The Phenomenology of Purpose

A colleague sent me an email recently asking a question which initially I felt like I didn’t understand. As I meditated on it, though, I found that my lack of understanding was deeper, richer, and more complex than I had at first appreciated. It speaks to some of the fundamental complexities of teaching writing, and just beneath its surface lurks some of my most passionate—and sometimes most aggressively expressed—beliefs about what the teaching of writing is for.

The question is this:

How do you negotiate … the conflicts/tensions between student purposes in their writing and the purposes we assume they have to learn about in academic writing?

Allow me to interrogate your slash. Does it stand for “or?” Does it stand for beziehungsweise? Does it clarify? Tension is not always conflict. Think tensegrity: impossible things stand tall because their tension balances them. Tension is sometimes harmony, or at least tension can sometimes be harmonized.

There is tension, too, in your phrasing. “We assume,” implying we are not certain. “Have to learn,” as distinct from “need to learn”—itself distinct from “need to know.”

And here, I think, you are speaking to the haze in which we operate as writing teachers. The naïve (to my mind) way of approaching writing instruction is to take for granted that as an experienced writer and certificated expert, I know the forms and purposes that students will need, and it is my job to ensure that my students conform to those forms and purposes. There must be a thesis statement, which must look like this, and go here, and contain these components. Source X is valid support because it has 4 of the 7 features on my official list of support-validating-features.

But of course it is my general belief that whenever we think we know something for sure, it is simply because we haven’t paid close enough attention.

A Digression into Error

In Joseph Williams’s seminal essay “The Phenomenology of Error,” he notes that in order for a grammatical error to exist in student writing, it must exist in at least five places along two axes. First, the error must exist in

  1. the student’s paper, and
  2. the student’s mind (i.e., a typo is not an error).

Second, the error must exist in

  1. the mind of the grammarian who identified the rule, and
  2. the text in which the grammarian recorded the rule.

These two axes intersect at

  1. the mind of the reader, who connects the error in the student’s text (and thus the writer’s mind) with the error in the handbook (and thus the grammarian’s mind).

If this sounds complicated, that is because it is complicated—but its complexity is hidden by the ease and comfort with which most experienced native-language readers occupy position 5, and by the fact that position 5 is the intersection of those axes. In other words: when we see an error in student writing, it is easy to think the error is here, and to forget that it stretches out in one direction through the paper into the mind of the student, and in another direction through (say) The Elements of Style into the mind of E. B. White.

This idea—that a concept like error is a collision of abstractions located in different physical and cognitive spaces—is, I think, lurking beneath your question.

The Phenomenology of Purpose

What is “purpose” in a piece of classroom writing? I think it’s more complicated even than Williams’s model of error.

Again, we sit at the intersection. We look off in one direction toward the student:

  1. what does the student want to accomplish?
  2. how does the paper manifest that purpose?

In another, we look inward:

  1. what do I, as instructor, want students to accomplish in this assignment—and we might forget that the path to that purpose passes through
  2. how effectively do I explain that purpose in the prompt?

In a third direction, we look toward the academy, where the road forks. We first pass through

  1. what purposes are declared in the Course Outline for the course I am teaching? This is, of course, meant to reflect
  2. our institutional beliefs about what students need to know about academic writing. But there is also
  3. what actual academic writers do, which only occasionally resembles 1-6.

And it gets worse

The phenomenological geometry of purpose is, I think, more complex than that of error because it is also time-bound. If you have Javascript enabled, the below should animate things nicely; if not, hopefully it will still make a measure of sense. (Click on the buttons following each paragraph below, assuming they exist.)


First, we imagine a type of academic writing which we would like to see from our students.

In imagining it, we reach toward the point where it lives—in the world of academic writing, real or imagined, hopefully brought into range by way of the COR. We write a prompt which, we hope, will invite that type of writing—as an archer draws a bead on a distant target.

Our prompt may not actually point toward the kind of purpose we hope it will, of course; nonetheless, as prompts are visible to students in ways our inmost thoughts are not, they define what students aim for.

Once our students receive our prompts, they too have to craft a purpose which, they think, aligns with the purpose we have staked out for them.

Their essays represent their attempts, just as our prompts represent our attempts, to make real a particular kind of (authentic or synthetic) academic purpose.

