As a compulsive lecture attendee at Middlebury, I’ve noticed some patterns during the Q & A sessions that tend to detract from the generally excellent quality of speakers that come to our fine institution. Herewith, some advice for those eager students, professors, and townspeople hoping to get a word in with the New Yorker staff writer/Council on Foreign Relations member/ex-West Wing insider they admire.
(Note: these points can also be applied to discussion and/or seminar classes.)
1. It’s not about you
The lecturer is not there to answer questions that are only of personal interest to you, no matter how hard you try to link it to the topic they are speaking on. You’re a libertarian/Marxist/feminist/(d) all of the above? Great. That means you have a more fascinating perspective on everything. However interesting your tangentially-related comment may be, if it isn’t directly responding to the conversation, ask it later. Note to idealistic insert-social-science-here majors: stop making everything about human rights abuses and/or the IMF.
2. Stop trying to be provocative
We get it. You have strong opinions, and perhaps even knowledge on the subject at hand to back them up. At, for example, a RAJ lecture, the likelihood of the topic brushing against some controversy is high. One day, you might grow up to join what Sarah Palin likes to call the gotcha media. But for right now, if the talk is on Chinese devaluation of currency, don’t harass the speaker about Beijing’s censorship of Google.
3. Question, or long, pretentious comment in the form of a question?
This is also known as a soliloquestion. It involves making several semi-relevant references and allusions that display your vast repository of knowledge on a niche issue, and then ending with a verbal ellipsis, or quickly attaching a “what do you think?” to the end of it. Please note: the audience and speaker know what you’re doing, and it’s obnoxious, so don’t. Be clear, direct, and if humanly possible, concise.
These sorts of questions arise, I’m guessing, out of the desire to impress an impressive speaker and/or the audience, and to use the platform of a popular lecture as a soapbox. While engaging in a rant can occasionally be fun and useful, as a general rule, it’s a waste of everyone’s time, including the speaker’s. We go to see lectures to learn something, often of our own accord, and always in our precious little free time. If we all respect this, lecture Q & A’s can be not only productive, but pain-free.