Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Questions Make Better Answers

Documentary project in action in Leadership and Social Change course (Spring 2013)

Her expression communicated consternation, somewhat urgently. “I don’t have any answers.” My student leaned forward in the chair and glanced disappointedly down at the draft of her final project on the table between us. Then she looked at me.

“That’s great,” I answered. “You don’t need to. And even if you had perfect answers, they wouldn’t necessarily do much good. You’re talking about big issues, where lots of people have to act to effect change. Great questions are better.” I watched the expression change from frustration to surprise to relief.

The conversation was one of many I had at the end of the semester, with students, with myself and friends. With the students, the moment-to-consider-what’s-next happened, as it does each year, at the end of a community-based learning course in which they’ve laughed, reflected, and grown beyond our campus gates. They’ve realized that their own lives unfold among many possible ones they might have lived, and they’ve understood, more deeply, that not all worlds are their world. At an AAC&U conference in October, Victor Kazanjian referred to this kind of learning as “perspective-taking and awareness of positionality.” Kazanjian then called for something I’d never once heard requested at an academic conference: radical humility.

How, though, do you practice such a beautiful call to action? Like my student, be discontent. She’d reflected on three semesters of liberal arts education, her own upbringing, and a world in which her country wields enormous power, the effects of which, she’d realized, are complex and not always good. “I don’t have all the answers,” she repeated, then paused, “I just know we can do better.” Like her, reflect upon the past, be uneasy with the present. Want positive change and imagine it.

And then, as you stand poised on the brink of action (or dejectedly as you look at your final project), do the hard part. (I specialize in impatient innovation, so I'm speaking to myself here, too.) Practice the art of “radical humility” in effecting positive change: let a vision of what might be guide you to good questions before you jump to action, as your action. Invite others to answer, and make space for voices other than your own not just to answer the questions you’ve posed, but also to ask those you’ve never considered.