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The Importance of Inquiry

Posted by on April 24, 2012

The term “inquiry” is an intimate part of academic discourse. A quick Google search of Chapman University’s website returns 924 instances of the word, and it is the central aspect of the GE “Shared Inquiry” clusters: Artistic Inquiry, Natural Science Inquiry, Quantitative Inquiry, Social Inquiry, Values and Ethical Inquiry, Written Inquiry (most likely the reason you are taking one of my classes). Our library carries 40 journals with “inquiry” in their title.

But what exactly is inquiry? And why is it so important?

At its most basic level, inquiry is the process by which knowledge is gained, arguments are constructed, problems are solved. It starts with questions (and many times a problem), and through a deep and meaningful investigation, attempts to find answers for those questions (or problems).

Remember Kenneth Burke’s “ongoing conversation,” the analogy of discourse? If the point of writing in the academic setting is to join an ongoing conversation, to join discourse, then one must first have a knowledge of the perspectives and history of that conversation in order to make an intelligent contribution. 

Yes, inquiry is research, but it is also critical thinking, following research paths that have come before you, evaluating and questioning sources, assumptions, and arguments, and gaining new perspectives on old subjects.

Think of it as scholarly CSI: you start with a broad idea, an opinion, a problem, a set of questions (what happened in this apartment to that lady and where is her boyfriend). You have some pieces of evidence (blood, hair, DNA samples, fingerprints), but you don’t yet know how they connect and why. And so you take the limited evidence you’ve obtained and begin to research that. Sometimes your research leads to dead ends. Sometimes it necessitates a change in your opinion. That’s okay. In fact, that’s the point. Inquiry is about finding the best possible answer to the questions you’ve posed, not the evidence to the answer you desire.

That’s where many of us have been incorrectly trained. While high school and freshman comp text books always present the first part of the writing process—discovery or prewriting—as essential, the simple fact is that most of us ignore it. Either because of time restraints, overemphasis on thesis by instructors, or pure laziness, we tend to come up with the answer first (the thesis), and then search for quotes and sources to support that answer.

Do you see why that is backwards? How can we truly find the “answer” if we’ve already decided ahead of time what the answer is? Sounds like how we got into Iraq ten years ago.

This doesn’t mean that you don’t start with an opinion; that is the logical first step of any research-based piece of rhetoric. But opinions are not answers. We must evaluate why we hold those opinions, what has influenced our beliefs: family, culture, religion, politics, classes, films, books, experiences. Doing so will quickly reveal how limited our perspective is on a given subject, which should in turn raise all sorts of questions.

Those questions lead to research and inquiry.

Think about it this way: you wouldn’t want to join Burke’s parlor conversation with little knowledge about the topic of that conversation, the positions of its participants, or even their backgrounds, right? That’s a great way to make yourself look like a jackass. Unfortunately, that’s what a lot of students do in their writing: enter a conversation and present an argument or research paper with little knowledge about the topic, little understanding of the grounding theory and research that has been accepted, debated, rejected, no concept of the expectations and conventions of that particular conversation in terms of language, diction, form.

Don’t look like an jackass. Embrace the process of inquiry.

Here’s a personal example. I was working on a group article with my colleagues about the theory of assessing writing programs. My part focused on the theory of “ethical assessment,” based upon a couple of recent, key articles. I was tasked to contextualize “ethical assessment” in terms of what we were doing here at Chapman, and how it works both practically and in connection to the larger theory of assessment and ethics.

I started with the two main articles that directly discussed the theory and definition of “ethical assessment” as it pertains to composition and rhetoric theory. In these articles, several other theorists were cited. Rather than taking the article authors’ interpretations of these theorists at face value, I went directly to their sources, one of them being Jürgen Habermas, a sociologist and philosopher of critical theory. There I discovered that the original article author, Lynne, had based her definition of ethical assessment on what she called “communicative ethics,” and what Habermas described as “discourse ethics.” But Habermas was positing his theory of ethics against Kantian ethical theory (philosopher Immanuel Kant), and so to best understand “discourse ethics,” I had to go back and read Kant again. I’d read Kant before, but now I was approaching his work from a completely different perspective, and it was broadening my awareness of ethics and my opinions of “ethical assessment” in powerful ways.

The entire time that I was doing this inquiry into ethical assessment, I was taking notes: direct quotes from sources, evaluations of these quotes, connections to our own argument, random thoughts that the reading produced. As my notes grew, so did my concept of ethical assessment, so by the time I’d reached a point where I had to start writing, I knew exactly what I was going to write and how. And I can tell you, what I ended up writing was light years ahead of what I would have tried to write had I not gone through this process.

The problem is that inquiry takes time, and time is not something that students typically have a surplus of. But I can guarantee you that if you plan ahead and give yourself that extra week, or even an extra day or two to really pursue your research, to grapple with the complexity of theory and sources, you will produce rhetoric that truly enters that ongoing conversation. And your professors will love you for it.

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