Ask Better Questions

Value questions: No right or wrong answer; answer is determined by the values and opinions of the answerer. What is your favorite flavor of ice cream? What is the good life?

Empirical questions: Answer is based on evidence plus judgement and evaluation of the evidence. There may be no one clear-cut definitive answer, but some answers are better supported by the evidence and the reasons than others.

Mixed value/empirical questions: Who was the greatest president. You can add up legislative achievements, but ultimately your values come into play. A conservative might choose Ronald Reagan over FDR.

Clarifying questions: What does this mean? These are important to ask at the start of a discussion class. There are some things you need to know to participate in the discussion.

Speculative/Counterfactual questions: What might happen in the future or what might have turned out differently if certain conditions were different?

Discussable questions: How arguable is it? Is there evidence to support different kinds of answers? Do you see a tension between different values or interpretations--different ways of interpreting the evidence? Do you need to dig deeper to find nuance and more sophisticated understanding?

Answerable: Is there a body of evidence somewhere (in our library if it's a research paper; otherwise, usually in the assigned readings for class), that will provide enough evidence to support a plausible answer.

Broad v. Narrow: Narrow questions point us toward one specific thing in a reading. Broad questions require you to bring in lots of evidence from different places.

Premises: Are you aware of any premises or givens that the question assumes? Are they accurate? Can you sharpen the question by adding any givens?

Responses: In their guide to academic writing, They Say, I Say, authors Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein say “the underlying structure of effective academic writing—and of responsible public discourse—resides not just in stating our own ideas but in listening closely to others around us, summarizing their views in a way that they will recognize, and responding with our own ideas in kind. Broadly speaking, academic writing is argumentative writing, and we believe that to argue well you need to do more than assert your own position. You need to enter a conversation using what others say (or might say) as a launching pad or sounding board for your own views...You must find a way of entering a conversation with others’ views...If your own argument doesn’t identify the ‘they say’ that you’re responding to, then it probably won’t make sense”