Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Cute Chart, Questionable Advice
I enjoyed the decision chart that Howard posted the other day, but for some reason it's been sticking in my head. It's perhaps worth noting that in its original appearance (as far as I know), it was titled "Asking questions at conference," not--as Howard has it--"Workshops." (Howard got it via Feminist Law Profs, which didn't title it one way or the other.) I'd have to think about whether it makes more sense for conferences as opposed to workshops. But although it obviously is humor, pretty obviously is funny, and definitely conveys some truths, I think it would be bad advice for those considering asking questions at workshops. Part of my concern has to do with something a commenter on Howard's post picked up on--that, if we are to credit recent studies and articles about confidence gaps, a rule that encourages the un- or under-confident to almost always shut up could have negative and disproportionate effects. Of course I think there is definitely such a thing as too much confidence in the value of one's own contributions. But I wouldn't want a rule of etiquette that effectively leaves the already overconfident free to natter on and reinforces the insecurities of those who are already underconfident.
And some of the "advice"--although, again, I understand that it's just humor--is just plain wrong, at least in a workshop setting and probably in any setting. We have all heard--and most of us have asked--workshop questions that go on far too long; but, to take one example, "Could you write your question on twitter" seems like just an awful guideline.
Here's a general suggested guideline on whether to ask a workshop question: Are you serving the paper, author, and/or workshop process, or are you serving yourself?
If your question is meant to provide a useful challenge, refinement, or improvement to the paper, then it's probably OK. The fact that you might, God forbid, be wrong or, worse still, sound dumb should not stop you from asking the question. The fact that the question might draw on your own work is not disqualifying, if the question would serve the paper and not just yourself. The fact that the question might start with "In my experience" is perhaps a warning flag, but not in itself disqualifying. Maybe your experience is relevant. In any event, it's not quite right to say in response to this prospect, as the chart does, "No-one came to hear about your experience. They came to hear from the speaker." They came for the paper, not the speaker. If your question would serve the paper, then so be it. For that matter, there are some speakers out there, and not just audience members, who need to remember that they are there to serve the paper and not themselves; some brush-off answers end up demonstrating the speaker's own cleverness and facility at debate while batting aside genuine problems with a paper.
There are some special cases. In particular, what do you do if your question is really just a fundamental disagreement with the foundational normative (not factual) premises of the paper? My answer here varies. If the paper starts with an assumption in favor of equality rather than liberty, to offer a somewhat cartoonish example, there may not be much point in questioning it on that basis. If the paper is an "originalist" take on some question, I doubt there's much point in taking on all of originalism in a question. On the other hand, there are many papers that take their foundational premises for granted, don't spell them out, don't address well-recognized internal problems with that premise, and so on. Asking the speaker (or the paper) to spell out its assumptions better can be a valuable service.
In any event, I think the single question I have offered above is a fairly useful general guideline in determining whether to ask a question at a workshop or not than the one presented in the chart. Again, I appreciate that it was just a joke chart. But since it troubled me, and given that Howard offered it his approval, and in light of the background concern raised by that commenter, I figured I'd offer my two cents.
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