intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in the writing classroom

Dan Pink has an interesting TED talk in which he discusses the science of motivation and its implications for management and creative professionals. To summarize: it turns out that classic extrinsic motivation (i.e. the carrot or the stick) is ineffective in motivating people to complete more "creative" tasks. I'll leave the question of what is creative open, except to say that I think writing is a creative task. In fact, extrinsic motivation can actually inhibit success in some situations. So Pink advocates a new management style where one employs intrinsic motivation. He mentions autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Again briefly:

  • autonomy: the ability to direct our own work
  • mastery: the desire to get better at something that matters
  • purpose: the opportunity to work on something that has a larger meaning.

I want to think about this in terms of the writing classroom. As we've said in rhet/comp thousands of times, one of the central challenges we face is the artificial nature of the writing tasks students undertake. Often the motivations are extrinsic, namely grades and fulfilling requirements. I take Pink's talk this way: extrinsic motivations are great when the task is to find the shortest route between two points, which of course implies a task that has an easily identifiable end point and a single correct solution (a shortest path). Clearly these are not characteristics of writing, not even for the most expert writers and certainly not for novices. And yet, we know that our students are often in search of the shortest path. In fact, just yesterday in my FYC class I asked students how many words total they would expect to write if they were given the task of writing a 1000-word essay. Predictably, some students anticipated the kind of answer I was looking for, but even then it was clear that they were looking for the shortest path.

And I don't blame them. After all, it's a little silly to give out assignments with a word minimum without implying that some economic calculation is supposed to be made.

The tougher challenge is to offer conditions that encourage intrinsic motivation. One could say that "intrinsic" means intrinsic to the students themselves, that the students have to want to learn to write. And when I read Stanley Fish's remarks, sometimes I think that approach, with its focus on form and style might work with highly motivated students, with writing majors for example. But as we know, FYC students often struggle with motivation: they are not necessarily intrinsically interested in writing.

Pink discusses the "results-only work environment" (ROWE) as an example of what he's advocating. To me the ROWE sounds much like an academic workplace, where, aside from a couple hours of classes and the occasional meeting, your time is your own. Typically FYC students aren't ready to work in that kind of environment. You can say they are immature or that schooling has not prepared them to learn that way. Either way, the fact remains.

But maybe FYC is a place where we can begin to talk about autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Presumably these are qualities we want to foster in undergrads. Developing a writing practice is one way to do this. Though I know we like to pretend (why, I'm not sure) that there are practically step-by-step instructions for writing, we certainly know that's not the case. We can pretend that there are micro-choices like word choice or sentence structure, which are separate from macro-choices like topic or thesis. But who, as a writer, has not uncovered a problem with one's argument by struggling with a sentence?

The kinds of creative challenges that Pink discusses here happen throughout writing. They all require a sense of autonomy as a writer to address. They all require a desire to improve and a belief that one can get better. And they all require a sense of purpose.

So I'm going to think this semester about how these things get into FYC.