Saturday, 16 April 2011

Colloquia and Philosophy Talks

If your philosopher is in academia, she/he will have to attend philosophy talks at some time in their career. As a spouse/partner/friend/sibling/parent of a philosopher, it is important to understand what these strange events are like and how they are important to your philosopher’s career and/or well-being.

Philosophy talks are usually run by philosophy departments. They are sometimes called colloquia, which is a fancy way of saying “academic talk.” These are different than philosophy conferences in that the event is usually only one talk by one speaker, rather than many different talks by many different speakers. Conferences are interesting events in your philosophers’ lives, though, so I will compose a different post about them at some other time.

Philosophy talks usually follow this format.

First, someone in the hosting department introduces the speaker. They might try to be witty here if they know the speaker, but the joke usually fails because they either try too hard or hit upon some inside joke from within the speaker’s branch of philosophy. I like this part because it’s usually pretty awkward.

After the introductions, the speaker will usually read a paper they have written or give a presentation on a topic they are familiar with. If they present a paper, it is super-technical and boring for almost everyone who does not do their type of philosophy. Presentations are usually less technical and more interesting than paper readings. On some rare occasions, philosophers giving presentations may even create a dorky, fun PowerPoint. You can see philosophers groan inwardly when a speaker pulls out a paper to read.

This is the best time to watch people attending the talk, especially when someone in the room drops something accidentally, or shifts position too quickly—all eyes and heads instantly focus on the offender as if it was the most interesting thing to happen since the Berlin wall was torn down. During the talk, philosophers may make funny thinking-faces and/or take weird positions with their heads, as these, of course, help them think better.

When the talk is finished, the moderator will open the floor for questions. I’ve discovered that, for a non-philosopher, it is best to not pay attention at all during the talk and wait for the questions (more accurately, I usually start off trying hard to focus and understand at the beginning of the talk, then I soon drift off and start watching people). A few people know what is going on in the speaker’s paper and when they ask the speaker questions, you might finally understand what in the world was going on. My philosopher has admitted to me on several occasions that he also has a hard time understanding some of the papers until they get to the questions.

There are several types of question-askers at philosophy talks. Even if you don’t understand much about philosophy, it is well worth attending at least one talk, just to see these questioners in action. Feel free to ask your philosopher to point out these offenders before the talk even begins so you can keep an eye on how other people in the department react when they ask their questions. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. The stranger
This person is usually someone not from the philosophy department and not connected with anyone in the department. They will ask a completely bizarre and unrelated question, which makes all of the philosophers give each other looks that betray such thoughts as, “another crazy one,” or “did she/he just ask what I thought they asked?” or “what a fool.” These looks are very funny, though I usually feel really sorry for the stranger and wish they did not feel the compulsion to ask a question. Speakers do not really know how to handle the stranger’s questions, as they do not know if this stranger is really a stranger or a batty member of the department. Speakers will usually either get defensive or try to politely move on—especially if the stranger tries to “clarify” (i.e. get more confused) their question—to avoid more bad looks from the philosophers actually in the department.

2. The storyteller
This person is usually a member of the philosophy department. At every philosophy talk, they feel the need to ask a question only after telling a very long and sometimes unrelated story. When they start to speak, there is usually lots of eye-rolling. I find the storyteller delightful, though the bad feelings floating around in the room while the storyteller is storytelling are usually pretty oppressive.

3. The person who relates everything back to their philosophy subject
This person is a member of the philosophy department. Now, most philosophers feel most comfortable when they can relate things back to the type of philosophy where they are most comfortable, but this can be done very inappropriately. Kantians, bless their hearts, do this more often than most philosophers. Look for more eye-rolling during these questions.

4. The person who begins their question with the phrase, “This was a great talk. Thank you for sharing it with us.”
Philosophers don’t like this kind of question-asker at all. The speaker does not know, of course, that this philosopher pays this little compliment to every speaker. The department does know, though, and views it as either a cheap way for this philosopher to suck up to the speaker or a sign of an un-genuine character. What speakers really want other philosophers to do after the talk is to ask them a penetrating question that shows that the philosophers thought the talk was worth asking hard questions of and that they were paying careful attention. Filling a question with cheap compliments makes the speaker feel like they did not really do a good job.  

