Clueless? Rude? Neither? Both?

by Eszter Hargittai on June 13, 2009

Between the topic of Michèle’s posts, the discussion that followed John H’s note on manners and now John Q’s query about seminar questions, it’s a good opportunity to describe an incident I experienced years ago. I was surprised economists didn’t get more of a mention in the thread following John H’s post earlier given what I’ve seen in their colloquia. I have close-to no experiences in philosophy exchanges (and yet I dare call myself a Timberite…), but I’ve attended quite a few talks among economists so I’m used to their style of Q&A. As some have noted, it often starts a few slides in – or in some famous cases the speaker doesn’t get to proceed past the title slide for most of the time allotted – and being rather aggressive seems standard. If that’s the local norm, they are likely used to it and it doesn’t raise any eyebrows. However, what if you put such an economist in a room full of sociologists? Is it okay for him to import his style or should he take a moment to familiarize himself with the local norms?

What struck me as rather curious was the way an economist behaved during a job talk I attended in a sociology department a few years ago. The economist engaged in the usual norms for his own department’s culture: interrupting at pretty much every slide. He didn’t take any cues from the rest of the group as to how people behave in the community he was visiting. That is, sociologists don’t tend to interrupt a speaker, certainly not a slide or two in, and certainly not for questions that are more than mere points of clarification. Add to that the fact that this was a job talk, which in some places may elicit even more aggressive behavior, but in the culture of this particular department meant that people would be at least as, if not more, courteous as usual. (Do not confuse courteous with lack of very serious and difficult questions, of course.) The audience was listening intently and the room was quiet for the most part except for the economist’s questions and the sighs of frustrations that started to emerge as the visitor continued to interrupt the speaker.

It’s fine if one doesn’t know the culture of another discipline. However, in such a situation, one might want to be a bit conscious of one’s environment and try to pick up some signals about how others are behaving. Did this economist think that he was the only one smart or engaged enough to have questions? After the third or fourth interruption, all of which came from him, it is a bit surprising that he did not pick up on the fact that his approach was not in line with local norms. Perhaps he did, but just didn’t care.

I was clearly not the only one bothered by the economist’s style. The uneasiness in the room was palpable. In the end, a senior sociologist stepped in. She turned to the economist and explicitly stated that this is simply not how we do things and asked that he hold his questions until the speaker had finished his talk. You could tell that everyone (presumably other than the economist) in the room was quite relieved to have had her do this.

{ 52 comments }

1

P O'Neill 06.13.09 at 2:08 pm

It’s a problem. It’s a style of questioning that reveals a lack of awareness of the likelihood that the questioner is not the only one who has thought of a particular problem. Whether it’s showing off, analytical impatience, or one of your options above, I don’t know. But another element is that someone should be chairing the seminar and set some ground rules. Eventually someone took that role in this case, it seems.

2

Matt 06.13.09 at 2:17 pm

It does seem rude to me, at least insofar as we want to say not picking up on the local norms (or trying to do so) is rude. My impression is that academics of all sorts often have a dangerous lacks of self-awareness, though, so this doesn’t surprise me very much. At my now-former department we always have a moderator for talks. Usually this role consists in introducing the speaker, saying when it’s time for a break or the reception, and keeping the list for questions if the speaker doesn’t want to do that herself. In such a case it would be the moderator’s job to tell the person interrupting to not do so, hopefully after the first case, but at least after the second.

3

JSE 06.13.09 at 2:38 pm

So I come from a seminar culture (math) where interrupting the speaker with questions throughout the talk is the norm, and not considered aggressive. When I’m giving a math seminar and only one person is asking questions, I’m pretty thankful that person’s there, since they’re generally the most engaged in the room. So I think the mystery economist couldn’t have inferred from the lack of other questions that something was wrong, but should have heard the aggrieved sighs.

4

Harry 06.13.09 at 2:53 pm

An economist (who was on the hiring committee) did this at a job talk I gave (in Philosophy) many years ago (entry level). It was extremely difficult to deal with. After the third interruption, the department chair very coolly stopped proceedings and told him to stop.

The department chair has the respo0nsibility to prevent this happening, and in the case you describe, said chair failed in an important responsibility.

5

Bloix 06.13.09 at 2:59 pm

But many economists seem to believe that to the extent sociology is an academic discipline at all, it’s just a sort of applied economics whose practitioners aren’t bright enough to be real economists. This guy appears to have been a troll – attempting to disrupt the proceedings in order to demonstrate his contempt for them.

