By Tim Galsworthy
Conference season is upon us once again. Graduate students are setting off all over the country, and all over the world, going to fascinating conferences and finding cheap rooms to stay in. Many at the start of their postgraduate journeys will be attending a conference for the very first time. A daunting but exciting prospect. This past weekend I attended the Historians of the Twentieth Century United States (HOTCUS) Postgraduate and Early Career Researcher Annual Conference in Nottingham. Attendees were given a guide on how to ask to questions during the conference based on a 2015 article written by academics. These excellent tips and suggestions got me thinking, what guidelines would you give to those asking their first ever conference question? They got me wondering, how do you ask the perfect first conference question?
Actual footage of me in every conference panel
Be interested. You will ask your first conference question, and all your other conference questions after that, because you are interested in the paper or panel you just heard. Let that interest show. Conferences are an amazing opportunity to hear about awesome research and meet brilliant people. Asking each other questions is an important part of that process, through which mutual interests are expressed and bonds are made. There is nothing more exhilarating as a presenter than knowing your paper has interested and enthused listeners.
Wait for an answer. You’ve asked your question, now you need an answer. Conferences are all about respect and decorum, giving speakers space to respond is imperative. Interruptions are both rude and unproductive. They create unnecessary tension and stymie discussion. Even if you have burning points to make, taking over the session is not fair for the speakers or rest of the audience. You can always chat to presenters for ages and ages after papers, I know I have!
Be as general or specific as you like. Your question might relate to a specific paper or the panel as a whole. You might be asking for finer details about an event or person, posing a general methodological question, or bringing papers into conversation with each other. Any and all of these approaches are perfectly acceptable. There are no stupid questions, all that matters is that your question prompts a response (or responses) and stimulates conversation.
Say “it’s more of a comment than a question.” No no no, a million times no! This may be a cliché, but it’s a cliché rooted in truth. Far too many people use conference questions as a means to give their own mini paper. Don’t be one of those people. You can substantiate your query with examples or evidence, you can offer your opinion on what has been said, but always ask a question. Question-and-answer sessions are for just that, questions and answers. Save the comments for later, over coffee or a pint.
“It’s more of a comment than a question”
Be more critical than constructive. It’s alright to disagree with a paper. Academia is all about scholarly debate and divergence. Speakers on all rungs of the academic ladder should be open to challenges and should be able to defend their arguments. However, questions are about constructive criticism, not condemnation. Use your question to probe further in a thoughtful and appropriate manner that fosters debate and encourages reflection, rather than provoking knee-jerk responses on all sides.
Try to baffle speakers. Just as questions are not a vehicle for your own mini soap-box oration, they are not a venue to stake out your dominance. Questions should not be used catch people out or overwhelm them with your reading, research, and knowledge. Conferences are about collaboration and mutual development, they are not an episode of The Apprentice. Using questions to deliberately unsettle people is Andrew Marr’s job, not yours.
Leave the baffling questions to the Marr, Peston, and co
I’m going answer my own question by “copping out.” There is no perfect first conference question. Conference questions come in a million and one varieties; there is no one-size-fits-all way to ask one. But there are certainly some key things to bear in mind. Be interested, be constructive, and be considerate of others. The most important thing is to be kind. In our present-day world filled with divisiveness and bitterness it costs nothing to be nice. Let’s start by being nice to our academic comrades, asking interesting and respectful questions, and hopefully the world might start listening to us “experts” again.
Tim Galsworthy is a first year History PhD student at the University of Sussex. His research explores American Civil War memory and the Republican Party in the civil rights era. He serves as Topical Editor for Pubs and Publications. He also has a reputation for a being a bit of nerd who asks lots of conference questions!