Dr. Jenny Rice thinks that you are an archaeologist. Not just archaeologists, but curators, reporters, researchers, quality controllers, historians, archivists, and tour guides. All of this barely scratches the surface of our roles, in addition to—and separate from—our chosen studies, whether it’s something relevant to our class like English writing, or miles off point like a chemistry/Portuguese/music performance triple major. We all have a duty, a compulsion, an obligation to the public and ourselves to be archaeologists. In some ways, any responsible citizenship is archaeology, in the sense that voting and other duties require a citizenry informed by inquiry. For example, in William Least Heat-Moon’s work PrairyErth: A Deep Map, staring at dirt and grass was the beginning of something much more grand than Chase County, Kansas deserves by most accounts. As Heat-Moon dug (literally and figuratively) he found a wealth of information that shaped the land and everything in it. His deep map aims to “merely show” the audience what one barren landscape has to offer. In doing so, he turned a book into something much larger. PrairyErth shines because instead of creating something new, it uses the old to elicit something from the reader—something the reader may not have known was there to begin with. Just like archaeologists dig for artifacts, we would do well to follow their example in the classroom.
We can’t dig for physical artifacts, obviously (that would be weird) but rather the act of inquiry and exploring whatever threads we find unearths hidden ideas. Often, within the classic paradigm of passionate exigencies driving social action, “merely showing” is the first (lesser) half of the job with the higher value resolution closing out the piece or pieces of rhetoric. I know I thought so when I first read “Inquiry as Social Action.” It was also the case on the second, third, and fourth read-throughs. Probably the fifth, too (I don’t remember). In my line of work, problems are pointed out and a recommended solution follows immediately, or else the problem is ignored with the pointer left to cope silently. And as the situation calls for it, that’s okay. In some professions, mere inquiry could be reckless, foolish, or outright dangerous. In the classroom, and plenty of other places too numerous to list, our society-wide presumption that resolutions are necessary only tells one half of the story.
As for the other half, here’s what Dr. Rice has to say: “Rather than closing down investigations, the work of rhetorical inquiry actually encourages a sustained and ongoing investigation through the works of tracing, collecting, archiving, and reading the networks” (179). This statement grounds “Inquiry as Social Action” in a way unlike anything else in our reading. The better part of these thirty three and a half pages may offer good insight to some, but it is very theoretical in nature. When the rubber meets the road, this is what it’s all about, according to the author. All the talk in the world of “asymmetrical networks” and “ethical imperatives” and “redistributed competencies” is worthless if these ideas presented are supposed to remain ethereal and hidden away where they cannot or will not affect our writing and our audiences at the very least. All the theory in the world will do no good if it is not made practical. Real life is not a thought experiment. Real life is not happening on a lab bench where we can throw away bad data and try again tomorrow. Real life is one hundred percent practical.
Through all of this talk of inquiry, it is important to keep in mind that this is not the be-all and end-all in the rhetorical situation. Passionate exigencies drive social action every day, and this is well and good. According to Dr. Rice, “Such a project is not without limitations. Not everyone will be satisfied with the results of such an experiment. Indeed, there are times when we must make definitive arguments that leave aside inquiry” (194). I mentioned earlier that the classic approach only tells half of the story, but the flip side is that inquiry only tells half the story, as well. These two methods, (curiosity driven and passion driven) do not compete. They work together in parallel to communicate ideas fully. Perhaps you or someone you know gets stoked about BP, Paris, Austin, New Orleans, or Chase County. More power to them. Perhaps you don’t fired up about Pittsburgh, and that’s okay, too. Those who belong to this later group can inquire, collect, and merely show in our upcoming local research project.
Inquiry doesn’t just tell stories, it inspires new ones.