Saturday, December 02, 2006

The academic's guide to surviving question periods

Hey, it's December. When did that happen?

It's December, and as if to drive the point home, they're calling today for freezing rain and then later on, snow. I knew this was worrisome when I woke to the sound of one of my neighbours scraping ice from their windshield underneath my window. Fortunately, I don't have to go anywhere today ...

Classes ended yesterday, thus bringing to an end my second first semester here at MUN. Amazing the difference a year makes. I was rather surprised last year how at sea I felt, how hard it was to adapt to a new academic and scholastic environment, and -- in spite of the fact that I'd had four years of teaching under my belt, not counting my four years before that as a TA -- how much I felt like a neophyte in the classroom.

I've still got a ways to go, but the difference this term was palpable ... though I have to credit a significant part of the easier time I had this go around to the fact that I was blessed with a really good group of students. My 20th-century American novel course was one of the most enjoyable classes I've ever taught -- and I'm not just saying that because I know some of my students now read this blog (see how sucking up can work both ways, guys? though my timing is is bad ... I should have made outrageously flattering comments before course evals).

It's been a while since my last entry, so I should do a post-lecture round-up. First of all, I am pleased to say that it was standing-room only at the Ship ... not that it takes many people to fill the place. It's not a particularly large pub. But still: "standing-room only." I like the sounds of that. AND I was told that this was one of the best-attended lectures in recent memory. Though I suppose if you put an image of the World Trade Center on your advertising, you'll get a lot of people coming out to see what you have to say ...

Also, it was videotaped for ... well, I'm not sure what for. Posterity, I guess. That in and of itself isn't so much of a concern for me, though it did freak me out immediately before when I had my obligatory sense of impending doom and academic catastrophe. The thought of having a record of my shame and stupidity was a bit daunting. But beyond that, and more immediately a concern at the time, was the fact that in order to be seen on the video, I had to be lit with the stagelights ... the effect of which was that I could not see my audience. At all. Which is a problem, given that I like to be able to gauge how I'm doing in a lecture situation by audience reaction, which isn't always vocal enough for me to rely on hearing alone.

But all that being said, the lecture was well received, and we have what can only be termed a lively question period. And if you've never been to a public lecture -- and more significantly, if you're an academic and you've never delivered one -- it is an interesting experience. I've done one in the past, as part of the London Public Library's Media Literacy Series, back before getting that PhD thing. I lectured then on conspiracy theory; and if there was ever a topic to bring the wingnuts out of the woodwork, that was it.

The thing is, when you present a lecture or a paper to an academic audience, there is a kind of unspoken etiquette to the questions ... though etiquette is the wrong word, because it's not necessarily about being polite. I don't know the right word, though "verbal dance" might come closest. What I mean is this: even when you have an antagonistic questioner, someone really out to attack you, it's almost invariably couched in academese (the official language of pretension and pomposity). So the antagonistic questioner's attack might begin with this: "Well, this is obviously a very important issue and deserves serious inquiry [suggesting that your talk has not accomplished this], but I think you've misstated one of the key points here, and I have to take exception to your reading of X ..."

So even as you see that you're about to get tagged, the preamble gives you a chance to steel yourself and think of responses that don't include "Bite me!" or "Fuck off!" Though let me tell you, sometimes the temptation to say just that is overwhelming ...

Variations on the annoying question: "Well this is interesting, but what does it have to do with MY specialty?" (e.g. "This paper on the geopolitical impact of globalization is interesting, but how does it address the history of the book?"); the twenty-minute ramble, which is exactly what it sounds like: i.e. the questioner goes on and on and on, finally trailing off with a lame question like "So what do you think of that?" (my favourite response to one of those was by Judith Butler, who had just delivered a keynote at a conference at UWO -- when her interlocutor finally trailed off, she stepped away from the lectern and very pointedly gestured at it, inviting him to come down and deliver the lecture); and of course, the question that is not a question.

All of these have stock responses one can give, most frequently "Well, I hadn't thought about it that way ... would you like to talk a bit more about what you mean?" Which almost always works, since most obnoxious questioners really just want a chance to grandstand.

So public lectures can be a bit dislocating -- but also, I believe, invaluable to academics as a way of keeping yourself honest and not getting entirely lost in the scholarly echo-chamber -- because the questions you get from non-academics (a) have none of the verbal dance we insulate ourselves with, and (b) often come entirely from left-field. Which can be in equal measures humbling, educational, aggravating, and amusing.

Case in point, from my conspiracy theory lecture: the questioning gambit I now think of as the "What about Gandhi?" question. Having talked at some length about Kennedy's assassination and its role in the American consciousness (a topic I returned to, incidentally, in the Ship lecture), I was grilled rather mercilessly by a woman about various other assassinations that had not had conspiracy theories spring up around them, and why this was the case. Now, keeping in mind that I was being asked about incidences I had broad but not specific knowledge of (for example, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand), I could not speak with much detail, and made a point of saying so. Unsatisfied with my answers, she would cut me off and ask me about the next assassination she had in mind, finally culminating in a somewhat angry and disdainful, "Well, what about Gandhi?" To which I responded with some exasperation, "What about Gandhi?", which I think angered her further. Fortunately, I was then rescued by another questioner ...

This past Tuesday, I must say, the question period was very enjoyable. Tough, but enjoyable -- I had a couple of very sharp and pointed questions that cut right to the heart of my discussion and addressed some of the gaps in my argument (some I was aware of, some not). Which, though it puts you on the spot, is exactly the kind of thing you look for when working through ideas.

The "What about Gandhi?" question this time around was asked by a woman who prefaced herself with a preamble about the state of the world and America's role in it -- the war in Iraq, the excesses of American imperialism, etc etc. The question she came to was "So what's the answer?"

And she wouldn't let it go! I said, quite frankly, that I am in no way qualified to give an answer to the world's problems, but she persisted with it for some time, until I finally said something trite about public discussions like this being a start.

You know how, an hour after something like that you come up with the perfect answer? I now wish I'd said, "Ma'am, if I had that answer, I wouldn't be a junior English professor at MUN ... I'd be Jesus. And frankly, I don't want that gig, seeing as how the retirement package is kind of rough."

Sigh. If I had a time machine, I'd be wittier than Oscar Wilde.

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