Monday, April 9, 2012

How to ask a question

Welcome back from break, everybody.  To get us thinking about media again, I wanted to post an excerpt of a nice little essay I discovered over the weekend in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Written by Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, it suggests some simple techniques for "How to ask a question" — a crucial part of civil dialogue and knowledge production that we all too often ignore:
You have not been invited to give a speech. Before you stand up, boil your thoughts down to a single point. Then ask yourself if this point is something you want to assert or something you want to find out. There are exceptions, but if your point falls into the category of assertion, you should probably remain seated. “Mr. Nixon, you are unworthy of being president,” is not a question. “Mr. Nixon, what else would you have done as president if Watergate hadn’t gotten in the way?” is a question.
Weigh the usual interrogatory words in English: who, what, where, why, when. If you can begin your sentence with one of these you are more than half-way to a good question.  “Who gave you that scar, Mr. Potter?”  “What is a black hole, Mr. Hawking?”  “Where is the Celestial City, Mr. Bunyan?”  “Why are you wearing that letter, Ms. Prynne?”  “When will our troops come home, Mr. Lincoln?”
You will discover that, if you think in terms of these simple interrogatories, you will be able to skip right over the prologue. The right question evokes its own context. If, having formulated a question, you still think you need to set the stage for it, try again.
Don’t engage in meta-speech. “I was wondering, Ms. Steinem, if I might ask you a question that I am really curious about.” Go directly to the question. “Ms. Steinem, who is the man you admire the most?”
Look at the person you are addressing. Speak your question directly; don’t read it. Wait for the answer before you sit down. Don’t try to ask a follow-up question. If the speaker evaded your question the first time, he will evade it again. If the audience applauds your question, you are grandstanding and have failed an important test of civility.
More tips and discussion at the original article.  I wonder, how often in your UW courses do you feel that you really get the chance in lecture or discussion to ask a substantive question?  I fear that we instructors might subtly (or not so subtly) discourage you from doing so.  If that is the case — be bold.  Ask good questions.


  1. I think this article brings up a good point in trying to show people the correct way to ask questions. Oftentimes we hear, "there's no such thing as a stupid question", and while I actually believe there is such a thing as a stupid question, typically it's good to risk it and ask anyways. That being said, I think this article makes a good point in telling people to be concise - it's easy to get lost in rambling and listening to the sound of your own voice. However, I agree that it may be intimidating to ask questions in an entire lecture hall full off 200+ people, but it's good to remember a lot of the time people may have the same question as you!
    Katie Slavin

  2. I agree Katie. I actually sit and think for two minutes in my big lectures before I end up raising my hand and realizing it is not a big deal. To know as much as you possibly can, you have to ask a lot of questions along the way.

  3. I agree with what Katie said about many people being afraid to ask questions because of the fear of seeming looking stupid. And while it is true that when there is a huge class, it is often intimidating to ask a question, I think that the fear of seeming dumb is apparent regardless of the class size. Even though asking a question could often be much more convenient than trying to figure it out yourself and taking on the risk of not ever figuring out the solution, many people take the difficult route anyway. At the same time, sometimes it is a good learning experience to answer your own questions.

  4. Here at UW I have not had any problems asking questions in my big lectures or discussions. This may have something to do with the fact that I am pretty outgoing and not afraid to talk in front of large groups, so I can see how someone who is a bit more shy would have a problem speaking in front of such a large group. Most of my instructions ask "Does anyone have any questions?" at the end of a section or lecture. This provides time to formulate my question and ask it. In my opinion no question is stupid so I agree, be bold and don't be embarrassed. There is no need to fear looking stupid, we all got into this university for a reason, none of us are stupid.


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