Advice on Asking Good Questions


Karen Kelsky, author of the Chronicle of Higher Education advice column “The Professor Is In,” answers a question from a new professor who wants to impress his/her colleagues by asking good questions in departmental seminars and meetings.

Here is the question:

Do you have any tips on how to ask great questions in a departmental seminar? I’m a new hire in a prestigious department, and this is the first way my colleagues size me up. The thing is: I’m not great at formulating articulate, pointed comments. Even with a precirculated paper, my comments often end up being … circuitous. I am trying to work on this skill and have always admired those who — in a few words — manage to distill a paper to its essence.

Here is a taste of Kelsky’s response:

…engaging questions can fit into the following genres. Think of them as templates of sorts and teach yourself to look for places in a talk or a paper where one of these will organically make sense.

  • Clarifying questions: “On page 13, you say X implies Y. Can you say more about how one follows the other?
  • Challenging questions (but be nice about how you ask): “Isn’t it possible that that passage/quote/dataset can be also interpreted in ABC way, which would imply XYZ about the larger argument?”
  • Suggestions disguised as questions: “Do you happen to know the work of this obscure and/or brand-new scholar? They look at XYZ in a way that resonates with your approach. You may find it of interest.”
  • Process questions (which people like because they like talking about their research):“Can you say a little bit about how you chose this particular example/case study/methodology?” (This is really a reliable fallback.)
  • Intellectual-team questions: As long as you are clear on the contribution of the work to a body of theory, you can ask something like, “So, obviously your work speaks to issues in the Big Polarizing Theory Debate. How do you see your research situated in relation to XYZ aspect of this scholarly conversation?

Read the entire piece here.