean McAleer
9 days ago
Jen
Jen
9 days ago

My experience with the convention has been positive. In my experience, many complaints of abuse can be explained by a failure to grasp the connection between a follow-up and the original question, or by a lack of imagination.Report

Joe
Joe
9 days ago

In my experience, it’s 60/40 between positive and negative experiences with the finger. If there is a good chair, it’s great, but if a talk is badly moderated,.it can sometimes be a problem. It doesn’t seem to me more of a problem than 5-minute long and/or condescending questions that pop up too.Report

Gunter Geyer Bjornsson
9 days ago

Suppose you are chairing a Q and A, and there is only time for one last question. There are two people on the list: the genius and the fool. The fool had raised their hand before the genius, and so they are next in the queue. The question is: is it OK to not call on the fool in this case, even though they were first to raise their hand?Report

David Wallace
Reply to  Gunter Geyer Bjornsson
9 days ago

No. (At least not qua fool). There are legitimate reasons for having a policy of deviating from first-come-first-served in chairing, but the chair’s assessment of the relative intellectual ability of the audience members isn’t one of them.Report

Gunter Geyer Bjornsson
Reply to  David Wallace
8 days ago

Really? What about in this case, David Wallace. Assume that the talk is on modal logic, and we hold fixed everything else about the case. The session is ending, and there is only time for one question. Two people on the list: the fool (who raises their hand first) and Kripke. Do we really need to call on the fool, rather than Kripke? I find that hard to swallow, especially if the ostensible aim of a talk is to exchange knowledge rather than the ignorance.Report

Joe Doakes
Joe Doakes
Reply to  Gunter Geyer Bjornsson
6 days ago

I am going to break a lance on behalf of the foole. Saul Kripke is indeed a great logician. You are determined to let him jump the queue over the foole but have you seen Kripke in Q and A over the past 25 years?

I have and I am not so eager to let him jump the queue even though he revolutionized modal logic and metaphysics. Raw intellectual power is not a great measure of what someone can contribute during Q and A.Report

Shen-yi Liao
7 days ago

1. Eve Tuck explained on Twitter that before the Q&A, the audience is asked to talk to one another and workshop their questions (for example, to make sure it is really a question and not a comment). I did this a couple of times for university-wide public lectures, and I actually think it worked really well to get people talking to one another. See the thread at:

https://twitter.com/tuckeve/status/1141501433482743808

2. When I was at Leeds, the practice at department talks is that questioners are typically allotted a specific time period, rather than a question. I thought this practice allowed for a variety of question styles, and equitability between different types of questioners: some people like to ask questions with a really elaborate set up, some people like to ask an open question and a few more follow-ups.

3. Again when I was at Leeds, when I ran workshops I like to take hands and randomize the queue. And, crucially, re-randomize the queue after each question, with any people who raised their hands after the initial period. The thought is that there is very little correlation between the time when a questioner raised their hand and the worthwhileness of their question. Sometimes people initially randomize but not later, but that disadvantages people who took more time to think up their questions, so the periodic re-randomization negates that systematic disadvantaging.Report

Daniel Weltman
Reply to  Shen-yi Liao
7 days ago

Can I ask how you randomize the queue? I’ve always wanted to do this but I haven’t thought of any easy way to make it work.Report

Shen-yi Liao
Reply to  Daniel Weltman
6 days ago
Wesley
6 days ago

I was at a conference once where everyone got a certain number of cards with 1 through 5 on them that had to last the whole week. 1s went first, then 2s, 3s, etc for each QA session. So everyone got the chance to talk in a session depending on how they played their cards and how important they thought their question was.Report

Muhammad Ali Khalidi
5 days ago

Many thanks to Daily Nous for providing a forum to discuss this issue and to all the commentators who’ve weighed in. It seems to me that even those commentators who have had partly or mostly positive experiences with the finger convention allow that a lot depends on the chair/moderator. That was part of my point: this convention places an undue burden on moderators to decide what constitutes a genuine follow-up, which is not always easy to do on the fly and under time constraints. Moreover, when Prof X is a senior faculty member and the moderator is not, one can hardly expect the moderator to step in and exercise this kind of invigilation. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a moderator say: “Sorry, Prof X, that’s not a real follow-up, you’d better wait your turn.”  So why adopt a convention that has so much potential for abuse and exaggerates power differentials in the profession?Report