[Reader-list] Any Questions?

Boud Roukema boud_roukema at camk.edu.pl
Sun Sep 30 22:10:49 IST 2001

> Any Questions?

Nope, this is just a comment. ;-)

> Saul Albert <saul at TWENTEENTHCENTURY.COM>

> 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.

Very astute - the hierarchical connotation of this usage never 
occurred to me before!

> 1). The questioner is usually nervous.

This depends on the audience - if it's a research level seminar among
30 or less people who more or less know each other, then in my
experience questioners are not nervous. But I admit that even after
about a dozen years of public speaking experience on astronomy
research, and among people whom I mostly know, I am still nervous when
the audience is in the 200-500 range...

For popularisation of astronomy talks, the quality of the questions
varies, partly as a function of the quality of the presentation!

> 2). The questioner usually doesn't actually have a question.

Maybe astronomy is better suited to questions, but in my experience
there certainly are questions, whether in professional or popular

But the tradition (in astronomy) is for the chair to invite both
questions and comments. Often, "questioners" who have a comment will
start off by saying "This is just a comment." The lecturer will
sometimes respond, at other times will just say "OK. Fine."

> 3). The speaker doesn't have time to think about it.

In popular talks, a research astronomer generally has such a huge
knowledge advantage over the audience that he/she usually already
knows the answer to good questions. I certainly have had good
questions from the general public.

The challenge is then whether the speaker can explain the answer
based on the way the questioner thinks, and based on what the
audience has heard during the talk, rather than explaining in a way
which requires extra material. The former leads to understanding
by the audience member, the latter leads nowhere except to the
illusion that the speaker is a very Learned Person.

In professional talks among astronomers, many (but certainly not all)
speakers are honest enough to answer a tough question by something
like "We haven't yet taken that factor into account." He/she may be
honest enough to try to think through the question "on his/her feet"
and make a guess of how important the effect might be.

> 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.

It is true that this does happen to varying degrees in professional

> 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

Well, in astronomy, there is a clear tradition inviting both questions
and comments. For the sake of time limits, the comments need to be
short, but it's quite rare that a chair says, "OK, we have time for
just one more question - but not a comment, please."

> 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 
> answer).

This is definitely a good suggestion!

My humble opinion is that every university lecture course should have
an associated web+email threaded, archived discussion forum open (at a
minimum) to all participants including the speaker, the only
exceptions being universities where web access is too poor, in which
case non-web mailing lists could be tolerated, or poorer yet
universities where the internet is too weak for a mailing list to be
useful.  Opening the fora to *all* members of the university (students
+ staff + non-academic staff) also seems reasonable to me. 

A university is supposed to be a place for knowledge. For universities
which have the electronic resources in place, anything less than the
above strikes me as intellectual dishonesty and preference of
hierarchical politics over knowledge.

Here is another suggestion, which (again) I haven't had the
opportunity to test yet, but which is based on experience.

- Experience: -
I gave a talk (introduction to big bang model etc), meant
to be about a one hour presentation, to an audience of about 100 or so
senior high school students participating in a summer science camp.

Within 5 minutes of starting, someone asked a (good) question.  I
started answering it, but before I had completely answered it, someone
else asked another (good) question. I said "OK, I'll get on to that in
a moment", so I finished answering the first question, and went on to
answering the second, which followed very naturally from the first.
The questions continued flowing throughout the talk - I never got a
chance to go "freely" back to my intended presentation. 

However, because the questions were so well chosen, in answering the
questions I followed more or less the outline I had sketched
beforehand anyway! It was a fantastic experience!

- Suggested explanation: -
Later on the students explained to me what I think lies behind what
happened. During the week preceding my talk, the students had been put
in groups of about 6, and each had to prepare a short talk and then
present this "publicly" to the other students.  Doesn't this sound
familiar? Like the "affinity group" strategies of the global justice

- Suggested application: -
Suppose there is a total of 1 hour for a talk + questions.
At the beginning of a lecture, tell the audience that in order to
"prime them" for asking questions, you would like them to break
up into groups of 5-6 people each, just with whoever is nearby -
whether or not the people know each other already. 

Each member of the group then has 1 minute to:
- introduce him/herself briefly
- say what his/her present level of background knowledge (relevant
to the subject) is and what he/she would like to learn from the lecture

It's a collective responsibility for the other 4-5 people to make
sure everyone gets their "1 minute". 

The time to explain this and allowing for people to go over the
official 1 minute, means that the whole process should be doable 
within 10 minutes.

My hypothesis is that the result of this will be that people will be
more ready (than otherwise) to ask questions *during* the
presentation, which can then run as normal. It's just
psychological. When you're surrounded by 5 people you have talked to
in a positive, constructive way, it's easier to talk in front of a
full audience than if you're sitting next to total strangers and
you've walked in off the street without having had a friendly
conversation for the previous hour or so!

If you really want to be revolutionary, you could have a formula
10+40+2+8 minutes
10 - for the initial explanation, division into groups and group discussions
40 - for the presentation
2  - the groups reconvene and have to very rapidly (2 minutes max) 
choose a question or comment and choose the spokesperson to present it
8  - for the spokespeople to ask/state the questions/comments.

I tried to find some on-line hints on how "teach-ins" work or
"teach-in" theory (I haven't had the chance to participate, yet),
with no success. Anyone know a good page on this?

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