A Course Inquiry Journey

One of the aspects of the ENGL 1007 changeover that many instructors are curious about is the course inquiry. The course inquiry is more than just the “theme” of the FYW course — it’s a description of what you and your students are going to explore in this particular class and concretizes the work students might do as writers. In simple terms, the course inquiry sets up the field of inquiry, including texts and contexts, that enables the local and specific work students will do as writers and composers.

A graphic depicting a sample course inquiry titled "Gender and Power Dynamics"
Click graphic see to a full-size version.

Creating a course inquiry may seem like a tall order, but it can be a great way to invigorate your class because it encourages you to step back and see the throughlines that connect the various phases and projects of the course. What is this course setting out to do and how will it accomplish this task through readings and assignments?

We’re working on a short video that describes the course inquiry in greater detail and can be a companion to this post. While we’re putting that together, we wanted to get you started on your brainstorming process for course inquiry.


The essential questions that many ECE/FYW instructors often use to structure their courses can be helpful in forming a course inquiry; they just need to be tweaked a little. Flexible, general questions need to be balanced with focused, larger questions that connect to the tangible. We’re inviting students into the challenge of scholarly contribution, where one’s work must both speak to larger questions but also define a fresh and specific locating of these questions.

A Practical Example

For instance, I’m interested in teaching an FYW course that interrogates feminism and women writers. I have some feminist texts and literature by women in mind, but I don’t want my students to feel like I’m simply saying “Sexism is bad” or, worse, risk having them leave the course thinking that we’ve solved sexism. I’m also interested in exploring different aspects of gender and power dynamics beyond those of a “female” perspective (and what is “female,” I wonder?). Essentially, I want to know how gender and power work together to hinder our society and how we can start to rectify some wrongs. In terms of our writing course, then, I want students to find a way to locate and extend these vast, complex questions.

These are some of the essential questions that syllabi on feminism and women writers tend to use:

  •       What does it mean to be feminine/masculine?
  •       What does it mean to be male/female?
  •       What historical events have impacted the rights of women?
  •       How have women fought against oppression?

These are a good start, but they can lend themselves to simplistic and/or erroneous answers and encourage a myth of progression. Revising these, we can develop a list of questions which challenge students to think deeply about gender and which speak to our present moment:

  • What forces shape our perception of “masculinity” and “femininity”?
  • Why do we find it so difficult, even in the 21st century, to avoid falling into the trap of essentialisms?
  • How does the LGBTQ movement and intersectionality complicate power dynamics?
  • What can gender and sexuality protests or events tell us about how we categorize people and distribute power? Is there anything we can learn from these and apply (perhaps with revision) to our current moment?
  • How might gender fluidity /gender nonconformity help us reimagine traditional “male” and “female” roles?
  • How does writing, language, composing with images, etc. contribute to, or foster awareness of, gendered subject positions and/or the insufficiency of gender as a binary construct?

My feminism/women in literature syllabus has become a larger project about gender and power dynamics. This means that students can’t get away with simply saying “sexism is bad,” or arguing over the idea of the glass ceiling. Rather, they are encouraged to interrogate what gender is and why (and when and even if) it matters. Though feminist concerns are societal concerns, many students have a hard time making that connection. With this inquiry, I give them a head start by beginning with the assumption that many communities are connected. This provides focus (gender/power) but also room to explore inquiries which might seem too “risky” to write about in a traditional class on women’s literature. And, because the approach includes documentary and exploratory work—not just arguments or theories—student composers can contribute while still allowing themselves to be shaped or influenced by what they are learning.

My revised questions help refine my inquiry and the readings I should assign. I’m no longer only looking at texts by women and about women, but texts about how gender and power shape our society. This means that I can’t just rely on favorite texts like “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and Jane Eyre, (though I still manage to squeeze in a fair amount of classic literary texts) because they suggest that these issues are in the past and that the categories of “man” and “woman” are solidified. To engage with this inquiry responsibly, I need to bring in more modern texts which reflect our current understandings of gender and power dynamics in the 21st century and whose modalities reflect the ways in which we are having these conversations (through TedTalks, podcasts, TV shows, as well as social media).

From all of this — the questions I would like us to interrogate, the texts which help with this, and some burgeoning assignment ideas – a course inquiry starts to develop: 

How can we balance power and navigate gender oppression in the 21st century? How does sexism manifest in our world now and why do we (men, women, gender non-conforming individuals, gender-fluid individuals) find it so difficult to avoid falling into this trap? In this class, we will grapple with some of these questions through classic literary pieces such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, as well as more modern texts such as Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the documentary film, Anita. With the help of theoretical lenses from Angela Davis’s Women, Race and Class (1981), Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl (2007), and Chimamanda Adiche’s “We Should All Be Feminists” (2014), we will attempt to theorize ways in which we might navigate the evolving understanding of sex and gender to create a more equitable society.

It’s probably clear by now that my syllabus design is not necessarily a chronological process. The course inquiry is naturally tied to assignments — which, in turn, are tied to writing (or course) moves, and Information Digital Media Literacy (IDML). While working on this course inquiry, I frequently bounced around: I developed some questions, then found some texts that would help investigate these questions, then thought about some assignments that might help students develop inquiries, then went back and added more questions, more texts. What I’m saying is that if you feel stuck — either on course inquiry, readings, or assignment design — try jumping to one of the other two and working on that for a bit for inspiration.

To work through this, I started with a mindmap, then moved to Google Slides because it helped me jump around easier. You can see my Google brainstorming here.

Additionally, I’ve created a course inquiry template which you can use to help develop your course inquiry.  I hope you find these  helpful!