6

onymous 06.13.09 at 3:45 pm

In non-interrupting cultures, is interrupting to clarify some confusion acceptable? Or does one have to sit through the entire talk confused if one doesn’t follow something early on? (Of course, if I were sitting in a talk in a different discipline where confusions would have to be clarified frequently, I wouldn’t interrupt and waste everyone else’s time just to educate myself.)

7

Hidari 06.13.09 at 5:30 pm

It’s not really relevant per se, but in my experience the worst people for this sort of behaviour are doctors. I don’t know what it’s like the in the States/Canada, but in the UK it’s still a male dominated, upper middle class, testosterone driven culture, and goodnes me do the boys like to hear the sound of their own voices. Many of them are also under the (mis)apprehension that because they are brain surgeons or medical psychiatristsorwhatever that this means anything they say is automatically of more worth than the evidence of a ‘mere’ academic.
This would have been (ahem) ‘academic’ until a few years back but now that qualitative methods are (very grudgingly) being introduced into medicine and now that doctors are being forced to take epidemiology and medical sociology and environmental (medical) issues into account, this has led to a clash of cultures, which I have seen at first hand. Doctors always interrupt.

8

harry b 06.13.09 at 5:34 pm

In philosophy, you are expected to sit through 60 minutes of reading in a monotone without interrupting, no matter how opaque or confused, or confusing, the talk.

Normally, in a department colloquium, at most 25% of the audience are up to speed with the subfield. One might think the norms are therefore a bit odd…

I do have one colleague who appears to sleep through most of every talk and then, very often, asks a penetrating question the formulation of which seems to rely on having understood the whole gist of the talk, as well of the details of some central part of the argument.

9

praisegod barebones 06.13.09 at 6:30 pm

I do have one colleague who appears to sleep through most of every talk and then, very often, asks a penetrating question the formulation of which seems to rely on having understood the whole gist of the talk, as well of the details of some central part of the argument.

When I was a grad student i use to be impressed by this kind of thing…now I tend to suspect it comes from having heard the paper before or read a precirculated draft

10

Langton 06.13.09 at 6:44 pm

I did my grad school in UW-Madison econ. During my time there, there is only one of our faculty members that I know of who regularly attends seminars in other social science departments. But he was quite aware of seminar cultures in other departments, and does not really stick out much. The faculty members who would have been clueless in such environment normally don’t find anything in sociology or poli sci to their liking.

11

harry b 06.13.09 at 6:44 pm

I’m depressed to say that I know said colleague well enough to know that is not the explanation in this case.

12

LizardBreath 06.13.09 at 6:52 pm

I’ve seen an ancient judge do the same thing — visibly appear to nod off, and then emerge from what looks like a refreshing nap with a question that would have required him to have been on top of everything said while he had his eyes closed.

13

peter 06.13.09 at 7:33 pm

The discipline of economics — at least, mainstream economics — seems to train (or to select) people to be generally unable or unwilling to recognize social causes for phenomena. As a consequence, one of the social norms of academic economists, in my experience, is a failure to recognize that social norms might differ from one discipline or context to another. In other words, if all your attention is focused on defining so-called “rational” decision mechanisms and behaviours for individual agents, the social structures over and between the agents, their causes and their effects, can often remain invisible to you.

14

John Quiggin 06.13.09 at 7:54 pm

Having been trained in one of the toughest of econ schools, Australian National Uni in the 1970s, I’ve been through this from just about every angle: speaker, chair, audience member, with some memorable disasters as both speaker and chair as well as watched from the audience (I hope I haven’t actually caused any, but cluelessness is in the eye of the beholder).

My current practice, consistent with economics norms, but usually also with completing the presentation in the allotted time

As speaker I announce in advance “Happy to take questions as I go, but keep the option of deferring them to the end”

As chair, I check the preferences of the speaker, and enforce them

As audience member, I tend to ask quite a few questions, but try to stick to clarification until we’ve reached the end of the paper.

15

dsquared 06.13.09 at 8:01 pm

I will maintain the same view as in John H’s thread when we were talking about philosophers doing it – the fact that lots of economists do behave this way isn’t due to a “culture” or anything that needs to have allowances made for it – it’s just rudeness, plus the fact that academic economists have developed a culture of allowing assholes to get away with it. It’s not like different countries having different concepts of personal space at all – it’s just a culture of making the excuse of “robust intellectual inquiry” for simple rudeness.

