Thursday, February 6, 2014

Potshots vs. Deep Questions

Often one goes to a seminar, and there is a continuing series of questions that are ok, but in fact are potshots at the speaker's work. What you want to do is to ask deep questions, questions that allow the speaker's work to be rescued from idiocy. But only some scholars are capable of rising to the occasion. If you are one of them, you want to avoid potshots. Another way of putting it is that a great scholar takes a dumb question asked by a student or colleague and converts it into an interesting and deep question and answer.

To a really talented scholar, I would say: You are too good to spend your time or effort shooting things down. You ought launch your own rockets. That is, when someone is giving an unsatisfactory talk, you want to ask a question that allows them to grow, and in effect that allows your deep intelligence to inform the conversation. I realize that what I am saying is not so sweet, but since I have respect for you, I will keep saying it. Of course, all of what I am saying could just be wrong, but at least I am putting myself on the line.

Your job, given your reasonable request for theory and mechanism, is to present your observations in terms of a theory rather than a series of scattershot observations. You might have said, "I just want to be sure we understand that your work tells us nothing much about the motivations or scheming of these actors. In fact I can imagine a whole variety of innocent explanations for your observations. Here are some...  " I realize this is hard to do, but you don't want to be  too smart by-a-half. For the ability to discern such innocent explanations is nice, but that gets you nowhere unless you also start thinking about how you would go about checking them out. That is why I mentioned fieldwork as well as statistical studies.  The reason I am so sharp here is that you are more than too smart by-a-half, you are really smart and deep.  You don't want to diminish your power by being that half.

What makes Chicago/Moscow style objections in a seminar is that the objections are never cheap. They reveal the depth of the questioner. You have all that depth.

Now of course, I understand that you could be frustrated by a talk that does not do what you think it should, and that may have driven you off course. What I usually do is about 15 minutes in try to ask a question to find out what is going on. That question almost always puts me at risk, since I am making a positive claim: "Is what you are doing X, Y, and Z?"  Potshots are a waste of your depth.

No comments: