The Question &Answer Session at an Academic Conference

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An academic conference is not complete without a question and answer (Q & A) session. Yes, you have spent several hours preparing that twenty minutes paper, but the effort that goes into answering queries about your paper is as important as writing the paper itself. The Q&A session provides an opportunity for fellow academics to critique your work and in return you are expected to show that you know what you are talking about. In addition, it forces you to think on your feet as you are likely to face a few unexpected questions.

Done well, a Q&A session can help you make a name for yourself and an impression on potential employers and colleagues. Fairly or not, the Q&A session is often what we talk about the most at the end of an academic conference.

“For me, the Q&A session is the most important part of a conference presentation because it is the space where I can get feedback on my work,” says Lorien Hunter, a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California. “Often, questions from the audience challenge me to think about my project in new ways, calling attention to things I need to clarify, assumptions I might be making, additional readings that might be useful, or new factors I should consider.”

Keguro Macharia, an assistant professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Maryland, College Park, USA, says these sessions can be incredibly valuable under the right circumstances. “It’s always interesting to see how one’s argument has been received – what points do questioners want clarification on? What elements of the talk may have been unclear? What elements of the talk were most interesting? Especially when one is debuting a new scholarship, these sessions can be invaluable,” he says.

Common Types of Questioners

Many academics would agree that the Q&A is an important part of the conference experience, so what types of questioners are you likely to face at your next presentation?

The Exceptional: Dr Macharia says this category includes the people in or around your field who might ask specific questions related to your interests, but he warns these people are the exception, not the rule.

The Good: “These, of course, are my favourite kind of questioners,” says Ms Hunter. “They are thoughtful, poignant, and help to clarify my project.”

Dr Macharia points out that these questioners are likely to be interested in more information – historical and contextual, as opposed to conceptual and theoretical. “They can be useful for helping you flesh out your ideas in a longer article or book chapter,” he says.

The Experts/Curveballers: Ms Hunter points out that these people seem to know more about the subject of your presentation than you do. She says that although it is often the case that those who know more ask useful questions, the people in this category however, may use the space of the question to demonstrate their own mastery of the subject matter rather than to help you out. “Their question is typically long and verbose, and is at times not even a question,” she warns.

The Unrelated: Ms Hunter says they can come in many forms, ranging from the expert who gets off topic to the audience member who missed half the presentation and clearly misunderstood the main points of the argument.

Dr Macharia says you will always have people who ask questions based on their own research interests and historical periods, which may differ quite radically from your own. “And while their questions may seem irrelevant, I have found that reading beyond one’s historical period and theoretical interests can be useful,” he says.

The Disagreeable: You see these people when the paper topic is controversial, says Ms Hunter, but for whatever reason, these conference goers can ask questions that border on hostility and they can potentially make you feel defensive. “Although it can be difficult to field this kind of question, when possible, I always try to redirect it towards something productive that I’m then able to address appropriately,” she says.

The Nitpickers: Dr Macharia says these are people will nitpick at the tiniest details – the phrasing of a sentence, the pronunciation of a name and will contest your interpretations of a particular aspect of your talk. But Dr Macharia advises that these details can be useful. “Often they are irritating,” he says. “But one has to learn to practice a smile and move on.”

Be Pleasant

There is no straight formula for handling Q&As, as the best preparation happens during the time of the panel. Dr Macharia advises that you read clearly and carefully so that your argument is not lost. “Prepare a lucid paper that helps guide your listeners,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to try out new ideas – often, questioners on a panel will offer new leads and provocations worth following.”

“Cultivate generosity by taking questions seriously, even when you don’t agree with them or don’t think them relevant. There’s never any shame is saying: ‘thank you for that point. I had not considered that. I’d love to talk more when this session is done.’ “

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