16

Tom T. 06.13.09 at 8:42 pm

Not every non-conformity amounts to rudeness. The fact that no one spoke up (in a room full of sociologists, no less) suggests a lack of confidence in the social norm. We’ve all been in situations where someone is doing something different from the way it’s “supposed” to be done, but we’re not sure if what’s being violated is a social rule or just a personal preference.
— she’s having a loud cell phone conversation in a small restaurant.
— he’s smoking amid a crowd of people at an outdoor concert.
— she’s singing to herself in the cubicle next to yours.
— he’s facing the wrong way on the elevator.
— Or to use a more personal example, in the subway system here in Washington, the unwritten rule for riding the escalator is “walk to the left, stand to the right.” Tourists don’t know this at first, so they’ll block the left side, and commuters behind them will sigh and roll their eyes. Only the boldest commuters, though, will actually bark at them to move.

Basically, in Eszter’s example and other such situations, everyone is wondering: “If I speak up, will the group agree that he is being rude or will it think that I am being uptight?” Note that the person who finally shushed the questioner was someone senior; i.e., someone who might reasonably expect his or her preferences to be adopted, or at least respected, by the group.

17

John Quiggin 06.13.09 at 8:55 pm

I agree, to a large extent, with Daniel. I’m sufficiently acculturated to economics norms that I find a seminar with questions on the way through preferable to one without, and particularly to the tedium of listening to a paper being read aloud, as mentioned by harry. But that is often used as an excuse for rudeness and bullying of a kind that has been driven out of lots of other workplaces.

18

Kieran Healy 06.13.09 at 9:08 pm

I agree with dsquared here (and in the philosophy case, too), with the addendum that rudeness can be linked to disciplinary culture insofar as there’s a tendency within the field to believe that acting like a boor is a reliable signal of brilliance or at least high seriousness. There’s no necessary connection between these two things, of course. The undersocialization/lack of social graces line of argument is pretty bogus too, because the eccentricity of high-powered intellectuals has in various times and places taken myriad forms, including overly-cultivated politeness, genial vagueness, or the tendency to be rather meek and conflict-averse. The “I act like this because I just don’t tolerate self-indulgent bullshit” line is more often than not just its own form of self-indulgent bullshit.

19

loren 06.13.09 at 11:08 pm

“Basically, in Eszter’s example and other such situations, everyone is wondering: “If I speak up, will the group agree that he is being rude or will it think that I am being uptight?”

This seems a plausible explanation in some cases, but not others. There are significant emotional costs (and occasionally some real risks of physical harm) to being confrontational, and so while we may strongly endorse the norm, we might still find that many violations that aren’t worth the emotional costs of enforcement (n0t to mention the occasional risks of real physical harm … that huge guy with the axe, standing on the left side of the escalator? maybe I’ll just let this one slide …)

In these cases it isn’t that we’re unsure of the content of the norm, or the depth of support; we’re just avoiding emotional distress. or we’re lazy. and occasionally prudent.

In the seminar case, it really is hard to believe that visitors from another department aren’t fully aware of another very common way to run a seminar, but if we conclude that the visitor is simply being an asshole, then we’re back to the emotional costs of confrontation.

20

Sebastian 06.13.09 at 11:12 pm

Polisci is an interesting laboratory – in International Relations, Comparative, Theory, and (to a lesser degree) American Politics talks follow the sociologist model – questions just for clarification.
But for Political Methodology (i.e. econometrics, sometimes game theory) – the norms are similar (if slightly less aggressive) than economists.
At our political methods talks and job talks it is not uncommon for the chair to announce that we “follow the economics model” for the talk – and so the same audience that may have patiently sat through 60mins of a job talk the day before will be happily jumping in at slide 3…

I think economists are fully aware of the social norms and take an odd pride in them – Levitt has given that as one example of how irreverent and independent economists are. So if an economists does that in a different social setting that’s just a sign that he is an arrogant asshole who thinks he’s better than the rest.
Isn’t Larry Summers supposed to have remarked that he has generally found that economist tend to be smarter than political scientists, who in turn are smarter than sociologists? I think that’s pretty typical.

21

david 06.14.09 at 12:47 am

“Did this economist think that he was the only one smart or engaged enough to have questions?” Yes, he did.

Not much to add to Kieran or dsquared, but it seems unnecessary for Larry Summers not to be invoked here. The degree to which macho dickheadedness is confused for quality of argument is disciplinarily specific, even if there are wider cultural norms that support such dickheadedness across disciplines.

22

david 06.14.09 at 12:48 am

Whoops, Sebastian’s comment I missed somehow.

