[Reader-list] Any Questions?
monica at sarai.net
Sat Sep 29 15:40:08 IST 2001
Following is a piece by Saul Albert, which i agree with most deeply!
(I am always unable to ask questions in the panel-floor designed
public fora). Maybe its time for us to demand alternative design to
thinking and speaking publicly...
Saul Albert <saul at TWENTEENTHCENTURY.COM>
To my horror some people actually asked me questions during the
inevitable question time that followed a 15 minutes talk I gave
about Open Source and Art practice at the Arts Council of England's
"Open" event (www.thisisnot.com). I didn't really understand them and
either ignored them entirely or spluttered incomprehensible and
Although the substance of the talk I gave emphasised the value of
Open Source strategies of distributed authorship, the physical set-up
of the discussion (speaker behind mic facing chairs containing
audience) was not , of course condusive to any kind of collaborative
engagement. This was not a bad thing in my opinion. It was a 15
minute talk, not something you would think likely to be improved by
everyone talking at once.
However, the traditional opening for other voices comes at the end
when the chair asks for questions from the "floor". This lowly status
of "floor" often seems wholly applicable to those poor wretches that
inhabit it because
of the (often) poor quality of questions asked and the answers given.
There are good reasons for this:
1). The questioner is usually nervous.
I am always nervous about asking questions in lectures. My voice
shakes and squeaks, my knees feel weak, I garble my words, or use the
wrong ones, make non-grammatical sentences and am incomprehensible to
everyone including myself. This is most probably because in order to
ask a question in that environment you have to put up your hand
(classroom traumas come to mind), a person with a mic rushes over to
you and you hold it, Karaoke style, as the attention of the room
swings round 180 degrees to face you. Then you have to try to control
your voice while worrying about your sweaty palms and the fact that
you can't remember what it was you wanted to say anyway.
2). The questioner usually doesn't actually have a question.
After most lectures I have an opinion, and am occasionally roused to
speak it because I think it will be useful or relevant to the speaker
and the other audience members. Any direct questions that come to
mind often seem
too banal to raise in that context. A question is usually something
technical or simple, relating to the minutiae of the speaker's topic
or experience "How many of ..." or "Did .... work..." etc... What
usually happens is that someone has an opinion that they want to make
known, but because of the situation they feel forced into formulating
it as a question. This leads to long, rambling, incomprehensible
questions that often end with "What do you think about that..." or
"Could you respond to that" when often the speaker's opinion is not
really needed for the point to be made.
3). The speaker doesn't have time to think about it.
In the unlikely event of a good question being asked (occasionally
someone skilled enough in public speaking and with a quick tongue can
do this) the speaker doesn't have time to think of a good answer. The
public context and
the shifting of attention (like a tennis ball) from speaker to
audience to speaker adds a confrontational or competitive edge to
most questions. It seems as if the speaker were to say "you've got me
there" or "um..I don't
know" then they would have "lost". This is an extension of a long
tradition of academic debate and public/peer review that is, as
Michelle Serres puts it "Based on a militaristic model of
truth-finding, where the strongest
competitor in an argument determines what is and is not true". The
situation inevitably leads to the questioner and the speaker
"defending" their arguments and really trying to cover up the
weaknesses in their story rather than attempting to take on board
anything that the other has said.
What I would have liked to see at this event is a more productive way
of carrying on discussions. "Any questions" would be better replaced
with "Does anyone have anything to say", and any non-technical
questions could be
continued constructively in a bulletin board or a pre-arranged q&a
e-mail session (where each party has time to think up a useful
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