Seeking the good of the seminar: how to ask questions well

As part of our ongoing series on academic skills, today’s post is about the skill of asking questions well in an academic seminar (or similar setting). For many postgraduate students and researchers, especially in the humanities and social sciences, seminars focused on a particular interest area are the main way we interact with others in our discipline around academic topics.

Conferences are an intensive forum for this kind of interaction, so most of what I look at below is relevant to that setting too. But the context I have most in mind is a regular, institutionally-based meeting of generally the same group of people, gathering to hear one or two speakers and then discuss their ideas.

So is there a distinctively Christian way to participate in this kind of setting? First of all, I want to highlight the way I’ve framed the topic: ‘asking questions well’, rather than ‘asking good questions’. The latter phrase, I think, focuses on the content of the question – which will vary widely between subjects – and can lead us either to pride or anxiety depending on our grasp of our field. Instead, let’s concentrate on how we ask questions: our motivations and practice, which can either build up or tear down speakers and others in the room.

We’ve all had the experience of being in a seminar where someone asks a question badly:

  • The question is too long and/or vague for the speaker to properly engage with
  • The contribution is framed as a question, but is really a comment, leaving the speaker little room to respond other than agreeing or disagreeing
  • They are clearly using the opportunity to speak to demonstrate their own broad(er) knowledge, or pivot to something which isn’t really the topic at hand
  • They disagree aggressively with some point, sometimes with implicit or explicit ad hominem attacks (this is rare in my experience, although this can depend on the culture of a particular discipline or institution).

At their best, the question times in seminars can be really beneficial for the whole group: they open ideas up to multiple perspectives, clarify and expand the material for the audience, and help the speaker refine their argument. But too often they can be the place where the academic ego is on show at its worst.

How can we, as Christians, ask questions well – for the glory of God, and the benefit of our institutions and colleagues?

  1. Listening to and respecting others. We’ve heard before on FiSch about the importance of listening properly to others – and asking questions properly is a complementary skill. To ask a question which opens up something new, you need to pay attention to what the speaker has actually said and what they meant by it.
    This flows out of an understanding that every person is made in the image of God: they are worthy of your respect in engaging honestly with their work, even if you end up disagreeing with them.
     
  2. Being sensitive to institutional and situational norms. This includes not taking up more than your fair share of time – both in your initial question, and in the case of follow-up questions (no more than one!). It’s also relevant to the comment-in-disguise type of question: generally, comments are more suitable if framed clearly as such, allowing the speaker to respond in the right way and leaving more time for genuine questions which take advantage of their expertise.
    This flows out of the ideal of ‘seeking the good of the city’ (Jeremiah 29:7) in our academic institutions. When we model appropriate and respectful behaviour, we help foster better understanding and better work as well as encouraging and affirming those around us.
     
  3. Practising humility and unselfishness in our questions. Resist the temptation to ask the question that does little more than spotlight your own expertise or wrench the topic around to your own. This doesn’t mean never making links between your sphere of knowledge and another, but often more specific or personal queries are better made one-to-one.
    This flows out of the New Testament command to ‘think of others more highly than yourselves’ (Philippians 2:3). Humility is often counter-cultural in today’s academy, but it’s at the centre of our imitation of Christ and our growth in holiness.

These are only a few ideas and basic principles for Christians who want to honour God intentionally in this area of their academic lives. Feel free to add ideas and thoughts in the comments – questions and comments are both welcome!

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