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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.

What For

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.)

How To

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.



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.

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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