As a mid-career academic, I find myself struggling. So much has changed in the time since I was the undergraduate my students are now.
After three decades, the texts that were so buzz-worthy then are no longer abuzz. Thinkers and theorists that my field taught me to worship now feel outdated (their underlined pages grow yellow on my shelves). Platforms of the past have been replaced by a flood of ed-tech novelties, each one more popular than the previous. The sand-castle of my expertise feels washed smooth by these tides – still salient, but no longer an interesting use of silicon.
Of course, there’s nothing new here: innovation and creativity demand change – require the exercise of the brain’s open architecture. Every thinker before me – all who’ve been privileged to live a good long while – has felt their expertise curdle within the tight containers of their training.
This condition has led me to wonder: given the natural, river-like flow of knowledge and wisdom across the years, what does not change? What should not change?
If answers inevitably shift and evolve, I wonder if well-formed questions do not.
Sure – many questions asked in the past are no-longer worth asking. But perhaps there are a set that are remarkably resistant to age and change. Maybe we can build our expertise on this long-lived set; to be doctors of curiosity, rather than curators of answers bound to grow stale. Perhaps this is the way we can stay relevant in our field – through questions as the best legacy we can leave our students, as they live their lives across an exponentially changing 21st century.
As philosopher Susanne Langer states, “If we would have new knowledge, we must get us a whole world of new questions.” And UP’s own mission statement asserts our university “addresses significant questions of human concern…” Given how humility is a surprisingly powerful tool of persuasion, in the classroom questions might turn out to be quite muscular.
It won’t be long before yet another polished orb of our understanding gets Pluto-ed. But maybe we can still be steadied by the illumination and gravity provided by a darn good set of questions.
. . .
And so I wonder: could we build an entire higher education curriculum out of questions?
Or more specifically, can I imagine teaching tomorrow’s class using nothing but questions?
For as professors, isn’t our job to teach students how to learn rather than just what to learn?
Within the ruthless economy of attention, might a powerfully-framed question be our best weapon for provoking millennial curiosity?
After all, aren’t we ourselves riveted to attention by something as simple as a sharp question? (e.g. How can I get my parents vaccinated? Can I travel this summer? Am I actually going to wear this tie/blouse with these sweatpants today? Seriously?)
As UP serves a broader set of undergraduates, might the humbling stance of asking questions serve our university’s quest to be more inclusive, and further the Holy Cross charism of welcome?
As an opening ritual, is there a daily related question with which I might start each class, fielding a few answers, before getting directly to the curriculum?
How might I draw upon the power of koans – those paradoxical riddles that startle listeners into a state of wonder?
Is there a place on my syllabus, alongside the rules and course texts and Outcomes, that articulates the kinds of questions they’ll be pursuing in class and – even more importantly – that I hope they’ll ask across the arc of their lives?
What might James Baldwin have meant in 1962 when he insisted that the artist’s purpose is to reveal the questions hidden by the answers?
How do we discern questions most worth asking?
Amid lessons in creating confident proofs, write-ups, reports, or theses, have I ever taken time to teach students themselves how to frame really good questions?
Might we frame our disciplines not as self-justifying entities, but as ways of solving problems?
Are their drawbacks to teaching through questions?
Finally, (not a rhetorical question) How have you used question-based learning in your teaching?