23

Brad DeLong 06.14.09 at 1:15 am

Harry B wrote: “In philosophy, you are expected to sit through 60 minutes of reading in a monotone without interrupting, no matter how opaque or confused, or confusing, the talk. Normally, in a department colloquium, at most 25% of the audience are up to speed with the subfield. One might think the norms are therefore a bit odd…”

Can we go further, and all agree that these social norms are *wrong* for three reasons?

1. It greatly diminishes the chances that people will have read and thought about it beforehand.
2. It ignores the fact that, at least since Gutenberg, it is cheap to reproduce text and we can almost all read faster and better than we can listen.
3. It presumes that the most interesting voice is the presenter’s voice–which is surely not the case for the presenter and (except in conference settings where the audience is likely to be a bit random) probably not the case for almost everybody else.

24

Nicholas Gruen 06.14.09 at 1:20 am

I’m sympathetic – very sympathetic – to the point being made in the post. So often the economists’ interruptions are attention seeking and an invitation to a cleverness competition which is actually a distraction to the giver of the paper developing their point. But I’m a bit dismayed to see this written in terms of general manners and norms. If they’re the right kinds of questions – sympathetic, but seeking clarification of some point – then they can save a lot of time and improve the experience of all concerned. And ditto others’ comments on when a paper is being read.

25

Kieran Healy 06.14.09 at 2:04 am

I think I could quite easily agree with 23 — I’ve had two very good experiences recently with the interrupt-from-the-get-go model, because the people in each audience almost without exception tried to constructively engage with what I was talking about. So, they didn’t just start nit-picking or looking for cheap counterexamples or trying to show off, nor did they pointlessly butt in to demand I talk about what was obviously coming 30 seconds later. But this also shows that it’s quite possible to have a civilized back-and-forth conversational model for a visiting speaker, and that the interrupting-like-a-jerk version thus depends more on the jerk part than the interrupting part of the equation.

26

Neil 06.14.09 at 2:34 am

My own experience agrees with Hidari’s: lots of people ask difficult and sometimes confronting questions, but the medicos are most likely to hijack a paper. As a supposed ‘ethicist’, I am often invited to give presentations at medical venues. Suppose half an hour is alloted to me: this may consist of five minutes of me, and 25 minutes of medicos telling me that I don’t understand philosophy as deeply as they do.

Dsquared, it is undoubtedly true that disciplinary norms like those prevailing in philosophy can serve as a mask for mere rudeness (Fodor, anyone?) But the mask is transparent; it’s not like the norm serves to inculcate the rudeness in most.

27

onymous 06.14.09 at 2:56 am

It presumes that the most interesting voice is the presenter’s voice—which is surely not the case for the presenter and (except in conference settings where the audience is likely to be a bit random) probably not the case for almost everybody else.

This. When I give a talk (in an interrupting culture), if other people don’t start asking questions, trying to clarify things, generally showing interest and engaging with it, I get bored. And as I get more bored and see no one engaging, I get more boring, and people are less willing to engage, and the talk is a disaster.

Almost uniformly, talks that I’ve given that went well are talks where people interrupted early. In that case I can clarify, tailor the rest of my comments to the issues and puzzles the questioners have brought up, and generally make things more interesting for the audience and for myself. Maybe it says something bad about my speaking ability that my talks tend to fall apart if not interrupted, but I think generally the model of talks as back-and-forth with the audience is a good one, provided jerks don’t screw it up (which, as Kieran noted, can happen, but says more about the jerks than the format).

28

Michelle Color me Shocked 06.14.09 at 4:08 am

I came through from the parallel discussion on Brad deLong’s place.
I’m sympathetic to the idea expressed by Nick Gruen and Kieran Healey (#24 and #25) that interruptions can be constructive and add to the understanding of the paper for both presenter and listener. But in my experience, they almost never are. The incessant interrupter is much less likely to be living up to that ideal than the person that poses one or two pointed questions, which usually happens in the second half of the presentation or in the discussion/Q&A at the end.
Here are some simple tests:
1. Is the answer to the question on the next slide or two? (or in the paper)
2. Does the presenter get the space to answer the question, or is the answer interrupted as well?
3. When the presenter does get a chance to provide the answer, does the questioner continue to hold to their hypothesis or point of view even though they have no counter-evidence or argument to the presenter’s case?
4. Does the interrupter respond adequately to the presenter’s requests to defer questions to allow him or her to move on to the rest of the presentation?

If the answer to at least two of these is “yes”, it’s not constructive interrogation of the paper, it’s a jerk who prefers the sound of his own voice to the possibility of learning something new.

