I’m not usually one for declaring rules, but this is a special case.
Today in Chicago, MLA begins. (That’s the Modern Language Association convention, the most important annual conference for language scholars.) Job candidates nurture ulcers. Panicky speakers scrawl last-minute revisions on airplane napkins. And we are all freezing our hineys off, because we’re in Chicago and not, say, San Diego? Miami? Honolulu? YOU HEAR ME, PEOPLE-WHO-DECIDE-WHERE-MLA-IS-HELD?!
Anyway, at MLA, you spend much of your time going to panels, where you listen to three or four talks, then have a chance to ask questions. During these Q&As, odd things happen. People who are ordinarily delightful become insufferable. Pretension (which most humanities academics, media lore to the contrary, studiously clip from their social manners) rears its bushy head. Intellectual generosity comes to seem an impossible dream.
Yet I love the idea of the conference Q&A. What would scholarship be without dialogue? Without dynamic, democratic peer review? So with the hope of preserving the Q&A from the blight of dickishness, I give you these Ten Commandments:
- Thou shalt have an actual question to ask. Don’t just say some things, and then add, “Could you talk about that a little bit?”
- Thou shalt not speak for more than one minute. Yes, each of the presenters had 15 minutes (and took 20). Yes, even the moderator droned on for a while. You get one minute.
- Thou shalt inquire about ideas relevant to the paper(s) you heard, not to the project you’re currently working on.
- Thou shalt remind thyself constantly – nay, religiously – of the above commandment.
- If two questions have been directed at one panelist, thou shalt not ask a third question of the same panelist. Be a mensch: there are other panelists just sitting there, feeling neglected.
- Thou shalt not start describing thy work.
- Thou shalt not use the phrase “my work.”
- Thou shalt not be that guy who actually responds when, fifteen minutes past the scheduled stop-time of the panel, the moderator asks, “Are there any other questions?” The moderator is just being polite. No one wants to stay another second, because everyone has to pee.
- Thou shalt not… be… you know, THAT GUY. In a general sense.
- Thou shalt not finish by saying, “Well, I guess this is really just a comment.”
(N.B., Tongue firmly in cheek. I love all scholars – even the intolerable pedants.)