Digital Investigations (and inquiry projects): The Gold Standard(s)?

For all stduents in UNIV200 at VCU, the culminating experience is an inquiry project. Given that the course is a “research writing” course, you can surmise that an inquiry project is, essentially, a project that involves research and writing. Typically, and not surprisingly, that means students write a research paper. As I understand it, there is some variability among instructors, but generally, those are fairly standard 10-15 page papers with APA style references. For most UNIV200 students, there is an additional expectation that the standard research paper will be transmediated; i.e. it will be composed in a new medium. For the digital engagement pilot version of UNIV200 this summer (the #thoughtvectors course), we are asking students to start with multiple media in mind. That is, we are asking them to do an inquiry project that results initially and directly in a multimedia composition. What might that look/feel like? I usually hesitate to give examples when students ask for them; I fear they become anchors and prophylactic to learning and creativity. But, if I set the bar impossibly high for an 8-week undergraduate course, then those concerns are alleviated. So, I offer The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates as the gold standard for UNIV200 inquiry projects.

(click on the image below to read the piece)

2014-06-17 19_08_13-The Case for Reparations - The Atlantic


UNIV200 is (usually) titled “Inquiry and the Craft of Argument.” Working backwards, it is quite obvious that Coates is making an argument in the piece. That’s exactly what it is; he’s making the case for reparations. Is his argument perfect and unassailable? I don’t feel credible answering that1, but his argument is logically reasoned and supported with LOTS of evidence of multiple forms. Logically reasoned and supported by lots of evidence of multiple forms is a tremendous starting point for UNIV200 inquiry projects.

If we’re interested in the “craft” of argument, then we ought to be concerned with form. For this “digital engagement pilot,” students should compose to and for the Web. That is to say, students should take advantages of the affordances of the Web for composition. The Coates piece is multimedia (text, images, videos, graphics, etc.), it includes the occasional link (mostly via the Reporters Notebook feature in the sidebar), and can be read via infinite scroll or by navigating through a Table of Contents (which is effectively a collection of links to parts of the page). There is also a space for comments via a link at the bottom of the piece (How many “research papers” that students write are available for public comment?). Finally, the interactive data elements are very much “of the Web.”

Then, of course, there is the inquiry piece. It’s hard to know how long Coates spent working on this piece (surely LOTS more than the 6-8 weeks UNIV200 students will have to work on their inquiry project), but it is quite clear that he spent a LONG time researching the piece.

In short, The Case for Reparations is a thoroughly researched, well-reasoned argumentative essay that was purposefully written to and for the Web. That’s not a bad overall standard for inquiry projects for the UNIV200 digital engagement pilot.

Again, this is an impossibly high bar for any undergraduate. It’s also a very serious topic. I don’t want my students to think they have to choose such a serious topic. For example, here’s an essay that is another fine example of a possible inquiry project. What if your research question was something like, “What is kitty litter and where does it come from?

Yes, kitty litter. Awesome.

What are some additional exemplars of thoroughly researched, well-reasoned argumentative essays that were purposefully written to and for the Web?

  1. Coates’ argument has received plenty of coverage and a number have tried to counter his argument. []

1 thought on “Digital Investigations (and inquiry projects): The Gold Standard(s)?”

  1. If your goal is to set the bar impossibly high, I think you’ve chosen a great example. I’ve been reading “A Case for Reparations” in pieces for several weeks now, and every time I go back to the article I’m even more amazed by its depth.

    Although it is not true essay form, I think the “Everything is a Remix” series fits into pretty much all of your criteria, and is designed specifically for web viewing:

    I also remember reading “Snow Fall” when it came out, and I was amazed at the multimedia that was added into the story:

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