Like many, I’ve recently returned from the Institute of Australian Geographers annual conference in Canberra. I listened to some terrific research papers, especially by graduate students from around the country: well conceived, carefully planned and structured, rehearsed and timed, executed with interest and sometimes pizzazz.
But the speaker’s final word does not mark the end of the performance. It is now time for questions. There is a moment of tangible nervous energy in the room.
Why do we ask questions of each other at conferences and in seminars? And why are they so important?
- In all facets of life, questions are a key part of learning; they allow us to clarify things we don’t understand.
- Questions prod and encourage the researcher to think more deeply about their topic: methods employed, literature engaged, connections made, research questions posed. They sometimes contest an approach or finding.
- Questions allow those in the audience to pursue their own interests by querying an expert.
- Questions demonstrate that the audience is listening. They provide a generous form of engagement between audience and presenter; a respectful act.
- Questions form the core of the peer-review process. Asking questions of others, and responding to questions posed to us, is what makes scholarship scholarship.
But asking questions is an art. Questions don’t generally just pop into your head. They take work. They require listening, thinking and planning. Those who ask questions do so intentionally, with at least one of the points above in mind.
As I listen to a seminar or conference paper, I work actively to think of a question. One that will be helpful to someone in the room: the presenter, myself, my research group, the broader discussions of which the assembled people are a part.
I heard some fantastic questions at the IAG conference in Canberra: supportive, probing, demanding. Indeed, one the best conversations I had through the week was stimulated by a question posed to another presenter, to which I took exception. Speaking with the questioner after the session revealed space to work on greater communication across the sub-disciplines of geography. It highlighted to me the strength and possibility of asking questions at a slant to our specific sub-disciplinary expertise. Different conceptual traditions provide unique perspectives on research problems.
So this note is a call – of sorts – to encourage people to ask questions. Particularly to encourage students and early career researchers to ask questions. It is not – usually – an art we teach. But given its value, and centrality to academic practice, perhaps it should be.