The art of asking conference questions

Asking a ‘good’ question is an important skill for anthropologists. It is something we practice in a variety of situations – at conferences, during classes (as students and lecturers), at meetings, in conversations with employers and clients, throughout the research process, when we write, as we supervise students or staff, and when we reflect on our teaching. Since my annual ‘conference season’ is almost upon me I have been thinking a lot about the art of asking conference questions.

In particular, I have been thinking about a blog post on one of my favourite blogs, The Thesis Whisperer. Earlier this year Inger Mewburn (aka the Thesis Whisperer) wrote about Academic assholes and the circle of niceness, a post which resonated with a LOT of people. The post talked about academic colleagues who are ‘rude, dismissive, passive aggressive or even outright hostile … in the workplace’ and many of the comments focused on the kind of aggressive and nasty behaviour that audience members at seminars and conferences can display.

You are probably familiar with this behaviour. There are those who ask questions to show how much they know (and, by implication, how much you don’t) about your topic. Others have a particular axe to grind about x, y, or z (which may or may not be related to your presentation). Some basically are just assholes and make it really, really hard not to roll your eyes as their ‘question’ turns into a 3-5 minute statement on … what was it they were saying again?

I am not interested in the kinds of questions academic assholes ask. They are generally neither constructive nor helpful, and they close down the discussion rather than opening up new possibilities for ideas and understanding. I am much more interested in the art of asking ‘good’ questions.

I think the art of asking ‘good’ conference questions involves:

  1. Taking your role as an audience member seriously. This means actively listening to and engaging with the speaker’s ideas.
  2. Considering the Strategies for constructing a question outlined by George Washington University. These include: listening for questions posed but not pursued by the presenter; listening for keywords; listening for the larger theory/issue the presentation addresses; making connections among presentations; and drawing upon your own experience and knowledge.
  3. Asking to inquire, not to impress. This tip comes from a post on about the art of asking questions and essentially says ‘don’t be an asshole’.
  4. Being constructive. This is about opening up possibilities for discussion. A constructive question could probe for more information, give the speaker an opportunity to expand on something there wasn’t time to address, or suggest new ways of thinking about a topic.
  5. Being courteous. Start your question with what you found interesting about the presentation. Try not to interrupt as he or she is answering, and when the speaker has answered your question, thank him or her for the response.
  6. Being clear. This can be difficult, especially if you are still formulating your question as you are talking. However it is important to ask your question as clearly and concisely as you can in order to generate a thoughtful response.
  7. Timing. Is your question something that the speaker will be able to respond to during the time set aside for discussion? Do you want to ask about something specific that might be of interest only to you and the speaker? Do you have a serious concern about an aspect of the presentation, one that is likely to undermine or discredit the speaker? If so, you might consider asking your question in a one-on-one setting rather than in front of an audience.

I enjoy question time at conferences and often learn as much from the questions and responses as I do from the presentations themselves. I appreciate a ‘good’ question as an audience member and speaker, and admire those who have perfected the art of asking questions. (Disclaimer: this is not an art I have perfected myself! I always think of brilliant questions a day or so after the event.)

What do you think? What strategies or tips do you have for asking ‘good’ conference questions?

VUW Anthropology Honours Student Conference 2013

I am currently coordinating one of the Honours courses in VUW’s Cultural Anthropology Programme. In it, the students design and carry out an independent research project on a topic of their choice. Part of the assessment involves them giving a seminar about their work. This year the students will present papers based on their research in a 1-day Anthropology and Agency Honours Student Conference.

Why a conference?

In other courses the students make hour-long presentations (often in pairs) to one another on various aspects of their work. Since they will become quite proficient in making long presentations by the end of the year, I decided to see if they wanted to do something a little different and run a conference instead.

I love going to conferences and have also spoken about my research at less formal events (such as Rotary and Save the Children meetings). I believe that it is important for anthropologists to be able to speak about their work in a range of public settings and thought it would be fun for the students to get involved in organising their own conference.

My teaching goals for this conference are:

  • to complement the oral presentation skills they are developing in other courses
  • to provide them with further career training
  • to provide them with an opportunity to try out their ideas and gain feedback on their work in a constructive forum
  • to showcase what our Cultural Anthropology Honours students are doing to other students and staff.

How we organised it

I pitched my conference idea to them after the mid-year break. Everyone seemed keen so in July we decided on a date, time, and conference theme. Although no two research projects are the same, we had noticed in earlier class discussions that a number of people were addressing the concept of agency in some form, so this seemed like a good theme to loosely link the papers.

Students will present 15-minute papers in panels of three followed by a 15 minute panel discussion where the audience will ask questions of the presenters. This format seemed less scary for first-time presenters, and panel discussions can be a good way to draw out connections and links between the papers.

The students all sent me abstracts which I collated into a booklet to distribute at the conference: Anthropology and Agency Honours Student Conference Abstract Booklet. Some also volunteered to take on the role of session chair, which involves making sure everyone keeps within their allotted time and facilitating the discussion. Through this conference students will gain experience in:

  • writing abstracts
  • conference organisation
  • writing and presenting short papers
  • answering questions ‘on their feet’
  • asking thoughtful, constructive, critical questions of their fellow presenters
  • tweeting updates with the #AAHSC hashtag (for those so inclined)

The VUW Anthropology Society has organised a post-conference gathering at Hunter Lounge. (The VUW Anthropology Society is also on Facebook.)