Friday, June 26, 2015

How many questions does Bridget Drinka ask per minute?

Try this. Add up the number of questions you raised in a recent presentation and combine that with the number of questions you heard posed in presentations by two additional presenters. Got it? Ok.

I'm willing to wager that the combined total number of questions from those three presentations are less than the total number of questions Professor Bridget Drinka posed during the course of her single presentation on June 18, for our AALCI Fellows. Put another way, she asks more questions than we do.

I've studied and written about Professor Drinka's presentation style for years now trying to figure out what makes her so effective conveying ideas and engaging the students in our program. Is it her knowledge as a historical linguist and her skills as a data artist? Is it her expertise as a map maker? It's likely all of that, but more.

I realized during her most recent visit that Professor Drinka's questions -- her ability to present overt and covert inquiries to a group of listeners -- are central to what makes her presentations so compelling. I must have somehow missed marking the prevalence of her questions in my notes on previous occasions. But not this time.

Fairly early in Professor Drinka's presentation, I jotted down the following query in my notebook: "how many questions is she asking per minute?" I wasn't able to calculate a definite figure, but I could easily discern that she was raising far more questions than I'm accustomed to hearing in a presentation, including my own presentations.   

From the minute she's in the room, she's asking Fellows about themselves--where they are from, what they are studying. She's taking in what they say, and she's also closely listening to how they say it, perhaps trying to place the accents. Ultimately, these early questions are a process of almost organic data collecting for Professor Drinka that she will draw on for new, personalized questions to later further the discussion.

Next, she's posing questions to see what the Fellows already know about linguistics. Some of the questions are direct; others are subtle and rhetorical. She then gets to one of the big ones: "Why do black speakers sound the ways that they do?" That gets everyone's attention. Before we can come to an answer, Professor Drinka is off to the board drawing a map. 

The map is going to help us raise and answer some questions about the journeys and geographies of English and varieties of Black English. Professor Drinka is going into the histories of English as spoken in different parts of the world, and as she mentions various places, she approximates the accents from those regions. I now read her presentation of those different accents as a way of answering the unasked question, "You want to know what the accents in the places I'm describing sound like?" Raising that question motivates her to embed multiple speech demonstrations into and throughout the presentation.

She also anticipates that you might wonder where she learned what she learned. So, she always mentions her time as a student with the noted African American sociolinguist John Baugh. She references work by Geneva Smitherman and William Labov. She talks about the findings of these studies and those studies. Yet, she doesn't feel that all the scholarship is adequate for the present conversation, so at intervals after sharing information, she asks "But what do you think? Why do think it's like this?"

Many scholars save the Q & A for the end. Professor Drinka, by contrast, weaves Q & A throughout a presentation. Thus, by the close of her presentation, you realize that nearly every minute of has included or was driven by multiple questions. 

AALCI 2015
The Multi-data artist currently known as Bridget Drinka (2013)
Map Maker Visits the Institute (2011) 
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