Asking questions of speakers: top tips

Laura Sangha

Presentation ‘season’ has just begun at my University, where group and individual talks are part of the assessment for modules at every undergraduate level. Public speaking is apparently once of the most feared aspects of modern life, yet it is also a skill that students may well need in their future workplace, so it makes sense that all are called upon to regularly research, write and deliver presentations, building experience and confidence.

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Many people aren’t fans of public speaking

At Exeter, the marking criteria is focused around preparation, content, structure, creativity and delivery, but students are also assessed on their handling of questions in a Q&A segment after they have presented. And it is this that has inspired this post. Of course, a presenter needs some good questions in order to be able to demonstrate the depth and scope of their knowledge in a Q&A session, but I have found that people can struggle to formulate queries and that they can as a result be a bit hesitant to raise their hand. So I have come up with some suggestions about the sorts of things that it might make sense to ask about, as a teaching resource I can point my students to. Please do add your own below the line.

Invite a speaker to expand on something.

This could be something that was mentioned only briefly, but that you would like to hear more about. It could be related to a concept or phrase that was mentioned, but you would like more explanation.

  • You said that a slow reformation could actually be a strength. On the face of it that idea seems a bit counterintuitive, so could you say a bit more about why, and what you mean by that?

Ask for a summary of the argument.

The presenter should have given  you a sense of what their interpretation or argument was, but if it wasn’t clear, you could ask them to summarise or restate it.

  • If I understood you right, you were saying that X was the most important influence on Y. Is that right?
  • You’ve given us a really good sense of all the different factors that contributed to X, but could you say which you think was the most significant?

Offer a new perspective.

You can draw on your own reading and knowledge to flesh something out; to ask for a response from the presenters; or to challenge something that was said.

  • I thought you made a really strong case for this policy as ‘a ragbag of emotional preferences’. But Bernard argues that the policy was more consistent though, because it was centred on Royal Supremacy. Do you think there might be some truth in that?
  • When you were talking about X it reminded me of what Walsham says about Y. Do you think there are parallels there?
  • You were using wills to suggest declining belief in intercessory prayer, but Eamon Duffy argues that wills shouldn’t be used as indicators of belief because of X, X, and X. Do you think that undermines your argument?

Ask how representative an argument/interpretation is.

The aim here is to find out how widely an argument applies or to whom.

  • You talked about the increasing ‘privatisation’ of religious devotion. Was that across all of society or restricted to a particular sort of people?
  • Were there differences in the way that men and women experienced X?
  • What differences does a person’s age make to X?
  • Do you think that there was regional variation when it came to the impact of this new legislation?

Ask for a clarification.

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Early modern teaching & learning

  • I didn’t quite follow when you were talking about the passage of the legislation through Parliament. Could you go over that again please?

Ask whether things changed over time.

Particularly relevant if the speaker’s talk covers a long time period.

Ask about evidence.

It’s always useful to know what evidence there is for a historical interpretation. If your presenter hasn’t mentioned their sources much, you could ask them to talk about these.

  • You were arguing that the response to Marian reform was very positive, and that the interiors of parish churches were quickly transformed. How do we know this?
  • What sources have been used to explore Elizabeth I’s personal religious preferences?

Ask about the vantage point.

This is sort of related to the previous point about sources and could be a follow up question. It’s useful to think about what sort of perspective the sources have given us. An elite view? A view of practice, but not necessarily belief? A prescriptive view, but not necessarily one closely related to practice? If it wasn’t made clear, you could clarify with the speaker which viewpoint they have provided.

  • I really enjoyed hearing about the Holy Household. Do you think that this was just an aspiration, a set of prescriptive guidelines promoted by the clergy? Or do you think that there actually was a spiritualisation of the household in this period?

Ask about the bigger picture.

If the talk was quite narrowly focused, you could ask the speaker to explain how their topic fits into the broad field of study.

  • How do you think your topic relates to the idea of Reformation as ‘a process’?
  • Can you see any parallels with other historical themes that we have come across on this module?
  • If you had more time to research your topic, what sorts of things would you want to focus on and explore?

Finally…don’t worry about questions you can’t answer.

Why?

a) Having researched and written your presentation, you are probably better prepared thanshutterstock_170846336-300x287 your audience, and know your way around the topic. It’s unlikely that you will be completely stumped.

b) Don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know. No presenter can know everything, so admitting that you didn’t read anything relating to a particular question is not a sign of weakness. This would only be problematic if the question is about a very important theme that you would really be expected to encounter in the course of your research.

c) You might not know the direct answer to a question, but you can steer the discussion towards something you do know.

e.g. ‘I didn’t encounter that theme in my reading, but it is quite similar to/relates to/has parallels with this…’

That’s just a few suggestions  – please do add your own ideas and comments below the line.

