Some things in academia become normalised as meme-worthy ‘Shit Academics Say. Sure, senior academics evoking the ‘more of a comment than a question’ post-conference presentation is not the most pressing of issues in academia.
But it’s a behaviour that we, two early career researchers, picked up on straight away at our first in-person academic conference, HERDSA. These observations aren’t unique to this conference (editor’s note: totally!), but it being our first in-person conference, we found it apt to discuss as we found these non-question monologues to be ill-timed and even problematic. In raising the issue, we would like to productively discuss not only what we noticed but how we believe conference organisers, session chairs and audience members can improve the experience for presenters and attendees.
As newbies to the in-person conference, we looked forward to the opportunity to engaging with top researchers in our field about their findings. In many ways, HERDSA 2022 met these expectations.
Unfortunately, with limited time for questions, we may not have always been able to both form our question and get the attention of the mic-holder before the less-of-a-question-more-of-a-comment attendee. At the end of nearly every presentation, we noted there was at least one audience member who stole the floor, eating away at the limited Q&A time, to offer their opinion or make a lengthy comment.
In one session, after a tremendous keynote speech delivered by Professor Michelle Trudgett, around her research with supporting Indigenous Early Career Researchers, the very first comment made was that Aboriginal leadership in universities should ensure non-Indigenous people are aware of issues facing Indigenous staff and students. In our observation, this comment seemed odd given that the keynote had just spoken at length about the additional workload that Aboriginal leaders are expected to cover at universities. This is one example of where an audience member diverted the discussion around what was being presented, to focus the discussion on something unrelated to the presentation (and engaging in whataboutism). An audience member then commented on the microaggression implicit in the man’s comment i.e., that of requesting Aboriginal leaders to take the additional load of educating non-Indigenous colleagues when they had just been presented data suggesting that Aboriginal leaders are overworked. This exchange stirred a robust discussion within the room, and eventually allowed others to actively draw on the points addressed in the keynote. Although unimpressed with the initial “question” raised, I (Tanoa) enjoyed observing the room participation and the conversational exchanges that did address points relating to the keynote; the latter, to me (Tanoa), was a demonstration of what engaging academic conversations should be. Although we use this example, we witnessed similar exchanges multiple times across the 3-day conference.
We pose a couple of speculations as to why an audience member may use the Q&A in an unproductive way; we believe some are unintended, while others are less benign:
- Unsure how to succinctly frame the question
When a presentation has got our brains buzzing with thoughts and ideas, it can be difficult to make clear connections and articulate them. As one academic pointed out, what often arises is a comment with many entangled parts, not a straightforward question. That resonates with us, and what we found helpful was to keep a notebook, take notes and save the reflection or half-formed question for discussion after the presentation where we could discuss in a more apt setting, (in-person during tea or via email or by requesting a Zoom catch-up). HERDSA provided great resources, such as an events app, which allowed attendees to be able to connect with presenters, should there be any follow up questions or comments.
- Using the Q&A for validation
As one academic expressed, it could be that the attendee does know how to frame their question, they just don’t want to ask one. Instead, they’re essentially wanting the presenter to agree with them.
- Using the Q&A for one’s own gain
Not all questions are good questions, and some audience members may disguise a question to signpost to their own research or expertise in the matter.
- Using the Q&A as a microaggression
A microaggression, in this context, is a verbal indignity – often flying under the radar due to its cunning context. A microaggression is not the same as a respectful debate; although, the post-presentation Q&A may also not be an appropriate time to engage in a one-on-one debate. An alternative might be to take it to academic twitter!
By and large, we noticed non-question “questions” were posed to female-presenting presenters by male-presenting audience members. Our observations are in alignment with research that concluded that women ask fewer and shorter questions than men. Additionally, it has been found that senior academics ask more questions than junior academics.
We witnessed many thought-provoking presentations at HERDSA, and we both engaged with and listened in on many stirring conversations; we believe that conference organisers and/or session chairs can and should make space for discussion to flow. This is made possible with conference organisers and chairs proactively communicating with attendees around ‘housekeeping’. For example, it could be clearly stated if there will or will not be time for comments and reflections. In one session in particular, the session chair, Dr. Wade Kelly, set a (paraphrased) precedent that questions should be questions and advised that an ideal question is 10 words or less.
Further, conference organisers can ensure that attendees can be/feel heard by ensuring a range of formats. The traditional, one-way style of presentation leaves little opportunity, during the session, for audience members to engage with each other and minimal time for questions. HERDSA offered alternatives like non-hierarchical fishbowl or roundtable discussions in which attendees could better engage with each other – and the facilitator!
Audience members are also accountable for how they navigate and engage in productive conversations. We like the helpful Conference Monkey guide written by Georgina Torbet and would like to add some additional considerations to asking a question after an academic presentation:
1. Firstly, (which is our whole point), is this actually a question, or are you showing off? Consider if you already know the answer.
2. Will the response to this question directly impact what you do? (i.e., is your question authentic; is it informing practice/research?)
3. Has somebody else already asked this question? Or could a response that was previously given also apply to your question?
If you have made it this far, then your question is probably valid and engaging, so we propose the following when asking your questions:
- Write down your question (or concepts)
- Be mindful of time and ask only one question (more if time permits)
- If necessary, do a quick introduction
- Re-consider if your question requires a backstory (it probably doesn’t)
- It’s okay to briefly thank the presenter
4. Be mindful of the space you are in and the space you are “allowed” to occupy.
The keynote speaker has been invited into the space because the conference organisers/executive team determined that their research is valuable to the academic audiences that have chosen to attend. Give presenters the respect they deserve and don’t centre yourself.
Finally, it’s totally fine to have a critical question. However, question sessions aren’t intended to be a ‘gotcha’ moment; present criticism constructively.
Ameena Payne is a PhD student at Deakin’s Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning (CRADLE). Ameena is a recipient of her alma mater’s Outstanding Young Alumna Award (2022) and several teaching excellence commendations. She is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (AdvanceHE) and the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA).
Ashah Tanoa, a Pinjareb/Whadjuk Noongar woman from Perth, Western Australia, is an Associate Lecturer at Murdoch University. Ashah is studying a Master of Education by Research, looking at Indigenous student retention rates and what influences a student’s decision to leave within their first year at university. She was the 2021 recipient of the Vice Chancellor’s award for Excellence in Enhancing Learning. In 2022, Ashah was accepted to present at the HERDSA conference in Melbourne, on an evaluation of an innovative unit that teaches the hidden curriculum to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.