Learning Methods of Inquiry from MacArthur Grant Winner Nikole Hannah-Jones

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Like many of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ longtime admirers, I was thrilled to hear the New York Times investigative reporter won a 2017 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” for her culture-shifting analytical reporting on segregated schooling and racial injustice. 

The award confirmed for my co-author, Stuart Greene, and me all the reasons we chose to anchor our chapter on Education in the 4th edition of our book, From Inquiry to Academic Argument with Hannah-Jones’ essay, “School Segregation, the Continuing Tragedy of Ferguson.”

Just as Hannah-Jones explains in this short MacArthur Foundation video, she models in her essay the method of inquiry that moves readers beyond simply reacting to a tragedy like the police shooting of Michael Brown. Hannah-Jones teaches us to ask why the neighborhood where Brown attended school was so segregated. She shows why it's important to ask about the specific policies that dismantled the very desegregation laws that benefited Michael Brown’s mother in the same school district just a generation earlier. She invites readers to examine the data comparing the vast disparities in academic proficiencies of students in the lowest-performing school district in Missouri, the Normandy district where Michael Brown attended school, with the top-performing predominately white district, Clayton, just five miles away. 

Finally, she demonstrates the power of asking the question we train all our students to ask: “So what?” Her response -- after weaving connections between personal, political, and historical examples -- is devastating: “Students who spend their careers in segregated schools can look forward to a life on the margins …. They are more likely to be poor. They are more likely to go to jail. They are less likely to graduate from high school, to go to college, and to finish if they go. They are more likely to live in segregated neighborhoods as adults” (This citation appears on page 451 of the forthcoming edition of From Inquiry to Academic Writing). In other words, moving from only gut-wrenching sorrow about police violence to inquiry and analysis can allow us to see systematic patterns that maintain inequality. And, seeing them, we can begin to recognize their characteristics, and act to disrupt them. 

While Hannah-Jones is a journalist, she models the academic habits of mind we strive to instill in our students — asking questions that reveal patterns, and analyzing those patterns to understand their significance in the lives of real people. Further, she models how to examine the implications for a nation whose pledge proclaims “justice for all," while policies deliberately work against this aspiration.

What texts have been particularly helpful for you in modeling habits of mind that engage your students in meaningful inquiry? Please considering sharing in the comments, below.

Click here to see more articles by Nikole Hannah-Jones.

About the Author
April Lidinsky (PhD, Literatures in English, Rutgers) is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Indiana University South Bend. She has published and delivered numerous conference papers on writing pedagogy, women's autobiography, and creative nonfiction, and has contributed to several textbooks on writing. She has served as acting director of the University Writing Program at Notre Dame and has won several awards for her teaching and research including the 2015 Indiana University South Bend Distinguished Teaching Award, the 2017 Indiana University South Bend Eldon F. Lundquist Award for excellence in teaching and scholarly achievement, and the All-Indiana University 2017 Frederic Bachman Lieber Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence.