Asking questions

The following are some suggestions written for graduate students in the hope of encouraging, and supporting, them in asking questions at talks. They are not intended to be complete, or to provide a decision procedure. Usual levels of intelligence, reasonableness, and sensitivity are required in order to follow them. Two specific forms of incompleteness are worth mentioning: I say nothing here (except implicitly) about either politeness (and so non-agressiveness) or about the specific implementation of the aim of being helpful, e.g. to speaker or audience.  I take it that with respect to both issues, one quickly reaches the point at which written advice ceases to be helpful. But let me anyway say three things. First, philosophy is very difficult. One should view what one takes to be a speaker’s mistakes in that light. Second, rudeness, even when backed up by solid questions or objections, impresses only the foolish, and has a tendency to undermine whatever esteem might otherwise have been attracted by a good question. Third, being helpful includes allowing that others may have other questions to pursue, that there may be a variety of reasons for which the speaker may not be able fully to address one’s question there and then, and generally attending to the needs of all others in the room.

Three laws:

1. You are obliged to (attempt to) ask a question in every talk you attend.

2. In asking questions, the fundamental aim is to help oneself, other attendees, or the speaker to better understand the issues involved in the talk.

3. If you cannot think of a substantive question, then you should (attempt to) ask a question of clarification. (Corollary of Law 1 and Law 2: From 1, you should (attempt to) ask a question; From 2, if you have a question of clarification, there is a good chance that asking it will be of help to at least one of oneself, other attendees, and the speaker.)

Hints and tips:

1. Always bear the first Law in mind when auditing a talk: the pressure is on for you to ask a question once the talk has finished, so you should spend the talk trying your utmost to generate one.

2. It can be helpful to take notes during a talk, especially to note points that you found objectionable or unclear.

3. You may find it helpful to write your question down before asking it. This can serve as a sort of support when you come to ask your question. A side benefit is that some speakers will ask you to repeat/fill out your question, and having a written version to hand can be helpful in that case.

4. Always listen carefully to what the speaker says in response. If you are unsatisfied with the speaker’s response as at least addressing your question, it is often worth pressing them, perhaps simply by saying ‘Sorry, I may be being slow, but I’m not sure how that answers my question.’ My own rule is to try to only respond once in this way. If you are unsatisfied, the chances are that others are too; you can either rest content with that result, or allow others a chance at pressing the same line of questioning. However, if the speaker’s response appears to address your question, but in a way that opens them to further objection, you can (with chair’s permission) press them with the further objection. Again, my own basic rule is to stick to two, or at most three, bits of to-ing and fro-ing.

Some styles of question:

1. The question of clarification. E.g., ‘I wonder if you could say a little more about…’

2. The question of comparison. E.g., ‘You said X, but (insert philosophers name) denies Y [optional: because Z], and it wasn’t clear to me that you had explained why you think (insert philosophers name) is wrong about this [optional: what your response was to the considerations they raise against X].’

3. The counterexample. E.g., ‘If I understood you correctly, you said X. But suppose Y. Wouldn’t that be a counterexample to X?’

4. The putative inconsistency. E.g., ‘You appeared to say X at the start of your talk, and then to say Y later in your talk. Isn’t there at least a tension between X and Y?’

5. The additional case. E.g., ‘If your proposal is viable, one would expect it to cover Y. Do you think that’s right? And if you do, I wonder if you could say something about how your account does cover Y [optional: because there would appear to be the following difficulties].’

6. The distinction. E.g., ‘You appeared to treat the following claims (/case/etc.) as on a par, but there appears to be a distinction between them [optional: because…]’

7. The support. E.g., ‘I wonder whether it might be helpful to consider X in developing your case (/responding to objection Y, explaining claim Z, etc.) [optional: brief expatiation on X].’

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10 comments
  1. I appreciate the thought, but I think the first law is just false.

    There are many times where the rest of the audience is way more knowledgable than I in the area under discussion, and where my question will just take up valuable time, and drag the discussion down. If I can tell this in advance, and also be fairly sure that my judgement to the effect is not just the output of imposter syndrome, then I have no obligation to try to generate a question.

    Also, I think this is bad advice

    “… so you should spend the talk trying your utmost to generate one”.

    Imho, the talk time should be spent trying as hard as one can to **understand what the speaker is trying to say**, *charitably*. The speaker almost never presents the material optimally, so some work to get through to the message will be required. That’s the main task during the talk.

    Finally, the “because” in 6 is not optional!

    Otherwise: nice!

    • Thanks for your comments.

      Like most non-basic laws, these are ceteris paribus. So, of course one must use reason to apply them properly. Moreover, they were constructed to highlight a feature of the responsibilities of audiences, and so to encourage the reticent. Of course, if one (somehow) knows that those responsibilities will be discharged without one’s help, then one can know one is off the hook.

      Your suggestion about bad advice seems to presuppose a claim to the effect that the advice here is supposed to be complete, or to trump all other considerations. (“What, you mean I should ignore the fire alarm?”) More specifically, it seems to assume, first, that generating a question could take place without (charitable) understanding and, second, that it would be fine for no one to attempt to ask a question on grounds that all had used all their time to understand the talk charitably. I disagree with both the latter assumptions.

    • Finally, on 6. You don’t say why you think the “because…” clause is non-optional. I can imagine cases in which it wouldn’t be optional, but that’s irrelevant. If a speaker assumes that A and B are the same, or explicitly commits to this without argument, it seems to me that it’s their responsibility to be prepared to defend the assumption or commitment. Thus, if they haven’t done this and are asked to do so, they should. If it is obvious that A and B are the same, and no reason is given for thinking they’re not, then “It’s obvious” might be an acceptable response. But there might be more to say. It seems to me that there’s no special reason for the audience in general to meet further demands, given the standing responsibilities of the speaker.

  2. there is nothing worse than silence after a talk, it makes the speaker feel like no one is interested and the audience feel like discussion of the topic is not warranted or welcome (even later in the pub). The only person law 1 is a law for is the chair, who must start questions if there are none, but polite, well educated audience members don’t wait like children for the chair to start things off. This is great advice for clarifying to students that questions are an essential part of the academic talk, not a hurdle that the speaker would rather avoid.

    • Thanks for your comments. Yes, that was pretty much the motivation for the suggestions. I’ve been in that position as chair, and think it’s worth making clear that the obligation is really distributed.

  3. This is great advice, thanks. I tell my graduate students that being able to ask good questions is a skill, and like all good skills it only comes with practice (which is why I oblige them to ask questions).

    Then I tell them that they should use their own uncertainty as a guide, learning to trust it is an instinct, and practicing clarifying this uncertainty into a useful question.

    Also, and perhaps relevant, we’ve instituted a policy in our departmental seminars of having the first question from a postgrad or a non-lecturing staff member.

    • Thanks very much! That’s also good advice. I think we may institute the students-first rule.

      • i stole the rule from the psychology department at Berkeley. I think it’s a useful local social norm

      • At Sussex, the order of questions is at the chair’s discretion (in accordance with BPA/SWIP Good Practice Guidelines), which enables student questions to be prioritised without artificially separating student and faculty questions, which can be problematic in other ways. This seems to work well in practice, as does use of the hand/finger convention for new questions and follow-ups.

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