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1.1 Examining the Status Quo

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand your roles and responsibilities as a person engaged in higher education.
  2. Explore the relationship between higher education and the status quo.
  3. Learn ways to examine the status quo in your surroundings consistently and productively.

Why are you here?

The question sounds simple enough, and you may well have developed some stock answers by now.

I’m here because…

  • I want to be a ______________ when I grow up.
  • college graduates make more money.
  • my parents wanted me to go here.
  • my boyfriend or girlfriend got accepted here.
  • I couldn’t get in anywhere else.
  • I just got laid off.

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:

  • What is the status quo of _________? (descriptive)
  • Why is _______ the way it is? (diagnosticA kind of inquiry meant to figure out why something is the way it is.)
  • What (or who) made ________ this way? (forensicA kind of inquiry about the circumstances that led something to be the way it currently is.)
  • Was _______ ever different in the past? (historical)
  • Who benefits from keeping ______ the way it is? (investigative)

Only after these relatively objective questions have been asked, researched, and answered might you hazard a couple of additional, potentially more contentious questions:

  • How could or should ______ be different in the future? (speculative)
  • What steps would be required to make _______ different? (policy based)

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.

What Is the Status Quo of Academic Writing?

  • Writing can and should be taught and learned in a certain, systematic way.
  • Writing has been taught and learned in much the same way over time.
  • Becoming a good writer is a matter of learning the forms (genres, modes, etc.) of academic writing.
  • Students are blank slates who know next to nothing about how to write.
  • Writing done outside of academic settings (e-mail, texting, graffiti, comics, video game design, music lyrics, etc.) is not really writing.
  • Knowing what you think is a must before you turn to writing.
  • Writing is largely a solitary pursuit.
  • Good writing can happen in the absence of good reading.
  • Using agreed-on norms and rubrics for evaluation is how experts can measure writing quality based on students’ responses to standardized prompts.

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):

  • Why is academic writing the way it is?
  • What (or who) made academic writing this way?
  • Was academic writing ever different in the past?
  • Who benefits from keeping academic writing the way it is?
  • How could or should academic writing be different in the future?
  • What steps would be required to make academic writing different?

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.

Key Takeaways

  • You don’t have to know exactly why you’re here in college, but you do have to get into the habit of asking, reasking, and answering that question daily.
  • Society’s expected return on its investment in you as a college student (and your expectation of yourself) is that you will be in a position to examine the status quo and when necessary, help change it for the better.
  • Learning to ask certain kinds of questions about the status quo will establish a habit of mindfulness and will lead to more productive thinking and writing about your surroundings.

Exercises

  1. So why are you here? (Be honest, keep it private if you want, but repeat the exercise for the next twenty-eight days and see if your answer changes.)
  2. 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

    • What is the status quo of ________? (descriptive)
    • Why is _______ the way it is? (diagnostic)
    • What (or who) made ________ this way? (forensic)
    • Was _______ ever different in the past? (historical)
    • Who benefits from keeping ______ the way it is? (investigative)
    • How could or should ______ be different in the future? (speculative)
    • What steps would be required to make _______ different? (policy based)

    Some Possible Topics

    • Fashion (or, if you like, a certain fashion trend or fad)
    • Sports (or, if you like, a certain sport)
    • Filmmaking
    • Video games
    • Music (or a particular genre of music)
    • Electoral politics
    • Internet or computer technology
    • US foreign policy
    • Health care
    • Energy consumption
    • Parenting
    • Advertising
    • A specific academic discipline you are currently studying in another course
  3. Do some research on an aspect of K–12 or college-level education that you suspect has maintained the status quo for too long. Apply the mindfulness questions to the topic, performing some research and making policy recommendations as necessary.