Sunday, March 30, 2014

Bucket of nouns

I'm just back from the Renaissance Society of America's annual conference, and I'm here to tell you that I am OVER the question & answer session as it transpires after the typical conference panel.

Now, a round-table discussion is a different beast, as are single-presenter talks before a specialized audience; in those cases, the Q&A is often a great opportunity to hear someone expand on her work or for the group to brainstorm together. But the average conference Q&A involves what seems to be an invisible bucket of nouns passed around the audience. Each person sticks her hand in, pulls out a random noun, and builds a question around it.

The wind-up will vary in length and coherence, but the question usually amounts to, "I'm wondering if you can say anything about how your research engages with [RANDOM NOUN]."

You can make your own set and play at home, but in my field the cards might include:


Deleuze & Guattari

The lyric


The Bishops War

Oral culture



City comedy

Political theology

Book 2 of The Faerie Queene

Sometimes the nouns are extremely specialized and sometimes they're extremely broad, but the common feature is that they come from left field and may be of interest to literally no one but the person doing the asking. In the most egregious cases, the questioner will grab a whole fistful of nouns and string them together--not always with any logical connection and not always phrased in the form of a question--followed by, "anyway, I'd love to hear what you think about that."

Four times out of five, I hate sitting through someone else's Q&A session. Nine times out of ten, I hate participating in one as a presenter. Partly this is because I don't process information well aurally, so though I've had some very successful Q&A sessions, they still felt like artificial exercises. Rarely have I actually had any new thoughts in the process of the session; I've just succeeded in sounding smart because the questions gave me the chance to explain the background or larger context of my project or to rehearse material from the longer version. I give potted answers, basically, even if they don't sound that way and weren't prepared in advance.

Increasingly, these days, when someone heaves a bucket-of-nouns question at me, I just say, "to be honest, I haven't thought about my work in connection with X." Or "Well, I haven't read that in a long time, so I shouldn't pretend to know more than I do." Sometimes I'll give a version of, "I'm not answering that question" four or five times in a single Q&A.

I value real questions and real feedback about my work, and I love talking with audience members about it afterwards. But even the best questions are not best asked or answered in a relatively high-pressure situation--and in my experience, the best questions account for maybe 10% of the questions one gets asked.

The rest? Bucket of nouns.


Miriam said...

Michael Murrin (who was un-fond of Spenser) may have offered the best variant on the Faerie Queene question. After someone delivered a particularly good paper on the topic, Murrin got up and said something to the effect of, "That was wonderful! Now, do you think you can do it with all the Spenser taken out?"

I was told that someone once started doing a striptease during a Shakespeare presentation (possibly at SAA). Apparently, there were no questions afterwards.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

ha. Buckets of nouns! I like that metaphor. I wonder sometimes if questioners just want to drop a bunch of nouns so they can make themselves sound smart. What the hell do they have to gain? Or is it that they are trying to play "Gotcha!?"

If I ask questions, I try to make them (1) relevant, (2) brief. It's hard, as a presenter, to keep up with a very long question/manifesto.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

That's very interesting. Could it possibly be because a big positive norm in the humanities is to create new connections between things that weren't connected before? Couple this with people wanting to sound smart, and what you refer to sounds like a predictable outcome.

In the sciences, we don't create connections so much as discover them in nature. For that reason, questions after seminars and other presentations aren't usually of the "what is the connection between thing you talked about and totally from left field unrelated thing?", although once in a while they can be. Rather, people trying to sound smart tend to ask questions structured as "are you sure that thing you just described as A isn't really B in disguise?" Frequently, the answer is, "Yes, I am sure for reason C", and where C is one of numerous reasons addressing a host of possible questions of that form, which if you preemptively addressed each of them in your talk, it would last three hours.

Historiann said...

Heh. The bucket o'nouns kind of question as you describe it sounds pretty damned lazy!

In history conferences, it's understood that everyone has their hobby-horses and their questions tend to revolve around them. But for the most part, I see more clear engagement with the substance of the research and analysis presented than what you describe here, Flavia.

Flavia said...

Sometimes these questions are jerky or intended as "gotchas!" (oriented around some pet interest of the questioner, or something s/he's working on, or has taught, with little regard for its relevance), but more often I think it's that some people who are not me just really enjoy the Q&A and want to have the chance to engage with the presenters, so they just say any old random thing that comes to them. They may even be well-intentioned, in the sense of wanting to give a question to someone who isn't getting any. But it results in something that feels pretty random and unhelpful.

Anonymous said...

A-men re the bucket o' nouns. Sometimes such "questions" are well-intentioned but confused, sometimes they amount to "that's all very well, but what does your work have to do with MY work?" I've long fantasized about parrying an unrelated question with an equally unrelated answer, involving (predictably, in my case) baseball: "Yeah, that's a brilliant observation about the implications of Deleuze's work for our understanding of the Bishops' War. But really, the Yankees overpaid for Ellsbury. Well before the end of that contract, his speed will be gone, and there's no way he'll be worth $22 million a year." I haven't done it yet, b/c the circumstances would have to be perfect: the question has to be self-important, not just confused, and the questioner would have to be professionally well established (doing that to a graduate student or early asst. prof. would just be mean). But if I ever do it, and you happen to be there, you'll know that a dream just came true.

That said, as annoying as rambling, off-topic questions are, presenters who ignore time limits & leave no room for Q & A at all are worse.

It was great to catch up w. you & Cosimo at RSA!

Cheers, TG

Renaissance Girl said...

"I'm so happy you asked that question, because indeed my work does deal precisely with the way that both the lyric and the city comedy reveal the orally-transmitted influence of Luther, Tasso, and Hobbes on the development of a proto Deleuzian ecocriticism during the Bishops War, a trend whose effects are presciently pronounced in the political theologies of Book 2 of the Faerie Queene."

Clearly, you and I go to the same conferences.

Flavia said...


OMG. Now I have to attend every panel you present at, just in case.

(Speaking of which, absolutely loved your paper at RSA--and look forward to talking about it more at some future point. But I'm convinced.)


This is the best thing ever. I may print it out and keep it in reserve for emergencies.

Susan said...

While some historians do the, how does your work relate to mine, like Historiann, I don't think we're quite at the bucket of nouns.

When I was n grad school, there was a prof who always asked 10 minute questions, which rambled around various odd but often net resting byways; I always thought job candidates - who listened with mounting alarm to this incomprehensible question- should have been warned, and told that "yes", "no", and "maybe" were acceptable answers.

But the next time I go to SAA or RSA I'll look forward to either RG or TGs response.

Anonymous said...

Ha! I like your analogy. Though, I'd still rather get thrown a bucket of nouns than nothing at all. Most of the time I would welcome the most antagonistic, arcane question because I'm more afraid of getting no questions at all. This is probably another reason why Q&A sessions are relatively useless--because they too often feel like popularity contests or audience-meters.