[AcademicFilter] How can I ask better questions in seminars?
February 15, 2012 3:13 PM   Subscribe

[AcademicFilter] How can I ask better questions at seminars?

I'm a very junior postdoc in the humanities at a good North American university, and there's quite a lot of pressure on me to show up at seminars, and to make my presence felt at them by asking (hopefully smart, helpful or insightful) questions of the speaker. I'm finding this difficult (I already have major imposter syndrome, and this makes it that much worse), and I have two questions:

1) How can I get better at asking smart questions about presentations on material I know next to nothing about? I've noticed senior academics using some of the following strategies:

- Trying to make connections to their own research by making regional comparisons: e.g. 'You say X about Kenya, how true is X for Bengal in the same period'
- Always pushing an agenda: e.g. Professor so-and-so is known at all seminars for asking about Foucault no matter what the person presenting is talking about.

2) How can I get better at asking questions in general? I process auditory information pretty slowly, and tend to think of questions long after the seminar is over. (I prefer reading for this reason). I also have to constantly fight anxiety to speak up at all for fear that what I say will come out inarticulate and confused (this sometimes happens). But I know that this is a part of the job I won't be able to avoid, so I just need to get better at it. Coping strategies and generic questioning strategies all welcome.
posted by starcrust to Education (35 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
I actually think the two strategies you mention are recipes for asking bad questions in seminar.

As a grad student, I think your role is to ask honest questions -- I mean, not questions that are meant to convey that you're smart, questions that are authentically about something in the talk that you didn't understand. Asking questions like that is what marks you to the faculty as an engaged grad student who has come to the talk to learn something, not one of the ones who's only there because their advisor said they have to go, and who hustles out silently as soon as the talk is over.

Also, every time you get a respectful reply to one of your questions, it helps with the impostor syndrome.
posted by escabeche at 3:22 PM on February 15, 2012 [14 favorites]


Is there any way you can read up about the speakers ahead of time? Read their most recent (or relevant paper) and give yourself time to think?
posted by smirkette at 3:22 PM on February 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, I've started to keep track of these, actually, now that I approach the job market.

Here's a couple of other strategies the profs use in my department (which can be notoriously harsh to guest speakers at weekly seminars)...

Strategy "Fixate on a term", variation A: Ask about the way in which the speaker is using some term. "I notice you keep hearkening back to term X, which as you know also features prominently in the work of theorist Y; I wonder if you could comment on how your use of the term is influenced by or speaks back to his/her use of the term."

OR,

Variation B: "I notice you keep hearkening back to term X, but it's unclear to me how your use of it is adequately distinguished from term Y..." (AKA, the 'Why are you using that word instead of MY word' question)

OR,

Strategy "Reframe the issue," variation A: "When you discuss X, I wonder if what you're getting at isn't actually a question of [a different framing concept entirely]. What would this make available to you, if you chose to look at X through that lens?"

This last one is what I call a "dick move" but it certainly seems popular...
posted by artemisia at 3:24 PM on February 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ah, but yes, to chime in on smirkette's point - these strategies really are kind of awful, because the best questions should be genuine. That said, I understand performance anxiety in these settings, so I'm sympathetic to folks who want a framework on which to build an "appropriate" question.
posted by artemisia at 3:25 PM on February 15, 2012


(Oops, that was escabeche's point. Okay, I am slinking away now...)
posted by artemisia at 3:26 PM on February 15, 2012


Booze! How are you in one-on-one or more casual conversations, when the stakes are lower? Can you tag along to drinks or dinner with the speaker and his/her hosts afterwards, have a glass of wine, and chat?
posted by yarly at 3:30 PM on February 15, 2012


Every time the speaker says some aspect of the research was particularly difficult, be sure to ask about it specifically. Similarly, if something were easy, ask why it was so.

"What made this specific aspect so difficult?"
"You said you initially explored X; what made you choose that as the first test case?"

Also, ask about any tools that were created specifically for the research -- software, an organizing system, etc. You can never go wrong with asking a carpenter about his favorite hammer.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:41 PM on February 15, 2012


The best way to ask good questions is to know either the subject or the speaker. When you get the seminar schedule, bone up a bit on both the speaker and the subject of whatever sessions you plan to attend. If you ask a speaker about how this work compares to his/her last paper- which maybe he/she did not even talk about- so long as it's a sensible question you'll make yourself look good and the speaker will be able to give a good answer.
posted by Patapsco Mike at 3:45 PM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Often the speakers give a throw-away line at some point in the talk about something they "don't have time to get into now" or about future plans for the research, or similar. I like to ask about those things, because they are totally not a dick move - often the speaker WANTS to talk about them, and they are usually really interesting. I like to think that even if my questions aren't as "clever" as the ones that trash the speaker's whole argument or present the questioner's own research agenda, they are sufficiently interesting and pleasant that the speaker might want to talk to me again in the future or at dinner, and really, that's a much better way to network.

