Explaining A Good Question

My experiment in teaching students to ask questions has run headlong into yet another hurdle. Previously I had been persuaded that the students would benefit from an example, so I brought in an old book and tried to show them how I would formulate some questions as I looked at and thought about the book. I wrote up a little set of guidelines for them to take with them as they thought about their books. They nodded at appropriate moments and asked engaged questions, which I took as a good sign. Then I sent them off to special collections to interrogate their chosen book. They have turned in the first iteration of their efforts and seem to be headed on the right track. In two areas, however, their work reveals where I need to provide more guidance and instruction.

In the first instance, they focused too closely on the descriptive details as ends in themselves. Rather than see this information as a point of departure, as an opportunity to think about the book as grounded in a historical moment, they saw the collection of this information as the fulfillment of the assignment. It seemed that they approached it as a series of questions that had to be answered, and once answered could be checked off some imaginary list of completed tasks:

  • Format: quarto — check
  • Author: Robert Boyle — check
  • Full title: …

Clearly, I need to underscore how this information can be used to generate questions. When examining Thomas Browne’s Religio medici I had noted this information for them but had not, I suppose, explicitly connected that information to particular questions. In some cases, I think I did an okay job of it, but for students who are unfamiliar with this approach to texts a little extra repetition would have been useful. A second example on a different day, to reinforce what I had tried to do the first time, wouldn’t hurt.

That is not to say they weren’t able to formulate some good questions. Most of them did, or at least came close to good questions. That raises the second area where I need to provide more guidance: What constitutes a good question? Again, for students who have not had the opportunity (or have not been forced) to formulate their own questions, they are unfamiliar with the distinctions between good, fruitful questions and bad, or dead-end questions. Even the difference in types of questions seems a bit blurry for them—some students asked interesting, open-ended questions followed immediately by yes-no type factual questions. Other students posed really interesting questions that were, unfortunately, entirely unanswerable, either because they wouldn’t be able to get to the necessary archives or because the sources simply don’t exist. So, next time, in addition to connecting the descriptive information to the questions, I need to explain why certain questions are fruitful and what precisely makes them good questions. At the same time, I should sketch out how to go about investigating these “good” questions.

That said, the students did produce a number of interesting questions that showed they were grappling with the assignment. For example, one student is working on Henry Cornelius Agrippa’s The Vanity of the Arts & Sciences (1694). She asked: “For what reason is the book even now, in 1694, 150 years past the author’s death, being published and circulated? What is its relevance at this time? In what way does it retain relevance?” She is clearly thinking about the meaning of the text in its particular historical context. And this is a question that she can begin to answer by thinking about the intended audience, the translator’s, the printer’s, and the bookseller’s role in producing the text.

Another student chose Walter Charleton’s translation of Jean Baptiste van Helmont’s A Ternary of Paradoxes of the Magnetick Cure of Wounds, Nativity of Tartar in Wine, Image of God in Man (London: James Flesher, 1650). She asked a specific question: “Why did Charleton translate this work?” Conveniently, we had recently read Charleton’s Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charletonia and discussed the rise of atomist philosophy in 17th-century England. The student was interested in the difference between van Helmont’s text and Charleton’s. Again, a nice question that could be used as the core of a research paper.

By having the students turn in their descriptions and their questions, I was able to comment on them and suggest ways to refine certain questions, point out where some questions were too narrow while others were too broad. This process could have been streamlined if I had thought ahead and done that in class with Browne’s Religio medici. They took my comments and wandered off to special collections again to continue working on their projects. Judging from their most recent efforts, this interim check proved to be useful for them.

They had to to present the book they choose, describing the book’s—author, title, size, publication history, owners, etc.—and formulating two or three good questions based on the book. We gathered in one wing of the library with the books arrayed on a large seminar table for the students.

Rare books arrayed on the table awaiting the students’ arrival.
Rare books arrayed on the table awaiting the students’ arrival.

