Shifting from Information towards Inquiry

Shifting from Information towards Inquiry

When we editors coalesced around the idea of inquiry as the fundamental student learning objective, we began to think of ways to prompt it in the Readers, primarily in the introductions. We imagined several components that would deliver information—timelines, snapshot boxes of dates, locations, genres—and others that would provide “entry points” and invite an active engagement with the reading. Once we had identified those components, the next step was to write or rewrite introductions using them.

I chose a rewrite. I had written over a dozen introductions for the old HUM 124 Asheville Reader, but more recently, I had chosen a passage of Cicero for the theme of “Wealth, Poverty, and Social Justice” and written an introduction for it. The reading seemed to work well, according to the faculty: it came from Cicero’s Second Catilinarian Speech, addressed to the Roman People the day after Cicero’s denunciation of Catiline in the Senate caused Catiline to flee Rome. In this speech to the people, Cicero identifies several groups who support Catiline, openly or secretly, within Rome or elsewhere, and most of them support him because they are in debt and they expect Catiline to cancel debts—or so Cicero says.

We know relatively little about the Roman economy, so this passage is interesting for some of the small revelations that Cicero makes—for example, that some farms were switching from sustenance farming to “investment farming,” presumably with products that could bring higher returns in export abroad or for growing urban markets. But we use this passage for Cicero’s principal rhetorical frame, which is not economic, but moral: debt is bad, those in debt are morally suspect, and their support for Catiline confirms that. Not all of the groups that Cicero identifies are characterized by their debt. The last groups of Catiline’s supporters are simply characterized for their criminal and/or “deviant” behavior, which underscores Cicero’s theme of the immorality of debt.

For my original introduction, I read a little about the economic background to this text and this period in terms of agriculture, war, and debt. With that, I felt that I had all I needed to explain not only the text but the reasons why we chose it for this theme and how it could be compared and contrasted with other readings in the week. My original introduction set about delivering that information. For the revised introduction, I was thinking about questions that I could provide that would give the students “entry points” into the reading. I also thought about any way that I could encourage the students to engage the text more actively, whether through direct questions or bolded key words or comparisons with other material.

It became clear immediately that this revision could not be a simple addition of questions before the reading, in the margins, or in the text of the introduction itself. Paradoxically, a focus on active student learning required more subtraction than addition from my introduction. The goal of the original introduction was to deliver information. In the process, I often obstructed the goal of the revised introduction, to promote and prompt inquiry.

Let me explain. In the first paragraph of the original introduction I identified Catiline and Cicero as well as Catiline’s financial status and electoral defeat that led him to conclude that rebellion was his only solution. In the second, I explained the context for the speech that we were reading, namely, its audience and general messages. In the revised introduction, I saw relatively little need to change any of that material, at least at first.

In the third paragraph of my first introduction, however, I explained Cicero’s rhetorical strategy, as I do in this blog post above. Here it is:

Our two primary sources about the Catilinarian Conspiracy, Cicero and Sallust, characterize Catiline and his followers as irredeemably wicked. In the Second Catilinarian Oration, delivered before the people of Rome on Nov. 8, the day after Catiline’s departure, Cicero constructs a stark dichotomy between good and evil, which uncomfortably puts everyone in financial distress on the evil side of the balance. Despite his overt moralization, Cicero knew that debt was a serious problem in Italy and in Rome particularly, and the following passage illustrates both the problem and the ways that Cicero masks it for the people with simplifications and caricatures. In private letters and in his work “On Duties” (De Officiis 2.84), Cicero claims that debt was never worse than during his consulship and that he addressed it; but in this passage he has a different goal.

In the bolded passages, I realized that I tell those who read the introduction what I want them to see or conclude, and I offer my own negative evaluation of Cicero’s strategy. That was the simplest change. My first revision was deletion.

The next day, Nov. 8th, Cicero addressed an assembly of the Roman People. He knew that Catiline had supporters among the crowd. As part of his speech, he describes the types of people who followed Catiline. This is one of two primary sources about the Catilinarian Conspiracy, the other being Sallust, a historian writing a generation later. Both characterize Catiline and his followers as irredeemably wicked. Cicero knew that debt was a serious problem in Italy and in Rome particularly, and the following passage illustrates the problem. In private letters and in his work “On Duties” (De Officiis 2.84), Cicero claims that debt was never worse than during his consulship and that he addressed it with legislative measures; but in this passage he adopts a different tone.

I realized that if I hoped that students would compare Cicero’s moralization with the representation of debt and poverty in other texts, such as the Odyssey, the Book of Amos, or New Testament texts, or with contemporary characterizations, I could prompt them to do so with our “prepared and ready” (PARs) strategies to encourage more active reading, like the following:

  • Think about the moral descriptions that Cicero uses for those who follow Catiline. Are his descriptions still in contemporary use? Why or why not?
  • List several reasons that Cicero gives for debt in Roman society. How do they compare with contemporary sources of debt? Are any of them “valid” and “good” reasons for debt in contemporary views?
  • How does Cicero’s presentation of debt and those in debt compare to views in other works?
  • Imagine Cicero’s audience for this speech. Do you think that Cicero addresses them as if they are sympathetic to Cicero or to Catiline? What do his goals seem to be in this passage?

Once I started thinking this way, I began to consider everything else in terms of the goals of inquiry. I had packed footnotes into this reading, too, with information about the Roman political, economic, and agricultural systems, as well as comparative material from other ancient authors and scholarly interpretation from contemporary ones. I realized that a lot of that information was for a reader like myself: if I found it interesting and relevant, I put it in. I doubt that some of it was of any help to a reader looking for a first foothold in the text—and if I was directing students from the reading to a note that did not help, I was probably impeding their engagement rather than enhancing it. So I revised the notes with a view towards that reader, pruning back some of the showier foliage in some notes and cutting others altogether. About a third of all my footnote text disappeared, and more may need to go if student feedback indicates that it is not clear or obviously relevant.

This kind of approach can become infectious (in a good way). I’ve also turned it reflectively to past practices. When HUM 124 had weekly lectures, I gave one on Rome for years that I was proud of. I had developed a presentation that gave students a handle on Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire that I titled “The Backwards Glance,” which focused on the Roman tendency to define itself by its (often mythical) past even when that past was no longer vital or of questionable relevance. (It helped to show the same strain in America, e.g. with an image of a protestor dressed as a Revolutionary War figure or Betsy Ross.) My colleagues seemed to like it (so they said), students seemed to grasp it, and it made sense. Why would I change it?

Looking back now, of course, I see that my handy presentation was a totalizing narrative that did little or nothing to encourage inquiry, unless it was to see how one could extend my narrative. I influenced the texts that we read that week, which supported the narrative, and I talked about that narrative in our faculty meetings. My narrative was not an original or profound insight, but it worked, and without a clear student learning objective to question it, I had little reason to rethink it, much less to revise it.

As we write our introductions, we will all be mindful of balancing information with inquiry, that is, with providing the needed background context to provide our students with what they need to engage the text actively, with questions. But if my experience serves as a basis, this relation between information and inquiry is not simply one of balance, but of overall orientation. An orientation to information fits an audience who are already engaged and want more background (like faculty readers). We are focused on writing for students, who need “entry points” and may be passively inclined readers. Such a change in orientation and learning objective seems likely to lead to fundamentally different types of writing. Or at least, a fundamentally different type of thought process during writing. I am used to asking the relevance of this bit of information or line of thought, whether it belongs in the main text, or in a footnote, or in the article at all. I’m not used to thinking about the potential for information or narrative to be an obstacle to inquiry. But I’m making the change.

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