Over the weekend I spent a few hours grading timed writes for a developmental composition class. I realized after the first few that these timed writes were really, really abysmal. "WTF?!" I shouted to the cat (who is on a diet and constantly begs for food) after an essay by one of my most thoughtful writers didn't get past her first paragraph and a half in the 90-minute exercise.
Again and again I saw the same problem. Despite lots of time spent in class developing ideas and learning techniques for communicating ideas clearly in writing, students were not writing with a sense of purpose. Their papers, at best, were a collection of loosely-related and poorly-integrated examples that were not used in service of anything.
What was especially interesting is that many students had a traditional thesis. My lesson learned? The form doesn't mean anything if there is no purpose behind it.
A lot comes to mind: as a writing instructor I want students to express themselves clearly in this medium. I see now, though, that if they don't have content to convey, all the form, style, and sentence-level skills won't add up to a burp in the face of a tornado. Knowing our purpose gives us power.
The students had known their potential topic before they sat down to write. As a class we walked through example-finding. But I forgot to draw out the students' innate need to establish a purpose for writing this assignment. I think next time, I'll go at it backwards: propose some topics and let the students establish a need to investigate them further in writing.