Open and Closed Questions

Another way to introduce students to the idea of complexity in the research process is through open and closed questions. In Second-hand Knowledge: An Inquiry into Cognitive Authority, Patrick Wilson describes closed questions as matters which (for now) have been settled beyond practical doubt and open questions as questions on which doubt remains.

I suggest to my students that one way to focus their research is to pay attention to clues that suggest where the open questions are and to concentrate their efforts there. Wilson points out that previously closed questions can become open when new information comes to light. In class, you can illustrate this and attempt some humor with the line, “when I was your age, Pluto was a planet!” Then proceed to explain how the planetary status of Pluto became an open question with the discovery of the Trans-Neptunian objects Quaor, Sedna, and Eris. Then follow this up with an example of an open question in the subject matter of the class you are teaching.

The term “research” is ambiguous. For some it means consulting some oracle–the Internet, the Library, the encyclopedia–finding out what some authority has said on a topic and then reporting on it. Fine, sometimes that’s what research is. That kind of research can be interesting, but it can also be pretty boring. What makes higher education thrilling is discovering live controversies and trying to make progress on them. Academic libraries are not only storehouses of established wisdom, they also reflect ongoing debates on questions that are unsettled, in dispute, very open, and very much alive.

3 thoughts on “Open and Closed Questions

  1. Marc – I see some red flags around this part of your post:

    “The term ‘research’ is ambiguous. For some it means consulting some oracle–the Internet, the Library, the encyclopedia–finding out what some authority has said on a topic and then reporting on it. Fine, sometimes that’s what research is.”

    During my days as a liaison librarian, I routinely came across the problem raised by the fact that, for most faculty, this is definitely not what “research” is. “Research,” they would tell me, is the process of independent inquiry that a student or scholar undertakes to answer a well-defined question. “Consulting the oracle,” they told me, is simply data-gathering, or, at its most complex, a literature review. The literature review is a critical context for research, but it is not “research,” itself. This semantic difference between (many) librarians and (many) faculty could lead to differing expectations in terms of instructional collaboration, as well as differing perceptions of the role of the librarian in supporting the work of students and faculty as researchers.

    After a few of these run-ins (and team-teaching an intro research methods course myself), I came to appreciate the need to differentiate in my discussions with faculty and academic administrators between, for example, the ability to critically evaluate a piece (or body) of research, and the ability to design, conduct, and report the results of one’s own research. There is an important librarian role in each (I’d argue), but my ears got pinned back enough on this issue that I learned to respect it.

  2. Thanks Scott. I agree, and I’m definitely arguing here for going beyond the so-called oracle model. However to say that consulting what authoritative sources have to say is simply “data gathering” or “lit review” is overstating, particularly for first or second year undergrads. It could just as well be called “learning” depending on where one is on the novice-expert continuum. People have been going overboard on critical thinking for at least 50 years or more. You need something about which to think critically about before you can start thinking critically.

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