Questions are the skylights of the soul

margy thomas scholarshape questions are the skylights of the soul

If you sit still and wait in complete silence, what question comes into your mind? Maybe several questions come—one about the pile of unopened mail on your counter, and one about that weird dull ache in your lower back—but which question lingers the longest, after the others have drifted off? Which one weighs on you the most?

Is it a question that gets at the heart of the work you are here to do?

A literary scholar might think of a question like what power does language have to heal a culture's wounds? A student of religion might ask something like how can this beautiful but exclusionary tradition be salvaged? An arts scholar's question may be along the lines of how can I explain the unique value of this new art form to the world? And what about you--is the question on your mind anything like these?

We aren’t talking about research questions here. These are too vast and elusive to be resolved through the collection and analysis of data. What these really are is animating questions—they inspire us to do research at all. They get us out of bed, keep us moving, let us know which kinds of information are important. These questions tell us who we are.

My animating question right now is how do scholars use intuition? For me, there’s no end to the fascination of wondering how knowledge gets made, and how our most empirical, evidenced-based processes rely on hunches and inarticulable inner knowings. Intuition is the faculty that lets us know things we can’t explain. It’s no more infallible than our reasoning faculties, but we rely on it nevertheless, especially in situations where we have to make complex decisions under pressure based on incomplete information—situations like the academic writing process.

I spend my days supporting scholars through this process, which I think of as knowledge-building, and as I watch masses of research materials transform into coherent books, this question of intuition keeps me always on the lookout for the moments of inspiration infusing the process. Without my intuition question, it would be easy to drown in data and mechanics and publishing conventions. But keeping watch for the workings of intuition—and inspiration, and creativity, and magic—reminds me of how scholarship is always done by particular human beings. And that I am a human being in this process too.

To me, there’s no better way to define a person’s identity than to pinpoint the driving question that shapes their thoughts, motivates their behavior, and guides their effort. And there’s no better way to track the evolution of an identity than to trace how today’s questions are different than yesterday’s.

When I think of the questions that used to drive me, it seems to me that I resemble my former self the way a full-length rough draft resembles the field notes it was based on. My brain used to be a dim and disorderly place. For years at a time, lofty philosophical questions were mostly crowded out by questions of survival. Big ideas flitted through only rarely, the way sunlight will peek accidentally through a narrow window into a room that’s still mostly dark.

How did I come to be flooded with light, then? I believe it’s the questions I’ve asked—a little larger and brighter each day, each year.

Questions are the skylights of the soul. Their size, shape, and position determine what light gets in and what is visible. They can be boarded up and clouded over or cleaned and expanded. They can be positioned on the shadowy side or in the full sun. Whatever condition they are in at any given moment determines what we can see. Through these windows stream whatever information will become the energy that fuels us. And whatever can't come through--we miss.

This is how I understand the life of a knowledge-builder: taking care to install and maintain our skylights so that the light can stream in where it's needed. A knowledge-builder lives in the light, or at least seeking the light.

The questions we ask define what we see, who we are, and what we become.

How are your skylights at the moment? What are they enabling you to see? Is it time to enlarge or relocate them? Or just take a closer look at what is already illuminated?

Posted on April 21, 2019 .