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Thursday, March 13, 2008

"Are there any questions?"

In the current issue of The Word Andrew Collins writes about going back to his old college to make a speech and how he was shocked at the fact that when they asked for questions there were none.

I went to Manchester yesterday for "a speaking engagement" and as usual the host asked if there were any questions. There were enough to make it respectable but in my experience if people have sat still and listened throughout then there's an expectation on their part that they'll be released into the wild the minute you've finished. I sympathise. The questions you're asked in public tend to be the ones where the interlocutor feels he can use your presentation to win an argument he's been pursuing within the organisation for some time. The more interesting ones are put to you in the bar afterwards.

Andrew was talking about his disappointment with the fact that a section of the population as traditionally voluble as students didn't seem to have much curiosity in them. I think there's something in his point that they don't want to be seen to stand out from the crowd or run the risk of making a fool of themselves. One of the explanations for the widespread adoption of the high rise terminal into speech patterns is that it turns categorical statements into requests for agreement, thereby smoothing out the edges of argument.

More worrying was an experience I had at a university not long ago. I was asked to take part in judging some final project work from students on a specialist publishing course. They had come up with magazine ideas in groups and looked at them from all the usual points of view: editorial, advertising, costs, distribution etc. We in the notional Dragon's Den had to interrogate the project. Believe me when I tell you we weren't particularly tough. If we had been these people would have crumpled into tears. We just asked the kind of questions you would get asked in a standard publishing company. Where would you put this in WH Smith? How do you expect the competition to react? What if you can't get this advertising? They didn't have any convincing answers and I didn't expect them to. What was dismaying was the surprise that was written on their faces that they were being asked at all. I got the usual thank-you for taking part letter from the person in charge of the course, who said that none of them had ever been asked difficult questions before.

It seems to me that your time at university should be largely devoted to the asking and answering of difficult questions. You're in an environment where if you're wrong it's not disastrous. You're at a time of life when you might change your mind. Rehearsing the arguments is surely how you learn. From what I know of it this rattling of cages is what the most old fashioned universities devote most of their time to. This place, on the other hand, was as redbrick as can be but the students were few enough and in small enough groups to be taught that way. I still can't see why they weren't. Nobody ever learned anything by devoting most of their time to wrestling with PowerPoint.