conference blog: the put-down

Do unto others/what goes around/karma and other such truisms constitute the unwritten conference rule. This goes from pushing in ahead of people in the loo line to making rude remarks about people’s work. However, this rule is sometimes broken, particularly when it’s time for questions after papers.

Occasionally you see and hear a question-that-is-really-a-put-down so outrageously rude it’s almost to be admired. These question-put-downs become conference gossip quicker than the formation of the queue for the free drinks. This week’s quintessential conference put down – which of course I have only heard about and didn’t actually witness myself – apparently went like this….

A rambling and pretty appalling polemical paper finishes. There is silence. No one wants to engage. Then finally, someone asks in a terribly polite fashion, “So did you have any empirical data at all to back up what you are saying?” Ouch. There is, as you can imagine, an almost audible intake of breath as the the audience hears what they were thinking said out loud but knew it would be much too impolite to say.

I wasn’t told what the presenter said in response but you’d have to suspect there was no coming back from this question-put-down. And you wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of this kind of response yourself – do unto others/what goes around/karma etc. I gather it almost made the audience take pity on the long-winded polemicist. But not quite. The observers could perhaps enjoy the presenter being paid out without having to suffer any consequences themselves.

Now this little anecdote does go to show the dark art of the academic put-down. It’s an apparently harmless question or comment which is excruciatingly patronising/passive- aggressive/caustic/acerbic. It’s not a full frontal attack. Its power is in its unfinished nature, it’s in what’s not directly said.

This level of rudeness doesn’t come naturally to all of us and it does take some level of audacity. However, I’m not suggesting that you practice the academic put-down unless you want to be the stuff of conference gossip and the occasional blog post. And I certainly hope you’re never on the receiving end of this kind of straight-faced sideswipe. But it might be fun to compile a list of the rudest polite conference put-downs you’ve heard.

Any takers to beat this one?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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7 Responses to conference blog: the put-down

  1. Simon Bailey says:

    I’m not sure which is worse, the passive-aggressive put down, or the lengthy self-referencing, self-aggrandising comment-masquerading-as-a-question. I’ve received my fair share of both. I see and hear the latter more and more, it replaces the passive-aggressive with a kind of smarmy over-politeness that makes you want to throw up.


  2. Kim Allen says:

    Thanks Pat. This is pretty bad but I’ve witnessed worse. The long ‘question’ that actually has no question but is just a chance for the delegate to show off / talk about their own research (as Simon discusses above) is also poor: it’s of no use at all to the presenter. I once met a young academic who told me about a conference he was off to next week. I asked what his paper was about. He replied something along the lines of ‘Oh, I’m not presenting. I’m just going along to ask some really awkward questions’…..My mouth dropped open. Luckily I seem to have mainly avoided conferences where people take this combative stance. For me, conferences should be encouraging and generative spaces including supporting presenters with their ideas….not knocking them down.


  3. This one is the worst I have seen/heard “your research contains several ethics violations. Why did your supervisors not warn you off that particular method? I would like their email addresses to notify them directly.”

    It happened at a PhD student/ERC conference and was a comment from one of the keynote speakers. Worst thing was, the keynote was correct but everyone else squirmed both for the speaker and for the firestorm that was sure to ensue. IIRC, the speaker got out by saying that they had not foreseen that it was a violation and that it had been approved by their supervisors, however, they would take the comment on board and intended to discuss it, in private, with the questioner later.


  4. If a presentation contains errors, I’d much prefer people pointing to it during questions as only gossip about it during coffee. During questions everyone hears it and the speaker can reply. Sometimes there is an answer.

    In my experience the most horrible questions start with: “I really liked your talk enormously …” Or something similar.


    • Liz Rennick says:

      I mostly agree with you, Victor. After all, part of the whole purpose of these conferences is to not only to present your work but to solicit feedback from other professionals in your field. Sometimes the feedback is flat out wrong. But other times they point out important oversights, even if it’s only an apparent oversight, in our research that can be addressed before submitting for publication. Even though it is never easy to hear, I am grateful for the critique. I’d rather have the opportunity to address those glaring concerns than to have people walking away with some erroneous sense that undermines my reputation as a scholar/researcher.

      That being said, we don’t always have time to address them during the session! I once had a discussant start out her comments by stating (while smiling), “I really liked the title of your paper…” You can only imagine what followed then. I furiously took notes the entire time. The session ended before we could address any of the critique, but I politely debated with her personally about it afterward. I did revise the paper based on that conversation, but not on all counts. She was plainly wrong in some ways, but I never got to address those issues with the audience.


      • You should not only see it from the perspective of the presenter, but also from the side of the audience that may be misinformed. But I must admit that when my question would destroy the entire work and the presenter is inexperienced, I am also sometimes nice and discuss it afterwards.

        The chair of your session made a huge mistake, if you did not have the time to give a reply. The chair should have cut of the question earlier in that case.


  5. Pingback: conference blog: the put-down | Budge

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