Asking Questions

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Today’s guest blogger is Erin Giberson, who received her M.A. in English at the University of Alaska Anchorage and who currently teaches literature and composition classes in New Jersey at Mercer County Community College.  She has also taught college composition at the University of Alaska Anchorage and Monmouth University.  Erin specializes in utopian studies and postmodern literature; she is currently researching perceptions and implications of motherhood in contemporary society and fiction.  As a parent with young kids, I often find myself learning from my own children as I answer a plethora of questions about everything from innocent curiosities about life and bodily functions to smart observations about nature and new ideas. Their natural inquiry always surprises me, and it further surprises me that these innocent "why" questions reinforce my appreciation of students asking questions in the classroom: these experiences are connected because questions really are the start of all inquiry, and encouraging children (as well as students) to ask questions teaches them how to practice searching for knowledge and to have confidence in exploring their own ideas and interests. Yet, too often, I experience class settings in which students remain passively silent or question only for the "correct" answer.  Unfortunately, I think many young students are now trained to participate this way, to just receive and to doubt their own ability to generate and pursue open-ended questions.  As a society, we are familiar and comfortable with turning to Google to get an immediate answer, and, in short, to be told the easiest way to do something.  Certainly, as someone who learned to drive and navigate in Anchorage, Alaska, but who is now in New Jersey, I'll be the first to say that modern technology, such as GPS, is a downright miracle, but it's important to consider the effect of an internet-searching culture on a student's existing hesitancy to ostracize him or herself by asking a (maybe "stupid") question. So, I'm interested in the ways that we teach classes to ask questions (and participate with students in the process): how do we initiate real questioning in composition classes? I think it starts with truly encouraging and modeling questioning and by being receptive to learning from our students—as learners ourselves.  But what are the practices and exercises that help us empower students with a sense of voice? Perhaps it starts simply with reminding them of the value and worth of their individual voices.  After all, writing of all genres is guided by authorial presence, and academic writing is no exception.  Maybe the trouble is that students think that academic writing is and should be the absence of their voices, and further that they have nothing worth contributing.  Certainly many arrive to the classroom believing they don't know how to write "academically", and such a mindset generates silence.  So breaking that silence by hearing and affirming their inquiries is the first step I use to affirming their writing abilities. It's at this point that teachers of composition have the opportunity to get students talking and then questioning in order to lead to making claims (for example, to writing thesis statements that are actually authorial declarations). In terms of the writing process, if we're teaching composition as academic argumentation, then we can't ignore the importance of practicing open-ended questions, or as Paulo Freire says, "problem-posing" questions.  I always return to Freire's work, especially "The 'Banking' Concept of Education" from Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which positions communication, conversation, and critical questioning as imperative to the pursuit of both knowledge and self: "problem-posing education affirms men and women as beings in the process of becoming—as unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality. [...] The unfinished character of human beings and the transformational character of reality necessitate that education be an ongoing activity" (Chapter 2). If we're joining students in this ongoing process of learning, how might we too practice such affirming and daring questioning?  Again, how do we initiate real questioning in composition classes?  Sometimes, after reviewing a reading, I'll begin with questions but then will sit with the silence until the responses begin.  I'll sit with silence until students fill it.  They eventually do, even if it's the brave person who expresses confusion—another starting point.   In search and appreciation of these starting points, I reiterate my questions now: how do we draw out genuine student voices and student-inspired inquiry?  What are your practices? Where do you start, or where will you now?
About the Author
Barclay Barrios is an Associate Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Florida Atlantic University, where he teaches freshman composition and graduate courses in composition methodology and theory, rhetorics of the world wide web, and composing digital identities. He was Director of Instructional Technology at Rutgers University and currently serves on the board of Pedagogy. Barrios is a frequent presenter at professional conferences, and the author of Emerging.