Stupid questions

I’m afraid of asking stupid questions.

Maybe it’s my introverted personality, or (more likely) my fear of failure, but I’m too scared to let out any words that might make me seem naïve or oblivious to someone else. At the same time, I’m nowhere close to getting a handle on my life, to understanding everything that happens around me and knowing how I want those things to play a part in my life. And so I reach a dilemma: Do I trudge on alone, hoping to miraculously educate myself as I go, or do I reach out wildly to some helpful stranger and lose some of my dignity and pride?

Such a problem seems like an appropriately Williams one to me. For most of us, we arrive on campus for First Days with pride and maybe some disbelief, feeling accomplished for making it to one of the top liberal arts schools in the country, yet also still stuck in that dreamlike state of wonderment and anxiety as we imagine our futures taking shape in front of us. The promises of adventure and friends and some snacks along the way are thrown at us all at once, lulling us into a happy, comfortable state of being while masking any self-doubt that may have lingered from high school.

But at some point, we fall apart. “How do I do all this work?” we ask. “Why is everyone else so smart?” we wonder. (And “why is everyone so athletic?” I personally ponder). That self-doubt resurfaces, and our futures no longer seem so wonderful but instead seem more ominous. We are no longer anxious to start our lives but instead are ourselves filled with anxiety.

And so we come back to this dilemma of mine. I’m the type who prefers to figure out things alone; I’d rather search Google Maps for directions than call the person whose house I’m driving to. I’ve only ever been to the Math and Science Resource Center once, and then it was only to see a friend working there. I’ve never visited the Writing Workshop, despite the fact that I now work as a Writing Partner. And I’ve come to loathe review sessions because I tire of hearing everyone else’s questions when I’m too scared to ask my own.

Though we have these welcoming resources at Williams, I often feel like certain things are expected of me without question, that I’ve been left to figure out things on my own. Everyone loves the school, so I’ve parroted the same affection from day one, though I’ve slowly developed a truer, personal care for this place. And of course, at a school where any attempt of gossiping about a fellow student is followed by, “but she’s so smart!” I often feel that I must know certain facts and concepts, that since everyone else seems to have already mastered them I must be behind. Stupid questions are out of the question. Unless I’d like to embarrass myself and feel inadequate, I hold my ground and persevere on my own.

So it was with some relief the other day that I heard my English professor bring up how he made it a goal in graduate school to ask a stupid question every class, and that at a place like Williams it might not seem all that acceptable to ask such obvious questions. He opened up the classroom to stupid questions, reserving the time for questions that might have never been asked otherwise.

But what makes a question stupid in the first place? A student might raise his hand in class and begin with, “this might be a stupid question, but…” followed by a nervous laugh and the professor’s sympathetic smile. The student sets himself up for failure, lowering expectations, but most often it turns out his question is the one that the rest of the class was throwing around in their heads. A collective sigh of relief subsequently follows the student’s question.

I’ve been working as a Teaching Assistant for “The Cell” this semester, and I’ve noticed that the students who come to ask me these “stupid” questions – such as how to use pieces of equipment I’ve come to see as mundane or how to set up their research notebooks – these students are the ones who ultimately come out of lab with more to say. They’re the students who take the time to fully understand the concepts behind what they are doing, who could explain in detail what they have done to a friend later on.

Stupid questions are the questions that get us going. They’re the questions that open us up to that first bit of knowledge that allows us to understand the rest. Without finding the answers to stupid questions, there are entire paths of knowledge we can never go down. Maybe the answers are obvious to other people, but we always have bits and pieces of knowledge that have somehow escaped us, whether or not we are at fault. Sure, we could wait around for the day that we have a minor epiphany and finally find the answers on our own, or we could simply ask them outright and trigger the learning process immediately.

It may seem stupid for a Williams student to ask stupid questions, but it turns out stupid questions aren’t all that stupid after all. In fact, they’re necessary for learning. Because even something as stupid as “where’s Paresky?” is necessary to figure out the rest of the map.

Tricia Ho ’16 is from Waban, Mass. She lives in Fitch.

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