The Art of Asking Questions

Phuong Nguyen

As far back as I can remember, my college experience has been about asking questions.150px-Question_Mark_Icon_-_Blue_Box.svg

In the beginning, most of my questions came with some kind of an answer. When is the paper due? How many pages is the minimal requirement? What does the speech have to cover?

The start of college for me was about getting acquainted with the system and gathering the guts to ask questions in front of a crowd or to someone of a higher authority. The best part of this time was that there were no “stupid” questions.

As an unaware freshman, all the questions arrived in a very intuitive manner. If you don’t know, ask. Somebody will know the answer. All you needed to do was ask.

As college goes on, the questions get more difficult to answer.  How has the US economy been doing over the past decades? What does social construction mean? What family does the Sturtevant Oak belong to? The answers became longer and more complicated.

If you don’t know, ask. But not everyone is going to know or tell you the answer. This is when I learned to do research. Finding out the answers became more time consuming and demanding, but the answers were somewhere out there. They weren’t easy to find, but I knew they existed.120px-Ambox_important.svg

Then it got to the point when there were no definite, universally agreed-upon, right or wrong answers to my questions. Is profit the only business of business? Is it nature or nurture that determines the outcome of individuals? Is rhetoric an art?

That’s when I learned there were multiple sides of almost all issues in life. The gray zone exists between the black and white.  One could argue both sides, to the left and to the right. Opinions can beat facts.

Most of what we know is socially constructed, and language, our tool to interpret the world, is a human product. Asking the question was only the first step in the uncertain quest for truth, if truth actually exists. And there was no guarantee that an answer could be found.

But the very ultimate challenge in this change of my intellectual development lies in the questions themselves. What are the questions to ask? So what and who cares? What is the topic of my senior research? How do I find the issue at hand to solve this problem? By this point, asking the question requires a cognitive effort to collect, analyze, and synthesize information.

To realize a question needs to be asked is, in many cases, to know what questions have been asked before, and often, to go beyond conventional wisdom for fresh angles of looking at things.

Answering questions can be difficult; knowing the questions to ask is even harder. But it is so critical in academic, professional, and intellectual lives to give proactive efforts toward this act.

I remember reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers back in 2010 as the first-year seminar reading. The book says that one needs 10,000 hours of practice to perfect any skills. We tend not to think about asking questions as a skill. But if it is, and I believe so, maybe college has taken us half-way to mastering an art.

* Image Courtesy http://willmurraymedia.com.

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