The Desire in Writing Prompts

I looked at student genre knowledge in a previous post. Now let’s consider a genre produced by instructors: the writing prompt. In addition to an invitation to participate in a particular, situated writing genre, prompts also invite students to adopt attitudes and new linguistic skills. Anis S. Bawarshi discusses prompts in terms of desire:

When they write their essays,…students are expected to perform a discursive transaction in which they recontextualize the desires embedded in the writing prompt as their own self-sponsored desires…Invention takes place at this intersection between the acquisition and articulation of desire.

The idea that students should write about what interests them is, at least in part, a recognition of the desire at play in student writing (as well as a wish for a more naturalized performance of that desire).

What desires are embedded in your writing prompts? When we ask students to invent (to come up with arguments and content for their writing assignment), what type of audience are they writing for? And how are they performing the role of someone who desires to communicate effectively with that audience? What do students have to do to “self-sponser” those desires? I often use the somewhat illusive term “critical thinking” to describe what I most want students to desire in their writing. One way of defining critical thinking is as engagement with multiple viewpoints. If that is the desire I want them to acquire and articulate, as Dr. Natalie Shonfeld reminded me in a recent interview, I should make that clear in the prompt. What desires should writers in your field have? How do you describe that desire in your prompts (explicitly or implicitly)? Thinking of the prompt this way might bring our attention to implications we hadn’t noticed previously and could help us articulate the assignment to students in a different way.

Now for a gloomy assessment: Of course, this talk of desire confronts the fact that many students feel they are just writing for the teacher, and what many students really desire is simply a good grade. We can pretend that they are writing for the class community, but this can feel like something of a charade.

How to make it real? Professor Alexander and I are interested in the way that writing changes when it is produced for an actual audience beyond the classroom. One option we’ve been considering is to create a venue (a student-edited journal or digital outlet) to publish student work produced in writing classes at UC-Irvine. Expect to hear more from us about this opportunity.

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