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University Writing and Research Conference
The George Washington University

THE ART OF ASKING QUESTIONS

Both 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.


ASKING QUESTONS: In the Audience

Ainur Aitbayeva asks a question. 2007 University Writing and Research Symposium.

The Role of the Audience in the Public Sphere

An 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:

  1. What have you learned? How has this presenter or session challenged what you thought you knew about a topic?

  2. 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 poses questions, 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 scholarly consensus or the conventional wisdom? Do you want to hear more about the intellectual 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?


ANSWERING QUESTIONS: Presenters

Presenter Praveen Savalgi discusses his poster with a member of the audience. 2007 University Writing and Research Symposium.

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 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. (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 through blissful 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 another chance to frame it  properly. They may have an example or comparison in 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 your queation?”).

  • 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”).