Imagining the Past

Mark Hailwood

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‘Tis ale good and new

So, I recently had the chance to pop into a seventeenth-century alehouse for a quick beer – not a bad way to mark the publication of the paperback of my book on the subject, I’m sure you’ll agree. It was during a recent trip to the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Sussex with our Women’s Work Project team, which gave us the chance to recreate some early modern work activities, and in a spare half hour at the end of our visit I took the chance to visit the rescued seventeenth-century cottage that the museum thinks might have served as an alehouse in that period.

As I sat in front of the fireplace at the alebench with my quart in hand I tried to conjure up in my mind the other elements that would have filled out this scene four centuries ago. What sounds would have filled the place – what conversations and songs? What smells would have filled the air – the wood smoke, baking pies? Who might have been there? What would they have looked like, been wearing… smelt like? What bawdy or godly ballads might have been pasted up on the wall? How would the beer have tasted? What would the toilet facilities have been like? I tried to imaginatively immerse myself in a seventeenth-century alehouse scene.

The challenge of recapturing these sensory and experiential components of the past is something I have often blogged about, and this trip was obviously a stimulating one in bringing these issues to the forefront of my mind. But as I sat there in the alehouse mining my imagination I reflected that this process of imagining the past isn’t only triggered by being in an immersive environment like this one. It is something we all do all the time – just not as explicitly and self-consciously as we do when visiting a living history museum. Continue reading

All ancient history now: England’s damaging Reformation

Laura Sangha

On Tuesday 16 January, in the year of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Archbishops and Canterbury and York issued a joint statement on ‘the damage done five centuries ago to the unity of the Church’. It reads:

The Reformation was a process of both renewal and division amongst Christians in Europe. In this Reformation Anniversary year, many Christians will want to give thanks for the great blessings they have received to which the Reformation directly contributed…

…Many will also remember the lasting damage done five centuries ago to the unity of the Church, in defiance of the clear command of Jesus Christ to unity in love. Those turbulent years saw Christian people pitted against each other, such that many suffered persecution and even death at the hands of others claiming to know the same Lord. A legacy of mistrust and competition would then accompany the astonishing global spread of Christianity in the centuries that followed.

MANDATORY CAPTION: (C) Keith Blundy / Aegies Associates

For a Reformation historian this was a fascinating moment. It was also humorous (in a sort of bitter, 2017 way), since the Daily Mail immediately took offence at this show of remorse, declaring that since Henry VIII’s ‘war with the Pope’ began 500 years ago, and that it wasn’t even a required subject for the National Curriculum, it was hardly a ‘burning issue’. Ann Widdecombe, a former Tory minister and Strictly Come Dancing Star provided a quote, saying:

These gestures are pointless. The Archbishop has not put anyone to death, as far as I know… Modern Christians are not responsible for what happened in the Reformation… You might as well expect the Italians to apologise for Pontius Pilate.

I’m looking forward to discussing all this with my students this term. There’s certainly a lot to be said of the way that the media are reporting this statement as an ‘apology’, as well as to ponder in the emphasis on unity and the healing of past divisions. Of course, Widdecombe is right that modern Christians are not individually responsible for what happened in the Reformation, but I disagree with the implicit argument underpinning the Mail article, that the Reformation is ancient history, and nothing to do with ‘us’. Since our understanding of the past and of where we came from is intimately tied to the way we conceptualise our contemporary identities, the way that we think of and interpret that past has a direct and immediate importance for the present. Members of the Church of England today are informed by, and understand their institution with reference to the past, so it seems appropriate to reflect on the evolution of the Church and to reconsider contemporary responses to it in this anniversary year. Continue reading

Merry Christmas from the Monster!

slide_8Well folks, let us not pretend that 2016 has been a year of peace and unity, but that’s all the more reason to wish each and every one of our readers a restorative and merry midwinter holiday. We also want to say a huge thank you to everyone who supports the blog, whether that’s simply by taking the time to read it or by sharing our posts on social media or indeed in your classrooms. We were delighted to recently pass a couple of statistical landmarks – 100,000 visitors and 200,000 views of the blog since its inception – and we hope to have many, many more in the years to come.

If you’re not feeling in the festive spirit yet then perhaps a quick trawl through the many-headed monster’s archive of ‘Christmas Specials’ will help: you can read about the history of early modern Christmas dinners; find out how our old pal Ralph Thoresby spent his Christmases; delve into the political conflicts that engulfed seventeenth-century Christmas; discover the impact of the Reformation on Christmas carols; relive an epic Boxing Day pub crawl from 1647; and be warned of the perils of refusing to give seasonal charity in the age of witchcraft.

See you in 2017.

‘At Christmas we banquet, the rich with the poor’: Christmas Dinner in Tudor & Stuart England

Mark Hailwood

screen-shot-2012-12-18-at-8-19-47-pmChristmas dinner is undoubtedly one of the most popular Yuletide rituals in Britain today – but what is its history? If you like, as any good historian would, to have a bit of historical context up your sleeve to bore your relatives with over the Christmas period, then I offer up to you the following morsels about the ritual meal’s sixteenth and seventeenth century character…

A cycle of midwinter celebration was established in Britain in the early part of the Middle Ages, so by the sixteenth century the Twelve Days of Christmas – running from 25th December to 5th January – had already been the focus of festivities for centuries. The holidays kicked off with Christmas Day itself, and after attending an early morning church service the attention quickly turned to feasting. From Advent Sunday, the fourth before Christmas Day, people were encouraged by the Church to restrict their diet, with Christmas Eve kept as a strict fast day on which meat, cheese and eggs were all forbidden. Come Christmas Day then, appetites had been sharpened for the first unrestricted meal in weeks.

So, a big dinner was already central to Christmas Day ritual by the start of the sixteenth century, and by the first half of the seventeenth century we start to find evidence of certain foods having a close association with Christmas celebrations. The ‘minced pie’ – then a mixture of meat, fruit and spice baked in pastry case – appears in seventeenth century records. So too does ‘plum porridge’ – a beef broth with prunes, raisins and currants in it. For the main meat dish beef or brawn (meat from a pig or calf head), both stuck with rosemary, were the favoured options. Continue reading

Fake news: a very (early) modern problem

Fake news and misinformation have hit the headlines recently as concerns grow about its extent and impact. In this guest post, Dr Francis Young examines the parallels between contemporary digital fake news and English civil war newsbooks. Dr Young is a historian of early modern England and the Catholic Record Society’s Volumes Editor. You can follow him on twitter @SuffolkRecusant.

In the immediate aftermath of the US election, Facebook came under fire for allowing ‘fake news’ to dominate its platform, and there was much lamenting that traditional print media – which, in theory, at least tries to verifies sources and stories – has been replaced by social media as the source of ‘news’ for many people. The ‘fake news’ problem raises many profound and interesting questions about what ‘news’ really is, and what makes it ‘real’ as opposed to ‘fake’, but commentators have perhaps been too hasty in assuming facebook-fakesthat fake news is something new and something alien to the ‘traditional print media’. In fact, the pattern of user-generated news that we see on contemporary social media platforms is closer to the original pattern of dissemination of news in the first age of print.

Defining what counts as ‘fake news’ is not straightforward, given the traditional print media’s overt political bias, spinning of rumours, wilful misinterpretation of statistical data, and editorial decisions to foreground minor stories and ignore many newsworthy ones. However, a strict definition of ‘fake news’ would exclude speculative stories that might be true and are supported by anonymous sources. The reporting of such stories with the implication that they are fact may be dubious journalism, but it is the longstanding practice of the tabloid press. ‘Fake news’, in the strict sense, would have to be the kind of story that no conventional newspaper or news website would run because it directly contradicts easily verifiable fact: for instance, the report that Donald Trump won the popular vote in the US election as well as the votes of the electoral college. No conventional media would run with a story that is demonstrably false; to do so would run the risk of being discredited as a news outlet or sullying the ‘brand’ of a conventional newspaper. Continue reading

Addressing Authority: some concluding thoughts

Brodie Waddell

petition-to-the-petitioners-1679-80Petitions and supplications have been flying thick and fast over the past month. Contributors to the Addressing Authority Online Symposium have spotted them asking for permission to print a broadsheet about conjoined twins in sixteenth-century Nuremberg, decrying Charles I’s religious policy in seventeenth-century Scotland, and seeking a tax exception in eighteenth-century London. On twitter, they could be found claiming that mariners had been forced into cannibalism and that their complaints were justified by the example of Queen Esther. One was even seen petitioning ‘to the Petitioners’ during the Popish Plot scare of 1680.

It would be silly to try to sum up all the brilliant contributions by both the authors and commenters over the course of the symposium. However, I will take the opportunity to try to briefly highlight three issues that came up in the papers and discussion that I hadn’t properly considered before. Continue reading