(I hope).
posted by lollusc at 3:50 PM on February 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


1. Look up a tiny bit about the subject before the seminar. Get curious.
2. Listen to EVERYTHING the speaker says with the idea in mind that you will be asking a question. It really can change the way you hear what's said. Don't just listen to the talk, then panic and try to come up with a questions.

Also: I've totally given up on asking "smart" questions in seminars. I just ask questions I actually have. This plan has not backfired and the professors do not think I'm an idiot.
posted by Cygnet at 3:50 PM on February 15, 2012 [8 favorites]


Oh, and occasionally you still get to look like you one-upped the speaker, because sometimes it turns out that "I don't have time to get into that" means "I am avoiding that because it threatens my argument" or "I haven't bothered to think about this question yet", and then you look like you were cleverly locating the holes in the argument. Even though you didn't mean to. So it's kind of win-win.
posted by lollusc at 3:51 PM on February 15, 2012


For question 1: if you prefer, you can start off by going up to the speaker afterwards and asking them a question one-on-one. This is a much lower-pressure avenue to practice; as you get more confident, you can speak up during the actual Q&A session. One other thing is that as you go to more seminars, you improve your ability to relate what the speaker is saying not just to your own research but also to the field at large. And I would be sure to keep the tone collegial and friendly, so that it reads like a conversation and not a confrontation -- one jumping off point could be, for instance, "if I were collaborating with this person, what would I want to know next?"

For question 2: do you take notes? I started taking copious notes and found it really helped me - not because I look at the notes later (although I very occasionally do), but because it keeps me focused and thinking about the talk. You can also jot down beginnings of questions as they occur to you so you don't forget.

(I think it's a great idea to focus on this, BTW. A while ago I also made a conscious effort to start asking more questions, and I think it really helped me both to become more engaged and to get more out of going to seminars.)
posted by en forme de poire at 4:29 PM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


You know that thing we say to our students "there are no stupid questions"? Well, it's actually pretty much true--unlike so many of the things we say to them. The secret to asking a good question at a seminar is simply to ask a real question: listen hard to the paper (like you, I find it hard to hold an oral presentation in my head--it helps if I take notes), have pen and paper with you even if you're not taking notes, write down questions as they arise while you're listening, then just force yourself to actually ask one of them during the question period. Just make it be something that you genuinely wanted to hear more about or were genuinely puzzled by in the paper: "could you expand a little on what you said about X? I was surprised to hear them mentioned in connection with Y when I've always tended to associate them with Z"?

What stops us asking questions is the fear that the answer is obvious and that we're the only ones in the room who aren't entirely aware that X has widely been associated with Y since Prof Blargle's groundbreaking work on X published two years ago. In fact, though, 99 times out of a hundred, the question you're afraid to pipe up and ask is exactly the question on everyone else's mind. And even if you hit on that one in a hundred unlucky time the question will still be useful for the speaker; you'll have served them up a nice fat softball that they can hit out of the park in their reply. From the point of view of your colleagues, the transaction will be a successful one ("starcrust is engaged, a good departmental citizen, helped prevent the q&a from stalling etc.") In short, the downsides of asking a question are almost entirely imaginary, the upsides--as long as the question is a genuine one--are very real. Just force yourself to stick your hand up as soon as the talk is over and you'll get extra credit for getting the ball rolling.
posted by yoink at 4:33 PM on February 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm a big fan of "active listening," which is essentially what lollusc and Cygnet are saying. I didn't ask questions that I don't truly want to hear the answer to, and I never aimed to get into some sort of pissing match with the speaker, even if I knew they were wrong - that's just rude and frankly will only hurt you at this point in your career. At some point, I also had to let go of my fear that I was asking "stupid" or "obvious" questions, too. (Prefacing a question with "Can you clarify what you mean when you said," puts the onus on them, actually.)
posted by sm1tten at 4:33 PM on February 15, 2012


What yoink says x a million - as long as the question is the one you want to ask to further your own understanding. Anything else is really obvious if you've been in the audience for more than one seminar with the same person. It's really quite a bit like getting spam.
posted by cromagnon at 4:49 PM on February 15, 2012


It's helpful to have a passing familiarity with the person's work or field, but not so much of a familiarity that you're asking questions that will lose the rest of the audience. Try looking at the description of their work that they post on their own university's website, or read one of their papers, and come up with some questions to those written materials. That gives you a chance to not have to be so extemporaneous. They may or may not answer your questions in their talk, or they might talk about something else entirely, but you'd have some starting points.