Locating our purpose

So what are we supposed to do? If we acknowledge that the concept of “purpose” within the space of the college writing classroom is this complex, multidimensional thing, what do we teach students?

Lift the curtain

First, we must be honest about what we are doing. When we write assignments, we are trying to describe a particular kind of purpose which we perceive to be consistent with academic writing. That act of description is casting a ray into the field of possibility—but it is not the full range of that possibility. I think we should engage that with our students.

Today, I was talking to my class about the assignment we’re currently working on. I’ve told them before that this is a new prompt, and that we should think about it as a starting point. In discussing it together, I’ve been trying to revise and refine the purpose I have for them in front of them, so that they can see both where I’m standing and what I’m pointing toward. Today, we talked about how this specific assignment—analyzing the representation of the ghetto presented in a hip hop song from a historical perspective—is artificial, but that the purposes represented within it are real within the space of academic writing. The idea of using one text (i.e., our historical readings) as a lens through which to analyze another (i.e., the song in question) is a very academic task, even within an artificial space.

In having that conversation, I hope that my students caught a glimpse into the field of academic possibility. This move represents a kind of thing they can do to accomplish a kind of purpose that exists within the space of academic writing.

Teach targeting, not the target

If we acknowledge that academic purposes are diverse, and in many cases unfamiliar to us, then we must necessarily acknowledge that we cannot teach our students all academic purposes. I’ve never written a case study for JAMA, nor an analysis of the decay rate of Uranium, nor a billion other things in disciplines other than my own. I can’t teach my students those things. And I’m not really supposed to—I’m teaching an introduction to academic writing, not a graduate-level writing class within a discipline. But I feel like it’s important for us to remember that those purposes are out there, in our students’ futures.

If we teach only the kind of academic purposes with which we are most familiar, or only those purposes which “we assume they have to learn about in academic writing,” we prepare them to work toward those purposes alone.

In my English 1, I teach MLA style. The COR says I’m supposed to, and it’s what I’m most familiar with. But most of my students won’t be literature critics, which means that MLA style will fall out of use very quickly for them. So I position both MLA and myself differently. I tell them that we are not learning MLA style. Rather, we are learning how to learn a new citation style. What questions to ask of a new style guide, and how to find the answers. What kinds of things a citation style might describe. We are learning MLA style as a byproduct of learning how to do this kind of learning.

To me, this should also be how we approach the vast field of academic purposes. We should not be telling students “this is how you do it,” or even “this is what you’re supposed to do.” We should be teaching them how to figure out what they’re supposed to do. How to identify the task and the kind of purpose being called for by a new assignment. How to read in a new discipline to identify the conventions of that discipline. How to understand the expectations and needs of our audience. How to craft a text which brings their own purpose into alignment with the purposes valued by the discipline in which they are writing. All of this is, of course, an extremely convoluted way to say that we should teach writing as rhetorical—but I think it is easy to pay lipservice to that idea, and to forget the complex reality which it seeks to describe.

To say this more simply: our goal is not just to teach students to work toward the kind of purpose we believe they should be working toward, but rather to make choices about their purpose which allows them to align with the purposes their audiences will be amenable to.

If we hold to the model of writing as archery, with students’ essays representing shots at the hazy, moving target as academic writing, then we should care less about the target they are aiming at than we do about teaching them how to aim.

And a warning

Finally, we must must not imagine ourselves to be entities who live at the Intersection. Moreover, we must not conflate the Intersection with the Real Academy. What I mean by this more concretely is that we shouldn’t let ourselves get too comfortable with the idea that we know what kinds of writing students will need, or that we have communicated those purposes to them in a way that is clear and distinct. Of course, we are more familiar with academic writing than our students, but it is so easy to reduce the vast field of possibility within that space into a single point.

That point is important and powerful. The Intersection—where our students’ purposes, our own purposes, and the purposes we know and imagine in the academy collide—is where we spend a lot of our time. It is and must be where evaluation happens, and it is good to sit there for a time and look at where we are, right now, in this moment. Is this essay doing what it’s supposed to be doing? We should care about that.

In practicing archery, the target is of course important—but most of one’s time is spent at the line, loosing volley after volley at that target. We visit the target to see how we’ve done, and to gather our arrows, and then we return to the line to practice our aim.

We should visit the Intersection, but we should not build a house there.