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.]

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