29

M. 06.14.09 at 7:11 am

>Maybe it says something bad about my speaking ability that my talks tend to fall apart if not interrupted,

This suggests presenters, anticipating the norm, create different kinds of presentations in the two settings. In sociology the idea seems to be of the individual genius creating a work of art, paying attention to rhythm and structure, and interrupting is a violation of that. In economics (ironically) it seems to be a collective engagement, with improvisational elements to it, a sort of call and response.

30

Richard Green 06.14.09 at 8:28 am

It’s strange that so much of the differing norms between disciplines gets explained by simple interdisciplinary chauvinism, such as “economists are arrogant bastards” or “sociologists are wishy washy people that don’t like their logic challenged”. It’s a rather inane way of looking at things, especially since I think alot can be explained by differences in what is being studied and how cases are made.

It’s been pointed out above that the economics style of interruption is also present in mathematics, political science etc. Surely this suggests something.

Compared to sociology and other social sciences or history, economics is better (but perhaps not best) served by logic chains present in maths and elsewhere…or at least that’s they way it is practiced. If you have a logic chain with “if A, then B, then C”, it makes alot of sense to interrupt at A if B and C are contingent on it. If the case relies on each slide, each slide must be challenged if the case is to stand.

It’s not practical to do this in sociology or other disciplines. This is due to the nature of that which is being studied rather than the capacity of those studying it. A case has to be made with A, B, C, D, E, F and G all suggest H, taken together H seems a reasonable conclusion. It isn’t contingent on any of the first seven points in isolation, so a challenge within talk won’t serve discussion much.

Of course, maybe it’s an economics bias to see culture as the endogenous product of practical factors rather than an exogenous force of destiny….

31

Chris Bertram 06.14.09 at 9:04 am

#23 – The obvious solution here is pre-circulation, with perhaps a very short introductory spiel from the author. Unfortunately, on nearly all those occasions when I’ve participated in a seminar with this format, there have been several individuals present who haven’t read the paper but who can’t bear to restrain themselves from intervening (often quite aggressively) in the discussion.

32

ejh 06.14.09 at 10:06 am

rudeness and bullying of a kind that has been driven out of lots of other workplaces.

Has it?

33

Martin Wisse 06.14.09 at 10:53 am


She turned to the economist and explicitly stated that this is simply not how we do things and asked that he hold his questions until the speaker had finished his talk.

Which she should have done immediately after the first or perhaps the second interruption, rather than let the tension built up. Fail on both sides.

34

Z 06.14.09 at 11:45 am

So I come from a seminar culture (math) where interrupting the speaker with questions throughout the talk is the norm, and not considered aggressive. When I’m giving a math seminar and only one person is asking questions, I’m pretty thankful that person’s there

Just an anecdote about this. A few years ago, a math PhD. student from Harvard gave a talk at the PhD. student seminar in Paris. As usual (for the latter), nobody asked any question, neither during the talk nor after. After the talk, he came and asked me if he had done anything wrong, because he was surprised, to put it mildly, about how non-adversarial the audience was.

35

Phil 06.14.09 at 12:11 pm

When I give a talk (in an interrupting culture), if other people don’t start asking questions, trying to clarify things, generally showing interest and engaging with it, I get bored.

I find this really, really hard to imagine – I can’t imagine many questions at slide #3 to which the appropriate answer wouldn’t be
a) Yes, and I’ll get to that on the next slide but one
b) No, and I go into why not on the next slide but two
c] Yes, but that’s not the area I want to look at today
d) No, but I don’t think my disagreement with that model is really relevant here
e) That’s an interesting angle – we should talk about that later

I guess if almost none of the questions were types a-d and almost all of them were type e, and you didn’t talk about it later but had the discussion right there, that would be interesting… for the presenter and the one person who asked the good question.

I’m struggling here. I guess it’s just that I’ve never seen it done.

36

Eszter Hargittai 06.14.09 at 12:25 pm

Re Brad’s comment #23, I agree that listening to someone read a paper for 45 minutes is painful and there is little added value. However, often – at least in seminars I attend – there is no existing paper per se, the person is still working on it. I agree that if there is a paper, it might as well be circulated, but again, as noted above, too many people in the audience still will not have read it.

As Kieran noted, too often these questions concern issues that everybody knows will be covered by the speaker on the next slide so it seems like more of a “look at me, look at how smart I am” motivation to interrupt.

What’s the ideal format? Good question. I think it helps if the presentation is set up in a way that unravels a puzzle so the audience can be engaged. (Worst are those that don’t even tell you the central research question until half an hour in.. uhm, or in some cases, ever.)

We can certainly have a discussion about what format works well for seminars, it’s an interesting and important question. But whether the sociologists’ format in the particular seminar I spoke about is ideal or not doesn’t dismiss the visitor’s lack of regard for local norms.

> She turned to the economist and explicitly stated that this is simply not how we do
> things and asked that he hold his questions until the speaker had finished his talk.

Which she should have done immediately after the first or perhaps the second interruption, rather than let the tension built up. Fail on both sides.

She was just one of many (senior) people in the audience, why was it on her to do this? As P O’Neill and Harry noted earlier, either the dept chair or the person chairing the session (she was neither) should probably have done this earlier.

37

Eszter Hargittai 06.14.09 at 12:42 pm

Wanted to clarify this comment I made above:

I agree that listening to someone read a paper for 45 minutes is painful and there is little added value.

Most seminars I attend, people don’t read full papers. They give a talk that is more informal than a written academic piece would be. If the person is good with use of visuals then the talk is accompanied by helpful slides (there is nothing inherent about using overhead slides well or poorly, some people do a great job with them, others could use some lessons).

I also think clarification questions are fine, the problem is that people have very different approaches to what they consider a clarification question.

Also, it’s important to leave plenty of room for discussion at the end. I certainly don’t like seminars where 75-80% of the time is for the presenter leaving little room for a conversation after. In that case Brad’s point is very relevant: it ignores the fact that there are potentially lots of other interesting voices in the room.

38

Anonymous 06.14.09 at 3:19 pm

Let me expand on JSE’s comments about math talks:

At least in the departments I’ve been in, it’s more or less considered a duty to ask questions, as a way of showing interest and helping the speaker gauge how well they are getting their point across (as well as engaging better with the material and therefore learning more, of course). If everyone stops asking questions, they’re sending the message that they’ve stopped caring and have decided to spend the rest of the seminar thinking about something else. This sometimes happens, but it’s embarrassing for the speaker.

Answering frequent questions is considered one of the speaker’s duties. In fact, this is the whole point of the talk: if it weren’t going to be highly interactive, we could all just read a written version instead. From this perspective, discouraging questions, or even asking for them to be held until the end, is unspeakably rude. It indicates that the speaker is a prima donna who is more interested in giving a performance than in actually connecting with the audience.

From this perspective, I can sympathize with the economist in the sociology talk. Perhaps his thought processes went like this: “Gee, nobody else is asking questions. I guess they think the talk’s a total disaster, but I actually like it, so I’ll be sure to speak up so the speaker recognizes that at least one audience member cares. Hmm, the rest of the audience seems impatient. They must want the talk to end as quickly as possible (and resent my wasting time engaging with an obviously incompetent speaker), but I still think it would be rude to let the speaker think I’ve grown bored.”

39

StevenAttewell 06.14.09 at 4:27 pm

Just as an added disciplinary note:

At least in my (History) department, the normal practice is to circulate a paper that may or may not be in progress, then give a presentation which is not reading the paper (I was explicitly told by my adviser in my first research seminar to never, never read your paper), and then there’s a lively discussion afterward.

I think this does condition interruption as rudeness in several ways. First, since the presentation isn’t the paper, it’s not a matter of “no value added;” the presenter is putting forward a new formulation of their ideas. Second, since history is very much about narrative, even when a paper is very analytical, it wouldn’t make sense to start throwing up questions when you haven’t yet heard the full account. Third, given that everyone expects a give-and-take AFTER, it would be seen as jumping the queue.

40

Barry 06.14.09 at 6:45 pm

“I guess if almost none of the questions were types a-d and almost all of them were type e, and you didn’t talk about it later but had the discussion right there, that would be interesting… for the presenter and the one person who asked the good question.”

In most areas of life, a meeting will naturally drift into a two-person conversation (usually the leader and one other person), unless the leader makes an effort to keep it on track. A meeting can spend 90% of the time on one clearly minor issue, if the leader allows it. And 90% of the time, that one other person is somebody who’s deeply in love with the sound of their own voice.

So some of this may be due to the speaker not realizing that he/she is a meeting leader, and can & should fee free to defer questions, or to shut down lines of questioning.

41

Tom Hurka 06.14.09 at 8:03 pm

Maybe it’s personal taste (and acculturation to philosophy), but I prefer to have no questions till the end of the presentation. Then people have the whole argument before them and can try to ask a question that concerns the main point or central crux. Too often questions asked mid-stream turn out to be on something peripheral. (It can just be hard to tell then what’s central.) Plus people get to think about their question, try to formulate it in the clearest possible way, etc.

