Conference etiquette 101: The question that is not a question…

I am sure that some of you have seen half-jokey images along the lines of the ones below, where you can play bingo when certain things happen at conferences/round-tables/workshop days, and so on:

Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 10.36.35

(The credit for this goes to Mixosauraus via their blog.)

While this bingo card is light-hearted and amusing, it is clear that some of this stuff does go on, and contains things that can potentially be quite disruptive to smooth, equitable and democratic learning for the majority of participants, which is surely what you have to aim for when running a large event – the most benefit for the most number of people. The ‘problem’ on the bingo card that I want to pick up on is on the left, and essentially corresponds to “this is less of a question and more of a comment”, or, what I like to call the question-that-is-not-a-question.

I approach this problem with a bit more age and wisdom than I had when I was probably a bit of a culprit of this issue, or, at least, when I had a track record of being a bit of an unintentional ‘time stealer’ in class because I always had so many questions and thoughts that I wanted to get addressed so as to advance my learning. Now, having taught, having had to address this sort of behaviour in myself and in my students, and having been to good and bad events, it makes me aware that behaviours which are disruptive to learning at conferences and so on do need tackling, but we still have to be mindful of who is making these ‘comment questions’ and why, and deal with the issue in a way that tries to help as many people as possible, including the commenter. I am not sure there’s an easy answer. Anyway, let me give you some background of a recent personal experience where this sort of persistent behaviour caused a problem for me and others.

At a recent summer school I attended, there was one clearly bright, engaged and switched on person who very obviously wanted to learn and better themselves. Good. So do I. This person has the right to do so as well. However, the lectures/training sessions  at this event were 60 minutes long, and probably contained about 50 people on average. It is safe to assume that this person and the other 49 in the room all had aims and questions and a desire to learn and improve. What I observed is that every time a chance for questions was offered, or there was a natural lull that was interpreted as a chance for questions, this person shot their hand up. But, they did not ask a question. They made a comment about something they already knew, often going further than what was raised by the class, and their ‘question’ never contained anything like a canonical request for an information gap to be filled – a true question. Each ‘comment’ took the best part of a minute to pose, and two or three minutes to ‘answer’. Let’s say each episode took approximately 3 minutes of time, and that, in one session of an hour, this occurred 6 times. This genuinely happened in 2 sessions, at the peak of the ‘problem’. The ‘commenter’ took 18 minutes of time from a 60 minute session, and blocked opportunities for others to pose genuine requests for further information. I and others found this behaviour exasperating, and we felt that there was some grandstanding or showing off going on, i.e., the commenting served a pragmatic/social function rather than to trigger requests for information or help or guidance.

Who is in the right here? Is that even a good question to ask? How can we (and should we) modify our own behaviours or guide the behaviour of others to ensure the best learning for the most people at conferences/workshops/summer schools?

In terms of serial question askers (of which I am one when I am in class, but not at conferences!), there are ways of handling this when you work closely with a group. My supervisor used to tell me to come and see her once a week (when I was an undergraduate) to discuss anything that I wanted help with but which may not be of much use to the rest of the class. This met the class’ needs, and mine, so it was a good solution for all, although my supervisor kindly had to find an extra half an hour for me each week (though perhaps it made her classes easier!). I had a wonderful student who is now doing brilliantly at her MSc in psycholinguistics, but would ask the most out-there and off-the-wall questions that didn’t seem to bother anyone else (I’m all for it), and this used to exasperate her classmates, who wanted the flow of classes to continue, and for questions to be broadly relevant to the general objectives of the module. This actually caused friction between friends, and needed addressing. Me and the student negotiated that she would write her questions down, and bring them to me at the end of the session, and I would help her to work out how she could find the answers herself so that she could develop her confidence and skills as a researcher, and learn to consider her behaviour with respect to a group in a learning environment.  The problem is that you can’t really do this at a conference – not in the same way. You don’t have time to get to know people. The comfortable environment is not there for having a critical feedback discussion about needs and wants and appropriate behaviours in the learning environment. So do we let time-stealing or grandstanding or questions-that-are-not-questions get in the way at conferences and summer schools, then?

I do think that presenters/educators have some of the responsibility for managing behaviour, even though their relationship to a ‘commenter’ may extend to an hour and no more. Always have in mind what is best to scaffold the most learning for the most people. Spending almost a third of your time responding to the needs of one learner surely can never meet that aim. If someone keeps throwing comments at you, why not respond with ‘Sorry, what was it that you were actually asking?’ or ‘Thanks for that. What was the specific question that you needed help with?’. This might, if repeated on serial offenders, communicate to them and others that in such an environment, genuine requests for information are the best use of time. If you, like me and my supervisor, feel that finding a bit of extra time after a session can be worth the pay off in terms of easier class management, then you could consider saying ‘Time for comment is limited due to the nature of the event. If you have responses rather than questions that you’d like to share, please email them to me, and I will compile a general email response that I will send out to everyone next week.’ 

This behaviour does need to be dealt with if it becomes disruptive, though. I stand by by that.

I did think that CASS / Lancaster Summer School in Corpus Linguistics had a good idea. They designated several senior academics with a different coloured badge to answer questions if and when you found them, and by having a ‘challenge panel’ where questions and comments could be submitted for a specific purpose and for addressing at a specific time. You could also consider having Twitter open while you are presenting, and asking students with comments-rather-than-questions to spark a debate online that other experts outside the immediate learning environment can join in with as well. Essentially, you have to pre-empt this kind of thing in advance, have a ready-to-go solution, be on the ball with looking for disruptions/dissatisfaction between students, and you have to do something to improve learning whenever you see things aren’t going quite as well as you would like.

I do suspect that the culprit that I recently encountered was a precocious PhD student. No crime there. Been there, done that. Messed up the conference talk and totally failed to answer a sharp question from an audience member. You live, you learn. However, my supervisor knew me well and knew exactly how I thought and acted when I was engaged in academic discussion, and taught me to think about what I would ask and when, and how I should pose and respond to questions. Can supervisors do more to prepare their students for conference/workshop etiquette? I think so. It is part of producing a rounded academic. Students also have a responsibility not to be numpties, as well. If you want to go round presenting at conferences and teaching groups of people for the rest of your life, you should try to be good at it. You don’t want to annoy people and get a rep as a time-stealer or grand-stander, or as someone who is not aware of the communicative and learning needs of others. Moreover, how can you manage a classroom if you don’t reflect on and attempt to improve your own behaviours? I only recognised disruptive behaviour in some of my students because I knew that I had done it myself when I was younger. Students, you have to have your eyes and ears open and observe how people interact at events, and ask your supervisor how to improve things that you struggle with in terms of presenting or communicating.

Finally, this plea to think about managing out questions-that-are-not questions is not intended to stifle keen people, hungry people, and people with a genuine need to try out debating and discussion. Education is about empowering as many people as possible to access ideas and resources and opportunities for debate. But if we focus on a big benefit for the one, we lose the decent benefit for the many, and we probably need to be a bit utilitarian about what goes on at big events that are designed to spread knowledge, especially if you need to report back about the impact of your event. I will always support the right of people to ask questions and have debates. We just need to be smart about who is talking about what and when.


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