How to Talk

(Part of the Art of Learning series.)

Video from November 2, 2022.

(Note: there’s a back-handed tip of the hat to Conor Neill’s very good and very popular video on “How to Start a Speech” at the four minute mark. Well worth the ten minutes. Like I say, his error notwithstanding, he knows what he’s talking about.)

Academics do a lot of talking. In fact, the ability to participate in conversations with other knowledgeable people is a defining part of the competence of knowing something. I normally emphasize three components of this rhetorical competence, each of which begins with a fact that you must face.

First, there are better and worse questions. We’ve all at some point been told that “there is no such thing as a stupid question”; but we have all also at some point realized that this is not exactly true. In some teaching situations it’s important to get everyone to feel comfortable asking questions if they don’t understand something. But, even in those situations, we sometimes find ourselves asking questions that we would not have asked if we had been paying better attention during the lecture. More commonly, a question will stem from obvious ignorance about the assigned reading for a class. If we had only read what we had been told to read, we wouldn’t have been in doubt about the answer.

In conversation with our peers, we can sharpen our sense of the good question. We can try to notice which questions lead to fruitful discussion and which questions only stimulate our peers to provide condescending explanations of basic facts. But a word of caution: calling a question stupid is not a demonstration of rhetorical skill. A skilled conversationalist is someone who is able to guide a conversation away from a fruitless line of inquiry and onto more fertile ground. Ideally, they will be able to do this without the person who asked the (stupid) questions realizing that this is what is going on. Having an eye for good and bad questions does not license you to be rude. You want to engage in the conversation, not end it!

Second, a community of knowledgeable peers has a shared sense of humor. “There are no contradictions,” write the Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “only degrees of humor.” Leonard Cohen said that his teacher’s laugh “put cartilage between the bony facts”. Wittgenstein said that the depth of philosophy is like the depth of a grammatical joke. I could go on. Some of the funniest jokes are the ones that play on what we know (and don’t know) about the world. Our knowledge establishes a boundary to the boundary to the absurd, and humor arises just beyond that boundary, where just exactly stop making sense. As you learn, you develop your “wit”.

It’s impossible to learn something about subject without affecting your sense of humor. As you learn, you are able to get certain jokes, while others become less funny. Some jokes you only recognize as jokes within the framework of a shared body of knowledge, while some knowledge makes it impossible to laugh along with an otherwise popular joke. While you are not going to be telling jokes all the time in your studies, do become aware of the humor that is available to you in conversation. It’s part of your skill set. Sometimes a good scholarly style emerges from providing the set up and holding back the punchline. The result is not laughter but the feeling that we’re in good company. Merriment, if you will.

Third, some things are not okay to say. This doesn’t always mean you shouldn’t say them, only that you have to say them very carefully. I’ve been talking about this for several years and I always say that, while we should not be afraid to talk about controversial subjects, we should understand that the danger is quite real. Just as a stupid question can expose our ignorance, so a a bigoted remark can expose our biases and, in the worst cases, reveal our unsuitability to be members of our chosen discipline and profession. Many years ago, Thomas Kuhn pointed out that a scientific discipline isn’t constituted only by abstractions, models, and examples, but also by a shared set of values. You will probably have to adopt some new values and abandon some old ones in order to fit comfortably into your field; that’s a perfectly normal part of getting an education in any case. But you will also have to learn how to talk about the values that put you at odds with your peers. These difficult conversations are worth having and worth being good at having.

Here, too, remember that skill is revealed not just whether you recognize the discursive facts but in how you deal with them. Just like you shouldn’t call a question stupid, or laugh inappropriately at a bad joke, you should not simply cause offense with an improper remark. Nor should you simply take offense when someone says a bad word. You should learn how to deploy provocations constructively and how to respond to them effectively. You should have a sense of how to bring you and your interlocutor through the twists and turns of a difficult subject, which are familiar to you precisely because you are knowledgeable. Learning how to do this takes a little courage and a little patience. Be brave and, please, be kind.

This is not an exhaustive account of the art of talking, of course. Underneath this art is the one I talked about last week, that of listening, but remember that the same strengths you feel under your thinking and your writing can be brought to bear on your speaking engagements. Remind yourself that you know what you’re talking about (and make sure that you do!). In an academic setting, being “knowledgeable” is a package deal. There’s a lot to master. But you also have plenty of time. Be bold in your experiments. And, yes, be careful.

See also: “What We Talk About When We Know What We’re Talking About”; “Reading, Talking, Seeing”; “How to Speak Your Mind”; and my posts about the “Gradual Perfection of…” “…Knowledge in Discourse”

Here’s the video from the 2021 talk: