Students Staff

16 June 2014

Big Questions: Essex University staff offer their favourite questions to ask students

Filed under: Tricks of the Trade — inpractice @ 12.03 pm

As part of the Essex101 study resource project, Learning and Development asked Essex University staff for the question they most like to ask their students.   Although aimed at incoming students, In Practice thought they were too good not to share amongst colleagues.   We showcase some of our favourites here.  To find out more about Essex101, see the ideas piece on the project in this issue of In Practice  Essex 101 is an open resource hosted on Moodle X.  To browse it, sign in using your usual Essex log in.


Dr Alejandro Quiroz Flores, Department of Government:

What is a good question?

“As a political scientist, my favourite question is “what is a good question?” Knowing what is a good question is important because it allows us to investigate relevant topics in a rigorous way. First, good questions are important questions. Of course, the relevance of puzzles varies by areas of knowledge, yet we all aim at tackling questions that have an impact on our lives and the lives of others. Second, good questions require answers that explain phenomena. It is nice and often relevant to describe the world around us, but it is more important to explain is so we can understand it and predict it.”

Prof Geoff Gilbert, School of Law:

Do our definitions reflect our values?

“The underlying question is whether we can ever be truly impartial or whether the values that have been inculcated in us and which we have adopted for ourselves shape the parameters for all the questions that we ask.  And that is before exploring the debate between impartiality and neutrality.”

Dr Tom Foulsham, Department of Psychology:

How do I break this theory?

“In other words, rather than thinking of all the places where a theory works, try to think of the experiment or situation where it fails and will not make the correct predictions.  Posing this question can lead to thought experiments, novel tests of a theory, deeper understanding of the concepts involved and ultimately an improved theory.”


Prof Roderick Main, Centre for Psychoanalytical Studies:

What do you really want to know?

I ask myself and my students this question, as it helps in cutting through all the myriad possibilities of gaining knowlege to those that matter most to one personally, those which are most likely to mobilise one’s strongest and most enduring commitment and to transform one most deeply, and which are also ultimately most likely to generate knowlege of value to others.”

Dr Edward Codling, Department of Mathematical Sciences:

What are the rules behind the patterns that we see around us?

“Mathematics is often described as the science of finding and explaining patterns.  A mathematical biologist looks for patterns in the living world and asks questions about the rules behind these patterns.  Mathematics can explain how animal coat patterns form, how flocks of birds stay together, how insects build efficient nests, or why the leaves of plants form self-similar shapes.”

Prof Tom Scotto, Department of Government:

How do you separate the important from the tangential in your reading

“What I’d like to see more from students is a better understanding of how to separate the important from the tangential in their reading.  Many students complain of too much reading, or my favourtie, that the History Department makes them read “entire books” because they haven’t been taught to separate the important from the not so important.”

Prof David O’Mahony, School of Law:

Is it fair?

“Laws attempt to achieve justice and fairness for everyone.  We have detailed laws and rules that dictate how society reacts to various problems, from crime, to difficult commercial transactions.  Lawyers are tasked with understanding how these laws work; whether your client may have violated a law, or whether their actions conform with the law.  However, beyond the complex legal rules, are the fundamental problems of whether the law results in justice.  In seeking justice it is necessary to think beyond rules, to consider how the law impacts everyone involved.  It leads us to questions of morality, fairness and the quest for true jsutice – which needs to be at the heart of law.  So, reflecting on ‘is it fair’ is vital, to challenge ourselves when we consider law.”

Dr Michael Bailey, Department of Sociology:

What can I know? What ought I do? What may I hope?

“Emmanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 1787.  What I take from Kant’s three questions are the agonistic relationships between knowing who we are and about the world in which we live (reason and universal truths), the importance of lived experience (everyday practice and the self), and ethics and vritue (social duty).”

Prof David Sanders, Department of Government:

How would you know if you were wrong?

“Whenever anyone is making a claim of any sort, this is what I always want to ask them.”

Dr Chris Saker, Department of Mathematical Sciences:

What do you know about the problem?

“The reason I like this question is that often when facing new problems in mathematics students can find it difficult to begin and may be afraid of writing down something that is incorrect.  This can lead to staring at a blank page.  If students are not sure how to start then putting down everything they can say about the problem helps them to get their ideas on paper and start working with them.  I hope that the process of doing this helps them to understand that it is all right to make mistakes and learn from them on the way to deriving the correct answer.”

Dr Fabian Freyenhagen, School of Philosophy and Art History:

Why is there not more social protest or even a global revolution?

“This is my favourite question because I find it truly astonishing that given the state of the world – the way we seem to act against our and the planet’s real needs – people are still cooperating with a capitalist and social system that dominates them and is driving us to destruction.  My research and teaching is on those thinkers – like Marx and Adorno – who might help us answer it.”

Dr Alex Dumbrell, Department of Biological Sciences:

What is the mechanism?

“In all aspects of the natural sciences, people will repeat facts verbatim, or make recommendations around a lose-fitting conceptual hypothesis without fully uneerstanding the reason behind it.  The most efficient way to breach this nonsensical misunderstanding is to question; “what is the mechanism behind your statement?”  For example, a health care practitioner may recommend reducing consumption of your favourite vice because it is correlated with poor health.  Questioning the mechanism behind this recommendation should lead to an explanation about why this consumption leads to problems with your health.  If the answer is simply “because it does”, then you can question this recommendation further until you see the evidence behind it for yourself.  Likewise, an undergraduate may be taught a fact in the lecture, but why is this a fact and how was it determined?”

Dr Matt Lodder, School of Philosophy and Art History:

How do you know that?

“This is the fundamental question of rigorous scepticism.  I’m interested in both the factual (archival, traceable, repeatable) and the conceptual (philosophical, methodological, ideological, definitional) superstructure behind any statement, and unpicking the route by which knowledge was obtained reveals any statement’s strengths and weaknesses.”

Richard Yates, Communications and External Relations:

Why does this person think this?

“I like to ask myself this question whenever I’m reading something.  It brings into the frame all those overlooked factors that contribute to an opinion.  Part of it is based in logic, but logic can mean something different to different people, and there is a whole range of other factors that are not based in logic that find their way into what we think and how we feel.  This can be applied to academic reading, too.  What political, cultural, or theoretical viewpoint has influenced this person?  But as well, what are the personal things, such as life experiences, that may also have had an influence?”

Prof Aletta Norval, Department of Government:

How did we get here?

“This question can be asked to illuminate many features of our current condition.  Think for instance of the widespread use of government technologies to track citizens’ behaviour associated with the ‘Snowden affair’.  Asking ‘how did we get here?’ will lead us to investigate the events leading up to and making possible such government actions (e.g. the Twin Towers attack), but it will also throw light on the fact that the decision to track the movements and online-behaviour of vast numbers of the public was but one amongst many ways of dealing with societal security.  The Snowden revelations have led us to ask again – how did we get here? Is this where we wish to be as a society?  For me, this big qeustion allows me to engage critically with the existing arrangements that order and underpin our everyday lives, making visible the power relations in what may otherwise appear simply to be ‘the normal’ way of doing things.

Prof Jules Pretty, Deputy Vice Chancellor:

What is the most difficult thing about writing?

“Writing is never easy, and a blank sheet of paper or empty document on a screen can be terrifying.  My advice: don’t let the perfect obstruct the good.  Just write; it is always easier to edit later.  Never be disappointed with your first efforts, and thus leave time to refine serveral times before completing.”

Dr Deidre Sergeantston, Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies:

What’s the context?

“I always want to know what fed an author’s imagination.  Modern writers tend to leave letters and diaries which fill in the background to their works, but I work on the renaissance and we don’t have that sort of information for someone like Shakespeare.  What I can do is reconstruct his mental furniture by thinking about what he was reading.  The plays don’t come out of nowhere – he was shaped by what he read, just like the rest of us.  One of the things I love about Essex is the Harsnett Library, our collection of books printed during Shakespeare’s lifetime.  Looking at them helps me bring the Elizabethan era into clearer focus, and provides extraordinary insights into Shakespeare’s work.”

Dr Natasha Ruiz-Gomez, School of Philosophy and Art History:

How does art mean?

“My favouratie question comes from Sylvan Barnet’s A Short Guide to Writing About Art.  By decoding the ways an artwork is constructed, we can begin to ascertain the concerns of the artist and the time in which she lived.”

Prof Sean Nixon, Deparment of Sociology:

1) What is the puzzle or problem that is driving the research/article/book? 2) Why does this topic matter? Who cares? 3) How might you investigate the puzzle or problem? 4) What are the strengths and weaknesses of the methods/approach/analysis?

“I like to get students to think about a topic or reading by having a series of questions that build on each other.  These questions reveal by degrees the motivations and assumptions behind problems and ideas.”

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