42

Thomas 06.14.09 at 10:08 pm

Adapting to the local norms is a good idea, but can be difficult when they are normative but not descriptive. In my experience, statistics seminar speakers and audiences are in favor of having more questions than they usually get — audiences tend to just sit there. I’ve been thinking about this because I have been on sabbatical and therefore have been in the audience in unfamiliar locations. I was reassured by the fact that I received (unprompted) favorable comments on the fact that I asked questions, even though most of the locals didn’t.

Also, there are important categories of questions other than (a)-(e) above. There are the variants of (a) and (b) where the information is *not* on the next slide, or anywhere else in the talk.
There is (d) where the disagreement with that model is the key point that makes the question interesting. There are
(f) Your example doesn’t seem to satisfy conditions (ii), (vi), or (ix) of your proof, are we misunderstanding you?
(g) Is there any situation where Assumption A would be a reasonable approximation or is this meant to be a toy problem? [not in the pejorative sense, but in the sense of a tractable simplification - a 'spherical cow']

That is, there are a lot of potential questions that are for clarification in the sense of clarifying whether we have misunderstood you or just disagree with you. Any given question of this sort may be indistinguishable from assholery, but as a collection it should be possible to tell the difference — and a department or other seminar community should make sure that it understands the difference. I also agree with John Quiggin that the speaker’s preferences are important, and these should be elicited and in typical circumstances respected.

It’s also possible that in some disciplines it is much less likely that there will be useful questions. Perhaps in philosophy the ‘chunk size’ of arguments is larger and it is harder to tell whether an issue will be peripheral or important before the end. Perhaps in some lab disciplines there isn’t any point asking questions until after all the experimental results are presented, by which time you might as well wait until the end.

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Eszter Hargittai 06.14.09 at 10:17 pm

So some of this may be due to the speaker not realizing that he/she is a meeting leader, and can & should fee free to defer questions, or to shut down lines of questioning.

This makes a lot of sense. I agree that presenters are often in a position to ask not to be interrupted or to defer responding to a question. In this particular case, it’s a bit less obvious since it concerned a job candidate who may not have known that the person was not a department member (nor would he necessarily know the dept norms, although I think they tend to be fairly uniform across sociology depts).

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Tim Wilkinson 06.14.09 at 10:23 pm

dsquared @15: the fact that lots of economists do behave this way isn’t due to a “culture” or anything that needs to have allowances made for it – it’s just rudeness, plus the fact that academic economists have developed a culture of allowing assholes to get away with it. It’s not like different countries having different concepts of personal space at all – it’s just a culture of making the excuse of “robust intellectual inquiry” for simple rudeness.

So is this an accurate summary?

1. Lots of economists are inexcusably rude arseholes.
2. There is a culture among economists of tolerating and rationalising such rudeness.
3. The same is not true of of many (most?) other categories of academics.
[4. The above are brute facts, or at any rate no explanation for them is likely to be of interest in this context.]

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Sebastian 06.15.09 at 3:22 am

have any of the people mentioning Math talks been to economics talks?
I know little about academic math, but my dad is professor of mathematics who always wants and encourages people at his talks to ask questions – but there it’s about really understanding what the speaker is doing (and it seems important that in pure math, as opposed to any social science, you are either right or wrong, rather than “right if you agree that your identification assumptions are reasonable”.)
In economics talks, questions are designed to poke wholes in a theory. I do think that has a place, too in strengthening arguments. I think that it’s quite OK if economists think it’s a productive model. What I don’t think is OK is, if economists – fully aware that this is not how things work in other places – decide to ignore that fact and act as if their way is the “right” way.
Also I’ve never seen a speaker complain about a clarification questions.

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Doctor Science 06.15.09 at 5:02 am

Wow. I didn’t realize there were academic cultures where you *could* interrupt for anything other than “I think this is really slide 4″. My experience is with papers in: various biological sciences, history of science, history of medicine, popular culture studies, media theory, computer-mediated communications, probably others. In all of these, the presenter is expected to get all the way to the end, then have time for questions — but the presentations are supposed to be 15-20 minutes or less, short enough for the audience to hold things in their heads.

I think the presentations I go to are (by comparison to either math or econ) *highly* data- or text-driven. You present thesis, methodology, historical data or experimental results or critical analysis, then summarize and say what’s next. You have to see how the whole thing holds together *first*, then poke holes.

