“Asking Real Questions”

John Whittier-Ferguson, English (large size)

John Whittier-Ferguson is an Associate Professor in the English Department who was awarded the Arthur F. Thurnau Professorship for his dedication to undergraduate teaching. His primary research interests include European and American modernisms, writing and war in the twentieth century and pedagogy. Whittier-Ferguson believes that one of the most important components of teaching is “being engaged with students and being available to them” as they are working on their writing projects. Because Whittier-Ferguson encourages students to do re-writes, being engaged means making himself available to them to consult with students at various stages of the writing process.

Whittier-Ferguson insists that good teaching requires that instructors “spend a lot of time with the writing…. There aren’t a lot of ways around the essential wrestling sentence-by-sentence with student’s writing,” he says. “It’s labor intensive,” he acknowledges, but I think it’s probably the best way to operate.”

Whittier-Ferguson has developed some efficient and productive ways to use email as a teaching tool. When students have questions about their papers, he tells them to paste a focused question in the text of an email, rather than opening an attachment—which saves a couple of steps. These questions typically deal with thesis statements, for instance. “One screen or one screen and a half is about what they’re going to send in any email they write,” he explains. And then he responds directly to their questions by entering his response in the text of the student’s original email: “Once I hit ‘enter’ in a different color—my comments come back to them in a back and forth of a conversation—so that means that it’s easier for them to see what I’ve written.”

With this method, Whittier-Ferguson avoids “the promise that I have read their paper before I’ve read their paper b/c I can’t do that.” With practice, Whittier-Ferguson has found that “each response takes probably less than a minute.”

Whittier-Ferguson finds that students typically have the most trouble writing thesis statements. “There are a bunch of problems that follow from not having a clearly thought-out argument,” he observes.

In developing an argument, he emphasizes how important it is for students to be “asking real questions-- as opposed to rhetorical ones to which I know the immediate answer….So in practice that means in conversation with students both in class and in office hours working on papers, I try to focus on points where they are puzzled, irritated, excited, baffled, whatever.”

As he explains, “one of the things that each discipline has to educate its students into is what an advanced level question looks like in this field about a given object of study….And that makes writing potentially more interesting for them--if they’re thinking, okay, I’ll write about a place where there’s a genuine puzzle.”

This is the approach he takes in relation to his own writing, too. “It feels like in some ways I don’t know it until I’ve written about it, so—and I say that to my students too. So there’s a way in which you can avoid certain kinds of confrontations with those questions if you’re not trying to write about them. And invariably when I write about something, I discover that it’s even more puzzling and interesting than I thought it was.“

Whittier-Ferguson understands this approach to education in its broadest, “most life-learning kind of way. I feel like that’s what all of us are sort of busy trying to do as we live, is to figure out our ways through genuine puzzles that confront us on any level—you know, raising children, being in a relationship, choosing a job, deciding what a roommate situation would be like if we were to solve it in some way or help with it, and also knowing what can’t be solved or concluded.”

Wanting the time to be used most fruitfully in the classroom,” Whittier-Ferguson gives students a sense of the cultural and historical milieu of the texts he teaches. And in classroom discussions, he points to the genuine puzzles in these texts. He provides a number of writing resources on CTools, such as writing guidelines and sample papers. Additionally, he provides links to relevant websites--for instance a link to a site that offers students the opportunity to hear “the call of a hermit thrush…referenced in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.”

Whittier-Ferguson believes students benefit from hearing when their writing is “awkward or the word choice is not quite right….” He wants students to understand how certain rhetorical choices may distract the reader from the key point. He finds that many students read his comments and say to themselves, “Yeah, I see what you mean, that is awkward.” He reassures students that “to write is really, really hard, and that all of us work on it for our whole lives, so it’s not as though they need to feel that this should come naturally or easily,” he explains.

Finally, Whitter-Ferguson reflects, “When I tell friends outside the university… that I teach English, they say, ‘Send us good writers.” In fact, “writing seems to be the most important thing that we have as an English Department to give to the world out there.”