I touched previously on “What is the ask?” As an alternative to “What are they asking?” or “What are we being asked to do?” this can seem crisp. It takes an aerial view of an issue. But it calculatedly omits reference to the people doing the asking, as a way of keeping their authority and power out of the question.
At the same time, by turning the act of asking into something narrow and impersonal, “What is the ask?” repositions a question as a command. It leaves little or no room for the “ask” to be refused. As a noun, “ask” is pretty much a synonym for “order.” Even when we retain details of agency — as in “What is their ask of us?” – the noun ossifies what could and should be a more dynamic process.
Compared with “What is the ask?” the question “What’s the take-away from today’s lecture?” may look harmless. Yet it minimizes audience members’ sense of their responsibility to absorb the lecture’s lessons. “What should I take away from today’s lecture?” is a question that betrays a cramped and probably exam-focused understanding of what it means to learn. But “What’s the take-away?” seems to represent education as a product rather than a practice. It invites an answer that’s a sound bite, a Styrofoam-sheathed portion of spice, a handy little package to be slavishly reproduced.