Anne Katz: Keep asking questions

Tuesday, January 5, 2016 - 6:15pm

When she was 10 or so, my little sister received some of the worst advice of her life. It was written in the comments section of her fifth-grade report card underneath the part that graded her behavior in class. I can’t remember exactly what the grade was grading — probably something meaningless like hyperactivity — but I do remember that she had received her first “N” for “needs work,” with the suggestion that she “ask fewer questions.” I remember her sitting in our kitchen sobbing to our parents about, for the first time ever, getting something less than straight “Os” (for outstanding). She was miserable. And now, on behalf of my little sister almost 11 years later, I want to take a moment to call out you, Mrs. Michnick, for giving utterly terrible advice to a young learner.  

Though I never received this damning critique myself, it very well could have been written on my report card, too. Just like my little sister, I love asking questions, and in elementary school, I never had any shame about it. Looking back, I can see now how my enthusiasm could have come across as borderline obnoxious — I also received an “N” from Mrs. Michnick with a similar suggestion to calm down. It’s true that in class, I would bounce in my seat with my small legs tucked underneath me, almost like a bird perched on a branch so my hand would reach slightly higher than my classmates’ and be more visible to the teacher. I knew I was over-eager, but in my mind, staying quiet simply didn’t make sense. Not because I liked to hear my own voice or because I wanted to prove that I was smarter than my peers. I just knew I loved to learn and asking questions was a sure way to do so.  

As I got older, I (thankfully) got a better grasp on the etiquette of asking questions in the classroom. I understood that simply raising a hand wasn’t quite as unobtrusive as I had thought and that not all questions should be asked in front of the class. But perhaps most importantly, I gained a newfound sense of urgency and assertiveness in my inquiries. I began to ask questions that pushed beyond clarification. I became more skeptical, stopped blindly accepting all the material taught to me as unequivocally true, and began directly addressing material I found troubling or inconsistent. In my unapologetic quest for knowledge, I eventually found that the subject in which I had the most questions — compelling ones that would follow me outside the classroom and stay with me, gnawing until I could begin to search for some semblance of an answer — was history.

I understood that lobbying too many critical questions in front of the class could be seen as an affront to my teacher’s credibility, so I saved my bravest questions for outside the classroom. Throughout middle school, I would visit my favorite history teachers during my lunch period to ask more exploratory questions that I had jotted down in my notebook earlier in class. In seventh-grade world history, I asked about the Incans’ ability to develop a complex society without the wheel. In eighth-grade U.S. history, I questioned Thomas Jefferson’s inconsistency as a slave owner who supposedly believed “all men are created equal.” By the end of middle school, I realized that studying history does not mean memorizing a rigid linear narrative composed of names, numbers and dates. Instead, I realized studying history means asking questions — particularly thoughtful criticisms of the past — and then devouring as many sources as possible to weave together a plausible answer. By the time I graduated middle school, I knew I would study history in college because it allowed me to ask as many questions as I wanted.   

But after I entered high school, something changed. To be sure, I still asked questions — just not as many as I used to, and the fierce unapologetic nature in which I used to inquire had faded. Maybe it was part of growing up, of becoming more self-conscious and insecure of my nerdy status in the eyes of my peers. Whatever it was, it fundamentally affected my confidence in the classroom, and I began to apologize. I apologized because I felt like I was interrupting and drawing unnecessary attention to myself. I apologized because my voice was too quiet or too loud, or because I thought my question was stupid. Sometimes, I would even start a question with, “I know this is dumb, but…”

I know I’m not the only woman who does it, and this tick, though innocuous on the surface, reflects deeper feminine insecurities and feelings of inferiority. An unnecessary apology before a question immediately undermines the validity of the question before it has even been asked and surely impacts young women’s abilities to be assertive both inside and outside the classroom.

I knew that apologizing before asking questions was not a natural behavior for me, but a learned one. However, I continued to apologize my way out of the classroom until one of my favorite history professors abruptly drew my attention to the habit this past semester. On the first day of school, after raising my hand and inevitably beginning with “Sorry,” she sharply cut me off in front of the whole class and demanded that I ask the question again — this time, sans apology. My face burned, but I knew she was completely right.

As I enter my last semester at Michigan, I’m pledging to try as hard as I can to stop apologizing before asking a question and to work on rebuilding my confidence in the classroom to what it was before I hit puberty. After all, asking questions is the best (and only) way to learn.

Before I walk into the first day of class, I’ll remind myself of a piece of good advice doled out by Mr. Melendez, the other fifth-grade teacher who taught alongside Mrs. Michnick: “There are no stupid questions. Just stupid people who don’t ask questions.”

Anne Katz can be reached at amkatz@umich.edu.