If I'm really keen, I take very specific notes during the talk. Rather than just writing what they say, I try to rephrase their argument in my own words as they go. You know more-or-less where the talk is going in the first 10 or so minutes. Write down their central argument around that point, and then write down some things that YOU would do to support or refute that argument, if it was your work. (I'm in the sciences and have no idea how well this would work in the humanities, but it's worth a shot.) Then, keep listening, and make a note of where your approach and theirs lines up, and where it diverges. On the points of divergence, you can ask "I was wondering if you've ever tried technique ABC--are there any advantages or disadvantages to that approach?" On points of convergence, you can feel like less of an imposter, since you and this Super Genius seem to think the same way! And if you agree on *every* point you can probably extrapolate to "future work" and ask about that. When I act like it's a dialogue and not a class lecture, I can almost always come up with questions.
posted by tchemgrrl at 5:03 PM on February 15, 2012


...do you take notes? I started taking copious notes and found it really helped me - not because I look at the notes later (although I very occasionally do), but because it keeps me focused and thinking about the talk. You can also jot down beginnings of questions as they occur to you so you don't forget.
posted by lollusc


Look for ways that the topic could be adapted or expanded. "Would your underwater lamp be suited for use in outer space?" You give the speaker a chance to expand their ideas without themselves seeming overly expansive. You could hit the jackpot if they say, "You know, I hadn't considered that, but you might be on to something. Gotta run back to the lab now!"
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:31 PM on February 15, 2012


My own strategy in grad school was to set myself the goal of asking at least one genuine question per seminar. It didn't have to be a brilliant question, it didn't have to be more than one, and it was okay if it wasn't every seminar. But asking one genuine question on a regular basis served me well. Doubly so when a) nobody else was asking questions, b) other people's questions were obviously asked for show (which sounds like the situation you are in), or c) the speaker really wanted to stop talking about the previous questions (it happens).
posted by postel's law at 5:33 PM on February 15, 2012


Basically, mine the issues that aren't on the table.

"If you don't mind saying so, could you tell us about the reception of your work so far? What do you think have been the most thought-provoking responses you've had on this topic from other scholars?"

"I'd like be glad to know more about the intellectual genealogy for this work, i.e. who do you see as the people who've influenced it directly and what sort of things did they say to influence you?"

"I really appreciated how neatly you've addressed the topic, but I wonder if you could tell us about any unanswered research questions you discovered while working on this or loose threads you'd like to follow up on?"
posted by Monsieur Caution at 5:46 PM on February 15, 2012


My undergrad department used to have a couple of copies of the speaker most recent or most important papers in a folder in the office the week before a talk so you could take a look at them. (this was before papers were available as pdfs, so someone had to go ahead and photocopy them to have them). We were expected to have at least read the abstracts and the last paragraph of the intro (where the thesis statement is) so when we went into the seminar we were at least vaguely clued in to what was going on.

Do this for yourself - you don't have to be an expert, just know a little about what the person does and it will give you greater confidence going into the talk and let you think about the ideas and data they're presenting more critically than if you're struggling to figure out what the heck is going on.

You know how people say "I've got a stupid question ..."? Don't do that. Instead, say, "I've got a naive question..."

Even if you're new to a field and you're asking a question that someone more experienced might know immediately, it is okay. There may be a couple of people in the audience who are super knowledgeable, but you're sitting with your fellow postdocs and the grad students who probably also would benefit from the speaker answering your question.
posted by sciencegeek at 6:15 PM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I was wondering if you've ever tried technique ABC--are there any advantages or disadvantages to that approach?"

I think this is an important part: this approach is not over-reaching, like "why didn't you use technique ABC???". Instead this asks the question in a way that gives the speaker credit for being intelligent, too. As a bonus, it covers your grad student self in that even if they say "well, there are disadvantages for these obvious reasons", you've anticipated that there might be disadvantages.

And one of my favorite question-askers is a well-known scholar in her field who is totally not afraid to start her question with "I haven't had time to fully think this through, so bear with me, but your work seems to me related to blah blah blah... " or "I'm thinking of a connection with XYZ but am not sure if I can fully articulate, I'm getting at blah blah blah, what do you think?". She says this with perfect confidence, no quavery voice or uptalking.

I love that approach because it gets at the fact that you are in fact thinking on the fly, and a spoken presentation is supposed to be a fun, casual exchange of ideas, and f. 'em if they can't handle a question that isn't a fully formed thing sprung from the head of Zeus.
posted by lillygog at 6:58 PM on February 15, 2012


Instead, say, "I've got a naive question..."

Right! Or there are other graceful ways to say this, like "I'm still exploring the field of blahbity-blah, and am wondering about the implications of this-and-that-somewhat-basic-thing". And some of the most high-powered scholars I know are not afraid to say "This sub-field is totally new to me and I don't know much about it, so with that caveat here is my question." Sure, there are the jerks who never want to look weak by admitting they are not inhumanly perfect, but in my experience the most high powered folks are often quite confident in admitting what they don't know.
posted by lillygog at 7:06 PM on February 15, 2012


This is so helpful, thanks everyone. I always wonder about taking notes in seminars: whether I ought to take copious notes to force myself to actively listen, or whether I should just listen and jot down thoughts and questions that occur, and forget about capturing information. I kind of see these as stages of development in becoming awesome at attending seminars, since the more I know about something, the fewer factual notes I have to take and the more I can focus on the big picture. Cue superstar Professor who lolls about in chair with a scrap of paper and a pencil in front of him, untouched...and then asks the killer question.

Take-home summary:
1) Ask honest questions
2) Read up on the speaker and subject beforehand
3) Listen with an intent to ask
4) Be collegial not confrontational
5) It's OK to ask naive questions (really)
posted by starcrust at 8:15 PM on February 15, 2012


It's ok to ask naive questions, but with a caveat -- don't ask a question without thinking about it at all, or paying attention to the talk. Contrary to what people say, there _are_ stupid questions (like ones which show that you totally didn't understand some simple concepts in the talk or the basics of the topic).
posted by redlines at 9:45 PM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is a problem that nearly every junior person has, to some extent. My advice is: please, please, please do not ask questions so people hear you ask questions. It is always obvious to everybody in the room if this is your agenda, and it reflects very poorly on you. You are WAY better off being quiet than asking the forced question. Give it time. Like everything in academia, the ability to assimilate information in a seminar setting and think critically about it is a skill that is developed over time. Don't force it.

The real question is where the pressure comes from? Did a senior person specifically tell you this? Or is this pressure you put on yourself? You say you are at a top university, which implies to me that your postdoc is research focused--and even if it isn't, a tenure track job at a major university is going to require research. Is your postdoc time really best spent reading papers and CVs for a seminar topic that is not your research area just to seem thoughtful in seminars? Time management is by far the hardest part of being a junior faculty member, so you have to think about the return on time invested. I haven't gone up for tenure yet, but I doubt that "Well, he didn't publish much, but he always seems perfectly on point in our research seminars" is going to fly with the tenure and review committee.

As junior people, we pressure ourselves to be instantly perfect at every aspect of the job. I can tell you from experience it isn't possible. The senior person that you envy has probably been doing this for at least 20 years. Why should you have the same polish on your skills as them? Any department that expects that is probably not a good place to be long-term. Being in the big leagues in academia is a pressure cooker to start with, without making extra stress for yourself.

I'm running a bit long here and have some grading to do (sigh) but one last thought: if you are a well-known and well-respected, senior person, you can get away with the naive question. As a relatively unknown junior person, I don't think it comes across the same way. Those are questions that are best left for one-on-one time with the author in the time immediately following the presentation or via email--if you really care enough to want to know the answer.
posted by jtfowl0 at 9:52 PM on February 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


I forgot one way to vet your questions: sit with someone you know, write the question down during the talk and share it with your friend to see what s/he thinks.
posted by sciencegeek at 4:16 AM on February 16, 2012


Is your postdoc time really best spent reading papers and CVs for a seminar topic that is not your research area just to seem thoughtful in seminars?

If you want to be a good researcher with perspective on your whole field and the ability to develop and maintain a lifelong research program, hell yes.

"I haven't gone up for tenure yet, but I doubt that "Well, he didn't publish much, but he always seems perfectly on point in our research seminars" is going to fly with the tenure and review committee."

