Student Audience Members

THE ART OF ASKING QUESTIONS

Both audience and presenters at a scholarly public forum such as the University Writing and Research Conference can benefit from some reflection on the role that audience feedback plays in such an event.


ASKING QUESTONS: In the Audience

The Role of the Audience in the Public Sphere

An audience member at a scholarly public forum is not simply expected to sit back and listen. Their job is to actively — provocatively — work toward a dialogue in which audience and presenters together explore topics,  issues, and problems.

What Is a “Good” Question?

A “good” question opens discussion rather than close it off. And good questions come out of engaged, active listening. As you listen and take notes, ask yourself two questions:

What have you learned? How has this presenter or session challenged what you thought you knew about a topic?

What’s behind or beyond this presentation? What larger histories, broader theories, or wider range of experience does the session gesture toward?

Strategies for Constructing a Question

From these questions you ask yourself, you can then construct questions to pose to the presenter(s) or your peers in the audience. How?

Listen for questions that presenters themselves pose but do not pursue. Scholarship poses questions, explicitly or implicitly. Which ones interest you?

Listen for keywords. Scholarship often works by asking us to think through new definitions for familiar concepts. Are you finding these new definitions useful? Are there dark areas they leave unlit? Are there other ways YOU might redefine these keywords?

Listen for the intellectual problem or larger public issue the presentation addresses. Do you accept their challenge to the scholarly consensus or the conventional wisdom? Do you want to hear more about the intellectual stakes or the practical implications of their challenge?

Draw connections among presentations. One purpose of public presentation is to create opportunities for a dynamic cross-pollination of ideas. Point to ways that the presentations complement one another, and ask presenters to comment. Are you seeing unexpected convergences, or equally unexpected divergences? Does the discussion you’ve heard in other conference sessions have anything to contribute to this one?

Draw upon your own experience and knowledge. Scholarship is not produced in a vacuum. What experiences, theories, or ideas have you been working with, as a scholar or as a human being, that might be of interest to the presenter(s) or your peers in the audience?