Questions after a seminar or conference paper provide an important opportunity to participate in academic debate. This can be nerve-racking. Some university cultures have a robust style of questioning, which can lead to a critique, for example from the panel chair, to which you are expected to reply. In others, questions are much longer than the repartee style of question and answer than is common in Britain. Try to find out as much as you can in advance about what to expect.
It is also worth thinking about the kind of questions that you might be asked. Don’t plan this out in too much detail—you will have to improvise at least some of your answers—but try to identify some ‘big’ questions about your work and plan a response. These questions can be hard, particularly when compared to the ‘nitty-gritty’ of doctoral work. Historians often ask about the nature and limits of sources, so it’s definitely worth having something to say about them.
It’s useful to note down what people are asking you, particularly if the panel chair is taking several questions together. Be prepared to defend your position, both in replies to questions and in the questions you put to others. Conferences are great opportunities to intervene in debates; if you don’t agree with a critique of your work then say so, and explain why. Again, it’s worth knowing your audience. Interdisciplinary or general audiences tend to pose broader problems while specialist audiences may pose more complex, detailed questions. Whatever the framing, however, always take the question seriously.
Conferences also provide opportunities for discovering other forums for debate and outlets for your work, such as newsletters, virtual discussion groups or blogs. Getting involved in some of these will allow you to exchange ideas and address wider audiences, including public ones.
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