A Good Question

The idea here is that if one can generate a ‘good question’ from ones readings, listening to lecture or podcast, or watching video, one is well on the way toward effective learning.  If one is able to pose a question, a question that engages with the material at hand, that integrates it across domains of thought, then one is really moving forward with understanding and being able to use the knowledge one gains.


The good question exercise is one I often use in teaching. But more than that, it is an approach to learning and research that I use myself.

I try first to understand a piece of writing, say on a subject that is new to me or one that I might have a divergent perspective from the author. I am a strong believer in the efficacy of comprehension before critique.   It is so easy to create a shopping list of all the things wrong with something I disagree with.  It is more intellectually challenging to try and understand the logic, perspective, data, and argument of an author first. It will ultimately make any critique (positive or negative) more effective and nuanced in the long run. In my blog post ‘What does the prof want?‘ I discuss this approach in a bit more detail with an eye toward effective study technique.

Here is a standard set of instructions that I often use as the basis of a group activity in a class.

  • Each group is to generate two or three ‘good’ questions based on the reading assignments. Take a few minutes -no more than five- to brainstorm ideas within the group. Write them down so that you can consider them. These ideas should not be fully formed questions.
  • Next, review the ideas and begin to design questions from them. Ask yourself if the questions challenge you to think through the issues of fieldwork or do they help you understand the context of the two research sites. Be mindful that the answers must be in the readings and/or film. Also, the questions should not be designed to elicit opinion; they should require reference to information from the readings listed above.
  • After everyone in the group has asked and discussed the questions revise and winnow the questions to two or three that you would be interested in presenting to the class.
  • As part of this process you should also sketch out a brief answer to each of the questions.
  • After finalizing the questions each group will present one question to the discussion group. At the end of this session hand in the questions and answers.

Whether used as a group activity, or an individual learning technique, the idea behind the good question draws upon a variation of Bloom’s Taxonomy. This is a kind of hierarchy of learning and knowledge. Imagine that the first step is simple memory and recall. Then we start to build comprehension. We apply our knowledge in some way. From there we start to analysis novel situations with our knowledge, link it together synthetically with other types of knowledge and then finally are able to evaluate (or critique our knowledge).

The good question approach is based on an idea of active learning – go beyond memory work- integrate the knowledge into one’s one understanding and make use of it. Doing it this way is one effective way to become a more proficient learner and ultimately a better researcher.



A Fathers’ Day Reading List for the New Year

When my own sons were young my partner gave me a copy of Patrimony by Philip Roth for father’s day. A little while later I came across an unexpected book by ecological anthropologist Ben Orlove, In my Father’s Study. These are books that have stayed with me.

The first is a tale of a son’s journey with a father at the end of his life.

The second is a story of a son coming to learn about his father, to come to an adult appreciation of him, after the father’s death.  It’s a touching memoire.  I’ve used it a few times in my teaching but my 20/30-something students respond to it rather differently than I. For them it is simply one more book on a reading list while for me it led me to think about my life as a father and as a son.

I’ve spent a great many hours with my own father. As a child following him around as he worked on his fishing boat. As a young adult working with him on the same boat. And later in life visiting with him, keeping each other company sometimes talking about the past, often about his health, and occasionally about my own work. Coming across Orlove’s book, almost by accident, has led me to gather over the decades an eclectic little library of books reflecting upon fathers and sons. Here, in sense of order, is a selection of my favourites.

  • In My Father’s Study. Ben Orlove. U.Iowa Press. 1995
  • A Life in the Bush: lessons from my father. Roy MacGregor. Viking, 1999. A loving tale of a northern Ontario father by one of Canada’s favourite journalists.
  • Waterline: of fathers, sons, and boats. Joe Soucheray. David R.  Godin, Publisher. 1996(1989). A memoire about restoring a boat, but its far more than that.
  • For Joshua. Richard Wagamese. Anchor Canada. 2003(2002).
  • To See Every Bird on Earth: a father, a son, a lifelong obsession. Dan Koeppel. Plume. 2006.
  • Lost in America. Sherwin Nuland. Vintage. 2004.
  • Patrimony. Phillip Roth. Touchstone. 2001.
  • My Father’s Wars. Alisse Waterston. 2013.
  • Fatherless. Keith Maillard. 2019.

There are more – but this is more than enough for a start.



Get to Know Your Colleague Through Writing

This is a project in learning about our colleagues through our writing. Each of the profiles that I write are based upon articles shared with me by colleagues.  Each participant has been asked to share one to three blog posts, journal articles or book chapters that they have written.  Participants might provide an older piece, or something more recent.  The criteria being used is that these are pieces that they feel shows the nature and scope of their work and/or focuses on some aspect of their work they you would like others to pay attention to.

I am starting this project with a selection of three of my own articles.  The first two articles that speak to the nature of my current work over the last few years. The third piece is an older one  that reflects a longstanding interest published while I was a graduate student.

  1. Putting Words into Action: Negotiating Collaborative Research in Gitxaała.  Canadian Journal of Native Education.   Volume 28, 2004, Numbers 1/2. http://www.ecoknow.ca/journal/menzies.pdf
  2. “Sea Legs: Learning to Labour on the Water.” Anthropology of Work Review. 2019. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/335400384_Sea_Legs_Learning_to_Labor_on_the_Water
  3. “Between the Stateroom and the Foc’s’cle: Everyday Forms of Class Struggle Aboard a Commercial Fishboat,” NEXUS: Vol. 8:1. 1990.  https://journals.mcmaster.ca/nexus/article/view/87 

Much of my career at UBC has focussed on Indigenous reserach, primarily collaborative project with my home community of Gitxaała. This early paper highlights methodological concerns and documents the early stages of a formal UBC/Gitxaała collaboration in research.  Subsequent papers explored indigenous labour history, traditional ecological knowledge, and whitestream society’s response to Indigenous authority and sovereignty.  Bracketing and underlying my Indigenous focused research has been a concern with labour processes, struggle, and class formation. “Sea Legs” draws on an autoethnographic method to examine how notions of masculinity are enmeshed in become a fisherman. “Between the Stateroom and the Foc’s’cle” is one of my earliest papers and it explores the micro-structures of class struggle on a commercial fishing boat drawn from my personal experience.

My writing has always involved a personal aspect where I draw from my direct experience, not simply as an ethnographer, but as a participant. By participant I mean that I do in fact draw from my own life’s experiences to guide and inform my scholarly work.  I am interested in what motivates and constrains us as people, not as a simply matter of curiosity, but becuase I very much would like to change our world to remove the inequities of class, gender, and colonialism (etc).

Anthropology has tended to study the other to understand self.  It seems to me that we would do a better job understanding ourselves if we were more often the subject of our own anthropological gaze.


Readers are invited to join in by sending examples of their writing to me and I will write blog post based upon them. Or, even better, send me a blog post modelled after my own above for publication here.