Critical Questioning for Civic Writing

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I continue to think about the ways I can use my rhetoric and writing class as a space where my students can develop the skills they need to be civically engaged and connect what they think and write to equity and social justice. I have never felt more of a sense of urgency than this past week, although Howard Zinn’s words remind me that the Supreme Court has never taken as its mission the need to “defend the rights of poor people, women, people of color, dissenters of all kinds. Those rights only come alive when citizens organize, protest, demonstrate, strike, boycott, rebel, and violate the law in order to uphold justice.” His words also remind me that I can help to inspire students to translate what they know into action they can take as activists.


Can writing be a civic action? Linda Friedrich, Director of Research and Evaluation at the National Writing Project, offers a resounding “Yes!” And she goes on to identify six ways that writing fosters civic engagement:


  • Raising Awareness
  • Establishing Public Voices
  • Articulating Writers’ Concerns, Hopes, and Dreams
  • Advocating Civic Engagement or Action
  • Arguing a Position Based on Reasoning and Evidence
  • Mobilizing for Dialogue and Action


I would add that as teachers of writing we can provide spaces for critical reflection so that our students think about the values that influence decisions, policies, and actions, what they value, and to defend what they think is socially just. Second we can provide spaces for critical questioning about how justice plays out in their own lives. And third, as I have explained in a previous blog, students need to practice democracy in contexts that matter.


Of these core ideas for civic writing that I have briefly outlined, I think critical questioning has been overlooked in teaching civic writing. As April Lidinsky and I point out in our book, From Inquiry to Academic Writing, critical questioning is closely tied to reflection: What do I think is important? What keeps me up at night? What am I curious about? What’s at stake? Formulating a critical question is also tied to identifying an issue, a fundamental tension between two ideas that on their own might seem viable. We promote the idea of helping students formulate issue-based questions by capturing the relational nature of the world before us.


So for example, one could argue that economic development might mean displacing people from the neighborhoods where they live. But such a decision exists in tension with the real world consequences of disrupting the very fabric of communities that individuals rely on for emotional, social, and economic well-being. So one could ask: how is it possible to develop a neighborhood or community in ways that make it economically sound while protecting the interests of people who live in that community? Asking a question guides inquiry, prompts students to think about an issue in complex ways that resist easy answers, requires deliberation, and can mobilize dialogue and action.


I am reminded of the need to listen to students when I ask them to tell me what matters to them. Although they have their own experiences and frames of reference that can limit how they see the world, my own frames can also prevent me from fully understanding the value of the questions they are asking. We can gain a great deal from seeing the world from perspectives that we may not readily adopt.


In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Robin Wall Kimmerer recounts a time when her adviser in college asked her why she wanted to study Botany. She answered that she was curious about why two plants, purple asters and goldenrods, grew together. Her professor did not think this was a particularly good question because Kimmerer focused on the beauty of the purple and golden colors animating each other in a reciprocal relationship. For her professor, her attraction to the combination of colors was not very scientific. But what he overlooked and what Kimmerer eventually learned was that bees are also attracted to this color combination, causing both plants to receive more pollination from bees than if they grew separately. Thus, what seemed like Kimmerer’s unscientific observation could actually have been the basis of a hypothesis that she (and her adviser) could have tested. I take from her writings the need to listen to our students’ ways of seeing and naming the world. By listening, we can support their acts of critically questioning the world around them and affirm the values they embrace.


As you help your students formulate an issue-based question, you might have them follow this five-step process that April Lidinsky and I describe in our book:

  • Explain the topic (e.g., the causes or consequences of what interests you)
  • Detail the reasons why you are interested in the topic
  • Explain what is at issue – what is open to dispute for you and others interested in the issue
  • Describe for whom this issue might be significant or important
  • Formulate an issue-based question (acknowledge audience by writing down what readers may know about the issue, why they might be interested, and what you want them to think about or do)


An issue-based question should be specific enough to guide inquiry into what others have written and help students accomplish the following:

  • Clarify what students know about the issue and what they still need to know
  • Guide their inquiry with a clear focus, so that they can answer their question with a sense of purpose
  • Develop an argument, rather than simply collecting information by asking “how,” “why,” “should” or the “extent to which something is true or not”
  • Determine what resources students have, so that they can ask a question that they will be able answer with the resources available to them (i.e., the available research that can reasonably support their claims)


Through developing their own issue-based questions, hopefully students will bring their own unique values and viewpoints to their civic writing.


Image Credit: Purple Asters by Nicholas A. Tonelli, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

About the Author
Stuart Greene received his Ph.D. in English from Carnegie Mellon in Rhetoric. He is associate professor of English with a joint appointment in Africana Studies at Notre Dame. His research has examined the intersections of race, poverty, and achievement in public schools. This work has led to the publication of his co-edited volume, Making Race Visible: Literacy Research for Racial Understanding (Teachers College Press, 2003), for which he won the National Council of Teachers of English Richard A. Meade Award in 2005. He has published a monographic, Race, Community, and Urban Schools: Partnering with African American Families (Teachers College Press, 2013), edited Literacy as a Civil Right (Peter Lang, 2008) and co-edited with Cathy Compton-Lilly, Bedtime Stories and Book Reports: Connecting Parent Involvement and Family Literacy (Teachers College Press, 2011). His current research focuses on literacy, youth empowerment and civic engagement in the context of university/community partnerships. This work appears in his edited collection Youth Voices, Public Spaces, and Civic Engagement. (Routledge Press, 2016), Language Arts, Urban Education, and The Urban Review.