I have tenure and have been on plenty of hiring and review committees, and I can tell you that "publishes a ton of papers, but sits in their office with the door shut all day and doesn't participate in the intellectual life of the department" is not a big winner.

p.s. apologies for misidentifying the OP as a grad student in my original answer.
posted by escabeche at 5:37 AM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Cue superstar Professor who lolls about in chair with a scrap of paper and a pencil in front of him, untouched...and then asks the killer question.

Some people learn by listening. For all you know, Prof. S. Star pores over journal articles for hours taking laborious notes, and can't remember what he read 10 minutes after reading it. Maybe he just groks auditory information better. Or he did his undergrad thesis on the topic at hand and knows just enough to ask the right question. Or his PI and the speaker's PI both did their postdocs with the same person, and he can see all the common threads running through their work. (I've actually experienced that one, it's really fun.) I think a lot of it is just building up the experience to know a little about lots of interrelated topics.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:44 AM on February 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I always wonder about taking notes in seminars: whether I ought to take copious notes to force myself to actively listen, or whether I should just listen and jot down thoughts and questions that occur, and forget about capturing information.

Different people do different things, but I'm a note-taker. I have a talks book I take to seminars, courses and conferences. I do this for a number of reasons. First, the act of writing helps solidify the speakers points for me. Secondly, it provides a way for me to note down comments or questions I have, But finally, these "talk books" have evolved into a series of custom textbooks. I find I refer back to them, often as a jumping off point for a refresher on a topic or the start of a lit survey.

So, yes for note-taking, just as if I were still an undergrad in class, and yes, note-taking helps me ask better questions of speakers as I can refer back to my notes and ask questions with greater precision and detail.

My guide for asking questions: ask the question you want to know the answer to.
posted by bonehead at 7:12 AM on February 16, 2012


tchemgrrl is absolutely right: that superstar prof asks the killer question because they've done their background reading and know their field backwards and forwards. They have the context to ask the killer question, which you can't get from just a 20-minute or 50-minute talk. If you want to ask better questions, read more articles too.
posted by bonehead at 7:17 AM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


For what it's worth, my superstar advisor takes copious notes at lectures. So do I, because otherwise I end up retaining vague memories of having heard something without either details or context. I put my questions and comments in square brackets in my notes, so it's clear what is a summary of the speaker's talk and what is my own contribution.

I agree with others that the two strategies you mention in point #1 of your question are bad strategies. You can bet that many other people in the room sigh to themselves (or to their friends sitting next to them), "Oh, there goes Prof. Bloviator again, nattering on about Foucault even though Foucault doesn't help at all here." Bringing it back to your own area of research seems self-centered. If you really don't know the subject, ask the speaker to expand on a point in the talk that interests you but was raised in passing; that shows that you were paying attention to the talk, and taking it on its own terms, not trying to shoehorn it into your own agenda.
posted by brianogilvie at 9:23 AM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


My advice is: please, please, please do not ask questions so people hear you ask questions. It is always obvious to everybody in the room if this is your agenda, and it reflects very poorly on you. You are WAY better off being quiet than asking the forced question.

I don't know if I totally agree -- something like "Are you familiar with blah blah blah's seminal papers on blah blah blah?" definitely translates to "hey, look at me," but if you want to ask more questions at least partly because you actually want to become more engaged with seminars and your field at large, I think that's a totally valid goal. These skills are not easy to develop, and I would argue they have peripheral benefits in that you often use the same techniques to be a good colleague and collaborator. And you usually have to go to the seminars anyway, so it's a good idea to try to get as much out of it as possible.

Also, I'd add that seminar speakers often like getting questions -- think of how awful it is to end a talk and get a room full of crickets in return. The only questions I've really resented were the ones which were obviously thinly-veiled one-upmanship or cranky contrarianism. Even the word salad questions are only bemusing at worst, and at best you can come to some kind of mutual understanding after another iteration or so.

(Just one data point here, of course, and I'm in the sciences and not the humanities so maybe there are cultural differences here that I'm not aware of.)
posted by en forme de poire at 9:25 AM on February 16, 2012


if you are a well-known and well-respected, senior person, you can get away with the naive question. As a relatively unknown junior person, I don't think it comes across the same way.

