Talking across disciplines is a skill

The Q&A session after a presentation can be transformative or infuriating. Anyone who attends conferences is familiar with common Q&A pests, including the five-minute rant following “this isn’t a question, it’s more of a comment” and the thinly-veiled complaint of “why aren’t you using my favourite theory instead?” These issues are exacerbated in interdisciplinary environments, where questions often come up that can only really be answered with a short history lesson on thousands of years of intellectual enquiry.

Often it can seem like these questions are coming from people who fundamentally are not on board with the goals of the speaker’s work. This in itself is not a bad thing, and talking about why people do what they do can be very helpful. However, I feel much more energised in a discussion when the person raising the question has some awareness of the difference between their goals and the speaker’s goals. I think good questions come from a curiosity about why the speaker came to do the work that they do, and a belief that the speaker understands something that you don’t.

Here’s an example: an audience member works in a field that is grounded in empirical study and scientific method. The entire purpose of their own field is to reach conclusions that are objective, reliable and generalisable.The person speaking has done an in-depth study of the symbolism and narrative techniques at work in a text. The audience member perhaps wants to know how they deal with the inherent subjectivity of their method. Unfortunately, this comes out as a comment rather than a question: “you don’t really know how other people feel, and you shouldn’t claim that you do”. A fifteen-minute long back and forth ensues, as people hash out an argument that is thousands of years old, and nothing new is learned.

This kind of exchange is not inevitable. Thank goodness, because interdisciplinary discussions can be transformative. They can help people learn how to talk about their own work to a wider audience, bring a stronger sense of purpose to work on all sides of a disciplinary boundary, and most importantly, facilitate knowledge sharing in directions where information does not often travel. As someone whose work has always been interdisciplinary, I would be very frustrated if these discussions never happened. As someone who is partly in academia and partly outside of it, challenging the insularity in disciplines is very important to me.

A well-phrased question can build a bridge, rather than simply bogging everybody down in an age-old gulf between approaches. I think we need to teach each other techniques for translating a territory-defending comment into these kind of questions:

  1. Are you familiar with studies in ________ that reach a very different conclusion about similar material? Does your framework offer an explanation or an alternative interpretation?
  2. Have you shared your findings with the communities affected by the material (e.g. users, designers, residents, workers), and if so, how did they respond?
  3. You brought up this notion of _____ a lot, could you tell me more about what that means to you?
  4. When I imagine possible uses of this study, I feel particularly excited/concerned about ___________. Is that something that you have thought about, and does that affect your approach at all?
  5. Does what you have learned about the material that you have studied here affect the way that you think about ______?