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Why are you here?
The question sounds simple enough, and you may well have developed some stock answers by now.
I’m here because…
Maybe the truth is, deep down, that you don’t really know yet why you’re here, and that’s OK. By the end of your college experience, you’ll have developed several good answers for why you were here, and they won’t necessarily look anything like your first stock response.
But what does this personal question about your motivations for being in college have to do with examining the status quo? Well, the first way to learn how to examine the status quo (literally, “the state in which”) is to examine your place in it. By enrolling in higher education, you’re making a choice to develop your skills and intellect beyond a baseline level of proficiency. Choosing to become a college-educated person obligates you to leave your mark on the world.
You’re investing time and money into your college education, presumably for the real benefits it will provide you, but it’s important to remember that others are investing in you as well. Perhaps family members are providing financial support, or the federal government is providing a Pell Grant or a low-interest loan, or an organization or alumni group is awarding you a scholarship. If you’re attending a state school, the state government is investing in you because your tuition (believe it or not) covers only a small portion of the total cost to educate you.
So what is the return a free, independent, evolving society expects on its investment in you, and what should you be asking of yourself? Surely something more than mere maintenance of the status quo should be in order. Rather, society expects you to be a member of a college-educated citizenry and workforce capable of improving the lives and lot of future generations.
Getting into the habit of “examining” (or even “challenging”) the status quo doesn’t necessarily mean putting yourself into a constant state of revolution or rebellion. Rather, the process suggests a kind of mindfulnessA habit of sharpening your consciousness of your surroundings, attained by posing productive questions, slowing down your thinking, and withholding judgment., a certain disposition to ask a set of questions about your surroundings:
Only after these relatively objective questions have been asked, researched, and answered might you hazard a couple of additional, potentially more contentious questions:
These last two types of questions are more overtly controversial, especially if they are applied to status-quo practices that have been in place for many years or even generations. But asking even the seemingly benign questions in the first category will directly threaten those forces and interests that benefit most from the preservation of the status quo. You will encounter resistance not only from this already powerful group but also from reformers with competing interests who have different opinions about where the status quo came from or how it should be changed.
These concerns about “going public” with your ideas about the status quo are covered in more detail in Chapter 4 "Joining the Conversation". For now, before you risk losing heart or nerve for fear of making too many enemies by roiling the waters, think about the benefits the habit of privately examining the status quo might have for your thinking, writing, and learning.
Since we began this section with a discussion about education and your place in it, let’s close by having you exercise this habit on that same subject. For starters, let’s just apply the questioning habit to some of what you may have been taught about academic writing over the years. Here is one description of the status quo thinking on the subject that might be worth some examination.
Your list might look a little different, depending on your experience as a student writer. But once you have amassed your description of the status quo, you’re ready to run each element of it through the rest of the mindfulness questions that appear earlier in the section. Or more broadly, you can fill in the blanks of those mindfulness questions with “academic writing” (as you have just described it):
Asking these kinds of questions about a practice like academic writing, or about any of the other subjects you will encounter in college, might seem like a recipe for disaster, especially if you were educated in a K–12 environment that did not value critical questioning of authority. After all, most elementary, middle, and high schools are not in the business of encouraging dissent from their students daily. Yes, there are exceptions, but they are rare, and all the more rare in recent years thanks to the stranglehold of standardized testing and concerns about school discipline. In college, on the other hand, even at the introductory level, the curriculum rewards questioning and perspective about the development and future of the given discipline under examination. Certainly, to be successful at the graduate, postgraduate, and professional level, you must be able to assess, refine, and reform the practices and assumptions of the discipline or profession of which you will be a fully vested member.
Near the end of this section, you were invited to apply the mindfulness questions to traditional practices in the teaching and learning of academic writing. Now it’s time to try those questions on a topic of your choice or on one of the following topics. Fill in the blank in each case with the chosen topic and answer the resulting question. Keep in mind that this exercise, in some cases, could require a fair amount of research but might also net a pretty substantial essay.
The Mindfulness Questions
Some Possible Topics