Ancrene Wiseass

A would-be medievalist holds forth on academia, teaching, gender politics, blogging, pop culture, critters, and whatever else comes her way.

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Yes, this really is yet another blog by a disillusioned grad student. I sympathize, but that's just the way it has to be. For hints as to what my bizarre alias means, click here and here and, if needed, here and here. To get a sense of what I'm up to, feel free to check out the sections called "Toward a Wiseass Creed" and "Showings: Some Introductory Wiseassery" in my main blog's left-hand sidebar. Please be aware that spamming, harassing, or otherwise obnoxious comments will be deleted and traced.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Ask the Wiseass: How to deal with Q&A?

The final push for the prospectus continues, but I'm surfing the Internets in order to decompress after the first day of teaching and taking classes (about which more later). Checking in at several of my usual haunts, I read an interesting request. In an online community I subscribe to, an undergraduate medievalist who's giving her first conference paper--which is expanded from work she did for a class--asks how to prepare for a Q&A session.

I remember being utterly, abjectly terrified by my first upcoming Q&A session. Like many other academic hurdles, the actual event was anticlimactic, but I got some very good advice from friends and have paid close attention to the tactics of good Q&A respondents since then. So here's what I said in reply:

To prep, I'd suggest going back over your class notes and skimming through the most important material you read to compose your paper, as time allows. But I suspect your real worry is more about handling the questions you're not sure how to answer on the spot. So . . .

Here are some suggestions for handling the Q&A (or oral exams, for that matter):
1) Be willing to say you don't know the answer to a question if you don't. Don't be afraid to enter into dialogue with the questioner to get more specifics, either. That can often buy you enough time to think up something more specific to say. And you can always resort to: "That's very interesting. I'll have to look into it, because I can see how that would affect my investigation here [in X way] and push my thinking further. Thank you!"
2) Another deflection strategy: "I'm not sure about that particular aspect of the problem, but here's what I'd say about [generally related event, passage, character, author, etc.]." By this time, you've bought yourself a little time and may be able to say something more specific about whatever they actually asked you about through the lens of what you just said.
3) Yet another: "You know that's really very insightful/fascinating/helpful. What you just said made me think about [X] . . ."
4) Take notes on people's questions, especially if they're rambling. That will help you remember what you need to address, give you a chance to collect yourself if you're feeling nervous (since you're looking at a piece of paper and focusing on what to write down, rather than looking a stranger in the face and thinking "Oh, shit!"), help the neurons fire, and make you look coolly professional.
5) Q&A can be a very good chance to mention things you didn't get to include in the paper and/or how you'd push your ideas further if you kept working on them: could this become an article? A book? In what way? You can use such statements to segue away from or into question responses, and you can also use them to burn up some time, if need be.
Obviously, figuring out how to deal with Q&A is important for academics at every level. I'd like to know what you think about this, both for the benefit of one laudably ambitious undergraduate and for the rest of us. What are your strategies for preparing for and handling Q&A sessions?