I recently attended a conference in Seattle on graduate education, and it was a great experience full of panels and ideas that I’m excited to try and replicate here at Fordham. But while I was in one of the sessions, an interesting situation arose—an audience member asked a question about sexual assault that clearly made the panel uncomfortable. So my question is: are their questions that simply should not be asked in a public Q&A?
It’s complicated. I think that there are productive conversations and argumentative ones. Anyone who has ever sat in on an academic conversation (Q&A, open forum, etc.) knows the difference between a comment meant to generate discussion and one made to disrupt it. There are panels where easy discussion and questions are the norm and ones where hard questions come up that may cause disagreement or even some outrage. In general, I think the beauty of the conference panel is that it does provide a place for people to create thoughtful segues and connect research but in general they’re more informative than anything.
Here is what we, the authorities, think. You, the audience of lesser knowledge, now respond to my ideas.
There are exceptions of course but let’s be honest—that’s fairly typical of the experience, especially when attending as a graduate student. Odds are you’ll be one of the least experienced voices in the room, so when is it time to speak up if you have something atypical to add?
Let me set this particular scene. It was a panel on international travel, more specifically, the educational and professional benefits associated with graduate student travel. Considering the topic, I’ll also share the gender make-up of the presenters—two women and a man, all high level administrators. It was the very end of the session, the last question in fact, when the topic arose. Very respectfully, a man and asked if advocates for international travel were taking into consideration the numbers and reality of studies, like this 2013 preliminary, on overseas study-abroad sexual assault. “How are we preparing students to deal with this?” he asked. And should that reality affect an administrative push for international travel?
It was a topical and meaningful question that left the panel in obvious mental anxiety. I could see both panel and audience physically clench up. Sexual assault cases, and their handling, on domestic campuses are touchy subjects in higher education and it seemed this academic (and I would ethical) question did not limit the discomfort. It’s a reality and a problem, the panel admitted, but then quickly added that the benefits outweighed the risk and moved on, even going so far as to ask another question to end the panel on another note.
Who was in the right? The person who asked the question? The panelists who seemed to ignore it, despite its importance? I think in this case I can see both sides.
It was a rough question, one that I think would have derailed panelists with less experience and considering the time limitation (less than 5 minutes till lunch), I personally wouldn’t have asked it in that moment. But I don’t think it was inappropriate. It was on topic and timely, as proved by the recent Chronicle article dealing with this very issue.
Should audience members take panelists potential discomfort into account before asking a question? I don’t think so. Certainly, when you defend your dissertation your committee members are not going to go easy on you, nor are classmates in discussion. Dealing with difficult questions is part of being an academic, no matter the forum.
I think the panel’s importance and my overall take-away was lessened by the panelists brushing away the discussion of sexual assault. It seemed disingenuous and dangerous to pretend that our current, unorganized preventative education is going to make a difference with this issue. There needs to be a culture change. And maybe that panel was not the place to discuss that change, but the problem should have been better acknowledged—more importantly they should not have ignored the topics presence simply because it made them uncomfortable.
The Last Word
Overall, I think that the conference Q&A is the place to ask hard questions. As long as it somewhat relates to the session topic and is not outright insulting, I say go for it. In the end, it’s rarely the question asker who feels pressure from a poor question. A good panelist will know when and how to brush it aside (whether they should or not). But you may want to check the program so you’re not too rough on a new colleague.
As a graduate student I’d be careful who you may put on the spot—do you want to collaborate with them? Will you be interviewing at their school in the future? Most people appreciate questions that make them think or question their results, but some might be annoyed at what they feel is a disruption of a smooth panel.
- Dewis Shallcross, Director of Student Development, GSAS ‘14
Fordham works hard to create a respectful environment fee from sexual harassment. Remember if you’re a graduate student teacher you’re a mandatory reporter!
Fordham policies, resources, and reporting information can be found here.