The worst questions to be asked at a conference

3 April 2013, 1752 EDT

The following is a guest post by Peter Henne.

Once again, the International Studies Association annual meeting is upon us, followed by the Midwest Political Science Association conference. It’s a good bet that most readers of the Duck will be attending one or both of these, or other upcoming meetings.

One of the best parts of academic conferences is the Q-and-A portion of panels, when scholars get to respond to critiques and comments on their cutting-edge research.

Of course, as anyone who has been to a conference knows, not all questions are useful. So I’ve decided to do my part and present examples of the worst questions to be asked at a conference, with my thoughts on how to respond to and deal with them.

1. Why didn’t you bring up this tangential detail in your 10 minute presentation?

You’ve just presented a case study of increasing restrictions on religious practice over time in Pakistan. The first question you get is, “But, everyone says Jinnah wanted a secular state. He really just wanted authority over something.” Never mind that you didn’t say anything about the intentions of the founder of Pakistan, and even if you had the questioner’s detail wouldn’t really affect what you said.

We’ve all experienced variations of “I know this piece of information, and you didn’t raise it, so I will criticize you for that.” It’s impossible to respond to, or least respond in a polite manner. I try to respond by mumbling something about scope conditions.

2. Any gotcha methodological question

“How did you cluster your standard errors?” “Why didn’t you exclude that country?” “Shouldn’t you have used [FANCY NEW ESTIMATOR]?”

These questions are the worst because they are one of two things. They’re just wrong, and the questioner doesn’t get your research design. Or they’re minor details you didn’t have time to bring up. The response is a shrug on your part and smug smirk on the part of the questioner (in case of the latter) or a polite correction of the question if the case of the former.

Of course, it’s possible this might come from a methodologist, in which case you acknowledge their superior wisdom and thank them for their kindness.

3. How can you compare X to Z? They’re so unique!

Upon completion of a presentation comparing civil-military relations in Turkey and France, someone asks how you can look at the two countries, since there are so many differences between them.

This is annoying as it kind of misses the point of comparison, which requires some difference between cases. And it overlooks the general consensus in the social sciences that comparison is pretty useful, even if the comparison is only intended to highlight different pathways towards an outcome.

And you’re left with a choice between two bad responses. You can sigh with displeasure that the discipline requires you to compare, when all you want to do is dwell on the wonders of a single country. Or you can pull out your copy of Przeworski and Teune, slam it onto the podium, and march out of the room.

4. But how would this apply to COUNTRY?

“That is an interesting study of conflict resolution in South America, but how does it apply to the Israel-Palestine dispute?”

This one can be asked in good humor, a way for someone who knows nothing about your topic to participate. More often, though, it’s meant as a critique; “if your findings don’t apply to this country I wrote my MA thesis on, then they aren’t valid.”

Now, external validity is important. But unless you claim your findings are true everywhere and all the time, this question is not very helpful. I wish I could just say “my paper doesn’t look at Israel-Palestine” and move on, but I’m usually compelled to tell them how interesting the case is and I’ll definitely look at it in my next project.

5. [scoffs] How do you define X?

This is usually delivered with a smirk and crossed arms, and is directed towards a key concept of the paper, either the explanation or the outcome.

Yes, definitions are important, and yes, bad definitions can lead to flawed research. But really, you can assume the person has thought through their concepts, even if they don’t sufficiently spell it out in the paper. Even if they didn’t, debating definitions is guaranteed to lead nowhere and irritate the other panelists or audience members who had questions beyond “how do you define nationalism?”

Admit it, what you really meant was: “I know you didn’t define X the way I would, and I don’t like it.”

Peter Henne is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.