• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


What Surprised You the Most?

My favorite conference question.

March 23, 2021

In pre-COVID days, when academic conferences were still held in person, I dreaded the folks who would stand up during Q&A and start with “really more a comment than a question.” They fell into the same trap that far too many political journalists do at press conferences -- by packing way too much into a “question,” they allow the person being asked to cherry-pick the part to answer and ignore the rest.

The best questions tend to be short and simple. The best questioners aren’t afraid of silence.

In that spirit, then, the question I like to ask of presenters when it seems appropriate:

“What surprised you the most?”

It’s not an evil question, or a gotcha. The meaning is straightforward. But it tends to generate pretty good answers, especially if you’re willing to wait a silent beat or two for the response.

I think it works for a few reasons. “Surprise” implies pre-existing expectations, followed by something not fitting those expectations. That lends itself to a narrative: “I expected x, but y happened instead.” From there, both speaker and listener expect some version of “I had to figure out what to do/why it happened, and that led to …” In other words, it compels both context and narrative, the combination of which can lead to enlightening answers.

It also allows the presenter to respond as a human, which tends to make for better answers.

The biggest breakthroughs aren’t marked by “eureka!” They usually come after someone says “that’s weird …”

One of my own biggest “that’s weird …” moments came about 10 years ago. We were looking at pass rates in math classes based on how many times a student had taken the class. The assumption going in was that a student taking it the second time would be likelier to pass, given that they’d already seen the material. In fact, the pass rate dropped by half on the second attempt, and half again on the third. Attempting to explain that led to some much more thoughtful and informed discussions than just focusing on course mastery.

For a more recent example, I was surprised to find that the COVID-era enrollment drop in community college enrollment was much larger for men than for women. I would have guessed the opposite, based on the many demands placed on women. Discovering that my first guess was pretty far wrong forced me to think differently about the reasons that students enroll.

So, wise and worldly readers, I offer two questions to you:

In your work, what surprised you the most?


What’s your favorite conference question?

(I check email at deandad at gmail dot com or can be reached on Twitter @deandad.)


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