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On the Importance of Questioning
If you've been to the course listserv page, you know what a listserv is, how to join your section's listserv, why we have class listservs, and what to do if you run into problems using the listserv. This page takes on two important questions about the discussion questions you are required to post to your section's listserv: what for and how to.
At the most fundamental level, I prefer having you write weekly discussion questions to giving you reading quizzes or having a final exam. I can tell a lot about how carefully you've read a text from the kinds of questions you ask of it, and I'd rather watch how the kinds of questions you ask change over time than use the one-time assessment measure of a final exam. Rather than the teacher always supplying the questions and your job being to figure out the answers, having you ask interpretive/discussion questions can enable you all to influence or even set the agenda for a given class discussion. Rather than taking up valuable class time with pop quizzes or making you think this is the kind of course where it's ok not to do any work except for cramming for the exams, I want discussion questions to help you get in the habit of asking questions as and after you read a literary text. Even the activity of reading and thinking about others' questions in itself is valuable--you can get a very clear sense of what others are interested in from the questions they ask, you can see the range of different kinds of questions that can be asked of literary texts, and it's very likely that their questions will lead you to see the text in a new light. In fact, your getting in the habit of asking incisive questions is the intellectual foundation of the course. Noticing interesting things about literary texts and asking provocative questions about them are the fundamental building blocks of literary analysis, and they can best be developed by consistent, steady practice. The questions you and others ask can not only form the basis of our class discussion, but they can spark ideas for critical response papers and the final paper, as well. The discussion questions provide opportunities for inquiry-based learning, class time gives you practice in generating and discussing possible answers to important questions, and papers give you practice in choosing a challenging question and not only giving an answer to it, but doing it in such a way that it's persuasive to your audience, as well.
Two more pragmatic reasons it's worth your while to put a significant amount of time and thought into these questions: avoiding boredom and getting better grades. If you ask questions that you're genuinely interested in and that you want others to be interested in, as well, you're increasing the chances that we'll have a vigorous class discussion. And when I calculate your final grade, I will be sure to raise the base grade of those who have made extraordinary contributions to class discussion and to the listserv. (You should be aware that since discussion questions are the only writing from you that I'll see until you hand in your first critical response paper, they influence my general sense of how you're doing in the course and may well have some influence on how I grade your more formal writing assignments and exams.)
Think of all the questions you have as you finish reading the first sentence of a story. Now, as you read on and are first trying to make sense of the text, you're probably going to have a million questions. The process of moving from first impressions to first analyses should radically reduce the number of questions, hopefully by several orders of magnitude. But there will still be many more questions than we could hope to address on a listserv or in a day or week or even semester. So you have to prioritize when considering what questions to ask on the listserv. Here are some informal suggestions/guidelines for generating discussion questions. I've revised them in light of our discussions in class in week 2, and will be happy to revise them further in light of your comments, so feel free to email me if you have an idea about how to make this list more helpful.
- Read other people's questions before submitting your own--think of yourself as participating in an on-line, asynchronous conversation, rather than simply turning in your questions in a different format than usual. By the same token, I expect you to have read and thought about your classmates' questions before coming to class--at the very least, having an idea about which ones you're most interested in discussing--so every Sunday night and Tuesday night after 8-ish, be in the habit of checking your email if you can (although questions are due at 6 pm from now on, sometimes it takes the machine that handles distributing messages a little while to send them all out).
- Raise questions that you believe would spark a class discussion you'd want to take part in. If you're dissatisfied with class discussion, do something about it. Put your concerns on the agenda. That's what this class is for. (Some of the groups' suggestions include asking questions that have us focus on theme or character motivation rather than plot, that lead to further questions, and that elicit our opinions/interpretations and allow us to be exposed to/argue about different viewpoints. One particularly well-put piece of advice suggested that "The purpose of the questions should be to better understand the text, make people think, and to analyze the motives of the characters in the story." I'm happy to add to this list! Just tell me what to put down.... One thing I'd add off the top of my head is that questions about authorial intention--the author's purposes, motivations, choices and the reasoning behind them--while hard to answer, can also be very interesting to consider.)
- Ask questions that matter to you--that you really want us to try to answer. Give people a context for understanding the importance of the question to you. It's often a good idea to explain why you're asking the question you're asking, or to begin with an observation about or interpretation of a particular passage that sparked the question for you.
- Ask questions that are genuinely debate-able, for which there are a number of possible answers. Part of the work of class discussion is us trying to move from identifying possible answers to the questions you've identified as central to figuring out what are more or less plausible answers to them. When you ask a question, you might suggest possible answers you've considered, or discuss ways of coming up with an answer to the question (i.e., what we'd need to figure out to be in a position to answer the question).
- Think carefully about the kinds of questions you could ask--such as questions that help us understand the text better, that ask us to analyze how it works, that ask us to give our reactions to it, that ask us to evaluate it, that ask us to compare it to another text, that ask us to relate it to an issue we've been discussing in previous classes--and choose the kinds of questions you think are most appropriate for/relevant to a particular text.
