Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Etiquette of Q & A

Anyone who has ever been to an academic conference is surely familiar with that strange, strange thing we so innacurately refer to as the "Q&A" period. "Q&A" is meant to stand for "Question and Answer," of course, though there is precious little of either in many of these sessions. I mean, I suppose that technically speaking there are questions (meaning: audience members do make statements that end with a slight upward lilt in the timbre of their voices, indicating something like an implied question mark) and answers (meaning: panelists generally do wax on while simultaneously turning their heads in the general direction of the "questioner," indicating something like a real response), but the way Q&A sessions work out in the real world of academic conferences is a far cry from how I imagine the inventor of Q&A sessions drew it up in the locker room. Rather, they often end up being a little like what students say about Marxism: good in theory, but terrible in practice.

Perhaps I shouldn't generalize, since it's possible that not all academic conferences are this way, but this certainly is the case at professional Philosophy conferences. I know that because I've been to my fair share and also because I hear philosophers complain about it all the time. (Yes, the very same philosophers who constitute the offending parties in said sessions!) So, I was interested to read over on Philosophers Anonymous a discussion about possibly constructing Some Rules for Philosophy Q&A. This seems like a good start to me. My basic rule list for conference Q&A sessions would look something like this:

RULE #1: Audience members are required to ask a *real* question, which *really* pertains to the speaker's paper, and to do so in the most concise way possible.
NOTE 1: Questioners are obliged to avoid, at all costs, long and rambling prefaces to their questions, especially those that include (a) doting and fawning hallelujahs in praise of the speaker, (b) summaries of the questioner's own book/research/dissertation, (c) self-effacing evaluations about the proposed question ("this is probably a stupid question, but I'm going to ask it anyway..."), or (d) mini-lectures on the relevant literature.
NOTE 2: If the questioner intends to make a comment instead of asking a question, s/he should state as much at the outset. S/he should also understand that the speaker is in no way obligated to respond, becuase IT'S NOT A QUESTION.
NOTE 3: Questioners should refrain from re-asking questions that have already been asked. If the speaker didn't answer it the first time, it's likely s/he won't answer it the second time. Either s/he doesn't have an answer, doesn't understand the question, or doesn't care. Deal with it.
NOTE 4: If the questioner's question amounts to something like "wtf?" then s/he should forego the whole charade of asking a question and instead opt for the much more direct and effective strategy of rolling his or her eyes, sighing loudly, and then complaining about the paper later at the hotel bar. Or, alternatively, s/he should actually ask "wtf?".

RULE #2: Speakers are required to provide *real* answers, which demonstrate that they both heard and understood the question, and to do so in the most concise way possible.
NOTE 1: Answers can, and often should, be formulated as follows: "I don't know."
NOTE 2: Speakers should not take the Q&A period as an opportunity to re-hash the entire content of their papers. Obviously, if there are questions, people didn't get something about it the first time around.
NOTE 3: Do not end your response by saying "Does that answer your question?". I'll go ahead and tell you, it doesn't. Move on.

RULE #3: Moderators are required to do their job, which is more than just introducing the panelists.
NOTE 1: The moderator's jobs include, but are not limited to, enforcing the time limits for papers, cutting-off indulgent pontificators and/or bullies when they run on, clarifying obvious miscommunications between panelists and questioners, and making sure that everyone maintain a minimal degree of professional decorum.
NOTE 2: Moderators are advised to never, EVER, allow "follow-ups" from either panelists or questioners. That's a surefire way to turn the discussion into a dialogue. People will get all huffy and pout when you say no to their follow-up requests, but they'll deal with it. That's life. Sometimes you don't get to say everything you wanted to say. If they complain, tell them you'll be happy to call them a waaahmbulance as soon as the session is over.
NOTE 3: Don't be a patsy for senior, famous, good-looking or influential audience members. Try to get to as many questions as possible, including those from women and more junior audience members.
NOTE 4: If panelists and/or audience members begin behaving in an unseemly or unprofessional manner, begin talking over one another or adopting patronizing and dismissive tones, cease to stay on point, or impede the session in any other way, then take control of the session. Put somebody in time-out if you need to.
NOTE 5: Never, ever, EVER call on someone who walked in mid-way through the presentation. Duh.

I welcome additions and amendments to this proposed list of rules. I'm sure you have both. And on a semi-related note, I want to thank those of you who have contributed questions via my AskDoctorJ link. I'm getting to them and you'll start seeing that version of a Q&A on this blog very soon.


Emma B. said...

I have a question.

Dr. J, thank you for your excellent presentation. You indeed pinpoint some of the more frustrating elements of Q&A sessions and organize common complaints into a useful rubric.

However. (Oh shit, she's going off... is the moderator going to stop her?) As someone regularly guilty of many, if not all of the things you would like to see the end of (in all roles) I fear, however, that the model of question and answer for which you wish might not be one that is either suitable, desirable, or even possible. Q&A in some contexts might mean a direct answer can be given to a simple and directly relevant question about the paper. But in our field, how many direct answers so simple relevant questions can there be? Factual information? Ok. The result of a logical operation? Oh yes.

Rather, it seems to me, that Q&A is to be sure an opportunity for simple clarifications, but moreover, and better, it is also an opportunity for dialogue, for recontextualization, for speculation, for opening up the possibilities raised by the presentation which might take it in new directions. I do not see it as an opportunity for definitive answers - the "Q&A" in this sense is a misnomer.

I am moved to ask you a question because something you have said has set me off on a train of thought, has inspired or irritated me. I would like to air that and see how you might respond to it. What I say might not take the form of a question, except at the end I'll say, "how would you respond to that?" This to me is the doing of philosophy.

Sure thing, shut down the arrogant, the rude, the blowhards, the hostile, and so on. But seeking to limit the Q&A to simple and literal "Q&A" is seeking to limit the expression of what Foucault would call an *incitement* to discourse. This latter comes close to the very reason I attend philosophical conferences in the first place. (And this is all without even mentioning the Derridean point that the condition of the possibility of the letter is the possibility of its non-arrival... etc.)

Care to respond? :)

Art Carden said...

I agree with Emma B.; this was a very interesting presentation that hits some of the highlights of conference participation. However, I want to draw your attention to two essential contributions to the literature that you appear to have neglected:

1. Most importantly, my paper "How to be a Great Conference Participant" is essential.

2. The always-interesting Tyler Cowen has also blogged about this recently.

I'll end my question with an amusing anecdote that adds little to the discussion but that will consume some of the time that stands between right now and the end of the session. When we were in graduate school, David Zetland--who spoke at Rhodes this past Fall and whose blog Aguanomics is essential reading for anyone interested in environmental issues--attended the Institute for Humane Studies's Social Change Workshop. At the end of one session, someone gave one of those soliloquy-questions (soliliquestions?) that didn't really have a point. David and I, from different places in the audience, independently timed him at 3:56. At least, I think it was 3:56. Regardless, we came away with the same time measure.