Ponderable: disciplinary specific data about questions at professional conferences.

This week I'm attending the annual meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association in San Francisco. There are lots of interesting talks on the program, but I find myself noticing some of the habits of philosophers that are on display in the question-and-answer periods at the end of the talks.

For example, philosophers seem to have a hard time asking a concise question. It's not obvious that this is always a problem -- providing a bit of context with the question can make it easier to get an answer to the question one is trying to ask -- but sometimes the queries come with so much background that it's hard to identify the actual question. And sometimes it's just that the questioners are just trying to ask too many things at once. (To be fair, some philosophers recognize this, including one this morning who started, "I have two questions, but I'll try to reduce them to a single one ...") Then too there are the questioners disinclined to yield the floor, persisting with follow-up queries even as the session chair is indicating that they should shut up so other people can get their questions answered.

My impression is that some of these behaviors are generational (or maybe related to status within the professional community), but others strike me as behaviors characteristic of philosophers.

Are there patterns of engagement in professional meeting Q&A that you take to be distinctive of your discipline? Any behaviors you think are dying out, or surging forth? And, if you're one of those interdisciplinary creatures, are there exotic Q&A behaviors you notice when you go to professional meetings with folks from the other side of a disciplinary fence?

(I'm now thinking I might start collecting some more precise data on questions for the remainder of the meeting, to see how measurements square with my impressions.)

6 responses so far

  • DJMH says:

    philosophers seem to have a hard time asking a concise question.

    What is the sound of many science majors laughing?

  • Janne says:

    I did once hear an audience member state that "I don't really have a question. instead I'd like to briefly describe our work in this area." It was not only refreshingly honest, it also made for a bit of valuable input rather than a long-winded distraction.

  • Dan Hicks says:

    Philosophers are also characteristically aggressive in our questions. I go to a fair number of talks by historians and sociologists, and in my experience their questions are often suggestions for interesting connections and further work, not attempted refutations. The question-questions are much more often asking for clarification or further elaboration than, again, attempting refutations.

  • Janne says:

    I'm kind of interdisciplinary; I work in computational neuroscience, and interact with people both on the technical side of things and the neuroscience end. At the extremes I meet people on the theoretical computer science and math end as well as clinical medical researchers.

    And while the basic question types tends to be similar (you have all the usual variants), the format does differ significantly. At the medical end people are very well dressed and _very_ courteous. There's an acute sense of hierarchy, where a lowly trainee will apologize profusely for daring to ask a question to the distinguished speaker before actually coming up with the question itself (and in Japanese, a polite question can come out as very polite indeed). The questioner may well drone on about their own research, but they're very polite about it.

    At the CS end you're really just happy they're wearing a complete set of clothes, and questions are blunt and to the point. It's not unheard of to hear people slip into familiar language (that you'd normally only use with friends and family) in the heat of a discussion.

    Overall, neither is good. Both the reflexive genuflection towards authority and the rude argumentative style will suppress good questions from people without a lot of confidence in themselves, and will tend to cut short good discussions.

  • Eric Schwitzgebel says:

    Hi Janet --

    It would be very interesting to code by gender! -- especially in light of Rebecca Kukla's post on peripheral speech over at Leiter Reports.