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Shane Ralston

I think I endured a combo of Bait and Switch and N+1 at the Canadian Philosophical Association meeting many years ago. It felt like I had just endured an interrogation at Gitmo.

Seriously though, I think it's nice to give the speaker a big compliment at the start of the Q&A period as well as another one at the end. In management, they call it sandwiching criticism. You start by saying something positive about the person's performance, then deliver the critique (or an interrogation by one or more audience members) and finally give a few words of encouragement to end on a high note.

You could also buy the speaker a drink in the hotel lobby after the session is over. At that point, they probably need it.


These behaviors probably are often unhelpful to the speaker, but I can think of worse. Here are some which are virtually never helpful to the speaker and which are almost always designed to establish or reinforce a hierarchy wherein the questioner is more philosophically authoritative than the speaker:

"I disagree with your first premise, but my question is about the second," without so much as hinting at what is wrong with the first premise. This establishes the questioner as possessing supposed insight into the "fact" that that premise fails and does so without exposing this supposed insight to scrutiny.

"But of course you can't make such-and-such move to solve the problem, so you would have to try this." If the speaker wishes to defend such-and-such move against the questioner, she is forced to cancel the presupposition that she "can't" make it, which is awkward and requires something like a re-siezing of intellectual background. A civil and productive form of the same point could easy be made: "It seems unlikely that you could do such-and-such because this-and-that."

And then there is the truly outrageous. E.g., "You've misunderstood X," especially without elaborating in what way X has been allegedly misunderstood. By telling someone else what they've misunderstood, you set yourself up as an authority, whether or not that status is earned. A civil & productive form of this point would be, "I think you may have misunderstood X because of this and that." Qualifying and supporting your claim facilitates real discussion because now the speaker can identify your reasons and respond to them, and she may well have counter-reasons that hadn't occurred to you.


The Another Variant. A previous speaker has asked a devastating question, and at least one other person in the queue has already re-asked a variation of it. Asking it again: "this is in the same vein as Susan's question..."

This really just hammers home the point at the poor speaker, who may have little to do but concede again, and makes clear that everyone in the audience saw the trivial mistake that the speaker missed.

If you're on the list, far more polite to ask another question, or do the old "it's been asked".


Somebody asks a 20-minute "question" which consists only of statements. The speaker struggles to find a few words to respond. Noticing such struggle, the questioner interjects with another 10-minute speech. The QandA ends because time ran out. (I should note the questioner is almost always a senior professor, or perhaps a junior "superstar." Any grad student would be cutoff before they could go so far.


"Why Are You Doing Your Project and Not My Project?" The phrasing is more sophisticated (and longer ... oh god, is it ever longer), but, if you boil the monologue down to its essence, this is the question you'll find.

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