What the heck is a ‘discursive text’?

So, we all sort of went ‘what the?’ when the (not a) sample HSC English paper released by NESA asked students to compose a ‘discursive piece’ for Mod C – Craft of Writing. They gave a definition of the form, which is delightfully vague:

discursive texts
Texts whose primary focus is to explore an idea or variety of topics. These texts involve the discussion of an idea(s) or opinion(s) without the direct intention of persuading the reader, listener or viewer to adopt any single point of view. Discursive texts can be humorous or serious in tone and can have a formal or informal register. (NESA)

The vagueness of this definition has now become a concern for the teachers and students who are beginning to explore the Craft of Writing module. I am one of those teachers. Initially I did what everyone does in 2018, I googled it, and found (like everyone else) the BBC Bitesize page that goes over the discursive form for students. It’s the BBC, should we take it as definitive? It is tempting! Of course, it reads a bit like a discussion essay, and it tells us that language must be formal, but the NESA definition says it can be informal. The BBC site tells us that the form is primarily informative, and balanced (makes one assume objective) but then NESA says it can have an opinion, and it can be humorous. Hmmm… Recently I have done another google, and found a new site has popped up declaring itself as having the definitive guide to discursive texts (search it and you will know the one I mean, I’m not linking to it here) – it’s a site that’s basically a tutoring business, and being the punk I am, I just don’t 100% trust sites that make money off presenting themselves as being authoritative. Also, I disagree with what it says about traditional analytical essays for English being persuasive, that is just plain confusing for students. So, when I am confused and seeking clarity and wisdom, what do I do? I message Darcy, of course! Below is a copy of my message… I won’t past Darcy’s reply as I am hoping he will write his own post on this topic, as I know he has a bit to say.

You know how HSC English now requires students to write discursive essays as well as persuasive and imaginative… would you say Orwell writes discursive essays? I’ve always referred to them as personal essays, but looking at the NESA definition of discursive, I think that’s what he does. He obviously has an agenda or position on his focus topic, and he is quite persuasive, but he also does a great job outlining arguments for and against and then settles on his own position, which he makes clear by the end. I think there is such confusion around the term… I’m teaching PATEL now and we’ve set students a discursive essay task in response, and I am going to get them to use Orwell’s style as their model… what do you think? Sorry for the billion messages. This should be a blog post TBH but just would love your advice as you’re my most knowledgeable Orwell friend. Thanks.

Darcy’s concern is similar to mine, the NESA definition could pretty much include any text ever – my students and I had a laugh about this actually. TBH, my laugh was hearty, and theirs a bit nervous – it’s stressful for them feeling uncertain. As a lover of language and literature, I’m stoked to finally have some freedom and flexibility in the English Stage 6 Syllabus, the kids, I am discovering, are less stoked.

Anyway, I had been messaging Darcy early in the morning, so when I got to school I, of course, continued the subject with my English colleagues – they too are feeling a bit confused and stressed about this new form. We ended up having about a 40 minute conversation, putting forward many ideas, with me looking through things I’ve written about persuasive texts for textbooks and about personal essays trying to see if I knew what I was on about. Ultimately, we came to an agreement that the form is super flexible, but there are some elements that students can use to guide them. One of my colleagues asked me to write up our conversation because we covered so much, and I did this as best as I could. I thought I’d share those note with you, but please know, I am not posting this to claim any authority at all over a definition of this form, just that this is where we are at, and I’m happy to move forward on this writing journey with my students now that I’ve talked it all out. Here are my notes:

