Friday, March 13, 2009

Colloquium Etiquette

I was off last week giving a talk at another department's weekly colloquium. I gave my talk, and was shocked to find that every question was prefaced by 30 seconds of thanks for the talk, then a word or two about what each questioner found especially interesting in my talk, and then a question. I found this unbearably patronizing, but when I interrupted a questioner by saying "You needn't thank me. Just ask your question," it was taken to be an expression of politeness or gratitude. What a waste of time. Thank me for the talk by asking a hard question.

Then on Wednesday I attended my own department's colloquium, and noticed a different vice: questions were preceded by long (sometimes a minute or more) build-ups intended to clarify the "context" of the question. Sometimes the build-ups seemed to be unrelated to the question. Sometimes the question seemed unrelated to the talk. Sometimes no real question was asked (after the build-up). It's hard to know what to do to remedy this-- I suppose one cannot simply say to one's colleagues that they need to learn how to ask a question (or pay closer attention to what the speaker actually said).

When I was a graduate student, my department had pretty strict rules concerning colloquia q&a: a moderator kept a list of people who wanted to ask questions, grad students were always placed at the bottom of the queue, and those with bad q&a habits were never allowed to ask the first (or second) question. This seemed to me then problematic, since it required the moderator to implicitly express judgments (often unflattering) about his colleagues. But maybe there's no better way to keep things on track? Any ideas?

14 comments:

Krinos said...

Your grad school's policy was problematic only if the moderator had bad judgment. Good talks don't deserve to have the Q&A started off with goofy/pointless questions. Moreover, it's instructive to all those who come later if you have people who know what they're doing go first.

Colloquia are certainly for student learning, and that learning can be in the form of doing, but only after someone's shown them how to do it.

Krinos said...

One more thing: if you don't like people telling you how much they liked your paper, you need to start writing stuff the people hate.

Santa said...

As long as no one is trying to hijack your colloquium with a talk on dissiter space, you are way ahead of the game.

Perhaps a little humor after the first couple of comments to the audience on the order of, "Thanks for the niceties, but when is some mutha gonna seriously throw down on the matter?" would do some good.

PA said...

Complaining b/c people are thanking you? You really are an old cranky jerk.

Dr. Killjoy said...

The biggest problem: Having a shrinking violet as a moderator.

Moderators must be raging a-holes so as to thwart the efforts of other raging a-holes to extend their time as vocal raging a-holes.

If your follow up ain't no follow up then the moderator needs to cut your shit off.

If you begin with "This is a three-part question...", you need to be cut off.

Muthafuckas need to learn that if you can't phrase your question in such a way that it can be asked in less than 30 seconds, isn't actually a thinly disguised request to repeat the major points of the talk, and can be answered without you butting in ten times, then your question is for shit (and everyone will know it).

Come on, moderators, grab that power and exercise it with extreme prejudice!

729 said...

So, didn't you find all the repeated effusive thanks, and patronizing politeness just a little bit suspicious? This is one of your papers we're talking about, right?

You got Punk'd.

(We were all in on it.)

Anonymous said...

I, too, find this thanks extremely annoying. In particular, it seems out of place when my department pays a healthy fee to get Sexy Philosopher X to take a nice, all expenses paid trip to our campus. What are they thanking Professor X for at that point? For taking us up on an offer none of us could imagine turning down? For taking us up on the offer and not completely insulting us by preparing a shitty presentation? Even worse is when the thankers thank someone who did prepare a shitty presentation. Then what does the thanks even mean?!

chrono said...

PA ~

It's annoying. These papers are (hopefully) going to be published, and presenting them at colloquia is a great opportunity to get comments which will help improve them. Any time spent kissing my ass is time not spent helping me improve my paper.

Anonymous said...

I'm astonished that anyone resents demonstrations of civility and graciousness. Philosophy has been notorious for its cut-throat, vicious attacks on colleagues for the sake of proving one's supposed "brilliance." A noticeable and welcome trend in recent years, at least at APA and other professional meetings, is a move toward constructive and helpful discussions.

I wonder if there is a gender bias in this discussion. Is it more manly to be rude and abrupt? Is it considered feminine/effete to be gracious and helpful? No wonder so many women (and others) find philosophy off-putting and hostile. Various blog discussions in recent years have wondered why more women don't major in philosophy or pursue graduate degrees. Perhaps this is part of the explanation.

Bryan said...

I agree with Killjoy. Good moderators must be willing to firmly interrupt violators of colloquium etiquette, and all such offenders must be equally interrupted.

I know some people who are very good at this, and manage to keep a lid on would-be etiquette violators firmly but politely. But it never bothers me when a moderator acts like an asshole, in order to prevent other assholes from going on an asshole-rant.

Anonymous said...

In my department we always start out with questions from grad students. This allows those who might feel too intimidated to compete with the professors to get a chance to ask a question. Usually it works well though there is often some of the "thanks for the wonderful paper, I really enjoyed it" nonsense. I find that silly and a waste of time. Just get to the question! Usually 3-4 grad students, at most, ask questions so this part doesn't get out of hand. A moderator keeps a list and tries not to let things get too long, and tries to keep the crazy non-philosophers (like the local guy who always wants to ask about high-speed rail) on the back of it. It usually works well. Sometimes it's necessary to set up a question, but people do often go over-board, falling in to the "yes, that was interesting. Now let me talk about something _I_ find interesting" mode. As for myself, I find that it helps me ask better questions if I take a minute during the break to sketch them out on a piece of paper so that they are better formulated. This isn't always successful (especially if I have had to spend most of the break in the bathroom because I've drank 6 cups of coffee already that day) but it helps. It might be something to encourage grad students to do.

Glaucon said...

First of all, I'd like to thank you for the post. I really, really appreciate it -- both the content of the post itself and your taking the time to post it. I'm sure you're busy, so for you to go to the trouble of formulating your thoughts -- which are so very interesting -- and posting them here on your blog ... well, I'm just very appreciative. Thank you.

A question? No, I don't actually have a question -- well, not one related to your post, really. I just wanted to say "thanks" for the really fine post. It was really interesting, really really interesting. And thought-provoking.

Well, I do have a question, I guess. When you're preparing a post -- and let me just say again how great I thought this post was -- do you type it up first in Word and then cut and paste it into your browser, or do you just type the whole thing up in your browser? The reason I ask is that I wonder if the font you use in Word is preserved when you paste it into your browser. I guess the issue doesn't come up if you don't first type the post up in Word, but I was thinking about this as I read your post.

Well, I see there are lots of people here who probably want to ask a question or make a comment, so maybe we could discuss this after the post.

Krinos said...

Glaucon's my hero

729 said...

If Phil Anon had "Molly Awards" like Pharyngula for best poster of the month, I'd nominate Glaucon!