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Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Clarification Round

Sometimes the most important question you can ask at a faculty workshop is just "What is your thesis?" You rarely hear that question asked, however, at least straightforwardly. As I emphasized in a post last year, "How to Ask Questions at Conferences and Colloquia," we must understand a speaker's claims before we can meaningfully address them. Ideally, speakers will clearly present their claims and listeners will clearly apprehend them. But too often, neither occurs. Legal scholars need to better heed Steven Covey's advice: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."

Here's something to try at a workshop: After a speaker presents, allow a 10 minute "clarification round" where questions must take the form of clarifications.  Since they are just clarifications, you will probably need a rule that those who ask questions during this round will not be prejudiced in the queue for substantive questions and objections. In an ideal world, 10 minutes of clarification would make the rest of the talk more fruitful. (If you keep a running queue during talks, a raised hand in the shape of a "c" might convey appropriate queue placement.)

While I'm curious if such an approach would help, I'm not optimistic. The clarification round needs a strong moderator who will prevent clarifications that are just thinly disguised objections. And there are some speakers who are sufficiently clear that the round isn't necessary. But it may be worth experimenting with a brief clarification round. (I am optimistic, however, that a similar "clarification round" really would be effective in the classroom. We should make sure students understand the basics before answering difficult objections or complicated hypotheticals.)

I'm not "Kumbaya" about academic presentations. I think papers should be vetted against thoughtful, penetrating questions. Let's fix up the papers before they're published. To do that better, we should give authors incentives to write clearer papers and audience members incentives to tie their questions more closely to those papers.

Posted by Adam Kolber on April 4, 2012 at 08:37 AM | Permalink


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Hey Adam. I really like this idea. I run a reasonably large ethics conference every year. I'm not sure we'll use it in all of our sessions, but I'll certainly recommend to our moderators that they try it. Check back with me in August.


Posted by: Ben Hale | Apr 10, 2012 1:17:16 AM

Ha! There are "clarifications" during presentation in most law & economic workshops -- they tend to go for about an hour!

Posted by: Tim Wu | Apr 6, 2012 12:06:52 AM

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