The Importance of Inquiry

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?

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Dreams, the Unconscious Mind, and Rhetoric

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.  The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.   The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

Earnest Hemingway’s famous quote from Death in the Afternoon not only applies to the writing of fiction, but to rhetoric in general. The link between writer and audience is as psychic as it is textual, but only if the writer truly understands and anticipates his or her reader: expectations, experience, values, etc. The writer must strive to understand the 7/8ths of the iceberg beneath the water, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to connect that 7/8ths, at least in part, to the unconscious mind.

But how do we understand the unconscious mind, and thus rhetorically appeal to those symbolic aspects in our own writing? Sure, we can study psychology, pour over Freud, Jung, and Campbell, swim in the murky waters of philosophy with Plato and Nietzsche and Sartre, and that will certainly provide a foundational set of terms, structures, and principles. But we also need practical experience, an understanding of our own unconscious mind. This is where the analysis of our dreams can come into play.

I’ll do a little exercise here as an example. This is a dream I had about a month ago, right smack in the middle of the Interterm where I was teaching two sections of a three-hour, four-day-a-week (for four weeks) course, while simultaneously planning for the Spring semester. I was a bit stressed.

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Affecting Positive Change

Last month, Paul Krugman, the liberal Nobel prize winner and New York Times columnist, was invited by the Occupy Wall Street protesters to speak at one of the demonstrations. When he declined, citing “restrictions that come with the privilege” of writing for the Times; “one of them is not crossing the line between advocate and activist,” many in the movement cried foul.

He was a sell-out, they declared, a “class-A hypocrite,” “part of the problem.” No matter that he ran a blog that allowed him to speak loudly in support of the movement, nor that he wrote columns advocating for them in the Times, the third most circulated newspaper in the nation. It was unforgivable that he would refuse to jeopardize his “corporate” gig to preach to the choir.

However, if we consider Lloyd Bitzer’s extended definition of the rhetorical situation, we see that Krugman  is smartly making a choice that will best allow him to create rhetoric that can best reach an audience who could be changed by his message and could make changes because of it.

This doesn’t mean that the OWS protesters can’t affect change, or can’t be affected by Krugman’s rhetoric. The problem is that they already agree with him; they cite his work as a foundation for their ideology. Any “positive change” that a Krugman ground-level speech would affect would be minimal, amounting to a brief jolt of energy and moral.

On the other hand, the NYT reaches over 1.1 million readers. Some most certainly are part of the liberal “choir,” many are at least sympathetic, but others, particularly those outside of New York or New England, don’t know much about the movement, and some may even have unfavorable impressions. The point is that Krugman can reach all of them, and thus has a much greater ability to affect positive change.

This is the key to rhetorical power and social agency. When you form a rhetorical argument, consider to whom it is directed. How much positive change can you affect in your intended audience? Are you preaching to the choir, or are you attempting to convince those on the fence, those with limited experience and knowledge of the issue, or even those who oppose your perspective? The choices you make in audience will determine the rhetorical appeals and constraints of your argument, and also the power you have to affect the most positive change.

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Why the Academic Blog?

“Imagine you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar.” (From Kenneth Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form)

At its essence, the academic blog is the oar dipping into the tumultuous depths of discourse. It is your way of entering and continuing the discussion, the “unending conversation” that Burke writes about. And I think that Burke’s metaphor is incomplete, at least as I’m using it to illustrate “discourse”; it presents a linear trajectory and a limited space in which this conversation and argument occur, but the reality is that an infinite number of arguments are simultaneously occurring throughout time and space. An essay arguing against Marx’s The Communist Manifesto is entering multiple discourses from multiple eras, with all the social, political, and cultural implications that come with them.

A better metaphor would be that of a vast ocean with hundreds of water craft above and below the surface. They communicate by two-way radio, by digital transmissions, by shouting across the water. Boats come and go, some clustering in groups for awhile, others diving deep below the surface. Some boats are bigger than others. But all are sharing information about the ocean, how it looks, why it is the way it is, what they should do with it. And this conversation ebbs and flows, changing depending on where in the water it takes place.

The Internet and its infinite connections to past and present (and maybe even future) forms of discourse is part of this ocean. And the academic blog is a small boat riding the swells.

You may take this boat anywhere in the ocean. You may make connections otherwise impossible on dry land. You may improve the boat, making it bigger, faster, able to dive to unknown depths.

So where will you take your boat? What will you discover? Who will you meet?

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Rereading SlaughterHouse-Five after twelve years and two Master degrees, and it is certainly a different experience. I just read one passage that I had to post here:

Billy couldn’t read Tralfamadorian, of course, but he could at least see how the books were laid out — in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. Billy commented that the clumps might be telegrams.

“Exactly,” said the voice.

“They are telegrams?”

“There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you’re right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message — describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

Hmm. Sounds like Twitter, doesn’t it? I think I’ll follow @Tralfamadore.

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The Five Paragraph Essay Syndrome

Before I begin my rant, let me establish this qualifier: the five paragraph essay format has its place in composition. It’s a simple formula that helps beginning writers understand the basic structure of an academic essay—introduction and thesis, supporting reasons, evidence, and examples, conclusion. The three supporting paragraphs force beginners to think up multiple reasons and example, helping them achieve two pages of writing when they could barely make a page.

