by Rachel Robinson
Ryerson’s Graduate Philosophy Conference was a few weeks ago, and the consensus from all involved is that it was a great success. An especially noticeable feature of the conference was the quality of the question period at the end of each speaker. One of the presenters even told me that she was impressed with how people at this conference were able to foster conversation without being overly acquiescent or hostile to the speakers. The audience members were not afraid to ask difficult questions – that is, difficult to understand and difficult to answer. However, the speakers in general were able to give confident and compelling responses to the objections made against their respective projects. As anyone who has attended a conference or given a presentation can confirm, the most intimidating aspect of public speaking comes after the scripted part: the dreaded question period. It is during these 10 to 15 minutes that the presenter’s personality and authority on the subject really becomes apparent to the audience. The manner in which the presenter responds to challenging or unclear questions reveals much about their own character, not simply as philosophers but as human beings.
Last week, a group of Ryerson students went to see Simon Critchley give a talk at King’s University College at the University of Western Ontario. While Critchley definitely lived up to his reputation of being an incredible speaker, I was far more impressed with his ability to respond to audience questions. Now, Critchley is something of a rock star in philosophy circles, and he is a seasoned professional in giving presentations. One would think that he would be able to answer any question that was thrown at him with an authoritative and convincing answer. Yet Critchley was the first to admit that audience members made valid criticisms against his own theory, and that there are aspects of his research that require further attention. Critchley considered each question with (at least what appeared to be) sincerity, and was friendlier and funnier than I had anticipated. It was during the question period that Critchley modelled how to answer difficult questions: with grace and honesty.
Grace and honesty may seem like obvious traits to exhibit during a presentation, but they are harder to possess than they initially appear. For grad students especially, it can be intimidating when a learned professor raises an issue that you have not even considered in your research, and the instinctive response is to go on the defensive, or to assume that the question is not important. While I agree that it is imperative to maintain a confident demeanor while giving a talk, especially at a conference, the point of going to a conference (other than adding it to your CV) may be to enhance your research. If someone makes a claim or asks a question that you genuinely cannot answer, then it’s reasonable to let them know that you’re still working on this aspect of your theory, and that you appreciate their interest in your work. It’s possible that their criticism could make your work stronger, and learning how to gracefully reply that you don’t know how to answer their question at the current moment, is a skill that takes practice and time. Now, hopefully there will be more questions that are answerable with a satisfactory response than those that you cannot handle. Regardless, in my own experience, fellow presenters may not remember verbatim the answers that you give, but they are more likely to appreciate your ability to remain calm and composed while before the firing squad.