Students help up their book as they described it, pointing to relevant or interesting bits along the way. In this way, students could hear what their colleagues were doing, how they were going about it, and realize that there were some interesting similarities between projects. They realized, for example, that many of their books were printed by the same person and sold at the same place. One student noted that many of their books had been printed by R. Chiswell and asked if he had printed anything besides scientific texts. Another student, whose book had been printed by Chiswell and included a list of other titles printed by him, was able to list some of the many non-scientific titles he had printed. A pair of students realized that they were working on rather similar texts, both dealing with the medicinal uses of tobacco.

One of the students presenting her book—Tobias Venner’s Via recta ad vitam longam (1638) that includes a section on the medicinal uses of tobacco.
One of the students presenting her book—Tobias Venner’s Via recta ad vitam longam (1638) that includes a section on the medicinal uses of tobacco.

The resulting conversation was extremely useful. These two students were able to compare their books, the texts, the format, the size, letters of dedication and dedicatees, biographical information about the authors, etc.

Another student talks about book on the medicinal uses of tobacco—Giles Everard’s Panacea, or, The Universal Medicine (1659).
Another student talks about book on the medicinal uses of tobacco—Giles Everard’s Panacea, or, The Universal Medicine (1659).[1]

For what it’s worth, Giles Everard was, apparently, rather known for his preference for tobacco, as his portrait clearly shows:

A portrait of Dr. Giles Everard (from Science & Society Picture Library).
A portrait of Dr. Giles Everard (from Science & Society Picture Library).

In every instance, the students had refined and extended their questions, connecting them more clearly to the books themselves and more often asking fruitful questions. For example, the student working on the Everard’s Panacea asked questions about the intended audience of the text, given its small format, its particular list of merchant dedicatees, and the advertisement for other books at the back of the books. She connected this to the content—Everard was, apparently, interested in keeping tobacco well within the control of physicians rather than letting people become recreational smokers. She wondered about the relationship between medicine and commerce: why was a physician dedicating a cheap little book to merchants, and who were these merchants, and what was Everard’s relationship to them? She also posed good questions about how Everard understood tobacco and fit it into existing Galenic medicine. Although she couldn’t answer any of these questions yet, she could articulate them and could gesture to how she might explore them.

The other students likewise were able to link their questions to their books in interesting and concrete ways. And they formulated clear and open-ended questions. And they had begun thinking about the relationship between the artifacts and the questions. When a student finished present a book, the other students had specific questions to ask, often arising from their own books—e.g., my book too was written in the form of a letter, what does this say about the accepted forms for writing about science in the late 17th century or my book is any English translation of your text printed a decade later, what does that say about the market for this book?

What this exercise seems to indicate is that students can begin to ask questions when given the chance or when compelled to do so. They don’t yet seem comfortable with this approach—answering questions remains their strength, but they are making progress. Clearly, providing them with models of how to ask questions is not, in itself, sufficient. They don’t immediately see the connections between the descriptive exercise and the generation of interesting questions. On the one hand, they don’t yet see books as historical objects whose meaning and significance is related to a particular time and place. On the other hand, they don’t have a good appreciation for the different types of questions. Consequently, articulating the connections between description and questions is necessary—how does that questions arise from those aspects of the book—as is some explanation of what makes one question good and another one bad, and why.

All of this is leading up to the first major part of their research project: the proposal—a term that means little or nothing to most students. This exercise in pedagogy has been aimed at getting the students to understand what makes a good proposal without invoking the term itself. Previously I was convinced that student research papers would improve if we concentrated on the research, formulating, crafting, and writing. While these aspects certainly need attention, most research papers go awry much earlier in the process because the initial question is poorly formed or the wrong sort of question. The goal is to help students learn how to recognize and formulate good questions and, equally important, how to investigate those questions. The next installment of this project will assess how well I have succeeded or how miserably I have failed at the goal.

[This was originally posted as “Explaining Good Questions in the History of Science” at PACHS. This semester I am revising and re-empolying this particular attempt at encouraging students to be curious and, perhaps, wrong. So I thought it would be worthwhile to reflect on it again.]


  1. The student who selected Everard’s Panacea later went on to write an interesting senior thesis on tobacco, medical authority, and economics in 17th century England.  ↩

Moving beyond Heroic Geniuses

Historiann recently reflected on the preponderance of best-selling history books written by men and about men: last year 21 of the 23 best-selling history books were written by men. As she pointed out, audiences never seem to tire of biographies recounting the heroic man who has somehow contributed to our modern world. While she focused her attention on biographies of the “Founding Fathers,” much of what she said applies equally to history of science, e.g.,

…These biographies are also invested in a particularly modern kind of subjectivity, that of the heroic individual who bends history to his will. He’s a man of singular genius, one whose fortunes aren’t made by his family, commuity, or the times in which he lived.


…Traditional biographies like these commemorate only some kinds of power and politics, and avoid the rest.… Stories about the sagacity, virtue, and political genius of our so-called “Founding Fathers” sell like hotcakes.

History of science often defaults to stories about the heroic individual who bends nature to his will, the man of singular genius, whose achievements weren’t made possible by his family, his community, or the times in which he lived, but often despite that family, that community, or those times. Such stories commemorate certain kinds of power and knowledge while ignoring or explaining away others.

Two recent but very different examples—one popular one scholarly—illustrate these points. “These 5 Men Were Scientific Geniuses. They Also Thought Magic Was Real” marvels at the genius of Galileo (and Kepler) despite their lingering belief in astrology, at Newton’s (and Boyle’s) despite their dabbling in alchemy, at Paracelsus’s despite his reliance on natural magic.[1] These “geniuses” contributed to modern science despite their community and the times in which they lived. Internet audiences cannot get enough of these posts—this one has been shared nearly 10,000 times in four days.

Newton and the ascent of water in plants” offers a more scholarly example. Here a modern scientist celebrates Newton’s work as a “perceptive” or “prescient” version of what he knows/does today:

It should come as little surprise that Newton’s genius was capable of presciently imagining the germ of an idea explaining the ascent of sap in plants some two centuries before botanists came up with it for themselves.

The latest effort to see Isaac Newton as founding father of all modern science.
The latest effort to see Isaac Newton as founding father of all modern science.

The author has extracted from Newton’s notebooks a single paragraph, which he then interprets as a forerunner of his own research. Here the lure of commemoration prevents the author from considering this paragraph as part of a larger notebook that includes all sorts of other, less laudable (at least from our perspective) forms of knowledge—e.g., just a few pages earlier Newton cites the Bible in his reflections on the earth:

Its conflagration testified 2 Peter 3d, vers 6, 7, 10, 11, 12. The wiked (probably) to be punished thereby 2 Pet: 3 chap: vers 7.


The succession of worlds, probable from Pet 3c. 13v. in which text an emphasis upon the word wee is not countenanced by the Originall. Rev 21c. 1v. Isa: 65c, 17v. 66c, 22v. Days & nights after the judgment Rev 20c, 10 v.

Instead, the modern researcher sanitizes Newton’s thought, trimming from as if irrelevant those bits that don’t contribute to his modern science. Moreover, the ideal of the lone genius requires that Newton’s knowledge sprang from his head alone:

Reclusive and secretive, it’s doubtful he [Newton] gained botanical inspiration from conversations with others at Cambridge University interested in plants. Although his contemporaries were certainly thinking about plant anatomy and function around the same time.

The desire to celebrate the heroic genius struggling alone to discover truths about the world stems, at least in part, from the role that discovery plays in science and histories of science. Although discovery is often considered a forward-looking process, it is rather a retrospective judgement by scientists that seeks to assert a set of values and commend current research and researchers by linking them to exemplary practices.[2] It is no accident that “Newton and the ascent of water in plants” begins by praising Newton as “one of the greatest ‘natural philosophers’ that ever lived” and concludes by associating him with “another founding father of plant physiology.”

What would it look like to tell non-heroic histories of science? Can we make such histories compelling so that people would listen?


  1. The post radically misrepresents the historical practice of astrology and its place in early modern thought. The entries are Linnaeus and Brahe are too confused to merit comment.  ↩

  2. For more on discovery, see “Discovery in Thomas Kuhn’s Structure ↩

Formulating Questions

Previous posts have reflected on the lack of curiosity amongst students in the history of science and how we might address the issue by modeling curiosity. Subsequent conversation and comments to the first post prompted me to take my copy of Thomas Browne, Religio medici (London: J. Torbuck, 1736) into class and try to model questions.

The title page from Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, with an owner’s signature: “Cha. Biborn”. (Source: Author’s collection)
The title page from Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, with an owner’s signature: “Cha. Biborn”. (Source: Author’s collection)

In preparation for class, I distributed “Guidelines for Starting Out,” a handout that encouraged students to think about the various ways they can describe a book, its contents, and other characteristics (a pdf version of the handout is available here. The goal was to draw attention to the physical artifact and the basic publication details as the starting point. The “Guidelines” included:

Guidelines for starting out

  • Format (e.g., book, letter, manuscript)
  • Author
  • Full Title
  • Publication place, publisher, printer, date
  • Size (e.g., folio, quarto, octavo, etc.)
  • Length (# of pages)
  • Illustrations (e.g., woodcuts, engravings)
  • Associated texts (e.g., is the text part of a collection of texts, a Sammelband)

This list does not exhaust the possible questions, but focused students on the physical object and some of the publishing details. The next set of questions focused on the book’s provenance: who owned it, who read it, what did those readers find interesting?

  • Provenance (the ownership history of the book)—generally working backwards from the present owner try to identify previous owners)
  • Marginalia and other marks of readership and use

Only now did I want students to begin thinking about the content. The next section of the “Guidelines” asked students to think about the surrounding material. Where I wanted them to start was with letters of dedication, any supplementary information about the book seller, etc.

  • Bookseller (often found on the title page of early printed works)
  • Price and other books sold by the same bookseller/printer (often found on an advertisement sheet at the back of the book)
  • Dedicatee (is there a letter of dedication? is a person named as the dedicatee? who is that person?)
  • Patron (the person who paid for the publishing costs of the book, sometimes indicated on the title page or in the dedicatory letters)

Finally students turned to the content of the text itself:

  • Subject and survey of contents (e.g., for a book on the plague, you might find sections on sources, causes, symptoms, prophylactics, and cures. In this case, the subject would be either Medicine or Plague and the survey of the contents would be these various sections).

After a discussing these guidelines, I turned to Thomas Browne’s Religio medici and tried to show students how I would answer these questions. Or how I would go about answering the questions. I also wanted to indicate some of the ways that these questions might be used to piece together a richer understanding of the book and the contexts in which the book existed. Again, the goal was to suspend for the time being any real discussion of the contents of the text. Moreover, at this point I wanted to emphasize description over analysis.

Religio medici is a book by Thomas Browne. Browne was an Oxford-educated physician who became a member of the College of Physicians of London. He wrote various works on religion and nature. I pointed out to the students that the best place to turn for information about English authors is the Dictionary of National Biography. Entries often include useful bibliography and provide a starting point for learning much more about the author. For non-English authors, there are often similar national biographies that can serve as starting points. It is also useful to check the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, which includes entries for the better known scientific authors.

The full title of this edition is: Religio medici. A New Edition, Corrected and Amended. With Notes and Annotations never before published. To which is added the Life of the Author. Also Sir Kenelm Digby’s Observations. It was printed in London for J. Torbuck in 1736. J. Torbuck was located in Clare Court near Drury Lane. C. Corbett “against” St. Dunstan’s Church in Fleet Street also sold the book. That the book was printed to be sold in two locations suggests that the printer probably printed it in greater numbers than if it had been sold in only one location and that the printer at least hoped to reach a broader market.

This edition of Browne‘s text is small, an octavo format. Printers would often print a book in a small format in order to keep the costs low, making the text available to wider market. There are no illustrations. The annotations are set off from the body of the text, making it easy to read Browne’s Religio medici without being distracted by the annotations. The text is 253 pages and is not bound with any other texts. Another edition appeared in 1736, a shorter one without the annotations or Digby’s “Life.” The appearance of the two texts further suggests that there was a market for the book.

I point out to the students that they can use this publication information to think about the popularity of the text. The first edition had been published in 1643, in London. That they were still printing copies, and expanding them with annotations, corrections, and biographies of the author further indicates the texts enduring popularity. Moreover, this edition was roughly the 23rd edition (including continental translations).

The title page gives us a hint of provenance. A previous owner (?) wrote his name on the title page: “Cha. Biborn.” While this doesn’t offer much to go on, one place to look for information on Cha. Biborn would be the various national biographies, such as the Dictionary of National Biography for English names. Regrettably, there is no entry in the DNB for “Biborn.” Despite the initial lack of success, I tell the students, additional searches might turn up something. Then again, it might not. Such is historical research.

It seems Cha. Biborn also read his copy of Browne’s text. Various marginal notes and corrections dot the text. For example, on the first page of the “Annotator to the Reader” letter, a small correction was added. The ink and handwriting are the same as the name on the title page, suggesting that Biborn was also the annotator of this copy.

A previous reader corrected (annotated) “The Letter from the Annotator to the Reader.” (Source: Author’s collection)
A previous reader corrected (annotated) “The Letter from the Annotator to the Reader.” (Source: Author’s collection)

A slightly different hand added biographical details and cross references to the front flyleaf. Perhaps, then, we have evidence of a second owner and, at the least, a second reader and annotator. This person seems interested in personalizing this copy of the text, adding bibliographic details and judgements, at one point quoting a letter: “It has all the spirit [and] eccentricity of uncommon genius.”

Biographical annotations on the front fly leaf, probably not by the same person whose name appears on the title page. (Source: Author’s collection)
Biographical annotations on the front fly leaf, probably not by the same person whose name appears on the title page. (Source: Author’s collection)

The next set of questions concerned not the owners and annotators but the printers and sellers, the producers of the text. The two book sellers are noted on the title page: J. Torbuck in Clare Court near Drury Lane and C. Corbett “against” St. Dunstan’s Church in Fleet Street. We could find out other books sold by Torbuck by looking through a history of printing in England or, more conveniently, by searching one of the large catalogs such as WorldCat. Learning what other books Torbuck and Corbett sold might help us place this book within its intellectual context and might help us recover the customers who were likely to have purchased this edition. I didn’t have any histories of printing available, but I did have a laptop and an internet connection, so I searched Worldcat for Torbuck as the publisher. The results included 299 books ranging across subjects including politics, religion, comedy, and histories but not too many scientific works. Most seem to be rather small format books and quite a number were printed for Charles Corbett and John Torbuck. In 1738 Torbuck sold yet another edition of Browne’s Religio medici. This all suggests that Browne’s text was a rather popular work sold alongside other books intended for a general audience. An advertisement at the back of the book confirms this suspicion. A list of books printed for and sold by another bookseller, Thomas Astley. Astley clearly identified his intended customers: “Country-Booksellers, School-Masters, &c may be supplied, at the lowest Prices.” Conveniently, the advertisement includes titles, formats, and prices.

