Sample Answers for Question One: Identifying Important Questions

Notice that the discussions below do not answer the question, but they analyze the question and connect it to course material. The object of the assignment is to think about what a good question looks like in the humanities. I will provide some comments about the example, to help focus your own work.

Tales of Origin

Many cultures have stories that describe how the cosmos, the world, or the human species came into being. There are a couple of questions that might be asked about these stories. One of these is historical: What is the significance of the fact that there are many similarities among these tales of origin? This question requires that we identify the kinds of similarities that exist in these tales, as well as the differences. We could identify various kinds of similarities: metaphors, narrative lines, characters, relationships to nature, assumptions about the fundamental order or disorder in the universe. Answering the question would require us to hypothesize on the specific similarities we find, and find evidence for that hypothesis (and possibly evidence that other hypotheses are not true).

The second question is contemporary. Are there tales of origin today? Do they have a similar structure? If so, how, and if not, why not? Do they perform a similar task to what they performed for people in early societies? Note that there are several questions here, and answering the first one probably requires answering the others as well. We might identify tales of origin that have their roots in ancient times (e.g., the modern belief in the truth of the Genesis story on the part of many people), or we could identify fundamentally different stories, such as those that science gives us. Some are a mixture of the two. The factual question of whether there are tales of origin today is less interesting than what we mean by the term "origin" (and, what we mean by "tale" - is science a tale?). What if we think we were always here - is there an origin then? Does the tale of origin give us purpose in the world, and if so, why?

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Notice in this discussion that I ask two questions (and of course, they are ones you are familiar with, as we discussed them in class). I suggested ways to answer the first question. The second question is an attempt to make a connection. Notice that I raise a "big" question, one of human meaning. That's where the material of the course will become relevant, as we see that people who lived long ago also cared about their worlds and tried to live well, just like us. They were faced with similar (although perhaps not the same) issues, because they dealt with the biological facts of their worlds, they dwelt in communities that required order and justice, they needed to express hope, fear, and emotion.

The purpose of this assignment is to get you to think about the questions that could be asked about historical events and things. That will sometimes require that we analyze the questions themselves, as they may seem clear when they are actually not. You can see some of that in this question. What does "origin" mean? We often think we know what words mean, but it can be the easiest words that are in fact the most difficult.

Understanding Items from Other Cultures

If we go far enough into history, we are forced to draw conclusions about peoples' lives and beliefs from the objects and places they left behind, since no written texts are available. But can we know anything about beliefs from objects? How does one "read" an object? For example, we have a small statue that we now call the "Venus of Willendorf". This is a statue of a large naked woman, who might be pregnant or who might just be large. Is the Venus of Willendorf a fertility symbol? Is it a celebration of beauty (our name "Venus" suggests that - some, though, now call it just the "Woman of Willendorf")? Could it be a religious symbol, a deity of some sort? What are other possibilities, and how could we decide between them? Answering this question would require us to think about the ways in which we can understand and read objects. Why, for instance, would the maker sculpt such detail on the statue? How might this statue relate to what little we know about the lives of the people who made it? Researching this question would require not only drawing conclusions about the sculptor, but generalizing from what we know of ancient cultures, assuming that there is a great deal of similarity between similar societies. This is a question of cultural anthropology, as well as the history of art.

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In this case, I focussed on one object. You might be inclined to think that we can't go into the mind of another person, particularly not one who lived so long ago, and so anything we say would just be subjective. But objects are at least partially like texts - they are meant to be understood, they represent something, they are cultural products. They might be somewhat harder to understand than an ancient text, but in both cases we are trying to figure out what was important to people in another distant culture. We are always working with inferences. And, there are tools with which we make those inferences. This question is as much about what those tools are, as it is about the object itself. What are the tools that would be suitable to use on an object like this?

Part of what I want you to be able to do as we go through this course is to recognize a good question when you see it, and know how to formulate a plan to deal with it. The vast majority of student papers are poorly written because people do not pay enough attention to the question they want to ask. They move directly to a thesis, and fail to notice that a question is really ambiguous, unanswerable or full of vague language.