Asking Good Questions

By Stella Haffner   |   April 18, 2023

Dear Montecito,

What do journalists and academics have in common? They know how to ask good questions.

As I begin to write my master’s thesis, I have been thinking a lot about the idea of the good question. After all, a thesis is itself essentially just a good question. And as I begin this process, I have noticed a few things; what is and isn’t a good question, what sorts of people ask good questions, and how they do it.

First, I needed to address my own misinterpretations of “the good question.” It took me a while to realize that good questions don’t have to be associated with intellectual prestige, they don’t need to be aesthetically clever, and they don’t need to be hard to understand. Sure, all these things may be true of questions posed by long-dead philosophers, but those questions need to survive on their own – those guys need pizzazz! On the other hand, most of us are here to be the vehicles for our questions. So while I’ve learned that good questions don’t need to be associated with intellectual prestige, good questions are often associated with something else: good explanations. 

That may seem trivial, but I think we can agree that the best questions asked by academics and journalists are those that thoughtfully encourage good explanations. Of course, this is easier said than done, particularly because it requires so much personal and interpersonal insight: Where is my knowledge limited? What would others like to know? How can I effectively convey my thought process?

Like a lot of good questions, the dissertation requires these peripheral questions that help structure a good explanation. It requires a high level of specificity but also a high level of clarity; balancing the details with the big picture. As I try to strike this balance myself, I think of other people who do it well: teachers.

I believe teachers are generally so good at explaining things because of their interpersonal insight. It allows them to not only address a central question (e.g. How does photosynthesis work?) but also all the peripheral questions (Are my students familiar with these words? How do I connect this to other big ideas? What about this will they find interesting?)

We can see that good questions big and small work together to help tease out the important information. It is also true that for journalists, researchers, and teachers alike, a familiarity with your audience is essential to employing good questions.

Something I appreciate about this column is that the Montecito Journal is, in a way, an intimate setting. You know that what you’re reading is coming from me, Stella. And you know that this column covers what young people are doing in Santa Barbara. You are reading this within that context. Therefore, the questions I ask and try to deliver to you are based on a key element of that context – our rapport.

Knowing your audience, however, does not guarantee successful communication. One of my own weaknesses is getting caught up in academic jargon, which I’ve been thinking a lot about while writing my thesis, because that is a weakness shared by many academics. Perhaps it is even an artifact of having spent too much time wholly immersed in an academic discipline. Certainly, when you spend a lot of time studying something in detail, you are naturally motivated to use specific, targeted language to express exactly how you understand the thing in question.

It took me a while to realize that good questions don’t have to be associated with intellectual prestige, they don’t need to be
aesthetically clever, and they don’t need to be hard to understand.

In contrast to this, one of the most interesting things I have learned in graduate school is that if you really want to explain something to someone else, you have to sacrifice some accuracy and specificity for the sake of clarity. (The exception is when your audience is from your own field.) This should not be thought of as “dumbing it down.” You can’t expect to cram all of your background knowledge into a conversation with someone – though I am often tempted to try. The reality is that it wouldn’t be helpful, and in most cases wouldn’t be super interesting for them, either. Rather, I have found that the best approach is to build your questions and explanations within the context of the given discussion. For instance, medicine really interests me. I like talking to physicians and medical students. But even though a good portion of my undergrad was spent in cellular biology lectures, when a deep expert in biology is discussing something with me, I cannot appreciate all the minutiae because the subject is not my field. Luckily, I don’t have to be familiar with all the little details to appreciate the big picture. This is the advantage of talking to people who know how to put together good questions – they understand what to say and what to keep in reserve.

As a final note, a degree of confidence is helpful when building your own good questions and good explanations. I realized while writing this that, as in everything, there was a chance my ideas here simply didn’t make sense. Unfortunately, I also realized how crippling the irony would be if that were true. Oh dear. 




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