The list of books printed for and sold by Thomas Astley, including the format and price. (Source: Author’s collection)
The list of books printed for and sold by Thomas Astley, including the format and price. (Source: Author’s collection)

The list includes a range of texts, classical and modern philosophy, some science texts, some histories, and lots of schoolbooks. I used this list to show some of the differences between the various books—the large, multivolume folio books were expensive while the small books are quite affordable. The schoolbooks are typically smaller format, usually octavo or duodecimo, and quite inexpensive. I pointed out that the size and cost of the schoolbooks reinforced the inference that this small copy of Browne’s text was probably inexpensive. The small size also associated the text with certain types of texts. This edition of Religio medici was clearly not a luxury copy. Moreover, I encouraged the students to think about the type of reader who would be interested in the books sold by Thomas Astley, text books and other inexpensive editions. Does this help us recover the type of reader who was looking at this particular edition of Browne’s Religio medici?

By this point I was running out of time and so had to conclude by outlining where we would go next, had we the time. Finally, we would turn to the text itself, reading it to gain an understanding of the contents. I offered only a sketch of some of the themes that come up in the text: Christian faith, alchemy, astrology, pythagoreanism, magic, and hermetic philosophy. We would then want to think about this text in relation to the author’s other works. In this case, Browne wrote a number of other works, including Pseudodoxia epidemica, Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, The Garden of Cyrus and some posthumously published works. Ideally, we would try to find a summary of these other works so that we could begin to piece together a picture of Browne’s literary career.

Finally, I wanted to point out how this description could be used to generate questions. In the first instance, I encouraged the students simply to think about what surprised them or confused them. I suggested a few broad items:

  • It seemed significant that Browne’s text was still being printed 23 editions and 90 years after it first appeared. Two editions were published and sold in London in 1736 alone. How could we understand that popularity? Who was buying and reading Browne’s Religio medici? Who could afford it? What markets were more likely to encounter it in 1736?
  • Can we see the Religio medici as a coherent part of Browne’s corpus? Do his other works combine religion and nature in the same way or are they more clearly focused on religion? And why would a physician be writing texts about religion?
  • Focusing more narrowly on this particular text, we might ask “Why did Browne write it and what was he trying to do?” How does Browne’s text relate to the social, religious, and political climate of the time? Or, alternatively, we could ask about the reception of this text. Clearly there was a considerable reception. Could we find evidence for how and why people read the text? And how was Browne’s still popular a century later when that climate had changed rather dramatically?
  • Why was this edition published with annotations, corrections, and a biography whereas other editions lacked these pieces? How did that change the way people read the work?
  • Why did Kenelm Digby write a biography of Browne? Digby was a founding member of the Royal Society and a frequent correspondent with many of the mathematicians and natural philosophers in the seventeenth century. Did this affect how contemporary readers thought of Browne’s work or does it help us understand where Browne fit within the contours of seventeenth-century intellectual and scientific culture? Does this point to a relationship between Browne and the Royal Society?
  • What is the relationship between medicine and the more occult philosophies Browne draws on in his text? Are they in tension or do they reinforce each other? Is Browne unique in his combination of themes or is he representative?

In each case I tried to gesture to how I would tackle these questions, where I would start, what sorts of specific questions I would ask, and what sorts of primary and secondary material might be helpful.

Having offered this case study in how you could interrogate a book as an artifact, and having given the students a set of guidelines, I turned them loose in special collections. I hoped that they would see that there were various questions they could ask of the book when they considered it an artifact, when they understood it as having specific social, intellectual, political, and economic contexts, when they started with the book rather than the text. Previously, students selected a promising set of texts, inter alia G. Everard’s Panacea, or, The Universal Medicine (on the medicinal uses of tobacco), Boyle’s Experiments on the Porosity of Bodies, Agrippa’s The Vanity of the Arts and Sciences, and John Harris’s New Short Treatise of Algebra. We will have to wait and see what they do with them.

[This was originally posted as “Formulating Questions in the History of Science” at PACHS. This semester I am revising and re-empolying this particular attempt at encouraging students to be curious and, perhaps, wrong. So I thought it would be worthwhile to reflect on it again.]

