Questions About Questions: How Inquiry Changed My First Week of Classes

Questions About Questions: How Inquiry Changed My First Week of Classes

The first week of classes has flown by in its usual whirlwind – meeting new students, seeing colleagues after some time, and lining up logistics. While my google calendar slowly turns into a block of dark crimson as it becomes encroached by various committee responsibilities amidst class timings and office hours, this crimson tide is offset by the inherent potential of beginning a class once again from the top. This do-over intentionally brings the knowledge of previous experiential iterations forward to reshape the encounter and engagement with various topics and materials anew each time.

While I may have new insights and pedagogical strategies to bring to the table every time I teach a class again, what makes each course truly refreshed is a room full of new students. Each iteration of the course is unique because of who is in the room, and that it is this variable learning community that creates the largest degree of change in terms of how we explore the materials together.

I am teaching Humanities 124 this semester after a hiatus of two years. Due to the work on the Humanities Readers this summer, I have already changed my usual initial framework for how I began the course this past week. Because the editors have decided to shape the Readers in ways that aim to assist with the formulation and practice of inquiry, I began our first class meeting with a conversation about questions – not questions that I provided in advance as the basis for discussion, but about what questions do as different pathways for interacting with sources of knowledge. In contrast, on the first day of class in past years I had given a prompt to explore the theme of heroism in order to begin our discussion about two major characters in The Epic of Gilgamesh – a leading question weighted towards viewing these characters through a particular lens that may unintentionally close off other lines of inquiry.

The strategy of shifting from a thematic lens to the inquiry itself is a pedagogical risk, especially in a room of first-year Honors students who have been rewarded for their ability to ‘know the answers’. It means that I have to be as clear as possible in being able to explain the value of taking this different approach. While I anticipate this language will continue to evolve, I said something like this on the first day of class:

I think what we are aiming at building together over the course of the semester is to become clearer about what tools for inquiry we want to populate our toolboxes with, but also learn how to sharpen them, employ them for the right tasks, get rid of any that seem to not be useful, and even add more sophisticated tools over time. Then, no matter what material or project is before you, in this class or other contexts in life, you will become more adept at identifying the right tools for the task at hand, and have a stronger foundation for analysis, including a capacity for seeking out and valuing different perspectives and approaches.

They were intrigued as we took our first steps. There were moments of predictable awkwardness as we began to tack back and forth between asking questions and taking a moment to step back and identify what types of questions we were engaging. Was it a content question to clarify what was being said in the text? Was it a topical question that had correlates in other passages to begin to expand our understanding of a complex idea? Which questions led to more sparks of wanting to add a perspective to the rhythm of our inquiry? At the end of the first class meeting, I invited them to write down which questions were the most illuminating so far that they wanted to add to their own toolboxes.

Shifting the initial opening strategy has already shown early signs of a more student-focused approach. In the second class meeting that week, they requested to be in charge of the discussion. Now, it doesn’t mean they knew how to be ‘in charge’ of the discussion to its fullest productive, collaborative capacity yet, but having the confidence to want to attempt to do this is a receptive starting point. We agreed on an initial format: students would offer a single observation, grounded in a phrase or passage from the source, and if possible followed by a clarifying, critical or comparative question that invites others to respond directly.

This structure avoids the two extremes of students wanting on the one hand to give everything that they were thinking about in one unfocused gush of words, or on the other hand what one colleague of mine calls “the popcorn effect” – each person popping off an idea but not necessarily in relation to each other or in relation to a particular passage. I was allowed to intervene when the discussion needed readjustment, to add my own perspective, or facilitate inviting others whose body language indicated they wanted to jump in but were not sure how to do so. It is a work in progress, but I am already delighted by the desire of students to be more in charge of their educational growth.

In a future post, I’ll explore how these inquiry-centered adventures in my own class reflect certain features that are under consideration by the editors for shaping the format of the Readers. I also want to convey how a broader commitment to including students in the Reader editorial revision process has guided some of our decisions about these learning features. For now, happy start of the new semester to all!

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