The Most Powerful (and Terrifying) Word in Academia
Over the past 15 years I have taught kindergarteners to college students and every level of English as a second language (ESL). I have taught face-to-face classes, as well as online classes. One of the things I have noticed over the years is that no matter which level I’m teaching, some of the students are reluctant to ask or answer questions. Why is this so difficult for some of us? More importantly, whatever are we to do about it?
Well, the “Why?” is complicated.
Have you ever seen a young child, one that is just learning to speak, use the word “Why?” While it’s never one of the first words we learn, it is one we pick up pretty quickly. It has kept humans alive for many thousands of years. “Why does the fire glow? Why can’t I pet the wolf? Why can’t I live underwater with the fish?”
Asking questions helps a youngster explore their world with one little word from a relatively safe space. Now, skip ahead to the present. The modern child still uses the term “Why?” but in various ways in order to get clarity on a subject or to get what they want. Think of a young child in a toy store:
Child: “Mom, can I get this?”
Parent: “No, you can’t get all three versions of the same toy.”
Parent: “Because you only need one.”
Parent: “Because I said so, and I’m the parent.”
Were you ever this child? Yes. You were. We all were at one point.
Now, a major tantrum erupts, leaving the child screaming through their tears and a parent looking for the nearest exit. This is a very important moment in a child’s life. They have learned that their once very positive use of the word “Why?” has turned into a negative. The result is that the child has learned two things: First, not to ask so many questions. Secondly, and more importantly, to become more selective of when and how they ask these questions. This is also the seed of understanding rhetoric.
Now, remember a time in your life when you raised your hand to answer a question but answered it incorrectly. How did it feel? What if you asked a follow-up question and were told to let others speak or to wait until after class? How did that feel? At this point, the teacher and some of the other students are ready to move on with the subject, but you still don’t understand it.
You quietly ask a classmate: “Why is that?”
“I don’t know,” replies your classmate with raised shoulders and a bewildered look.
So, you ask your other classmate the same question, only to get the same response.
At this point, your teacher catches you “visiting” with your classmates and shuts down your communication, leaving you without an answer and little incentive to ask it again. Maybe you felt embarrassed, angry, or left out. Now, repeat this scenario until you graduate from high school.
Fast forward to where you are now: a real-deal college student, sitting in a classroom (face- to-face or online) surrounded by a group of people you have never met. You’ve made it! You are out of the public-school system; you are an adult, expecting to take part in a very deep discussion like the ancient philosophers of Greece, gathered around the Parthenon to talk about the most pressing issues of the day.
Your head is full of questions; you have genuinely good questions. Then, the teacher enters the room and the chatter slows down to silence. You begin to reflect on your experiences (subconsciously or consciously) about asking questions in the past. The anxiety grows. You wonder if all those great questions will just sound silly or stupid in front of the obviously smarter students and the teacher around you.
You tell yourself, “Don’t ask that! Everybody already knows that.” You don’t want to look foolish in front of everyone, so you hold your tongue. Then a strange thing happens: the teacher poses the first real, serious question to the class. You brace yourself against the impending tsunami of truth and knowledge to sweep over the class as everyone that is smarter than you (which is everyone) explodes forth with groundbreaking epiphany after epiphany.
And then …
That terror you have been feeling must be contagious, because it has spread to everyone. One brave student attempts an answer.
“Well, you’re very close, but does anyone else have an answer?” the teacher replies.
At this point, the tsunami has become a glacier. What feels like never-ending silence follows. You gather up the nerve to ask your classmate, recalling a similar incident you had as a child, only to get the same response: shrugged shoulders accompanied by a sheepish smile.
Wait a minute, what just happened? Where is your “Why?” Where is everyone’s “Why?” We must all be thinking this, right? Well, chances are that you are right. You are not the only person in class feeling this way. Sometimes your “Why?” gets suffocated by self-doubt and an intense need not to look foolish in front of your peers. Or, if you embrace your “Why?” you can get answers to your questions.
Another way of thinking about this is that, if you have a question, you’re not alone. It’s often the case that at least one other person, if not everyone, is thinking the same thing; they just can’t muster the courage to ask it. Therefore, one’s ability to ask questions is not only a benefit to the person asking the question but to the people around them. The courage to pursue the “Why?” is contagious.
What’s to be done now? You can continue on with life never getting the answers you need, or, you can arm yourself with the power of the almighty “Why?”
What does this mean? How can you apply it? How do your teachers apply it? After all, questions are rhetorical. Let’s take this one step at a time.
The rhetorical situation. Sounds official, right? Something you need to be taught, right? Well, as humans, we have been practicing the elements of rhetoric since we were infants. How? By understanding a few basic principles and their application. The rhetorical situation, in a nutshell, is the combination of knowing your audience (in this case, your teacher and classmates), having a purpose (in this case, to get answers to the questions you have), and understanding the context in which you ask a question (in this case, a college classroom filled with a teacher and students). In short, it’s not what you ask, it’s how you ask it. Let’s try it.
Think of the first example of the child in the toy store. As a child, because we were incapable of providing for ourselves, we had to learn to ask for what we needed. First, we cried or screamed. We learned that doing so got a response. Then we learn the word “Why?” and its basic usage. This articulation provided greater benefits. Then we got older and the power of the “Why?” diminished. Why did this happen? Because we didn’t know how, or experience how, to use the “Why?” effectively yet. This process needs to be developed. Let’s rewrite the first situation using our new knowledge.
Child: “Can I get a new bike?”
Parent: “You already have a bike.”
Child: “But, my bike is too small for me.”
Parent: “It seems to fit you fine.”
Child: “But, you know Jill, Mr. and Ms. Fillson’s daughter?”
Child: “They bought Jill a new bike with multiple gears, and now she is on the cycling team at school. She has made so many friends there and is so healthy. And since then she has been on the honor roll every month.”
Now this child has learned to appeal to their parent by better understanding their audience: education, making friends, and being healthy are important to their parents. Compare this to “I want it NOW!” followed by a tantrum or shouting match at Walmart. As they say, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
This leads me to my next point: Timing is everything. When should you ask a question? When is it appropriate, or, when will your question have the best chance of getting a positive answer? For example: When is the best time to ask about your grades? During a discussion, or after class? Should you ask your boss for a raise during a staff meeting? Should you ask if the tattoo you just got is permanent after the artist has finished their work? Right? I say again, timing is everything.
After several days, weeks, months or years, the aforementioned academic glacier begins to recede. You become more confident in your “Why?” You learn how to use it as effectively as possible by considering the rhetorical situation before you ask a question. By knowing your audience, understanding your purpose, being aware of the context in which you are asking, and then refining all three aspects of the rhetorical situation, your chances of getting a suitable answer will increase. It takes time to develop a very confident “Why?” But with a little practice, the power of your “Why?” will become a very valuable tool. Not just academically, but in your life as well.
The original spark of curiosity that you felt dwindle as you approached the end of high school has now become a light in a confused darkness, not just for you, but for those around you as well.
In summation, the “Why?” is the key. Use it often, even if it means disagreeing. Use it concisely. Use it appropriately. Encourage others to use their “Why?” through your example. Use it for the benefit of all.