On the Nature of Inquiry: Syllabus

Reference Information for Fall 2006

James Collier
Office: 433 Shanks
Hours: 1-2 M,W and by appointment
(O) 231-8340
Virtual Hours: 10-12 T
AOL IM: CollierVT
A copy of the abridged course syllabus is available as a PDF.

Course Description

"Academics are concerned with ideas, whereas intellectuals busy themselves with the bearing of ideas on a whole social order. And while academics are largely confined to industrial production units known as universities, intellectuals seek to occupy a more public sphere, as journalists, political commentators and opinion shapers."
— Terry Eagleton

Perhaps Terry Eagleton's distinction between "academics" and "intellectuals" strikes us as an old saw — a serviceable truism regarding the locations, aims and processes of inquiry. However, in the bedlam that marks graduate school, we rarely pause to examine the old saws or question the presuppositions on which our inquiry proceeds. Taking the distinction between academics and intellectuals as a starting point, we will look carefully at our judgments regarding the nature and purpose of academic research and inquiry. We will question the connection between academic research and inquiry and public debates on issues of your choosing (in, for example, the sciences, social sciences and humanities). Additionally, we will examine our intuitions regarding: the ways in which discipline-based inquiry is formulated, scripted and answered; the practical nature and performance of reading; the functions of citation and appeals to disciplinary, canonical and intellectual elites; the influence of implicit and explicit norms on the conduct of inquiry; and the possibilities of reflection and inquiry over time. To help examine our intuitions, the course invites a series of questions:

These questions will provide points from we will survey the landscape of current academic and intellectual inquiry. Consequently, the broad intellectual goals of the course will be:

Course Learning Goals

In asking you to analyze and to conduct inquiry inside, and outside, of university walls, the learning goals for this course are:

• To pose clearly considered, concisely worded, evidence-based questions as the basis for academic and intellectual inquiry ;

• To examine the ways in which the formulation of intellectual problems anticipates their solution;

• To analyze and develop normative criteria as the basis for a philosophy of inquiry;

• To map the affect of assumed definitions of commonplace terms — such as "public," "democratic," "intellectual" — on academic discourse;

• To re-imagine forms and forums for academic research and expression.


The assignments develop in a two-part (div ding the semester in half) sequence. In the sequence, however, I have pushed philosophical considerations (in the philosophy of inquiry assignment for example) forward. Traditionally, philosophy is understood entering at the end of inquiry to pass judgment. As put rather poetically by Hegel in Philosophy of Right (1820):

While one ought to be circumspect when challenging eminent thinkers and writers, a contention of this class is that our ability to critically assess and judge inquiry have dulled while we have celebrated"the endless proliferation of inquiries." We need, then, to bring philosophy into the light. The course assignments seek to do that. Through deliberate attention to how we pose questions, form problems, and examine presuppositions, we begin the process of re-imagining inquiry. The philosophies we develop will provide the basis for inquiry later in the course and beyond the classroom.

The assignments and grade percentages follow:

Question Formation: 15% (individual grade)
Proposal: 10% (collaborative grade)
Idea Forum: and Philosophy of Inquiry: 30% (collaborative grade)
Debates: 15% (individual grade)/5% (collaborative grade)
Central Question Analysis: 25% (individual grade)

The Question Formation Assignment will be graded by the number of question sets you provide. The grades will be as follows:

Texts (in order of course appearance)