The Question Asked, Inquiry Begins

Classes for the 2012 spring semester ended last week. And with that, I completed ten years of teaching at Brooklyn College. (I’m well aware that I have yet to complete grading for this semester but for now, I’m trying to put that thought out of my mind.) When I first started, in the 2002 fall semester, I taught in both the computer science and philosophy departments. Since January 2010, it has been all philosophy, all the time. In these ten years, I think I’ve learned a great deal from my students. (I’ll let them tell me if they think I have contributed in any way to their learning.)

I’ve learned, most importantly,  that almost any question asked by a student is gold: a chance to elaborate, embroider, embellish, and expand a philosophical theme. The question is not an interruption, one to be dispensed with efficiently and quickly, before I get back to the business of teaching; answering it is the main act. The question is a clear and visible sign that thought has been provoked; it deserves attention, care, and thoughtful nurturing. In answering a question, further avenues for exploration open up; new thoughts are prompted, which might in turn provoke more questions, more interaction. (In a teaching observation conducted this past semester, I advised one of our adjunct instructors, who had shown some signs of haste in his answers to student questions, that he needn’t worry that the class was being ‘held up.’ Rather, he’d do better to exploit the opportunity to slow down, and examine the issue at hand in greater detail. The student had not thrown a spanner in the works; the student had, instead, kickstarted the engine.)

So nothing quite improves my classroom experience like the answering of a question: I find my knowledge of the material tested; I discover that I can be creative in the construction of examples that will aid my explanation. This latter aspect is especially valuable. Teaching can often be physically, emotionally and intellectually draining work; the spur to creativity that a question provides is a bracing tonic. I find nothing quite as exhilarating in teaching as finding out that in answering a student’s question, I myself have acquired a deeper understanding of the material. (A stellar example of this came during a Logical Foundations of Artificial Intelligence class some eight years ago; as I answered a student’s question about how a proposition was to be expressed in predicate logic, I suddenly realized that I understood WVO Quine‘s classic paper ‘On What There Is‘ just a little better. My sense of pleasure in this enhanced comprehension was so pronounced that I almost broke off mid-sentence to try to digest it.)  In particular, questions that are directed at passages in the assigned reading invariably enrich my encounter with a text previously considered familiar; I was stunned by the depths I discovered in David Hume‘s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion every time I was asked for clarification by the students in my Spring 2010 Philosophy of Religion class.

None of the observations above should be surprising; after all, all inquiry is the attempt to answer questions.

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