Riley M. Lorimer: The Questions that Matter

BYU alumna Riley M. Lorimer delivered the keynote address for the 2016 English Symposium, encouraging students to learn to ask questions.

IMG_7018PROVO, Utah (March 17, 2016)—As a BYU undergrad, Riley Lorimer waited until the night before her paper was due to hastily write five pages about John Milton’s Comus. She had grown accustomed to receiving good grades with minimum effort and so turned the paper in and forgot about it. She was shocked when her professor returned the paper covered in red comments and a large “75 percent” written at the top.

“I think I got a taste of what the final judgement will feel like,” she joked as she opened her keynote address for the 2016 English Symposium. Lorimer focused her remarks on the importance of asking questions, a practice, she says, that has made her a better student, editor and Latter-day Saint.

“If you come out of a humanities degree without a conviction that asking questions is essential – both to the study of literature and to the living of an examined life – then you’re doing it wrong,” she said.

Lorimer has come a long way since that eye-opening paper. In 2008, she graduated with a major in English and a minor in editing, then received her master’s degree in English at the University of Utah. She has since spent more than seven years working on the Joseph Smith Papers, where she currently serves as associate editorial manager. The Papers are a project to collect, transcribe and present all of the documents Joseph Smith wrote, received, owned or caused to be written during his lifetime.

Lorimer’s work on the Joseph Smith Papers relies on questions to function. She said, “I believe that editors are professional question askers, professional pokers of holes and finders of problems.”

To give an example, Lorimer described the questions that arose around the phrase “Brigham Young and his wife, Mary Ann.” Though most readers wouldn’t have looked twice at the comma, its presence or absence both carried heavy implications: the former meant that Mary Ann was Young’s only wife, while the latter meant that he had wives besides her.

“We asked each other every relevant question we could conjure,” Lorimer said. “‘Is it accurate to use our commas to subtly indicate the presence of a plural marriage if the period that we’re talking about was a time in which the couple was monogamous?’ ‘Do we dishonor the people we’re writing about, particularly the women, if we don’t include those commas?’ No question is too small for consideration.”

During her time working on the papers, Lorimer has noticed a strain of thought that is common among people of any ideology – be it religious, political or social – that “things that inspire love or loyalty should not be questioned.” When faced with uncomfortable questions, many are prone to calling the very act of questioning disrespectful.

But Lorimer disagrees with this outlook. She explained, “Whether you’re examining the assumptions of a political candidate or a news outlet, or whether you’re delving into parts of Church history and doctrine that you have previously left unexplored, I believe that asking questions can be an act of love, loyalty and respect.” It is far more disrespectful, she believes, to ignore issues altogether.

IMG_7024After her disastrous Milton paper, Lorimer decided to completely change the way she worked and got a head start on her next paper. She doubled her study time and resources, drafted and redrafted and met with her professor for consultations. What she didn’t anticipate, however, was how much time she would spend simply thinking – trying to wrap her mind around what she had read and what to ask about it.

After finally completing the paper, she met with Kimberly Johnson, professor of English, to discuss the experience. Johnson told her, “The questions that matter can’t be answered in a paragraph. They can’t be answered in an hour or sometimes even a year. But those are the questions you want to be asking. It’s the process of figuring it all out that makes it worthwhile.”

As she closed her remarks, Lorimer tied asking questions to gaining empathy. “The only hope we have of understanding one another or the poems, novels and short stories we study is to ask questions.” She added, “If you and I are to be fellow travelers in this world, then I can hope for nothing better for you and for me than that you will learn to ask good questions, and that you will employ that curiosity in the work of gaining empathy.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)


Samuel covers events for the English Department for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.