– discursive texts are not discussion essays, although they have some commonalities including: considering different perspectives on a topic, writing strong paragraphs on each perspective with supporting evidence, selecting a preferred position and articulating reasons for choice but not in a forceful way. It is unlike a discussion essay in that it does not need to be formal or objective in tone, however, it can have formal and objective aspects.
– discursive texts are a offer and not a demand. In other words, they offer a range of insights into a particular topic, but don’t demand that the reader accept only one of these positions as definitive
– a discursive texts is like a dialogue about a topic, allowing the writer to put forward different positions in an engaging, sometimes provocative way
– these essays are typically written in the active voice, but might have some sentences in the passive voice
– this form is both informative and engaging, allowing the writer to show off their mastery of language through the use of anecdotes, analogies, and figurative language
– structurally, discursive texts include an introduction which aims to engage the reader in the topic – the introduction is an invitation to the reader to continue reading
– discursive texts have some features in common with persuasive essays – rhetorical devices, personal voice – but they differ in purpose, as the persuasive text puts forward arguments to support a predetermined position/opinion, whereas a discursive piece considers other opinions also, even if the writer might not agree with that opinion
– lines of argument about the chosen topic are supported with evidence, this may be personal experience/anecdotes, statistics, quotes from experts, reference to shared human experiences, descriptions of events etc
– Orwell’s essays are called personal essays because they put forward his personal opinion on a chosen topic, have a strong personal voice, and often have the purpose of ‘exposing some lie’, therefore are more persuasive than a discursive essay. However, the personal essay has a lot in common with a discursive text in that it is a discussion/dialogue on a topic of interest, presents a range of arguments about the topic, support arguments/points with evidence, is designed to engage the reader as well as inform them about the topic, the personal essay, like the discursive form, appeals to the heart, mind and imagination of the reader (well, I think so anyway! Haha!)
– finally, I would say that discursive texts can be pretty much anything, haha. They are a lot like feature articles in tone and purpose, but they don’t require direct quotations from interviews/original research  which is what feature articles often do, they also have a different structure (not heading, sub-headings etc.)
– variety of sentence types are often used (simple, compound, complex)
– there is no ideal structure for a discursive texts except for intro, body paragraphs, conclusion
– students can find examples of discursive writing in quality magazines, journals, online at sites like The Conversation
– if we take on board what Orwell says in PATEL, we just need to ensure that our students use this form to communicate meaning about their chosen topic, and not use language to obfuscate meaning.
– I’m just going to use the mantra ‘discursive texts are an offer and not a demand’ for this form… and let the kids do with it what they will because it gives them freedom to experiment and that’s what is at the heart of the Craft of Writing anyway
So that is pretty much my rambling style of writing, haha, and one of my colleagues (the amazing Kate Munro) who is WAY more orderly in her thinking (bless her), took the content and put it into a table. See screen shots below (note, even though it might not be authoritative/definitive/barely correct, please credit the source if you use this):
Screen Shot 2018-12-13 at 8.16.19 amScreen Shot 2018-12-13 at 8.16.27 am
In terms of example discursive pieces, we think it’s best for students to read high quality published work rather than students’ work. I am a big fan of The Conversation, as a lot of their pieces are quite balanced in their approach to the focus topics, and yet they both engage and inform their readers. Another colleague (the brilliant Madeleine Koo) shared a great article from the New Yorker which we are all showing our students. Another great source is the annual collection of the Best Australian Essays which sadly stopped being published last year, but which I am sure you can still get from Black Inc Books.
If you have other resources or ideas or concerns, feel free to share below in the comments because, as exciting as it is to get to teach a new form, it can also be overwhelming at the beginning, but, if we work together we can help our students to become masters of the (what the heck is it) discursive form!

3 thoughts on “What the heck is a ‘discursive text’?

  1. This exact conundrum has sucked me in to learning about genre theory.

    We are having a similar issue here in QLD, where students will now have 25% of their year 12 mark based on one essay written under external conditions. It is to be an ‘analytical essay’. Here’s the definition (from section 1.2 of the QLD 2019 English syllabus):

    Analytical essay
    The central purpose of an analytical essay in English is to inform the reader of an interpretation of a literary text. This analysis is written in a formal tone, includes relevant literary terminology and follows appropriate academic conventions. The audience of an analytical essay is an educated reader familiar with the literary text being discussed. Like any genre, there are many valid ways to respond in an analytical essay.
    An analytical essay is structured around a thesis, which is a statement of the central argument of an essay. This thesis presents an interpretation of a literary text or texts. It is supported by arguments and substantiated by relevant evidence, in the form of discussion, exploration and examination of a literary text.
    As the focus of an analytical essay is an interpretation of a literary text, the majority of supporting evidence is comprised of references to this text.

    My concern is that in genre theory, ‘interpretation’ is different to both ‘personal response’, and the more persuasive ‘exposition’. Have these new curriculum terms ‘discursive essay’ and ‘analytic essay’ been constructed as text types that side line both the critical and the personal? Or can someone point me to the literary or genre theory that those terms are drawn from?

    Check this out, esp the graphic and table on pages 2 and 4. Explains is visually really quickly and well:

  2. Bianca and Kate thanks so much for this work in furthering what will obviously continue to be an ongoing discussion of these issues. Yesterday, I rediscovered Ursula Le Guin’s brilliant discursive piece “Introducing Myself” which she had originally written as a performance piece in the 1980s; hence its discursive tone. It is the piece which begins, “I am a man.” and so is often referred to by that title. Provocative indeed. It is included in her collection of writings titled “The Wave in the Mind” (available on Booktopia). I am constantly on the lookout for discursive texts as my students have had very limited exposure to this text type and need a lot of examples to clarify their thinking and build their understanding and appreciation. Just thought I would wade into the waters!

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