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Spring 2006 University Writing and Research Symposium
The George Washington University


asking questions | writing responses

For general information about Symposium and session locations, see Maps and Directions. For the schedule of presentations, see the Program Schedule



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These guidelines are also available as a document for download.

Both the audience and the presenters at a public forum such as the Spring 2006 University Writing and Research Symposium can benefit from some reflection on the key role that questions can play in the overall intellectual value of the event.


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The Role of the Audience in the Public Sphere

An audience member at a symposium or other scholarly public forum is not simply expected to sit back and listen. Their job is to actively — provocatively — participate in a dialogue in which audience and presenters explore problem, issues, and topics together.

What Is a “Good” Question

A “good” question opens discussion rather than closing it off. And good questions arise out of engaged, active listening and notetaking. As you listen, be asking yourself:

  1. What have you learned from presenter(s): how has the presentation challenged what you thought you knew about a topic?

  2. What’s behind or beyond the presentation: what larger histories, broader theories, or wider range of experience do they suggest, and how might this expanded frame of reference help us think about things in different ways?

Strategies for Finding or Constructing a Question

From the questions you ask yourself, you can then pose a question to the presenter(s) and the rest of the audience that leads in any number of directions, including the following:

  • Listen for those questions the presenters themselves pose but do not pursue. Most scholarly writers pose questions, explicitly or implicitly. Are any of this presentations questions one you’d like to hear more about?

  • Listen for keywords. Scholars often provide new definitions for familiar terms and suggest ways of thinking through their redefinitions. Are you satisfied with the explanatory work the new definitions do? Are there dark areas they leave unlit? Are there other ways YOU might suggest we define these keywords?

  • Listen for the significant intellectual problem or larger public issue in which the presentation attempts to intervene. Do you accept their challenge to the scholarly consensus or conventional wisdom? Do you want to hear more about the intellectual stakes or practical implications of their challenge?

  • Draw connections among the session/Symposium presentations. One purpose of public presentation is to bring work together in dynamic, cross-pollinating ways. How might you ask about the way the presentations at your session complement or supplement one another? Where do you see unexpected convergence, or equally unexpected divergence? Does the discussion you’ve heard in other Symposium sessions have anything to contribute to this one?

  • Draw upon your own experience and knowledge. Scholarship is not produced in a vacuum. What experiences, theories, or ideas have you been working with, as a scholar or as a human being, that might intersect with the presentation’s topic or approach and might be of interest to the presenter(s) or audience?


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The Role of the Presenter in the Public Sphere

The presentations at a public forum are simply, in some sense, an excuse to prompt further discussion and dialogue, and the questions that follow your presentation might be most generously understood in that light.

What Is a “Good” Question?

Some questions may ask you to elaborate on work you’ve done but didn’t have time to include (indeed, savvy presenters often drop verbal footnotes into their presentation lamenting their time restrictions and suggesting taking up some matter further “in the discussion time”). But, with any luck, the audience or your session co-presenters will push you to consider other approaches, examples, or emphases that you haven’t yet considered, by choice or by blissful ignorance. The question invites you to think out loud and improvise as part of a scholarly exchange — a frightening, but exhilarating prospect.

Strategies for Preparing for Questions and Improvising Responses

  • Give yourself a moment to think. No one expects on-the-spot genius. And even the briefest delaying tactic (“Huh, I’ve never thought of it that way, but you’re right, that could be an interesting approach. Let me start by…”) can be a wise move in giving your brain the time to process the question.

  • Ask the questioner to elaborate on their question. A well-meaning question is an invitation, not a test. Take the time to examine the question with your questioner. Given that a question is itself an example of thinking out loud, they may appreciate another chance to frame it (“Could you expand on what you’re asking, so that I fully understand the question?”). They may have something particular in mind that they aren’t revealing (“That’s interesting: what made you think of this question?”). Or there may be a question behind the question (“Have you worked on a similar project that has made you think of the topic in this way?”).

  • Acknowledge the limits of your research and knowledge. No scholar has world enough and time to explore every nook and cranny of their subject. And while it’s fine to be more interested in some things than others (“That wasn’t where I focused my research. I was more interested in…”), it’s wise to accept questions that point out your limitations for the gift that they are (“Why, no, I didn’t come across that information/writer/approach in my research: tell me more”).


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Suggestions (see this sample response)

When You Attend Sessions

  1. Take notes during the sessions so that you will be able to recall what you found provocative, puzzling, informative, and/or memorable.

  2. Be sure to record the full name of the presenter so that you will be able to find her/his e-mail address through the online directory.

  3. If at all possible, ask the presenter a question during the Q and A session. Again, take notes regarding his/her response.

  4. Find the presenter's e-mail address in the online version of the program

When You Respond to Presenters via E-mail

  1. Introduce yourself. Some presenters may be surprised to receive an e-mail from an address/person they do not recognize.

  2. If you are cc'ing your instructor, It would be useful to indicate you are a student in my class so that the presenter is not surprised to see another name listed on the e-mail.

  3. Explain why you are responding to this presenter. Were you intrigued by the student's paper title? Did you go to hear another paper and find you were captivated by this student's work? Do you have a personal investment in the topic?

  4. Congratulate the presenter on something she/he did well. What did you find particularly impressive or intriguing? Let the presenter know what you learned (and personally gained) from attending the presentation.

  5. If you asked the presenter a question during the Q and A, remind him/her you were the one who asked "x," and perhaps discuss any further thoughts that came to mind after hearing his/her response.

  6. If you find there are some points of clarification or counter arguments that the presenter might want to consider, or sources you think might interest them, then you might want to offer those points in terms of querying whether or not the presenter might plan to return to this topic to conduct more research.

  7. Close by thanking the presenter for submitting a proposal to the Symposium and going public with her/his writing.