The Ridiculous Finesse of the Academic Question

Public Sector Seminar (by Ixis IT, on Flickr)

Coming back from an academic conference, I’m reminded that the thing I love most about academics is how they ask questions. Normal people start out by saying: 

  • “I don’t understand,” or
  • “That’s bullshit,” or
  • “Uhhuh… what the hell are altmetrics?”

All of which are valid statements. Academics, on the other hand, enter into a public discussion by raising their hand and saying,

“J. Holland here, from the communications department at Rutgers University. Now you’ve described altmetrics as something implicated in the flow of modern information channels, but my own research is on missing information as systemic of broader societal shifts in child protection enforcement, and I’m wondering if you can outline for us here how this type of missing information fits into the picture of altmetrics? For instance, does altmetrics take into account invisible as well as nontraditional metrics of progress in judging academic reputation?”

And then the poor guy on the stage who has just finished his presentation stutters a bit. He tries to respond to this self-bragging question in an intelligent, so he says something about how altmetrics certainly could encompass the Emperor and His Very Lovely and Completely Evident but Invisible New Clothes, but that’s really outside of the scope of his research at this point. (If the guy up on stage is a Senior Speaker, he can also brush off the impertinent question and keep talking about himself and his own Clothes).

All of this makes the Questioner look brilliant (if kind of dickish) and the Guy on Stage appear more limited (and kind of insufficient) but everyone has gotten to promote themselves and their research. This state-of-pride-equilibrium persists for a whole 3 seconds until the audience is distracted by another lengthy and ponderous question related to the new questioner’s most recent research, and not to the advertised topic of the panel. And so on.

After a long enough question period, however, there’s a sort of balance as everyone is given time to speak (in accordance with their Importance) and then the moderator raises his hands, stops the discussion, and go on to the next panel. Where the cycle repeats. And repeats. And repeats.  (#academia #iconf14)

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