One of the two larger writing assignments in the blended Writing I I’m teaching is an exploratory essay, a form of writing that my students have not experienced before. That does not surprise me. The exploratory essay isn’t really an end unto itself, although a good exploratory can be very readable on its own. No, the purpose of an exploratory essay is jest that–to explore an issue by examining the differing points of view within the issue. It is a very good assignment for helping students get beyond the yes/no or for/against binary that can hinder them in doing academic writing. If the issues are truly only two sided, that is a clue to gently step aside and move on to an issue that is more complex or less examined.
What I have found in the feedback conferences this week is that every single draft concentrated on defining the issue itself rather than exploring the viewpoints about the issue. Defining in this essay needs to happen, but it can be dispensed with in the introduction. After that, one needs to run through the differing perspectives, which should be the bulk of the paper. Why didn’t this happen? Well, I think it’s because giving information in the form of a “data dump” paper is far more familiar. It’s possible that students mentally ran through the kinds of writing they have done before and the informational paper was the kind most often assigned as preparation for a later paper.
The problem with that as preparation for an argumentative paper is that defining the issue is not the problem for FYC writers. What is hard is the idea that there could be more than two points-of-view and that having more than a superficial binary (yes/no) is seen as positive in academic writing. When an issue is reduced to for/against, academic interest is long gone. The issue is too familiar and not worth analysis. Academics look for the “gap in the literature,” which means multiple perspectives and untrodden ground to be explored. Sometimes I get a student who proposes a topic, is excited about it, but rejects it because there are no sources about that specific topic. No one has written about it. Looking at it from the viewpoint of academia, those are the things we want to look at. After all, if a lot of people have already written about it, the topic is clearly defined and no longer worth examining. Why go for a retread? Original work is what counts. We look at the gaps, consider them in light of the surrounding topics, and speculate about what it all could mean.
So, in the exploratory, the exploration is of a landscape of differing points of view with sources used to define each one. For example, if a student chooses to write about the issue of teens sharing passwords in the same way past teens used to give St. Christopher medals or class rings, there may be one or two newspaper reports about it, all noting it is a bad idea. The exploratory then, needs to look at this as a manifestation of that old, old need for a romantic declaration and bond. The newspaper report will define the issue, but more scholarly work out there from dana boyd and others will help show the different points of view ranging from the teens themselves, parents, IPs, the silly in love ones, the post-breakup view, and possibly the tricksters, who fake-out to get passwords. Seeing this new practice among teens as a manifestation of something bigger means there is more to consider. The paper itself, when the time comes, may be more about why teens do this, which is far more interesting than wielding the judgmental stick and declaring “this is a bad idea. Don’t share passwords.” Who’s going to argues seriously against that? An exploratory essay helps writers find where the writable part of an issue is. In this case, the writable part, I think, is why teens do this even when they have to know it is a very bad idea. They do it anyway. Why? There’s the paper. The argumentative paper that follows the exploratory can then analyze different reasons why teens do this anyway, and there will be multiple reasons, with one or two turning out primary in the argumentative paper to come.