After questions, there may be some mingling—especially if there are snacks at this talk—and you may even get to see some intoxication.

Your philosopher will have to attend these philosophy talks for mainly professional reasons. Some philosophers do attend philosophy talks because they actually love philosophy, but they are in the minority. Grad students attend to learn things, see how professional philosophers perform, and show the faculty (who might attend their dissertation defense) that they are devoted philosophers. Faculty attend philosophy talks to learn things, find things to criticize other professional philosophers about, and show their co-workers that they are dedicated philosophers (for those on the track to tenure).

Philosophers, feel free to comment with other types of question-askers that I’ve missed or misrepresented.

~The Philosiologist~


  1. #4 really pisses me off, probably to an unjustifiable degree.

  2. This is great, Katie. Made me laugh out loud several times. The stranger... classic. And funny faces and tilting our heads DOES help us think better!

  3. This blog is legendary; thanks for writing it. Some other question-askers:

    5. The person who begins their question with self-deprecation ("I may have missed something along the way, but..." or "Maybe I'm just not understanding your position, but...") and then launches into what they take to be a decisive objection to the speaker's view. (Hint: they do not actually believe that they missed something or failed to understand the speaker's position.)

    6. The person who proudly offers science-fictiony counterexamples which, at most, would require the speaker to slightly restate her view. (This person is usually a metaphysics person, but can sometimes be an epistemology person.)

    7. The person who asks (another) follow-up question when it is very clear to everyone else that they should be done. (This person makes everyone else in the room extremely uncomfortable, and usually doesn't even have a good point or question.)

  4. YES! You nailed it. Some additions . . .

    Attack Dog: the ever-present and always too hostile faculty who aims to completely demoralize the speaker. This can include persistent harping on and repetition of a devastating (or not so devastating) objection, as well as opening with comments such as "how is your argument at all relevant to any of us," "what is the value of doing history of philosophy anyhow," or "Isn't your argument simply incoherent?" In our department, this sometimes involves standing up and waving a cane in the air.

    Way to Confident Grad Student: In each department, there is always at least one grad student who will patronizingly offer advice to distinguished speakers. This might include suggesting that they read so-and-so well known author in the field, pushing a paper of their own on the speaker or making an elementary/introductory-type objection (that they just learned in seminar).

    Snickerers: those faculty members who persistently whisper loudly to each other in the middle of the talk. This usually accompanies a look of disdain. I find snickerers usually make irrelevant or idiotic comments during Q&A.

    Nodders: those who enthusiastically nod when a speaker makes what they think is a good point. This is to show other audience members that they already thought of this good point and deserve some credit for nodding along.

  5. I hold a phd in a humanities field other than philosophy and am married to someone in the philosophy of mind. We have remarked upon the differences between talks in my field and talks in his. One additional iconic question-asker we have observed is what I might call the Bowler. This person will hurl their one hopefully devastating strike but, conveniently, don't have to reveal anything of their own understanding, nor do they really have to listen to the talk. They simply ask, "Why think that?"

  6. sound a lot like academic poetry readings -- you guys should do an open mic first!

  7. Lessiehere . . .

    —Silverbacks: the old geezers who believe that philosophy went downhill once we started letting in women. Any hair they have left will be white; half the department idolizes them and will nod along with any question they ask of the speaker, while the other half cringes and reminds themselves that Statler and Waldorf have one foot in the grave, "we won't have to put up with them much longer . . ." Always sits in the middle of the front row during any presentation.

    —"Just one more quick question:" Evidently, your definitions of "one" and "quick" are different than ours. Prepare yourself for at least a few rants, each of which will be at least five minutes long.

    —Dogpile: not so much a person as a phenomenon; usually seen when someone delivers a real stinker of a paper. Fun to watch, mostly because you'll find out every single counterargument or doubt about a text's authenticity ever.

