No More Self-Effacement! Or, some thoughts on asking questions

Every time I stand at the front of the class and pose a question to my students I’m reminded how challenging it can be respond on the spot. I mean, I very rarely ask a question that will result in a one-word response. Nope, I pose layered questions geared at getting the students to think about the material and think about their own knowledges. Good questions often take time to answer well: you need to listen, process, and orient yourself in relation to what’s been asked. You need to decide whether or not you have something to say, and then you need to say it. Out loud. In front of other people. It’s hard work, saying what you’re thinking while you’re still in the midst of thinking it. It is hard and I think it is necessary. Asking questions and responding to them publicly lets us think together. It is a dynamic process. Risky? Sure. Hard? You bet. Rewarding? Yes, it can be.

I found myself thinking about the difficulty of asking questions in a public setting this weekend while at a conference. Last year a friend and colleague told me I was someone he counted on to ask challenging questions. I expressed shock. I hate asking questions in a conference setting. I rarely feel as though I have had enough time to process what has been said, and to be honest I get really nervous speaking up. Never mind that I have lectured to classrooms of more that a hundred students, I still get a racing heart and shaky hands when I am about to ask a question. When I told my friend this he laughed and replied that he experienced the same kinds of physical manifestations of nerves. We told each other how surprised we were that the other person felt that way. And then we started talking about why we ask the questions even though it is rarely easy or comfortable. Its about responsibility, we agreed. Asking questions and creating a moment of dynamic discourse is part of our responsibility as participants in various intellectual communities.

So as I sat in various classrooms over the past few days I have been paying attention to how people ask questions. I’ve noticed how very many people preface their queries with an apology. I’m sorry if this takes me a while to articulate. I’m sorry if I didn’t understand everything you said. I’m sorry I’m trying to engage with your thinking. Sure, not every question is a good one and there are far too many times that people seem to talk just for the sake of hearing themselves talk, but I was struck by the number of times I heard people use self-effacement as a way of entering a conversation.

Surely there’s a better way. There is also this hilarious map to help us avoid being the talk-for-talking’s-sake-people.

Next time you ask a question try cutting out the self-effacement. I will too.

2 thoughts on “No More Self-Effacement! Or, some thoughts on asking questions

  1. Yes! Thank you for writing this. As you know, my resolution for this new academic year is to stop using self-deprecation in discussion, emails, and presentations. It is hard and sometimes I have to carefully think through how to situate myself positively. But it is getting easier, and now when I hear other people say “I am nowhere near as good at this as you guys,” “I apologize in advance,” etc, I almost flinch it is so painful to hear. An important part of dismantling that is having conversations like you had about how common these nerves and fears are, at all levels of academic discourse.


  2. Thanks, Erin. I get shaky hands and a racing heart too; I'm comforted that I'm not alone! Sadly I think that self-depreciation is more common amongst women, because we carry inferiority complexes around with us and want to position ourselves as subordinate to the conversation, rather than all over it (it's always a good thing to be careful, but women tend to take it to the extreme.). Lately I've been trying to suck it up, cut the bullshit, and just state what I'm thinking more often. You're so right–it's hard.

    Part of why questions are so scary, I think, is that we're afraid to reveal our own ignorance–for instance, if I missed a really important point that the presenter made, and bring it up like it's mine, parading it around like “I'm so proud of myself for being so brilliant with this great point!” Listening is hard, and unlike reading, we can't direct our ear backward and forward across a lecture (like we can move our eye back and forth across a page). That means that we are always already at a disadvantage in relation to the speaker, and that's scary. It also sucks to reveal our own ignorance on something that maybe we should know–if we get a major fact wrong, or reveal that we don't know as much as we should about some major historical event that affects our field in significant ways.

    Just some thoughts. (that I'm not apologizing or effacing myself for! We're soooo Canadian…)


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