At the Torrey Honors Institute, we teach by questioning. The professors in the program gather with students around a great text, and inquire into the text by interrogating the students. We call the professors “tutors” to signal the fact that they are co-learners along with the students; master-learners who know how to get into books.
The tools of our trade are questions, and we ask all types. Some are expository, some truly Socratic, some open-ended, some perplexing, some leading, a few rhetorical. I think it’s pretty telling that one of our graduates has just published his second book, a reflection on the art of questioning. Check out (by which I mean buy) Matt Anderson’s book The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith for the lessons one exemplary Torrey alum has drawn from our method.
In a single three-hour session, we ask dozens of questions. But one question stands out from the rest, because it starts everything. It’s the opening question, and it is the single place where the tutor has the most power to influence the course of student conversation. Throughout the session, the tutor is bound by semi-Socratic rules of engagement, and the success of the class depends largely on the quality of student participation. But there is real power and privilege in choosing the opening question.
Three-hour sessions often succeed or fail because of the opening question. It is the arche, the opening gambit, the first-moved thing that sets all the other wheels in motion. It’s more important than just deciding which team gets first possession of the ball; it permanently tilts the playing field. Half of all tutor errors happen in framing the first question. In it the tutor establishes a tone for the discourse, makes a selection from available possibilities, displays a judgment about what is significant and insignificant. It is a chance to give away power or squash dissent. It can be pre-emptive or provocative, combustible or confounding.
“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant— Success in Circuit lies,” suggested Emily Dickinson, rather slantily. When crafting the first question, it won’t do to announce a topic and ask the most obvious question about it, even if the most obvious question genuinely is the most important one.
A good opening question draws the class’s attention to a telling detail or incident which, once attended to, seems both puzzling and significant. The detail seems puzzling in that, properly described, it poses a problem to which the solution is not immediately apparent. It seems significant, but it seems to signify something in a middle range between literary clutter on the one hand, and The Most Important Thing in the Book on the other.