THE ART OF ASKING QUESTIONSBoth audience and presenters at a scholarly public forum such as the University Writing and Research Conference can benefit from some reflection on the role that audience feedback plays in such an event.
The Role of the Audience in the Public SphereAn audience member at a scholarly public forum is not simply expected to sit back and listen. Their job is to actively — provocatively — work toward a dialogue in which audience and presenters together explore topics, issues, and problems.
What Is a “Good” Question?
A “good” question opens discussion rather than close it off. And good questions come out of engaged, active listening. As you listen and take notes, ask yourself two questions:
- What have you learned?
How has this presenter or session challenged what you thought you knew
about a topic?
- What’s behind or beyond this presentation? What larger histories, broader theories, or wider range of experience does the session gesture toward?
Strategies for Constructing a Question
From these questions you ask yourself, you can then construct questions to pose to the presenter(s) or your peers in the audience. How?
- Listen for questions
that presenters themselves
pose but do not pursue. Scholarship
explicitly or implicitly. Which ones interest you?
- Listen for keywords. Scholarship often works by asking
us to think through new
definitions for familiar concepts. Are you finding these new
definitions useful? Are there dark areas they leave unlit? Are there
other ways YOU might redefine these keywords?
- Listen for the
intellectual problem or
larger public issue the presentation addresses. Do you accept their challenge to
the conventional wisdom? Do you want to hear more about the
stakes or the practical implications of their challenge?
- Draw connections among
presentations. One purpose of public presentation is to create
opportunities for a dynamic cross-pollination of ideas. Point to ways
that the presentations complement one
another, and ask presenters to comment. Are you seeing unexpected
convergences, or equally unexpected
divergences? Does the discussion you’ve heard in other conference
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 be of interest to the presenter(s) or your peers in the audience?
The Role of the Presenter in the Public Sphere
Public scholarship, is some sense, is simply an excuse to
prompt dialogue and future scholarship. The questions
you get at your presentation can be understood, generously, in
What Is a “Good” Question?
Some questions may ask you to
elaborate on work you’ve done
but didn’t have time to include. (Savvy presenters often drop
verbal footnotes that lament their limited time and suggest taking up
some matter “in the Q&A”).
With any luck, the audience, the moderator, or your
co-presenters will push you to
consider other approaches, examples, or
emphases you haven’t yet considered -- whether by choice or
ignorance. Such questions invite you to think out loud, improvising
your part in a scholarly exchange: a frightening, but
ultimately exhilarating prospect.
Strategies for Anticipating 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 begin to answer by…”) can give
your brain a chance to process the question.
- Ask the questioner to
elaborate on their question. A
well-meaning question is an invitation, not a test. Take some time to
examine the question with your questioner ("Can you clarify your
question?"). A question is
itself an example of thinking out loud, and they may appreciate getting
chance to frame it properly. They may have an example or
mind they haven't revealed (“That’s interesting: what made you
think of that?”). Or there may be a question behind the
question (“Have you been working on a related project that inspired
- Acknowledge the limits of your own research and knowledge. No scholar has world enough and time to explore every nook and cranny of their subject. 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…”). But it’s also 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”).