What's in a question?

One of the favorite maxims of Thinking Writing is ‘a small amount of writing for a large amount of thinking' - attributable to John Bean, I think. So I was very thrilled a few weeks back when student emails started coming into my inbox that demonstrated just that. The emails were from the Forum of the first year Shakespeare module I’ve been lurking in the background of this semester. Students had been on a trip to the Globe Theatre and were now preparing for a visit from a Shakespeare actor, part of which would be a Q and A.  A number of years ago the module leader, Warren Boutcher, first asked students to submit a possible question to the actor; now he is using the VLE (QMPlus) more fully. Students post their question (or rather set of linked questions) to the Forum; fellow students read and rank them to decide which should go forward to the actor; finally, the actor makes a choice of their favorite question- and this wins a £50 book token prize.

And look, in just this small sample, at the range and quality of the questions::

We live an increasingly diverse society in London, especially in terms of religion. Do you find that the Christian allusions in Shakespeare's text aren't as effective as they once must have been? Do you think this affects the text's original meaning drastically or do you think this is a minor issue?

Last year's all female production of Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse raised questions about the role of gender in casting. What are your views on using gender-blind casting to put on Shakespeare? Would you consider playing a character originally written for a man? And how would you overcome the obstacles this would present?

How much did your school curriculum influence your desire to act Shakespeare's plays? Did you enjoy studying Shakespeare at school or did your appreciation of his works come later?

What is your opinion of productions set in different periods or places (ie. Richard III in Fascist Europe)? When is it appropriate to do so? What are the pros and cons of choosing to stage a play in a particular style? Is doing so an easy way out? or is it keeping in the spirit of Shakespeare's many anachronisms?

In the advent of literary inundation, where nearly 150,000 books/plays are published every month in the UK alone, is it now impossible for a new Shakespeare' to arise?

Out of all the Shakespearean characters you have played, which has been the most engaging and absorbing? Have you ever found yourself speaking their lines, falling into Shakespearean speech by accident or echoing their turns of phrase outside the play?

This lovely exercise attests to the (frequently underused) power of formulating and posing questions. It puts me in very much in mind of the notion that a ‘query’ is also in some sense a ‘theory’ (I.A.Richards) – by posing a question, clarifying, reformulating and advancing though subsequent questions, the questioner is bringing potential positions into being (for him or herself as well as for the person being questioned). 

(Some areas in which Thinking Writing has worked with questions: small-scale writing tasks, and larger scale thinking about research-based learning.)