One of the chief rituals of the Oxonienses is the assembly of scholars and students to listen or approximate the act of listening to a person talk about something they (correctly or not) believe is important and interesting for an hour. These assemblies are known as “seminars”, “papers”, “panels” or “colloquia”, or “symposia” – almost never “talks”. These seminars must be followed by wine time (it is permissable for seminars and colloquia to be followed by sandwich time, but symposium without wine is simply not a symposium). However, wine time must be earnt by enduring the fairly pointless exercise of question time. After a few of these it becomes apparent that, while of course every question is a unique snowflake, most fall into one of seven categories:
The Question from Ignorance: A question is a linguistic phenomenon which evolved so that one person’s ignorance might be solved by another person’s norance. In any other context, this remains the purpose of a question. After a seminar presentation, however, a question which is actually intended to sate honest curiosity about the speaker’s subject must be apologised for at length.
The Question for the Sake of a Question: Sometimes there are no questions and everyone is sitting there in an ever more awkward silence, desperate for someone to just ask *a* question, and someone cracks. Out comes “what sort of spatula would Rousseau have used?” Such questions are often so tangential that nothing much can come of it, but if no one else has had an idea for a question in the meanwhile, expect more questions on spatulae to follow.
The Generic Question: Every subject has a few questions which basically apply to any talk on that topic. Talk on Homer: Ask the Homeric Question. Talk on a pseudonymous work: Ask about the author’s identity. Talk on figuratively anything: Ask about the evidential burden. Most of the time these questions apply to any talk on that topic because they are essentially unanswerable. Occassionally somebody does give a really novel answer to one of these great questions, but usually people just nod at their unanswerability and acknowledge that, yes, everything comes with caveats. Speakers will sometimes waste a significant portion of their talk going through the list of caveats to try and ward off these questions. This never works.
Question Statement: Some people don’t really have a question, but don’t intend to let that stop them. Instead, they bust out their collected thoughts on the broad topic under consideration, the aspects of their own research which are tangentially related to the topic of the talk, or a trip they once took to the general area under discussion. This may go on for some time before the quester remembers that they were meant to be asking a question and tacks on something like “… what do you think about that?” The response to which is usually “umm… not much?”
The Polite Question: “I really enjoyed your presentation. I thought your powerpoint slide design was particularly… creative and your discussion certainly had a lot of… words, but I wonder if maybe it might perhaps be possible for me to press you a little further on the question of…?” Very occassionally a professor with complete job security or a frazzled postdoc with literally nothing left to lose will splutter out what it really means: “Bullshit!”
The Clarification: “Could you explain what your argument actually is?”… This one could do to be asked a bit more often, actually.
Any of the previous questions can become the Golden Question. Presumably the reason question time exists, this is the question which hangs in the air, hushing the silence, as it slowly dawns on everyone that it solves everything… in an ideal world. In reality, asker, askee, and audience may consider the same question golden, gilt, or pyrite.
Which one is this:
“Are those laurel wreaths or incense?”