I love questions. Not questions with clear answers, like the ones asked on standardized tests that I always screwed up, even though I was very smart kid. Or questions designed to put students on the spot and scare them into doing the readings, like the ones that my least favorite teachers would pose in class, filling me with dread that I would be called on, because even though I had prepared for class I liked to chew on questions for awhile and couldn’t immediately come up with a coherent answer. Or questions with implied or assumed answers and that are often asked not to solicit discussion but as an opportunity to lecture or dispense their wisdom or deposit knowledge in student’s brains, like the ones posed by many teachers at the university who practice a banking method of education.
I love questions without answers or questions that force us to stop and think and ruminate on some possible answers. Questions that challenge and expand conversations. Questions that cause trouble. That make us wonder about why things are the way they are, at whose expense they came to be, and whether or not we might live otherwise. And questions that open us up to new ways of thinking and to being curious about those ways and the people who practice them. Questions that, when taken seriously, demand that we be active participants in the learning process as we forge a critical distance from that which we are expected to passively accept or receive.
In my classes, in the syllabi, during class discussions, on handouts or assignment directions, online via the course blog or twitter, I asked a lot of questions. They were carefully crafted with deliberate pedagogical principles and goals. But, they were not designed to maximize learning, as retention of facts or the ability to regurgitate ideas, or ordered towards one desirable end: mastery of a discipline or development of marketable skills. And their effectiveness was not easily quantifiable.
I posed my questions with the aims of challenging, disrupting, and opening up students so that they might engage in deep, meaningful, and generous ways with our course content. I also posed them in order to make visible my methods for engaging—exuberantly, capaciously, persistently—with our readings, theories, and each other. The questions I posed to students were frequently the ones that I wanted to explore, and the (sometimes) out-of-control list of them that I would provide, in a handout, on a blog post, or in an almost stream-of-consciousness way during class, were provided so I could model for the students one approach—not the only or always most effective approach—for being a thinking, feeling, engaged Self.
Were my questions useful in encouraging students to open up and be more curious and generous to a wide range of perspectives? Did they foster enthusiasm and an exuberance for actively participating and becoming more critically and creatively aware? Did my approach breed resentment and hostility? Confusion? Was it too much? Too unruly? I imagine that “yes” would be the answer to every one of these questions, at least at some point in each of my classes. After spending some time struggling with these questions and what they might mean for whether or not I was a good teacher or am still a teacher, I’m okay with uncertain or ambiguous answers.
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