Dictionary.com defines inquiry as “a seeking or request for truth, information, or knowledge,” but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how that translates into our curriculum. Are we guiding our students into “seeking … knowledge” or just “request[ing] information”? What does genuine inquiry-based research look like?
When you think about it, a thesis-driven project fulfills the Dictionary.com definition perfectly. It begins with an hypo[thesis] and continues through the research phase until enough knowledge or “truth” is compiled to compose an essay. If you fail to prove your thesis, your essay ends up in a different place than it began, but if you can dig up enough evidence, the path from beginning to end is a straight line. An inquiry-driven project begins with a question … okay that’s different … then the researcher tries to discover the answer rather than prove an already formulated statement … umkay, still different … it ends with the researcher … doing what? This is the question I keep asking. What do we want our students to DO with this newly-developed understanding of their topic? How does inquiry-based research affect the final product?
If we’re asking them to write an essay, there are three approaches: report, argue, or explore.
The first option is easily dismissed. We know we don’t want a report, right? It culminates into that r-word we’ve devalued in our program, regurgitation. In academia, you strive to create something new, offer a different perspective to the discourse community you’re researching. Not much is gained by simply summarizing what’s already been said, but, as the senior in my class last fall pointed out, skill in summarizing is highly valued in most disciplines and is essential in the workplace. Rarely had she been asked to do much else, and she was on the verge of graduating. Not to mention that reporting inherently involves synthesis, the meshing together of perspectives in a way that, when performed with intention, does have value for both the writer and the audience.
Surely an argument is better, especially when the stance stems from research. But doesn’t an argument push students back into the comfort zone of formula? Haven’t they written arguments over and over again in the form of 5-paragraph essays? Then again, if we’re honest, the thesis-driven essay still dominates our campus, so practicing it one more time might be helpful. After all, our curriculum goal focuses more on where students begin their projects than where they end up.
So what about the third option, exploring? Is this a viable academic exercise? When I think of exploration, I think wishy-washy, uncommitted, disempowered writing. Shouldn’t an exploration be the beginning rather than the ending of a college writing course? And what exactly does an exploratory essay look like? I guess you write through ideas you’ve uncovered through research and share them without taking a stance. Hmmm … sounds like journalism. Now that I think about it, that could be worthwhile too, depending on an individual student’s career goals or weaknesses. I mean, you all know me well enough by now to know I always have an opinion. While I was growing up, my mother used to say I would argue with a stopsign. So perhaps writing an exploration, honestly representing multiple perspectives and allowing a reader to make up his or her mind has value on the individual level as well.
Now I’m back to my original concern. What should my students do after their research? This semester I tried something different. I purposefully withheld guidelines for what was coming after the research and then had small-group workshops to flesh out basic things like purpose and audience. I explained that I wanted them to do a real-world writing piece and then asked the groups to consider what genre might best fulfill each purpose and what medium would most likely reach each audience.
I admit I’m nervous about this shift. I’m worried that I’m misguiding students in what should be a foundational writing exercise for college courses because I’m not sure composing a speech to Congress or creating a podcast on mind-body healing fulfills that. I will say that my students are excited about their projects, so that can’t be bad, but, again, am I reinforcing the notion that “good” writing is inevitably linked to the level of personal engagement a student has with a topic/project?
One thing’s for sure, I am fulfilling the course description, possibly for the first time. My previous approach lacked any real genre exploration other than the difference between a proposal (which I now feel is misnamed in light of our faculty meeting discussion), an annotated bibliography, and an essay. Another area my previous design lacked was any valid exploration of voice. I was teaching the concept of voice as mostly a stylistic choice rather than awareness with regard to purpose, audience, and genre.
The bottom line is that I’m still working out, as you all are, how to navigate this new curriculum, but I’m sure learning a lot by continuously performing my own inquiry into my teaching practices/values.