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M. Gordon 06.15.09 at 5:57 am

Just as a data point (and in part to respond to “Doctor Science” @ 46): I’m in biophysics, and hence have attended talks in biology, chemistry, physics, and math departments, and at informal departmental talks the expected norm has always been to interrupt with questions. Some people to do a good job of interrupting with interesting, insightful questions and observations. Some people just do it because they’re self absorbed (and I’ve certainly been guilty of asking some self-absorbed questions.) But I’ve never been to a talk where asking questions during the talk is frowned upon if the questions are useful, interesting, and help clarify the material.

On the other hand, at large conferences (as opposed to department talks or colloquia), the format that Doctor Science discusses is the norm: the talk is uninterrupted until the end.

In none of the fields in which I have gone to hear presentations has anybody ever read from a paper aloud. I can’t imagine sitting through something like that.

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Doormat 06.15.09 at 8:09 am

I thought I’d add a comment about mathematics talks: I would agree with #34 and say that it varies a lot between places. At my UK university, it’s pretty rare to interrupt a speaker, and then usually only to ask a basic, clarifying question (as in to question if that’s a “t” or a “b” on the board). Analytic questions almost always wait until the end (and even then, we tend to be terribly polite).

Actually, this last year I’ve been a participant in a “working seminar”, where as a group we’ve been trying to understand a mutually new area. It’s become a bit of a joke that I (and a more senior person) ask a ridiculous number of questions, sometimes slightly derailing the original talk. But a joke to the point of having to really tone it down when we invited other people in, as it was so unusual. I would defend my behaviour (mostly) by saying that it was a working seminar, and if I wasn’t understanding something, then what was the point?

Indeed, I wish people asked more questions in seminar talks: often the speaker can just aim too high, and loose everyone in the room, and then we all spend the next 40 minutes being bored. But I’ve always thought that the problem in Math is that the learning curve can be really steep. If we’ve invited speaker X, and they are currently working in subfield Y, then it’s not particularly fair to effectively ask them to give an introduction to Y (with little or no hope of hence explaining their own contribution) just because we don’t know much about it (as why did we invite them in the first place?)

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Petréa Mitchell 06.15.09 at 3:05 pm

Hello, I’m dropping in via a link from The Economist‘s “Free Exchange” blog.

Being a programmer, a description of deep social cluelessness from someone in a math-heavy discipline makes me immediately think of mild autism. This is a hot topic in the computer world these days, with a growing realization that it may be more common among programmers than in the general population.

Interestingly, programming is another field which has long harbored a tendency to totally ignore social factors. I think the assertions that the majority of programmers working for industry are autistic are overblown, but I think the proportion is higher in academia, and that tends to encourage the habit among computer science graduates. (In fact, there are people who argue that social awareness is actually an impediment to being a good programmer!)

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CalDem 06.15.09 at 8:07 pm

on #23: I’m an economist too, but in Environmental economics where the culture is less boorish ad their is a higher proportion of women, and we tend to come out of the lower status land grant programs. In environmental I find the interrupting question style great for the reason’s Brad mentions-but in general we are much nicer and genuinely trying to help the author or gently suggest they are on the wrong path. In the general economics culture, like the infamous MIT/Harvard labor public ones, the seminar culture just allows people to behave like d(*&(* and as an author you learn very little from those seminars. Really there is no point in presenting to a bunch of people whose only goal is to prove they are smarter than you (In most cases I am fully aware that they are smarter-that is why I want their opinion.)

So the kind of exchange that Brad is holding up is an ideal that is almost never reached in mainstream economics.

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derrida derider 06.16.09 at 12:46 am

But isn’t it part of any good communication for the speaker to convey what he or she expects from their listener/s? For presentations, it’s up to the speaker to set the rules; this is usually part of the “tell ‘em what ya gonna tell ‘em” bit in the “tell ‘em what ya gonna tell ‘em, then tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you told ‘em” structure.

Personally as someone who learns best by the Socratic method I like my positions tested and sharpened in dialogue and tell people that before I begin. Plus I do get bored with the sound of my own voice after a while.

But there have been a few times where I’ve said “so I can keep my train of thought and outline the whole case, can we defer any questions until the end of the presentation please?”. IME people will respect explicitly stated preferences. Certainly I do.

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BillCinSD 06.16.09 at 10:19 pm

as a professor in an engineering discipline, what we usually do is for the person doing the introduction to define the rules for asking questions at the start of the talk. The rules differ depending upon the type of talk. For instance, interrupting during a 15-20 minute conference talk is generally not done, but during a half an hour or hour long talk, questions during the talk are encouraged.

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