What Makes a Question Good?
To prepare any facet of the academic process, be it class discussion, leading
class, or composing a paper, you need to be able to formulate for yourself
some good critical questions. "Critical," in this sense, of course, does
not mean "mean-spirited" but "analytical."
Since there are many types of questions which produce a variety of answers,
it would be helpful to go over the difference between a "critical" question
and a "simple" question:
1. A simple question...
· can be answered with a "yes" or "no" (this is not helpful when trying
to elicit further questions, discussion, or analysis).
· contain the answers within themselves.
· can only be answered by a fact, or a series of facts
2. There are also questions which are concerned with morals or values,
in the nature of "how do you feel about this text?" While these types
of questions often produce interesting discussion (and students therefore
tend to like them very much) they have nothing to do with a critical analysis
of the text itself, which very often was not written with students in
mind as the ideal audience.
3. A critical question...
· leads to more questions
· provokes discussion.
· concerns itself with audience and authorial
· derives from a critical or careful reading of the text, using
the hermeutic of suspicion
· addresses or ties in wider issues or hermeneutical strategies
· moves you out of your own frame of reference ("what does this mean in
our context?" to your author's ("what was the author trying to convey
when he/she wrote this? how would the audience have responded?")
Here are some sample questions. What makes them useful or not so useful?
- Did the Republican Party use racist images of blacks as inferior and
immoral to further its cause?
- How did plantation owners try to keep former slaves on the plantation?
How did they use vagrancy laws and property rights to do that?
- In the Declaration of Independence the Founding Fathers declared than
"all men are created equal." Yet those like Thomas Jefferson actually
held slaves at the time they wrote such statements. Jefferson even had
a black mistress, with whom he fathered several children. How could
he have been so inconsistent?
- Some of Lincoln's statements seem contradictory. On the one hand,
he says during the Lincoln-Douglas debates that he thinks that blacks
are inferior and that they should remain so. On the other, he frequently
expressed his disdain for slavery, and in fact sought to free the slaves
by preparing the Emancipation Proclamation. How do these conflicting
statements and actions influence our view of Lincoln?
- (In considering photographs of the Civil War, and illustrations from
magazines like Harper's Weekly and Leslie's Illustrated.)
Art is able to illustrate a story, but it is done so through the eyes
of the cultural context and time period. Once again we are seeing a
reinterpretation of a story, and not necessarily the reality. Do we
pick and choose which version suits us? Can there be so many sides to
the stories about the Civil War? Do you think some or all of these images
have some truth to them. If we put them all together would we get the
- Smith says that "the sort of stories made up about a man are often
better evidence, more penetrating characterizations, than are exact
reports of his actions" (Smith 149). As this applies to Lincoln, what
do you think? Does this allow us to understand him more or simply work
to confuse and frustrate us?