Research Cycle

  Vol 9|No6|Summer |2013

A truly great question

Baudelaire was an unconventional poet and a renegade of sorts. This photograph shows a complicated soul.

If a student asks, "Who was Baudelaire?" it could lead to drudgery.

Baudelaire is worthy of better. But he is not alone. George Washington, Joan of Arc and Emily Dickinson were also complicated souls who deserve better.

To check the value and import of a research question, students can use the list of traits below.

A truly great question will meet the following tests . . .

1. It provokes curiosity and a sense of wonder. Explanation.
2. It eludes facile, simple answers. Explanation.
3. It requires ingenuity and imagination.. Explanation
4. It demands persistence. Explanation.
5. It calls for versatility. Explanation.
6. It frustrates. Explanation.
7. It evolves, twists, dances, changes shape and teases.
8. It challenges, dares and defies. Explanation.

9. It illuminates.
10. It delights. Explanation.

1. It provokes curiosity and a sense of wonder.

The question is so fascinating, the researcher will have trouble sleeping and will find it popping into his or her mind with the insistence of a woodpecker. Packed into the question is a heavy dose of mystery, magic and meaning. One could ask, for example, "What was Baudelaire's problem? And what can we learn from him?" At first look, this might not seem powerful, but digging down deep to understand human problems is one of the most profound and intriguing intellectual challenges thinkers might entertain. This question has inspired writers to produce countless novels and historians to publish innumerable treatises.

2. It eludes facile, simple answers.

Students accustomed to simple information gathering — to scooping and smushing — will find these activities insufficient. A truly great question will require the construction of a complex explanation or response, one that involves nuance and subtlety. In wrestling with Baudelaire's life, for example, a student might jump to the simple answer that he did drugs. This explanation would hardly scratch the surface.

3. It requires ingenuity and imagination.

There is always invention involved in creating answers to such questions — invention and synthesis. The researcher will find rich veins of clues that will sometimes seem overwhelming. It is often a twisted tale and a twisted trail. While there may be heaps of information about Baudelaire, the threads are tangled and incomplete. We get glances and glimpses but seldom a complete picture. It takes ingenuity and imagination to peer through the fog and weave findings into some kind of reasonable interpretation.

4. It demands persistence.

For a generation accustomed to Google scooping, the task of wrestling with enigma will often seem never-ending. Insight is rarely in clear sight just waiting for discovery. The researcher is not likely to find an answer. The answer must be fashioned. It may take weeks rather than minutes.

5. It calls for versatility.

Because the information available may prove baffling rather than illuminating, the researcher must be capable of trying many different approaches. Sometimes this may require a change of perspective. Sometimes it will demand shuffling. The nimble thinker darts and weaves through the morass, seeking and wondering.

6. It frustrates.

The truth about complex questions and issues may be so elusive, the task of making meaning will be exasperating. In an ironic twist, the better the question, the greater the likelihood it will prove irritating. Most truly great questions are unanswerable. One can only approach the truth. Was Alfred Hitchcock guilty of sexual harassment? Was Anne Boleyn guilty of adultery? Intriguing questions that will never be answered to our complete satisfaction. Yes? No? Maybe? After reviewing all the evidence, we are still left uncertain.

7. It evolves, twists, dances, changes shape and teases.

Ordinarily, we do not really understand the question when we begin our research. It turns out that really great questions are generally multi-faceted. One might begin looking at Baudelaire's drug problem because it stands out so boldly and starkly, but his exploration of drugs was intertwined with his exploration of poetry and the meaning of life. The word "problem" takes on new meanings as the researcher learns about this man who was an important pioneer in the development of poetry. Was he unbalanced? Sick?

To the conservative members of French society, his problem was decadence. When he published his now famous Les Fleurs du Mal, six of the poems were suppressed, and "both he and his publisher were prosecuted for creating an offense against public morals." (Those words can be found in many Baudelaire online biographies.) But decades after his death, his daring approach to poetry won the respect of some of the best poets that followed him. And so, what was seen as decadence by some was viewed as a guiding light by others. He had health problems, money problems and took forever completing work, but when we ask, "What was his problem?" we should be looking past those symptoms to something deeper.

8. It challenges, dares and defies.

If we were talking about championship diving we would say each of these questions has a very high degree of difficulty. They will tax our mental powers to their limits. Many students will have had little experience with unanswerable questions and might innocently ask why we bother to wrestle with them if they are unanswerable. The answer is probably that the most important questions we may encounter in life are probably unanswerable in some sense.

  • Can I trust this woman?
  • Which treatment should I pick for my cancer?
  • How can we avoid wars in the future?
  • How can we restore clean water?
  • What is a friend?
  • What was Baudelaire's problem?

9. It illuminates.

If we take the time to examine Baudelaire's life in some depth, or take the time to examine anyone's life in depth, whether they be a celebrity, a leader or Private Ryan, the insights we develop about them are likely to cast light on our own life. These understandings may prove useful as we plot our own futures.

10. It delights.

Even though these questions take us through what amounts to an ordeal, there is something hugely satisfying about the process, especially if the exploration leads us to some of those magical "Aha!" moments that occur when the fog seems to clear and we reach the understandings mentioned above. The exhilaration is a bit like that felt upon completing the 26+ miles of a marathon.


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