I'm not quite sure what you have in mind as a "naive" question here, because earlier you refer to "asking questions so that people can hear you ask questions" which is a rather different issue. I don't think anybody is advising starcrust to do that. Obviously the question should be a real question--something starcrust genuinely wants to hear the speaker elaborate on. So you're right that the question shouldn't be simply a "hello, look at me!" moment (as too many senior colleagues questions are: the dreaded "well, that was all very interesting, but now let me ask you about how it relates to my completely unrelated field of research" question).

But if by "naive" you mean "underinformed" (i.e., don't ask a question unless it makes you look smart) then that's just a hang over of grad-school paranoia. Nobody is "grading" the questions. If you've got a Ph.D. in the field, then no genuine question you ask is going to be so completely uninformed that it is a waste of people's time. If it is something that you, personally, would like to hear more about then there will almost certainly be other people in the room who want to hear more about it. Even if you end up screwing up the way you phrase the question so that it comes across as more pedestrian-sounding than you meant, if the speaker is at all interesting they'll be able to use it as a way of digging a little further into their topic--and you can always ask a follow-up to redirect the answer if need be.

The worst fear we have when we bring in an outside speaker is that the Q&A session will be a dud; which implies that the audience were uninterested in the topic. The more questions asked, the more lively the engagement after the talk, the happier everyone is about the event. Even if your question isn't particularly showy, your colleagues will appreciate you asking it and keeping the conversation going.
posted by yoink at 11:45 AM on February 16, 2012


I apologize for not expressing my earlier thoughts as clearly as I intended. Hopefully these responses will clear things up a bit and be helpful for the OP.

If you want to be a good researcher with perspective on your whole field and the ability to develop and maintain a lifelong research program, hell yes.

Agree with you, but there is a big difference between looking at the CV and reading through the paper before the seminar and spending a lot of time reading that and other papers and familiarizing yourself with entire literature for the purposes of one seminar. Certainly you want to be a good department citizen and part of that is a commitment to be prepared at seminars, but I think it is easy to go too far and not work on other things that are tangibly more important for your own success, both short and long term. For me, it is always easier to read things others have wrote than write my own papers, so I sometimes catch myself doing this as a way to "work" without working.

if you want to ask more questions at least partly because you actually want to become more engaged with seminars and your field at large, I think that's a totally valid goal.

Completely agree. I think the difference is whether you truly care about the answer. If you do, roll with it. This filter will never do you a disservice, which is what I was (perhaps not-so-eloquently) trying to express.

I'm not quite sure what you have in mind as a "naive" question here.

My overall point is that a senior scholar can start a question with "I don't know anything about research area X, but..." and it is fine because everybody knows about that professor's accomplishments in other areas, which justifies the lack of knowledge of research area X. As a junior person, I think doing the same thing can just reinforce your status as a junior person since you aren't yet well known for anything. Maybe that's just me.
posted by jtfowl0 at 12:13 PM on February 16, 2012


You absolutely do need to learn this skill, or you can't effectively chair research sessions at conferences. It shouldn't be a competition though, just an attempt to really clarify something, or advance the discussion.

fear that what I say will come out inarticulate and confused

This gets better the more you do it. I'm in the camp that thinks you should always think of a few genuine questions in case the Q&A is failing.

generic questioning strategies all welcome

I am in science, not humanities, but there are a couple of "generic strategies" that are applicable everywhere, and get commonly used.

1. Start out with "I have a comment and a question...".

This makes it easier to structure a complex enquiry into something the audience can understand, it makes it easier to demonstrate your insight without being a smart-ass, and it makes it easier to deliver a question the speaker can handle at a level that is comfortable for them.

So for example if a seminar presentation relates x to y but fails to account for important factor z.

Bad question that makes speaker and audience reach too far: "Why did you not consider factor z?"

Good question: "I have a comment and a question. I believe that factor z may be relevant because of a, b, and c. So, have you explored the role of (general category of z) in your work?"

2. When you literally know dick-all about the topic itself, when the presentation was so boring you couldn't stay awake, and you missed the first five minutes anyway, you can still ask about methodology:
"What are the limitations of the technique / approach / methods"
"What are the strengths of this technique / approach / methods"
"Could this technique / approach / methods be applied to the study of X"
"How do your findings compare to those of authors using other technique / approach / methods"

3. The criticism sandwich, done well, is actually a non-cheesy way of framing something that might otherwise come off as mean, smart-assed or one-upmanish:

"Thank you for an inspiring presentation...numb-nuts you totally omitted to mention that x already published that last year...I look forward to seeing where this exciting work leads."
posted by roofus at 5:48 PM on February 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


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