Comment & Analysis
Dec 1, 2021

Thingmote: Mastering the Art of the Irrelevant Question

The people who ask questions at lectures that don't contribute much always seem curiously elated – so I decided to try it out myself, writes Chris Morash.

Chris MorashColumnist
Sergey Alifanov for The University Times

So, here’s the thing: I have a question.

One evening in early November, I was in the Long Room Hub to hear a friend and colleague, Prof Andy Murphy, deliver his inaugural lecture as 1867 Professor of English: “Shakespeare from the Periphery.” Now, some literal-minded folk may have pointed out that inaugural lectures are supposed to be delivered when the newly appointed chair is, well, newly appointed, and Andy has been around Trinity for three or four years now. However, what such procedural nitpickers fail to grasp is that Trinity is a 429-year-old institution, and within these walls the decades are but hours and the years but minutes. Time moves differently here.

In any case, I had been looking forward to Andy’s inaugural for quite some time (three or four years, in fact) – for a very particular reason.


Back in pre-pandemic times, I had noticed that whenever I attended public lectures, there was always one person who would ask a long-winded, meandering question that was utterly unrelated to what the speaker had been saying for the previous hour. Over time, I came to admire the intellectual abilities of these people. After all, it must take considerable powers of concentration to formulate a question on one thing while an intelligent, lively person at the other end of the room is talking through a microphone about something else entirely. This, it seemed to me, was a mental feat along the lines of handling live snakes or walking on hot coals.

Within these walls the decades are but hours and the years but minutes. Time moves differently here

The more I thought about it, however, the more I saw that there was a trick to it. Those truly adept at the art of the irrelevant question arrive at the lecture with their lines rehearsed and pre-prepared. That way, all they have to do during the lecture itself is to avoid listening, which is a skill anyone can master over the course of a university education.

The other thing I observed was that the people who asked these questions always seemed curiously elated after having delivered themselves of their long, pointless intervention. Clearly, asking an irrelevant question must be fun. So, I decided to try it out.

As with so much, alas, a global pandemic intervened, and the opportunity to hijack a question-and-answer session was tragically robbed from me in March 2020. Initially, this was upsetting. But I picked myself up. After all, I reasoned, when we finally started living with coronavirus, there were going to be pre-pandemic skills and traditions that would have to be revived and re-learned. Also, those long months at home gave me plenty of time to formulate a question of more than usually fiendish length and obscurity.

So, over the long months of lockdown, I set to work. There were a couple of techniques to master. There is, in the first place, the choice between the assertive opening – “I’m sure the speaker would agree that…” – and the more conciliatory conclusion: “I’m not sure if that was really a question…”. Then there were long hours practicing the tone of righteous indignation necessary to deflect any criticism as to why we should pay any attention to something so completely off topic in the first place. The key here is to make those who might protest that, for instance, the plight of Norwegian yak herders is not relevant in any or all contexts, appear to be ethically deficient.

Those truly adept at the art of the irrelevant question arrive at the lecture with their lines rehearsed and pre-prepared

Finally, there was the matter of where to sit. If you are going to make a long, irrelevant contribution, you need to command the room. This means one of two strategic positions. One option is to sit in the very last row (and preferably to arrive late, apologising loudly so as to announce your arrival). Speaking from the back of the room means that the rest of the audience have to turn their backs on the actual speaker to see you. The other option is to sit in the very first row of seats (and take up your post very early, so that everyone sees you as they arrive). With this option, when you stand up you are already at the front of the room.

With all of this preparation, you can imagine how excited I was when the evening arrived for Andy’s Inaugural. After months of preparation, my time had come to revive a venerable pre-pandemic tradition.

At the end of the day, however, I was distracted from irrelevance.

In the first place, there was the matter of a waiting drinks reception. While Zoom seminars have been a useful stop gap, the one thing missing from truly civilised academic discourse over the past 18 months or so has been wine and suspicious-looking canapés. Don’t ever let them tell you that a Zoom Bar is the same thing. The technology simply isn’t there yet.

My distraction was compounded when others around the room began asking questions that were pertinent, cogent, and informed. The real problem, however, was that I had made the rookie mistake of actually listening to the lecture, which turned out to be engaging, funny, intelligent, and thought provoking. In fact, it was so thought provoking, that I found myself thinking actual thoughts.

If you are going to make a long, irrelevant contribution, you need to command the room

In particular, listening to “Shakespeare from the Periphery”, I began wondering just how much our lived experience of the world today still makes sense in terms of centres and peripheries, as opposed to networks, proliferating webs of unforeseen connections and unlikely associations, constantly shifting patterns of emerging and dissolving hubs and spokes, likes and dislikes. At first, I was delighted, as it seemed that this new line of thought had the potential to develop into something triumphantly irrelevant. But I couldn’t ignore the fact that the more I thought about my lovely new question, the more the experience of the live lecture kept drawing me back into “Shakespeare and the Periphery’s” own gravitational field. In the end, I finally had to admit defeat, and my new and sadly relevant question took shape.

So: my question is this: [Editor’s note: Sorry, that’s your word count for this week.]

Prof Chris Morash is Trinity’s Seamus Heaney Professor of Irish Writing and a former Vice Provost. He will this year be writing a regular column, “Thingmote”, for the paper. The thingmote was a mound of earth which served as a meeting space in Medieval Dublin. It was located just outside where Front Gate is now.

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