How to Field Questions You Don’t Know the Answer to

By Shawn

Sometimes in academia you will be forced to answer questions you don’t know the answer to. Here are some techniques for dealing with this that I’ve seen used to great effect.

Technique #1: The Deeper Issues

Q: Could you explain this argument on page 3?
A: I’d love to. But I think your question is actually pointing us towards a much deeper set of issues, which I just happen to be more comfortable discussing.

Technique #2: The Larger Project

Q: It seems like you haven’t really said anything new or interesting about your topic.
A: Well, this is part of a larger project, obviously. Wait till you see the next chapter. Oh man, that chapter—just brace yourself.

Technique #3: The Out of Place Indeed

Q: Don’t you think a lot of people in your field would take issue with that claim?
A: Heh, indeed.
Q: That didn’t really address my–
A: Yes, yes, quite.

Technique #4: The Best Defense is a Good Offense

Q: Your work doesn’t really address some of the common concerns in the political economy literature.
A: At least it’s not hideous looking. Like your mom.

Technique #5: The We Don’t Really Disagree

Q: I think the implications of this are really problematic.
A: Actually, I don’t think we really disagree.
Q: I’m pretty sure we do.
A: No, I think we’re saying the same thing.
Q: We’re not.
A: Agree to disagree about the fact that we agree. Next question.

Technique #6: The Esoteric Reference

Q: I found that point a little obscure.
A: Yes, well, there’s a discussion in Lucretius that really clarifies things. For anyone with a passing familiarity with 18th century French architecture, that is.

Technique #7: The Meandering Anecdote

Q: I think it’s pretty hard to sustain your interpretation of Hobbes.
A: A funny story about Hobbes. He spent so many sleepless nights writing De Cive that he would habitually fall asleep in the bath until the overflowing water alerted the other members of the house. Is that true? Who knows. Next question.

Technique #8: The What, Do I Have to Do Everything?

Q: It would be great if you could say a little more about the implications of this.
A: Look, I’m not a historian. I’m not a sociologist. I don’t even have a GED. I’m just developing the notion of a framework for deriving the idea of a concept. Isn’t that enough?? What more do you animals want from me?!?

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