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.  ↩