- Rank your questions in order of importance to you. When I'm trying to figure out how to synthesize all the various questions that people are asking in order to put together a possible agenda for class discussion, I'll be looking most closely at the first question you ask--that should be the one that you absolutely positively NEED to discuss in class. By ranking your questions, you're also signalling your priorities to your classmates, and as you read their responses you should be comparing their priorities to your own.
- Don't just ask questions for the sake of asking questions; don't just ask the first questions that come to mind. Be selective and prioritize.
- Try to avoid questions that need be answered only with a "yes" or "no," without any further explanation or thought.
- Try to ask as few "factual" questions as possible--questions, that is, in which you want someone else to clear up some confusion about what happened in the text. First try to figure out these kinds of questions for yourself (never underestimate the power of a dictionary, thesaurus, and a willingness to reread!). If after an honest effort to do so you are still confused, you may ask a "factual" question. Odds are you've then hit on something the author intentionally has made ambiguous. But if that's so, then you'll most likely be better off asking why the author made this precise moment in the text so ambiguous and what people think the effect of this ambiguity is. That's a much more inviting approach than in effect asking someone else to explain the plot to you. If you really need to ask questions of this kind, better to include them at the end of a list of several discussion questions, rather than have them counted as one of your first four.
- Don't just repeat someone else's questions; if someone else has already asked a question you find interesting and would have asked on your own, say a bit about why you find the question interesting or why we should address it in class.
- Don't put what's really an observation or interpretation in the form of a question--if you have a point you really want to make, much better to say it straight out and ask a follow-up question that relates to it in some way.
If you find it difficult to come up with questions, it's probably a sign that you're not reading the text carefully enough or giving yourself enough processing/brainstorming time. Adjust your work schedule accordingly. If you don't, you'll find it very difficult to complete the other, more formal writing assignments.
Or to put the point more positively: the more work you put right now into making observations and asking questions on your reading responses, the better off you'll be when it comes time to write your critical response essays, your mid-term exam, and your final paper.
What follows are a few examples from our discussions during week 2. I hope these clarify some of the reasoning behind some of the points I was making in class about discussion questions, and help illustrate how (or how not) to put the above suggestions into practice.
- In the afternoon section, we had some disagreements over whether the question about the significance of the tin cans in "One More Story" was a good question or not. I think it's a good question b/c it focuses on a clearly important and emphasized detail of the story and asks us to figure out why it's important and emphasized. It's not easy to answer, but if a question like it appears down the road and you read it ahead of time, you can try to come up with some answers to it for yourself before coming to class. Of course, there's the danger of mechanically applying this format--"what is the significance of x?"--to every detail in the story, no matter how minor or trivial, so it's a good idea to save it for things you think are truly significant.
- One of the groups suggested that the following would be an example of a good discussion question: "Every story in One More Story seemed to have some sort of theme about punishment (e.g., of gambling, drinking, adultery, etc.). How is this relevant to the collection as a whole? Could these stories be used more for 'lesson' value or entertainment value? Why?" What I like about this is that it points out a pattern in the book and asks us to consider its significance. The follow-up question is worded a bit carelessly (whenever I see passive voice like "be used," I want to ask, "used by whom?") and may set up a false dichotomy--couldn't stories do both at the same time?--but I think it would lead to a good discussion (because it asks people to justify their opinions and give examples) and would also inspire further questions (such as the role these stories played within the community in which they were originally told, and perhaps about the author's purposes for putting them in print today, decades after he first heard them). What do you all think? I also think the question about whether the stories so clearly being designed to teach certain lessons would undermine their 'validity' for some readers is also a good one. Together, these questions ask us to consider the relation between the educational, entertainment, and truth-telling functions of storytelling--and will be particularly relevant when we discuss "A Ghost Story" next Wednesday.
- Here's a dilemma for you; please respond if you have ideas on this. Of the three questions--1) Why do a lot of stories connect drinking/gambling and the devil? 2) Were the ghosts [in "The Car Wreck"] acting as reminders of the dangers of unsafe driving? 3) Are gambling and alcohol used so much because they are both things that 'haunt'?--which do you think is best? The first may be too obvious, but the second and third may call only for a "yes" or "no" answer and may really be observations (good ones, I think) disguised as questions. Can you all come up with a follow-up question that would build on these three but provoke a good discussion? I ask in particular b/c "Bone Girl" raises similar issues as Bowen's stories, with a twist....
- One example of a not-so-hot discussion question some groups identified would be the question that asked if people had ever seen the lights described in Bowen's story of that name. I agree that this question is not so useful for classroom purposes. We could spend all semester trading ghost stories and debating their validity--and probably still not agree! This is a class about the literary analysis of ghosts; we are fundamentally concerned with how writers use ghosts to achieve certain ends, and how we as readers can interpret literary ghosts or use them to understand the texts we're reading differently. This is not to say that this kind of question is not interesting, of course. If people want to trade stories over the listserv at times (or reply personally to the people who ask those kinds of questions), that's fine with me. I just don't want to take up valuable class time on this. (Although I'm open to hearing reasons why I'm wrong on this!)
- OK, when other examples of different questions come up, I'll add to this list. Feel free to comment on it or suggest additions to it. Thanks!
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EN 209: Novels and Tales, Spring 2000
Created: 1/25/00, 4:00 pm
Last modified: 1/28/00, 11:22 pm