    —The Humble Killer: why you should always be careful about @#$%ing up in front of an expert in the field you're presenting on. S/he'll be very nice and cordial about going through your every argument, ripping them all to shreds, pointing out every single piece of textual evidence you missed, and then gently pointing out that, well, that's not actually right. Fun to watch, especially since so few people possess both the acumen and genuine humility/courtesy needed to pull it off—but when it happens, it's devastating.

    —The Kissass: though some questioners are bad about this, people who introduce speakers, or the speakers themselves, are the absolute worst. If anyone ever claims someone in the audience is "the foremost philosopher in America," you've got one of these.

  8. Don't forget the "you omitted my research" questioner. He's the guy (usually from the philosophy department, but he may have come in especially for the event) who's actually written something on the speaker's topic, but that was twenty years ago and no one cared then either.

  9. hahah you should definitely add nodders to the list! I've also met some "loud nodders" who's nodding comes along with "uhum" noises. I haven't figured out yet if they do it on purpose so that everyone will give them their deserved credit or if they fail to realize that everyone else is hearing it

  10. "What do you mean by x?"
    This person is usually a senior academic in the department, who picks one philosophical term that came up a few times in the talk but that didn't do *that* much work in the argument (examples include "a priori" or "representation") and tries to tear down the speaker's argument by suggesting that they used that word incorrectly. He's clearly pulling at straws. This person is easy to confuse with:

    The Terminological Disputer. This person will try to get the speaker to re-state their argument against their opponent without using word X. If they cannot do so, the Terminological Disputer will assert that the speaker and the speaker's opponent are "just" disagreeing about the meaning of X.

    The Multi-questioner.
    This person starts with "Okay, I've got four questions, the first of which has three parts. The first part of the first part is..." The only way for speakers to respond is by tuning out for most of the question and then saying "Okay, I'll just respond to the third part of section two of question three." Requires a really hard-headed convener.

    The Pretend Worrier.
    "I'm really worried/concerned/troubled by premise one of your argument." No, you're not worried or concerned or troubled. You're ecstatic because you think you're about to tear the speaker to shreds. Stop pretending to be a kind, empathetic human being, you monster.

    Just discovered this blog and love it!

  11. In a similar vein there's this . You might want to add something along the lines of "bitter postdoc asks question"

  12. The hypothetical objector:

    "What would you say to someone who says . . .?"

  13. This sounds exactly like Anthropology colloquia

  14. I commend you for pointing out these phenomena. I take particular issue with the phenomenon of "the stranger" which you aptly describe.

    I was once a "stranger". I had yet to enter any grad. phil. program. I had only a non-mainstream (viz. non-analytic) phil. BA.

    I was at an analytic talk.

    I asked a half-baked question, which, in light of all critical self-assessment, was a good, albeit half-baked question. I received the politeness of the speaker (maybe he thought I was a "batty member of the dept."), but the scorn of other attendees and the moderator. I fault their scorn with the question's downgrade from half-baked to dumb. I was about to proceed to explain my position further (as you aptly put it, I sought to clarify), when, upon seeing the moderator scowling and hearing snickers from the crowd, I parried, thus resigning my inquiry.

    As much as I've been to quite a few colloquia and experienced other "strangers", I despise the notion that this person is prima facie to be dismissed as batty, or weird, or dumb, or unwelcome. Colloquia ought to be closed if grad. students and faculty alike cannot tolerate language that does not employ our technical vocabulary, questions that we pigeonhole as weird and worthless (usually because they lack the technical vocabulary), or simply the newcomer who seeks to learn through asking questions (as that is how most philosophers learn, or, inversely, how people learn to philosophize).

    I find that sometimes (perhaps with the same frequency that I've encountered strangers at colloquia) questions employing technical vocabulary and coming from the mouths of grad. students or faculty are equally weird, or already-answered, or just plain dumb as those of the "stranger" yet merit respect by virtue of coming from the mouths of familiar faces.

  15. A professor in the department where I was a grad student used to habitually ask some version of "but why was any of this interesting?" (Usually no reason given for why it wasn't, just a demand for a defense.) The best answer - to any question, asked by anyone, in any context, ever - was "interestingness is intelligence-relative."

