Friday, February 13, 2009

There Are No Stupid Questions

When I was an undergraduate, I remember one of my (English Lit) professors saying on the first day of class: "There is no such thing as a stupid question." Obviously, this was a warm-and-fuzzy attempt to impart some measure of confidence to students, to encourage us to voice our questions and concerns without reservation, and to let us know that seminar discussions would be open and non-judgmental. The very first time I taught my own class at Penn State--five years ago now-- I said the same thing on the operning day of class.

Then I got a lot of stupid questions.

Nowadays, I don't believe that little credo about "no stupid questions" anymore. There are such things as stupid questions. These include (but are not limited to): questions of fact about things that are in the assigned reading, questions about the structure/schedule/requirements of the course that can be found in the syllabus, questions like "does spelling count?" or "can I get partial credit [for my incorrect answer]?", and questions about the course material that are some variation on "who cares what [Philosopher X] thinks?". I just cannot take any of these queries seriously, and I have resigned myself to responding with incredulous eye-rolling, sighing, and feigning utter skepticism about the fate of humanity.

That said, I've noticed there are a lot of questions that I get in class that appear at first to closely approximate a bona fide stupid question but, upon further consideration, are actually really astute and intuitive inquiries. I like to call these the "simple-cum-brilliant" questions. What's great about these questions is that they remind me what it was like before I read whatever material we're discussing in class, what sorts of propositions and analyses seemed, at first, completely strange to me, what there is in the material that is not immediately apparent, and how the things that "everyday" or "natural" consciousness of the world seems to intend might be at odds with what's in the book. I also like these questions because they force me to articulate clearly propositions that I (now) take to be intuitively true, but which are in fact counterintuitive (and probably seemed that way to me at one time, as well). So, for example, when a students asks me: what do you mean 'race is not genetic'? or how can 'impossibility' be the condition for the possibility of 'possibility'? or why can't I know that my experience of consciousness is exactly the same as everyone else's experience of consciousness?... then I am forced to acknowledge (to myself, anyway) that the answers to these sorts of questions have a lot of prerequisites, and that those prerequisites most often include whatever text we're reading.

These sorts of questions are the kind that really test the mettle of a philosophy professor, in my view, because they force us to get outside of our comfort zone and explain/defend complicated philosophical arguments in what Rorty called "good old plain American English." I know I've been hyping my practice of blogging in the classroom a lot lately, but I think the class blogs are great fora for working through just these sorts of issues. This semester, my Philosophy of Race course blog is a case in point. I can actually see the nuts-and-bolts process of students' working-through of a host of "simple-cum-brilliant" questions. (Want to see a really superlative example of students working through issues themselves? See this conversation from the Race blog.) They're asking things that, perhaps unfortunately, I stopped asking a long time ago: what is 'racism'? what is the difference between a 'race' and any other group? in what sense is race 'real'? These are not only not "stupid" questions, but they're not even "simple" questions, really. They're the sorts of questions that, if answered to some satisfaction, can really switch on that metaphorical light-bulb that we all wait to see lit in our classes.


anotherpanacea said...

I liked the tenor of this post: I get an amazing number of stupid questions of the first (you ought to know better) type, and I also have to be careful not to confuse those with the second type of question, which are actually smart and intellectually curious questions from students who don't want to parrot the material but rather to understand it!

However, your choices of examples of potentially stupid questions made me feel a little bit stupid, myself. Specifically, "who cares what [Philosopher X] thinks?" and "how can 'impossibility' be the condition for the possibility of 'possibility'?" Ouch. These are still hard questions for me: it's not that I don't know some good responses to them, but I do worry that they're answers I don't really believe (in the first case) or understand (in the second). I just don't find 'possibility' intuitively likely, or believe my own lies about the importance of a few of the canonical philosophers.

There's an assignment I use that you might like. It's called 'reflective interrogation.' At irregular intervals, I ask my students to write a paper in which they develop a question of exactly this sort of simple-cum-brilliant variety. Their task is to find the hard unanswered question in the text, and then explain exactly why it's so hard, why our answers matter. It's generally a rocky start, but by the end of the semester I get great results.

Some of them start with exam questions: "What does Descartes argue in the third meditation?" Then they spend the rest of the paper answering the question. But I chastise them and tell them to try harder, to dig deeper, to stop treating this like a math class where the superficially correct answers can always be found on page 72. It's the best way I've found to get my students thinking, treating the class as an opportunity for inquiry. Anyway, I'm reading the first batch this weekend, and your post was timely. Thanks Dr. J!

melanie said...

AnPan, your reflective interrogation assignment sounds good. I might give it a try.

Chris Grubb said...

Good Dr.,

It looks like I picked exactly the right time to get a dose of your medicine.

Though stupid questions are not limited to classroom philosophy, the way and degree to which the prospect of stupid questions bedevils the professor (and students) may be peculiar to academic philosophy. Here's why: to do philosophy one must be willing to abandon fundamental assumptions that may prevent one from beginning an inquiry anew. However, doing philosophy (vice achieving meditative Nirvana) requires assumptions on which models of fundamental concepts can be erected. But where does that leave the philosophical practitioner (suspended between the impossible emptiness of needing to (and to not) make assumptions)? The good ones always begin their tasks anew. Heidegger for example, thought he was moving forward with a bona fide philosophical project (fundamental ontology). But he found that the more he "thought" about the project, the more he had to begin again, until capturing the fundamental component of his project meant struggling to describe thinking without thoughts.

I have come full-circle in my understanding of what students are doing in philosophy classrooms (though I have scant recent experience there, I will not hesitate to share my opinion). Early on I thought philosophy classes were where the most authentic thinking was occurring. Then, I realized that philosophy classes required the same or similar amount of rehearsal of facts and methods as any other discipline. Finally, today, I believe that philosophy classes lead us to unlearn thinking by walking students through a pilgrimage to thinking (one that takes us through the despairs of pseudo- and non-thinking, to the precipice of thinking, and finally, hopefully, returns us to the beginnings of thinking).

I have developed a deep respect for what you (beautifully and aptly) called "simple-cum-brilliant" questions. They tend to be the ones that yield the most fruit. Also, they tend to be the ones that most quickly expose quacks: beware of those who will give lengthy explanations to simple questions. If the Buddha, can distill Nirvana down to 4 Noble Truths, why do we need an entire Foucault archive?

Your blog is one of my favorites. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

lol nice blog stumbled upon
was kinda hard to understand some bits tho