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.


  1. Yes! Make as many of your mistakes as you can, in a place where it doesn't really matter, while you have the chance! I wish I had!

  2. Anonymous8:45 am

    It occurs to me that today's students have been shaped by the National Curriculum since their first days in school. They have followed a tightly controlled list of topics, and responses to those topics, and have never been encouraged to think independently.
    The result is a generation of students whose natural instinct is not to ask questions but wait to be told the answers.

  3. Anonymous12:17 pm

    I contributed to Andrew Collins' blog when this happened to him and I think he was just too boring in his delivery style and the format of his lecture. Natch he didn't agree, but people who are boring others tend not to know they are until later reflection.

  4. All I can say is if they think Andrew's "boring" they've got a lot of disappointments ahead.

  5. An an expat Brit living in the States it dismays me when I see the creeping Americanization of English society. We seem to be taking all their worst ideas, in this case the desire not to upset the children by asking them difficult, challenging questions lest we upset the poor dears self-esteem.

  6. It's not just that they don't have any questions. It's that asking them would involve speaking publicly; at my university that's something that most students simply can't cope with. Our culture has us retreat further and further into ourselves and this is the generation it's producing.

  7. Anonymous10:19 am

    I just read the article in The Word and he was speaking for 90 minutes! That's way way too long - those poor studes wanted to be outta there and into their favourite bar/bed/girlfriend as fast as they could. I know Andrew has had a fairly interesting life but 90 minutes, that's a film or a football match, not a lecture.

  8. It pains me to in any way “diss” Andrew Collins. He wrote Grass, after all, for which he deserves to have petals forever strewn in his path; and he seems a thoroughly good egg. But, it must be said, his life story, and career path, is perhaps not quite as fascinating as he seems to think it is.
    And it might perhaps have already dawned on a bunch of art students, who have racked up an eye-watering amount of debt to do their course, that at some point down the line they would have to market whatever skills they may have learned in a commercial environment. One in which people pay you to do stuff. (This is, indeed, a fact that he alludes to in his piece, as part of the general complaint that students don’t stage rent strikes anymore to protest about seal culling or whatever the gripe de jour is).
    Perhaps there were “no further questions, your honour” because he wasn’t really telling them anything they didn’t already know and they didn’t require any further words of wisdom from on high.
    I know Andrew reads this blog. No offence intended and I hope none taken. Just an observation.

  9. In mitigation (not to me, I can look after myself), there was a further seminar after lunch which was entirely voluntary and around a dozen students turned up. I got them to do the talking and, after an awkward start, they were pretty forthcoming.

    And in mitigation to me, I've done a number of Rotary Clubs and fucking stormed it every time.

  10. Sometimes people don't have any questions initially as
    (a) they have had too much to take in
    (b) everything has been said
    (c) they've got a really bad attention span
    (d) they need to think about it first

    I know what you mean about students expecting it all to happen for them without trying too hard. I was approached recently by a group of students who wanted to make a 5 min doc about the subject of a doc series I am making. I let them have their interview, share locations etc but it dawned on me very quickly that they expected me to sort out all the logistics for them. Surely that is what they are on a film-making course for - to actually learn by doing some semblance of production themselves? They assumed they could share all locations as a given, have use of some of my archive footage as a given and were peeved when I started tightening their reins - where was the tutor? I refused a few key locations/interviewee access just to make it clear to them that they really would have to try and think about what they were making at some point rather than it be handed on plate in kit form. Cruel to be kind. In the nicest possible way, I hope they learned a lot in a very short space of time. Nevertheless - they got a first for their mark. I sent a nice e mail to their tutor saying that he must be very proud of them. No answer. Even the students bothered to write a nice thank you with a copy of the film! So I guess they did learn something - let's hope it lasts.

  11. On the same subject, in my time working on magazines and at the BBC (wake up, bored students!), I've come across a lot of young people on work experience placements - and it always amazed me how ungrateful they seemed to be about spending time at - in my case - Q magazine or at 6 Music. They either wanted to interview "someone famous" and had no interest in any of the other workings of the office once dissuaded of the idea that they were here to interview "someone famous", or else they were just bored shitless and couldn't wait to leave. Honestly - if you'd let me hang around a magazine or a radio station when I was at school ...

    Actually, one person who came to fill in for the editorial assistant on Q in the mid-90s (ie. answer phones, make tea etc.) threw herself into the job and made herself known to everybody who worked at the magazine. She made the most of every second inside the building and asked so many questions it was as she was researching a book. Her name was Konnie Huq.

  12. Anonymous11:56 am

    Konnie Huq possesses those magic ingredients for success at the BBC: bright, female, from a 'minority', slim, gorgeous, charming and pushy.

    If she was an ugly fat white man, equally bright, charming and pushy, would she have done so well at Q and got onto Blue Peter?