The problem is that this simple formula, meant to teach beginning writers, has become the end-all for essay writing, and we can blame the SAT for that. Read more »

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Independent Revision Through Collaboration

I’m sure many of you have wondered why English teachers always place students into groups to revise papers. Is it just time filler? Are English teachers lazy, avoiding reading student drafts?

The answer lies in the power of collaborative learning, “based on the idea that learning is a naturally social act in which participants talk among themselves” (Gerlach 8). As an instructor, I can tell you all of the expectations I have for an assignment, providing rubrics and even student samples. But when you actively participate in the revision of your peers’ work, you see what is working and not working in a very real way…and you more easily translate this discovery to your own writing. Read more »

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A Question of Credibility

As many of you pointed out in our online discussion, the question of the role of blogging in the academic community comes down to credibility. Academic papers published in journals submit to a rigorous peer review process. You assume that an article or essay published in a peer-reviewed journal is a credible source of research. Blogs, on the other hand, lack the sort of vertical structure of review that creates “credibility.”

Yet there are many ways in which an academic blog can still be a valid and productive asset to a discourse community. First, we must remove the stereotype of the blog as a personal journal full of opinion and ego. Certainly a scholarly blogger might write posts that fit this stereotype, but as any perfunctory search through hubs like the Academic Blog Portal will demonstrate, most academic blogs focus on the research process. This can take a variety forms and search a variety of purposes: posing questions of inquiry, chronicling problems in the process, reviewing sources and research, even posting drafts of papers.

The key here is the community involvement. While conferences and journals provide access to ongoing, current research in any given field, there is a delay between the actual research process and the publication of findings. Research blogs remove this delay, utilizing the factor of immediacy to gain useful (and sometimes not-so-useful) feedback from the discourse community. Thus blogs, wikis, forums, and even tools like Twitter and Facebook create a space for real-time discussion and sharing of discourse. They allow community members from across the globe to participate in the creation of knowledge.

Digital publication of scholarly work that falls outside the vertical power structure of peer review and the academy will suffer from a perceived lack of credibility. Does that mean that these works are any less valid?

The big question posed in our Friday online discussion was how to evaluate the credibility of digital publications that fall outside the standard academic vertical power structure.

Interestingly enough, the Modern Language Association has produced a wiki that attempts to answer this question. They pose questions, best practices in Digital Work, and places to find an expert to help with the evaluation. This, of course, places the responsibility of the evaluation on individual readers or organizations. But it might be the first step towards shifting the power of academic publication away from the standard journal hierarchy.

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Finding Your Voice


It’s the single most important aspect of blogging. Remember, the web log started as a personal, online journal, and that basic origin is still the central point of most blogs. Without a strong authentic voice, your blog loses credibility and personal appeal. The best blogs are those that speak to us, that connect us directly to the blogger.

It’s why I followed Seattle Seahawks sports blogger John Morgan. His breakdown of game film was always insightful, but sometimes got lost in the minutiae, and while his opinions were strongly supported, I didn’t always agree with him. But I came back week after week because I knew that he loved the Seahawks as much as I did, that he was first and foremost a fan, and that he was the kind of guy I could have a beer with and talk football for hours. I’d never met him, never heard him speak, never even knew what he looked like. It was his voice that I connected to. Read more »

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QuickPress: the Double-Edged Sword

One of the key advantages of blogging is the ability to quickly publish and distribute content to a broad audience. We have seen the real-world effects of “quickpress” in the blogger-fueled protests in the Arab world. No longer are writers confined to the slow time-tables of print publishers, editors, and review panels. This post itself was published within hours of its conception. It is truly a freedom that writers of all stripes joyously embrace.

But with this freedom of immediate publishing comes the danger of unfiltered thought. In a world where instant gratification has become the norm, we more often than not succumb to the temptation of favoring speed over studied contemplation. Countless bloggers have realized the consequences of speed-publishing, blasting out ill-conceived compositions that they later regret.

This is the double-edged sword of blogging. We must realize that while the technology and format allow us to by-pass publishing barriers, this does not mean that we should not take the time to fully develop our thoughts and revise our compositions.

According to BlogPulse , there are now over 156 million blogs on World Wide Web, with approximately 57 blogs being created per minute. How does YOUR blog rise to the top? How can you stand out?

The first step is to create well-developed, error-free, finely tuned posts. Your first thought is rarely your best. Prewrite. Outline. Draft. Revise. Revise again.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t instantly compose a thought that has popped into your head. In fact, as the composition scholar Peter Elbow points out, this exercise of “freewriting” helps you discover “your natural way of producing words,” the sound, texture, and rhythm that leads to voice, “which is the main source of power in your writing.” Finding this voice is key to creating authentic content that your blogging audience will connect with. So spew forth everything in your head; get it all on paper. Just don’t post it immediately.

The writing process is still relevant; hell, it’s even MORE relevant now. Embrace the freedom of instant press, but beware the dangers of unfiltered thought.

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