Asking better questions

‘Why don’t you consider what the author is trying to do, instead of criticising him for not meeting your expectations?’

I was in the second year of a literature degree, and my tutor was responding to my essay on Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d (1682), the substance of which I’d dedicated to showing that Otway was a lesser playwright than Shakespeare. It was a very good question. I went away and wrote a better essay about the strengths of Otway’s writing unhindered by false comparisons.

In Julian Barnes’ new novel, a former student writes about Elizabeth Finch, a teacher with a gift for asking similarly mind-enlarging questions. He finds those questions, like the thought and style behind them, inspirational, and they have an important impact on his self-image, if not necessarily on his life. But then, as Finch tells her new class of students at their first meeting, ‘For some of you, I may well not be the best teacher, in the sense of the one most suited to your temperament and cast of mind.’

These words appear on the first page of Barnes’ novel, so they might be taken as a warning, especially by anyone familiar with the self-conscious strategies of his writing. If that was the author’s intention, it was missed by some of his reviewers, who have criticised him for failing to write the book they want, or expect. (He anticipated as much, in the novel’s treatment of biography and the Stoic distinction between the things that are up to us and those that are not up to us.) I like and admire Barnes’ work, though I don’t always enjoy or understand it. But that second year tutorial showed me that my expectations, like my judgements, are the least interesting or important thing about a work of art.

That lesson became a foundation of how I have worked in community art, in teaching, policy and research. That’s often meant trying to ask people good questions, the kind that invite reflection and discussion. It’s always meant asking myself sharp questions—about my own responses; about my expectations, assumptions and prejudices; about what the other person is doing and why; about what they could do yet; about what I’m not seeing or understanding. Even a question as simple as ‘Why am I not enjoying this?’ can illuminate a path that leads to new understanding (and more enjoyment).

That’s why, at least for me, the best community artists, like the best teachers, are more interested in the people they are working with, and the new things that might come out of that work, than in their own ideas, expectations or judgements.