Some time ago I was at a lecture, listening to a speaker talk about his work. In parts it did, in parts it didn’t make sense in my view. The speaker ended, I decided to ask a question which, even though ‘probing’, was also polite and certainly not aggressive. The speaker got quite defensive. Later I was told the speaker was complaining about the audience (me) which was apparently quite tough (i.e. critical). I reflected on it for about two seconds and decided, no, the problem is not with my question, the problem is with the speaker.
But I also started wondering: Do we still debate? Or do we only show appreciation, support, smile and generally sugar-coat reality (till we’re sick)? And before I go on, I’ll tell two more stories. Both involve my own attendance at conferences about 20 years ago. The first story is a very painful memory. I was giving a paper based on a chapter I was writing for my Language of Deception.
The paper went well, or so I thought, but there was this professor in the audience. He asked me a ‘probing’ question, outside the paper, but I remembered that I had actually thought about the problem and written the answer in the book, but for the life of me I could not remember how I solved it. I stood there, mumbling, he knew he had me, I saw his not-so-concealed triumph. Oh, he had my academic scalp. A couple of colleagues tried to console me later, making things worse, actually. I remember the room, I remember it all, and it’s not a pleasant memory. I have not met him since. To my chagrin.
The second story is different. I went to a conference, where I saw another professor. I saw him demolish papers (always very politely and respectfully). If there was a hole in the paper, he would see it, and after the second question the paper was gone. The sharpness of this man’s mind was awesome. When I saw him in the audience of my own paper, I was close to collapsing. I was terrified. I did my paper, the man was making notes, I finished (in time!!) and he was the first to raise his hand. He asked his question….It was a good question, it was challenging, but I didn’t even break sweat answering it. THE man of the conference didn’t find a hole, I knew my paper was good.
And that’s, really, the point of it all. I knew that if there was a hole in the paper, this man, whom I so feared, would find it and expose it. He didn’t and I knew I had a good paper. I had a bloody damn good paper! And I knew that, precisely because the professor-destroyer was (politely) ruthless. He made my conference.
The other conference? Yes, I hate the memory of that conference, I hate the fact that just one well-placed question wrecked my presentation. But at the end of the day, I gave the man my scalp on a plate. I should have known the answer, but I didn’t expect the question, I didn’t think the audience could think of the problem. Frankly, it serves me right. And it has never happened again (so far).
Both men remain anonymous, as I am not certain, they would like to be mentioned by name. As for the first one, I am not certain, I would like to tell everybody who really made me mumble. As for the other, I have met him many times – always with trepidation when he came to my presentations. Always pleased, he was not able to find a hole.
These two experiences have had two consequences. As I have always been a rather probing, challenging discussant, my experience reassured me in this stance. I have no problem saying that something makes no sense, that research is flawed, that methodology sucks and so on. And I really don’t care about all the ‘looks’ I get, especially at smaller conferences where, often, I get to be recognised as the one who asks awkward questions.
There is an important reservation. I am not advocating enmity, impoliteness, or simply hurting people. I do remember a very sorry sight of a doctoral student with whom the floor was wiped. Yes, the student’s paper was rubbish, yes, the professor was right, but all one wanted to say was: Pick on your own size. In other words, there are significant differences, and not just and nuances, in discussions after a presentation by a student and by a professor. And they must be remembered. And the discussion must be polite and respectful, to the point. And I do mean it. But that does not mean full of sugar, well, full of….
And that’s the other consequence of my two experiences. The sugary, ‘supportive’ discussion where we thank and congratulate the speaker on a rubbish presentation which was flawed on every level while trying to prise open the door that was opened 10 years before, just irritates me. It irritates me, because I think debating is good. If I am to go all the way to a foreign country (sometimes a different continent), spend all the money to attend the meeting, I would like to learn something. I hope others would like to learn something. Try things out. I actually think that by pretending that the paper is good, we do a (great) disservice to the presenter, especially if they are at the beginning of their career. I think it is a disservice to a person to tell them they do things right, knowing that it’s not true, just not to hurt their feelings.
Let me be very clear – of course, it will hurt, of course, it will be uncomfortable, unpleasant. The older you get, the more unpleasant it gets, I think. But that’s tough. Every time you think, you don’t want to hurt my feelings, please think that journals rejecting my article will hurt my feelings considerably more!
And finally, I would like to say that every time I open my mouth and ask you a probing question, it means I respect your work, I want to discuss it, debate with you. And so, I do hope the sugar will not win. Let there be debate!