June 6, 2013

The Art of Effective Questioning: A Study in Speaker and Audience Engagement

This is my three-hundredth entry on this blog. It may have no greater significance than being entry number two-hundred and ninety nine, but I like using even numbers as the milestone I believe them to be. I’ve chosen to celebrate this milestone by writing a short article about a course I had designed that I had meant to write two years ago before I became ill. I’m reminded once again about this course after completing a charcoal and pastel drawing of students at a lecture, pictured above. This entry is about that course and what I learned from it.

I loved my work as a lecturer. As I continue to battle a protracted, difficult illness,  the loss of my teaching career is one of those things that I feel acutely.  I miss the interaction with students - especially the ones who were inspired and appreciative.  Miracles do happen, and I may one day return to teaching, but It is most likely not realistic hope at this point.

Yet I can still can cull from my past teaching experiences and record some highlights from what I have learned over the years. It may not be the same as the social interaction but it at least affords me the opportunity to be a communicator once again.

The course did not initially go well. I was confused about my assignment. It was too vaguely defined, I didn’t have enough interaction time with my students and I felt that this made me underused and overpaid. Now, to most college teachers that would probably sound like an ideal scenario. It could very well have been true that I was looking the proverbial gift horse in the mouth, ungrateful wretch that I was. But I needed to feel deserving of my earnings and I desired that my creative work be given time and consideration. My job was to bring at risk youth from the Washington DC area to a series of art lectures given by my colleagues. I was not really clear as to what I would be doing with regard to my own input to educate these students. They were scheduled to go straight from dinner to the lectures so there was not really a designated time or place for me to interface with them.

My first reaction to this dilemma was to fret. I fretted compulsively before I arrived at my job and well into my stay. I imagined myself featured on Fox News as an example of a waste of taxpayers money. Never mind that the program I was working in was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Fox News would find me nevertheless.

After I wore myself out fretting, it soon behooved me to replace confusion and anxiety with reason and direction. So I analyzed the problem and came up with solutions. The first problem was to find a place to meet with students - no matter how little time I had with them. This turned out to be a classroom in the basement of the lecture hall. It eased my mind somewhat that I could be more than be a chaperone from dinner to the lecture hall. The thought of that was rattling my Scottish Protestant bones and Eastern European work ethic.

The second problem to resolve after finding a designated place was to carve out a niche of time between dinner and class. I managed to fetch a mere five to ten minutes but it was something. The third task was to find a way of maximizing that small allotment of time to teach something rewarding and useful. It was clear that it too little time to introduce a topic of my own. I would somehow have to link my remarks and pointers to my colleague’s talks. My input would have to be the planetary gravity to the lectures of the stars.

I decided that my five to ten minute lectures would be a mini course on how to effectively listen to a lecture and to ask informed and pertinent questions of the lecturer. I spoke with my students about different types of questions, such as closed ended and open ended questions. I charged them with the responsibility of asking the types of questions that would generate dialogue - questions that would benefit the general audience as well as engage the speaker. I told them not to shy away from difficult subjects if it would set an atmosphere for effective and educational dialogue. In my ten minute class, I actually assigned homework: the students were to do background research before attending a lecture. This, I told them, was the first step to preparing educated questions. I had my students study the subjects the lecturers would speak on and to check the various artist’s web sites and publications for an overview of their work.

Once I outlined these goals for my students I realized that I would have to set the same goals for myself. I must admit that my design of this course was the most self effacing activity of my teaching career. And why? Because I was neither an effective listener nor an intelligent questioner. I sat through lectures like a stone, sometimes daydreaming and losing the thread of a talk entirely. Often I was thinking more about my own impending lectures. I was impatient and self absorbed. I never prepared for a lecture by doing background research. This was the first course I taught that required a change in my own habits. I would need to practice what I would preach, to use a somewhat hackneyed phrase.

I first set myself the task of reading about my colleagues and looking more closely at their work. I got to know them better and I was impressed by their hard work and accomplishments. Some of these instructors were new and it was fascinating and exciting to read about what they would contribute to the program. Others I had know for about five years. But I was only just know learning about them in greater depth - which fortunately generated some long overdue respect on my part.
One interesting discovery I made from y background research was that many of the artist/lecturers started out as scientists. Even artists who were not practicing scientists often started out as science majors before turning to art. As a former biology/pre-med major this piqued my curiosity. We had something in common - sometimes close things in common: like being derailed from a potential medical career by organic chemistry as in one artist’s case. Since I had to practice writing pre-lecture questions, my first question centered around how these artists reconciled their backgrounds in science with their current vocation in visual art. Was it an abrupt turnabout or was there a thread of continuity between the laboratory and the studio? Were they both about experimentation and discovery? By way of example, I broached this topic during one of the first lectures so that my students could see background research at work in producing thoughtful questions.

During the initial art lectures, I noticed first of all that there were some logistical problems to address. The students tended to gravitate towards the back of the room. I had them move their chairs to the front row. After all, their responsibility was to spearhead the movement towards speaker and audience engagement. I sat up front as well. It forced me to look more alert than I usually am. By actively listening to the lecture for the purpose of inquiry, for the first time, I found myself not slogging through a talk in a semi torpor. And my newly found state of alertness had its desired effect upon my students. They asked questions based upon their research. They listened well and did not shy away from asking difficult questions.

I was proud of the young lady in my entourage who asked the blacksmith about the number of women in blacksmithing. The general audience benefitted by finding out that there were not only women in blacksmithing but that the then president of the blacksmithing guild was a woman!

As the lectures continued a certain rhythm was established. There were not only lecture questions, but post lecture reviews the following day as well. Asking students to review and comment on the previous night’s lecture seemed to reinforce their listening skills and to think of lecture topics in terms of ongoing research and dialogue. One interesting issue that arose in a post lecture review was the subject introduced in a previous lecture concerning lost Native American craft skills that were now being researched and reintroduced by Anglo-American researchers. My students were divided on how to reconcile this - knowledge taught in this century by the descendants of those who had stolen this art in previous times. But my students were willing and able to discuss the ethical ramifications of this and other thorny issues.

It appeared to me that the artist/lecturers developed a respectful fondness for my students. The students were invited to visit studios. They were invited to take part in demonstrations. They were actively and joyfully engaged. I hope that they continued to be so engaged in their future studies. This was the most rewarding daily ten minute course I had ever taught ( two hours and ten minutes if you count my attending the lectures and goading my students on). The best courses are always the ones where the teacher learns as much as the students.

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