Modeling Curiosity

In a previous post I tried to present an assignment in my history of the scientific revolution class that will give the students a chance to work closely with a primary source. I also pointed to the difficulties I have encountered getting the students to be curious about those sources (see the reposted Can I Teach Curiosity?). This post follows up on that issue, collecting some of the suggestions from commenters and colleagues over the last week and assessing where things stand as the assignment progresses.

By far the most common suggestion was to model curiosity or how to ask questions. One way to look at this is to realize that students don’t often have the chance to ask questions and, consequently, aren’t familiar with the practice. Instead, they have been encouraged to respond to questions rather than formulate them. The problem is exacerbated in the history of science because students learn about science as a progressive, truth discovering activity. Old science books are interesting insofar as they contribute some intellectual content to the development of science. Other aspects of the text are reduced to window dressing. In a wonderfully thoughtful comment, Roberto Belisário put is as follows:

So maybe we have to teach the students how to go out of our standard thought tracks. In the case of the analysis of the originals, that seems to relate to the difficulty of seeing the different possible dimensions through which we can see a text: the text itself, the way people read it, the historical context in which the author was inserted, the author’s non-scientific beliefs and how they appear and influence the content etc. We tend to see the originals as pure texts.

Roberto offers an interesting exercise to get students to think about texts in alternate ways: ask students to pick some seemingly trivial detail about the source and to convince their peers of the importance of that detail, show how that detail offers a new window onto the text.

Babak Ashrafi echoes Roberto’s main point, saying:

Asking good questions is a set of skills, different in different disciplines, to be demonstrated, learned and practiced. Maybe what students need is a compelling performance that they can emulate—at least to start. So what do you think those skills are? How are you at performance?

Let’s start with articulating what the skill set is that I want the students to develop. Here I am grateful to Babak for prodding me into thinking in concrete terms about the skills needed to formulate “good questions” (though, for what it’s worth, I would be happy with mediocre questions, or any question really). I haven’t finished articulating those skills, but here are a few that spring to mind:

  • Approach texts as more than simply collections of ideas or concepts.
  • Attend to the physical characteristics of texts.
  • Think about the text as a tile in a mosaic, one small piece of a larger picture, with the hope of reconstructing that mosaic.
  • Think about the text as an interlocutor in dialog with earlier texts.
  • Try to understand the text as an answer to a set of questions posed by the author, and try to recover those questions.

I accept that these skills (is that even the right word?) need to be translated into terms that make more sense to students who don’t have and perhaps don’t want the training that comes from graduate school. I also accept that there are innumerable practical skills that I haven’t listed here, skills that students will need to complete my assignment. But at the outset such skills are, I think, ancillary to asking the questions, to being curious about the artifacts and, more broadly, the past.

Like Roberto, jwseitz points out that students are simply not conditioned to ask certain types of questions. Though I like the suggestion for remedying the problem: “take the pose of a four-year-old: asking them “why?” over and over again until they start to ask themselves ‘why.’” Whenever I can act like a 4-year-old I’m happy. But once again, the thrust of jwseitz’s comment is the same: model for the students the types of questions they should be asking, and start with the simple or obvious ones.

Although I confess that the general lack of curiosity—just basic wonder or amazement at unusual things—still surprises me I understand importance of modeling (performing) good questions for the students. However, I want to balance that with jwseitz’s more socratic method of pressing the students into asking questions.

So, armed with my copy of Thomas Browne, Religio medici. A New Edition, Corrected and Amended. With Notes and Annotations never before published. To which is added the Life of the Author. Also Sir Kenelm Digby’s Observations (London: J. Toruck, 1736), which includes an interesting set of notes on the fly leaves, an owner’s signature, and some marginalia, I’m off to model curiosity. With some luck, it will be contagious.

[This was originally posted as “Modeling Curiosity in the History of Science?” at PACHS. This semester I am revising and re-empolying this particular attempt at encouraging students to be curious and, perhaps, wrong. So I thought it would be worthwhile to reflect on it again.]

How Can I Teach Curiosity?

In my history of the scientific revolution course I have devised an assignment that asks the students to select, describe, and analyze a primary source from our (Haverford’s or Bryn Mawr’s) special collections. The book, pamphlet, or letter has to have been written/published during the period covered in the course—roughly 1500 to 1700—and has to be related to science (broadly understood). Some aspects of the project are pretty easy: What is the text? Who is the author? When and where was it published? Etc. Other questions require that they do more work: What other texts did the printer produce? Who paid for the work? Who read the text? When and where? How does the text relate to other works by the same author or other similar works by other authors? Are there any marginalia? Etc. Over the next five weeks students will try to answer as many of these questions as they can. They will then use their analysis of this document as the starting point for their research papers.

The biggest challenge for this assignment seems to be teaching them how to be curious. Or, to put it more specifically, how to formulate and ask questions. For example, the other day we looked at a copy of Newton’s Principia mathematica that contains some marginalia. They seemed uninterested in the marginal notes or how they could be used to understand how a particular person had read the text. When pressed, one student offered: I guess somebody wrote in the margin. While I wasn’t expecting fully formulated book history type questions, I had hoped that they might think about whether or not the person who had written his name in the front of the volume might also be the person who had annotated the book. Or to ask if all the notes were by the same person. When we looked at a few different kinds of notes, e.g., “vid. errata” or “N.B.” or they occasional keyword, they seemed at a loss as to what to do with them.

That same day we compared copies of Sacrobosco’s De sphaera, Copernicus’s De revolutionibus, and Newton’s text. The first was a little school textbook. The Copernicus and the Newton were larger format texts. The different sizes of the texts, both their formats and their lengths, didn’t elicit any comments or questions.

What surprised me was the students’ lack of ability to or lack of interest in noting these features—marginalia, owner’s signature, size and format. How do you teach students to be curious about these things? And what else do they miss because they are not encouraged to ask questions?

My goals for this assignment include getting the students to see that knowledge is always embodied in particular forms, that readers encounter those texts in particular contexts that shape how they interact with them. And those readers often leave traces of their readings that help us understand how they made sense of, or did not make sense of, the texts. Further, by struggling with primary sources—unsanitized, marked up, defaced, misunderstood, etc.—they can gain an appreciation for the strangeness of the past. Students can also begin to recover some of the effort readers expend to make sense of the texts. Rather than see Newton’s or Copernicus’s text as fundamentally right, they get a chance to see how 16th- and 17th-century readers thought they were right or wrong. They get a chance to see how much effort was exerted to make a point, sometimes a counterintuitive point.

But to achieve any of these or related goals students need to be able to ask questions of the sources. They need to be able to see the sources as more than imperfect versions of some Platonic text in which the pellucid light of truth was sufficient to compel all readers to understand and accept the arguments put forth. And that’s where curiosity and questions come in.

History of science is certainly not unique in requiring some curiosity on the part of its students. However, it seems particularly susceptible to an assumption of progress and contribution. Whereas it makes little sense to ask if Marlowe or Shakespeare “got it right” or to ask which king was closer to the“Truth,” students want to hear about how particular actors contributed to modern science or to modern mathematics. They want to asses the Galileos, Gilberts, Keplers, Hookes, etc. in terms of right and wrong. And while they seem to be able to say the right thing when sitting in class and discussing some point, they were singularly flummoxed by the actual primary sources.

How then do we encourage curiosity? How can we instill habits of questioning in 18–21 year olds? Without some sense of wonder or surprise, some desire to ask questions, how much and what exactly can we really hope to teach them? Any thoughts or suggestions welcome.

[This was originally posted as “How to Teach Curiosity in the History of Science” at PACHS. This semester I am revising and re-empolying this particular attempt at encouraging students to be curious and, perhaps, wrong. So I thought it would be worthwhile to reflect on it again.]