  16. An additional type: The Bastard Question. This is a type that I've found philosophers take great pride in asking. They find the tiny loophole in the speaker's paper, and construct the question in such a way that by the end of their brief query, they are able to drive a truck through it, completely destroying the argument and leaving only scattered debris in its wake.

    So named after the dissertation defense of my husband's best friend in grad school. At his defense, his dissertation director let everyone else ask all the questions they wanted, and then said, "I just have *one* question..." and swiftly laid out an argument that destroyed the dissertation's central premise entirely. Jeremy just stared at Mark as the question was asked, with a terrible sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, and when Mark was through, all Jeremy could do was sputter, "You...bastard!"

    Mark said, "It's okay, we can fix it," and they did. But The Bastard Question has persisted as our name for this phenomenon, and philosophers love to do it.

  17. Philosophy colloquia are made to sound much too polite. Where I come from, they are a blood sport. Occasionally people from other disciplines wander in to our colloquia and they cannot believe how philosophers go after each other. That said, we are much more polite than philosophers at some other places.

    Still, even after philosophers have gone toe to toe, they can still sit down and have a beer together. Unlike, say, anthropologists and literary theorists, they do not hold a grudge.

  18. One of my favorites is what I'll call "The Sand-bagger": a relatively prestigious faculty member who disclaims that "well, I don't really know much about (insert philosopher here)", when in fact they have at least one book-length treatment of (insert philosopher here).

    The sand-bagger also, when presenting a talk on (insert philosopher here), will say things to irritable question-askers like "I can tell you really know your (insert philosopher here)." (...and then proceed to show how said person knows, in fact, very little... or is at least deeply confused).

  19. Please do a posting on "What to know Before agreeing to live with 3 philosophers" ... I would be willing to provide some guest blogging on the subject! Great post, definitely got me to laugh when reading about the Kantians.

  20. I wish you well. This blog is hilarious and completely true. Write a book now. I always wish I had written a sit com about my grad experience.
    You'll probably get it published way before your philosopher writes his and make way more money to boot.

    Great stuff.

  21. The Bastard Questioner is my master supervisor, who has tried to do this to me every time I have given a talk in front of him for fifteen years. Lately, I have been able to overcome his ploys, hur hur.

  22. I miss myself as questioner in your list. I'm the annoying idiot who always asks questions and almost always starts, "I'm not a philosopher but..."

  23. 'Nodders: those who enthusiastically nod when a speaker makes what they think is a good point. This is to show other audience members that they already thought of this good point and deserve some credit for nodding along.'

    One anonymous commenter already gave kudos to this, and added an important corollary concerning audible nodders, but I would like to re-iterate that here a brilliant and hilarious observation has been made. I confess to being a nodder.

  24. The One-Trick Pony: has a signature question, much like a professional wrestler has a signature move. Like the wrestler, the philosopher will attempt their trademark move even under conditions where it is obvious (to everyone else) that it won't work. Audience members silently sigh in intense frustration, as the OTP does the philosophical equivalent of launching into an Atomic Spinning Butt Slap mid-ring while the opponent is lying unconscious under a table halfway down the aisle.

    Some signature moves:

    The Quantum Tunneler (confront the speaker - on any topic - with a quantum physics phenomenon of dubious relevance)

    Double Trouble (come up with a Twin Earth-style case using terms or concepts mentioned in the talk without regard to whether this helps, or even matters, at all)

    I'm sure there are others...

  25. Here's another type: The "This isn't really a question" type. "You're talk was very interesting, and I haven't quite got a question yet but I'm going to blather on about quasi related material with no internal consistency and see how you react."

  26. As former grad student I can attest to a very real, very visceral pressure to ask a good question even if you don't understand exactly what is going on. The good "superior" gradstudents always have a great question that usually gets them invited to the dinner afterwards. I remember many times, feeling vaguely dumb if I couldn't come up with some question ESPECIALLY if the speaker was talking in my subfield. I remember thinking, "There's got to be something I can say." I wish just once, senior faculty would set grad students down and tell them "Its okay. you don't have to comment on every interesting paper. You can just listen."