Questionable questioning

Now that the autumn term is nearly halfway gone, I’ve been having discussions with a number of my university students about their major writing projects – independent essays and dissertations which will run until the end of the academic year as part of their final year submissions. Although they’re still taking their very first steps here, they need to put together proposals that outline their topic, their likely resources… and the questions they want to answer. Which has got me thinking about how we know which questions are the right questions to ask.

As a sceptic with quite a few years of academic research under my belt, I spend a lot of my time asking questions. I ask questions of the books I read, the TV I watch, the music I listen to, the interactions I observe between friends and colleagues and am even, from time to time, employed to ask questions in public of noted musicians and composers (which is a lot of fun!). So what questions should you ask? And why do I sometimes look at my students’ suggested questions and think that they’re asking the ‘wrong’ ones?

The most important questions are often very basic, fundamental ones. And in principle, they are questions we might think of straight away. For example:

Take a piece of music. Who wrote this? When? For what? Why? Why is where it gets trickier, so maybe that needs breaking down. Was it for a specific occasion? A specific performer? A commission? Did they need the money? Etc.

Or take a song. Who is singing? Who’s the character? Why are they singing? What are they singing about? Who are they singing to? Why are they saying that word that way? Why do they say that line more than once?

Obvious, right? Now then, think of the last time you listened to a piece of music. Think of the last time you picked up a song and decided to learn it. Did you ask all those questions? Be honest…

Question mark models with lit up question marks in orange and blue

The problem is that if the only time we ever ask these questions of things is when it’s ‘for work’ or ‘for school/university’, this process becomes like a sort of irritating bolt-on homework. And it ends up happening at the end, when you’re writing the final draft of the essay or putting together the programme notes for the song, not when it might actually be useful to you in the way you go about understanding and learning the music.

So there’s the business of asking questions at all in the first place, and keeping them simple. And then there are the questions that require a bit more suspicion and critical engagement to think of. Like… who paid for this? Is there someone with an interest in certain opinions being presented in this book? When was it written? If it was 75 years ago, what might have changed since then? Is there anything newer I could be looking at as well? Is this source trustworthy? In an age of Type Into Google And Go, these questions are even more pertinent than ever, because there might not be a helpful page detailing the answers to those questions. If you don’t know where you’re getting your groceries from, you might want to think twice about cooking a dinner party’s worth of food with them… so if you don’t know where your information’s come from, you might want to reconsider using them in an assignment or publication without checking up first.

Last but not least, there are the less helpful questions. How to avoid those? The questions I most often suggest we lose or rephrase in student work are those questions to which there is no obviously achievable answer. It’s not much good asking ‘How does music express emotions?’ for instance. How are you going to answer that? Is there an answer? If you have 6,000 words, are you likely to get there? Better to knock it down to something you stand a chance of tackling: ‘How did music critics in 1920s Paris describe the emotional power of music?’, for instance. In a limited amount of time and space, like an essay, it’s best to stick to verifiable answers in the main, and then hypothesise around the outside.

But in life in general? Well, then you need a healthy combination of the two. Questions with concrete, verifiable answers are most helpful if you’re trying to fix a mortgage, get advice from your dentist or buy a new car. Questions to which we can come up with strong, evidence-backed theories (at the very least) are useful if you’re learning about your family history. And the big, unverifiable ones? Well, we all have those. Personally I’m a big fan of Occam’s Razor in helping you to find the answer. But there’s nothing like a little open-ended speculation from time to time.

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