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Communities of Inquiry

I spent the last two afternoons in a workshop for professors who are thinking of teaching Carleton’s new first year seminars next year, so I’m now well steeped in thoughts about first year students. And the more I think about it, the more I think that my main goal for first year students is for them to understand the far-reaching impact and usefulness of understanding the concept of communities of inquiry.

Say What?
This is a stuffed cow. (Photo by Catherine Woolley)

Think about it. If you know who you’re talking with in this vast thing we call “scholarly communication,” it helps you make appropriate choices about everything from topic to citation style to rhetorical style. It reinforces the idea that you’re contributing something to a conversation rather than just parroting back a set of facts. It allows you to evaluate sources and arguments (none of which are inherently “good” or “bad” regardless of context). It helps you know which words are meaningful and therefore ripe for use as search terms. And perhaps most important, it helps you decide what you’ll need to back up with evidence in the first place. After all, only the things that count as odd or new or controversial within your community need explicit backing up, and these things can change radically from community to community. The omnipresent pieces of your community’s world rarely need explanation.

Published inFirst Year StudentsTeaching and Learning


  1. One of the difficulties for first-year students is that their community of inquiry changes by the hour. In the morning they are talking about literary works and in the afternoon it’s time for chemistry. While understanding how and why the assumptions are changing, So I think helping them understand that these communities exist and affect scholarship is a great idea. I doubt it can go much farther than that, thought, until students are doing upper-level work in a single discipline.

  2. Iris Iris

    Actually, I think that it’s because their communities change so frequently that it’s important that they understand what’s going on. Otherwise they get frustrated by changing and seemingly arbitrary expectations. These communities could be “your classmates” or “your professor’s colleagues,” but these should be defined (just like good writing assignments define an audience so that students make appropriate choices, actually).

    I don’t think first year students will become sophisticated navigators of these multiple communities, but I think that knowing that they exist, and the implications of their existence may help them understand that the various expectations aren’t simply arbitrary.

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