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Sunday, October 25, 2015

"No, no, thank you for that [awful] presentation"

I want to pick up on two themes from Paul's post on excessive flattering of questioners during job and paper talks.

I recall a SCOTUS case in which the lawyer responded to a question from Justice Scalia by saying, "that's an excellent question," to which Scalia responded (no doubt sarcastically--I never heard the audio), "Thank you very much." From the moment I read that, I made an effort never to use that phrase in responding to questions in talks or in class. I also made an effort to get my students never to use it in class, moot courts, etc. (usually by responding a la Scalia when they do it in practices). I agree with Paul that this is largely a tic, as well as a way to fill dead air while thinking of an answer. It also can come across as obsequious or arrogant or both, depending on the context.*

* For what it's worth, I doubt that "thank you for the question" is a noticeable improvement. There is no reason to thank me for playing my expected role in this common scholarly exercise.

Second, the flip side to the "that's an excellent question" response is the question that begins with 30 seconds of effusive praise for the paper and the talk and the presenter's brilliance and insight, whether warranted or not. This bears the hallmarks of what Paul was talking about, from the other side--a tic, verbal filler, and an overdone effort to be supportive or civil. Dan tried to eliminate such filler at PrawfsFest! under his "no foreplay" rule--commenters must get right into their comments. Yet many colleagues (here and elsewhere) resist such a rule, suggesting that taking out this filler reflects incivility or excess negativity--that in not starting off by telling the presenter how great her paper is, we turn into the worst stereotype of the University of Chicago, where faculty members do nothing but tear down papers and their authors.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 25, 2015 at 09:31 AM in Civil Procedure, Howard Wasserman, Teaching Law | Permalink

Comments

Matthew: I vaguely recall listening to that podcast, but I don't remember what they said. I'll have to go back and listen.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Nov 2, 2015 11:43:56 AM

Freakonomics weighed in on this recently: http://freakonomics.com/2015/01/15/thats-a-great-question-full-transcript/

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Nov 2, 2015 8:09:51 AM

My problem with "good question" is that it violates the show-don't-tell rule. The way a speaker should make clear that a question is good is by taking it seriously and using it as a starting point for an answer that moves the discussion forward in an interesting direction. A question that can be fully answered without serious reflection and engagement is probably not a good one, regardless of how the speaker characterizes it.

Two semi-exceptions:

First, while I try hard not to say "good question" as a responsive tic, I have sometimes uttered some variation of it (e.g., "That's interesting, I hadn't thought of that") when I am actually surprised and impressed by a novel insight from a questioner.

Second, I've seen some speakers use some variation of this (e.g., "Good point" or "thanks for that") when the question is really just a useful comment that the speaker wants to acknowledge but file away for later use. And I actually have heard declarative observations that are very useful contributions to academic discussions and require no discussion by the speaker, though if I were giving a job-talk candidate advice I'd suggest that she always follow up with some related observation to make sure the speaker is 100% clear she's heard and appreciated their contribution.

Posted by: DF | Oct 26, 2015 2:56:58 PM

Eric: interesting point. Where does the non-job-talk workshop paper fall on that spectrum. And what do we do about the non-expert colleague who insists on foreplay?

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 25, 2015 6:25:42 PM

I think the issue is presumed expertise. In the job talk, expertise is not presumed: it's what the talk is supposed to establish. I know some colleagues who were the faculty expert in the area the paper discussed used the "great paper" intro to signal to other colleagues their support for the paper and to set the tone of the discussion (especially if they could get in at the beginning of questions). I'm not sure how successful the tactic is, but it seems to me it's not redundant. In PrawfsFest! style discussions, expertise *is* presumed, hence no foreplay: that's not the point of the discussion. On the other hand, to a student from a professor, or from a Supreme Court justice from the bench, expertise is presumed. Hence, the "good question" is, as I usually say to the student, what you pay me for. It's the bad questions they should be commenting on (but because of power-dynamics, can't or won't)!

Posted by: Eric J. Miller | Oct 25, 2015 6:08:10 PM

Maybe it is a matter of semantics. If I spend class time answering a question--or better, open the question for discussion with the entire class--it is clear I thought it was a good question. Saying "that's a very good question" seems superfluous or worse.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 25, 2015 4:37:26 PM

Agree completely with ^^. I think the situations are different. When a student asks a particularly perceptive or challenging question, or asks the "right" question (showing that s/he is grappling with the precise problem the case creates), I like to acknowledge it. It is a sign of good-studenting, in a sense, and the kind of thing one might mention in a reference letter.

"That's an excellent question" to a judge could be a combination of nerves and habit, it could be a way of stalling, or -- depending on the next sentence -- could be a reasonable thing to say, i.e., it is an excellent question because in fact...

It's all in the delivery and context. So, too, with job talks.

Posted by: nona | Oct 25, 2015 4:18:04 PM

I think the Scalia situation is different - the questions asked by a judge during argument are asked from a position of power. The questions asked by a student during class are asked from a position of lack of power. That makes all the difference in praise - and I think maybe students appreciate recognition for a perspicacious question, if it's sincere rather than reflex. Job talks are more like the judge situation than the student situation.

Posted by: veryjrprof | Oct 25, 2015 11:47:14 AM

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