Similarities in Writing Across the Disciplines


By Laura Rosche, IWP Intern, RTW MA student

During the interviews we conducted for the Interdisciplinary Writing Program, our group of interns asked different NAU faculty members about the necessary components of written assignments in their different disciplines. Instead of providing explicit elements of successful writing, most faculty members simply agreed:

They know good writing when they see it. 

However, we wanted to know more specific details about what good writing looks like to our faculty.  I hear all the time from my English 105 students that their professors most commonly dock them points for inadequate grammar.  But what does that mean?

Are students using commas incorrectly?  Are they using passive voice when they should be using active?

Or is it simply that their writing doesn’t sound right?  I would argue: yes. Most professors aren’t bothered by comma splices; they’re bothered by the disconnect information being spliced.

As members of different discourse communities, faculty members disagree on effective communication strategies because of the varying methods used in their fields.  For example, business communication is expected to be straightforward, where as communication in the humanities offers more background to the information being presented. However, if students aren’t aware of these communicative conventions, they are deprived of the opportunity to communicate effectively in their field.

My students understand that when I say that they’re writing doesn’t sound right, they must rework it; they hear this type of language from other professors and faculty members all the time.  However, as faculty, we must be more specific than that for the sake of our students’ success. Students in introductory courses in their major aren’t yet members of the academic discourse community so we must give them feedback more specific than the fact that their writing doesn’t sound right so that it eventually can.  Why doesn’t their writing sound right?  How can they improve?

In their book, Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication, Carol Berkenkotter and Thomas Huckin introduce research that shows, “Students entering academic disciplines need a specialized literacy that consists of the ability to use discipline-specific rhetorical and linguistic conventions to serve their purposes as writers” (19). Students need to know how to use the language in their discipline before they can become effective communicators. However, as the typical university course progression stands right now, students take their introductory general composition courses before they’re presented their discipline’s discourse. Students learn language through their verbal and textual use of it.  In “Engineering Writing/Writing Engineering,” Dorothy Windsor writes, “We talk, therefore, of language, and particularly written language, as a tool for constructing ideas, of a given field of knowledge being created by the interaction of its practitioners’ texts, and of knowledge itself, including scientific knowledge, as rhetorically shaped” (58). So, if as a composition instructor, I want to prepare my students to write for their disciplines, without actually possessing the appropriate lexicon to do so, I need to give my students tools they can use once they’ve left my course and are preparing to write for their discipline.

In “Writing in Business Courses: An Analysis of Assignment Types, Their Characteristics, and Required Skills,” Wei Zhu writes, “Research on writing in academic contexts has also examined the functions of writing, the context for writing, and the role writing plays in helping students learn the discourse practices of a community” (113).  In this study, Zhu found that students most effectively learn to use the language of their discourse community through writing.  Supporting this idea, the IWP hopes to help professors find ways to efficiently incorporate writing into their classrooms.

But how can we do that?

Writing is seemingly so different in each discipline.  In History, students are writing reflections and research papers. In Business, students are producing memos and proposals.  In Athletic Training students do source analyses and basic research. The style of paper in each department is different, but the writing process for each should be the same.

The professors we interviewed had similar perspectives on student writing despite their different disciplines.  Most passionately though, the professors all believed that students must work on their use of formal language in writing.  They agreed that students need to be more aware of the use of aspects like personal pronouns and bias when writing in academia.  Ultimately, the professors spoke in favor of consciousness. They want their students to be conscious of the linguistic decisions they make when writing, and they’d like their students to use the writing style most appropriate for the given prompt.

The professors agreed that students seem to hesitate when it comes to asking questions about assignments, and they acknowledged that this is the most detrimental thing a student can do for themselves.  The professors want students to ask questions when they are unsure; go to office hours; send the late-night emails.  They want their students to be invested. The professors are eager to work with motivated and engaged students.  Professors want to work with students who understand the importance of taking the extra step by going to the Writing Center, participating in peer review, etc.

However, just like professors expect students to ask questions, students expect teachers to be thorough.  Students expect teachers to articulate their expectations.  The IWP wants to find different ways of helping professors effectively do so.

After interviewing professors from History, Business, and Athletic Training at NAU, our team came up with general suggestions for encouraging students to take the right steps towards writing an effective paper in any discipline. We believe that strong student writing is a process in which students engage in critical thinking. Students must ask the right questions of themselves to ensure clear and concise writing throughout the drafting process.  Our ideas follow:

  • Read, re-read, and consider the complexities of the prompt:
  • What are you being asked to do?
  • What kind of writing assignment is this?  How will that affect your compilation of this project?
  • Build on the foundation your professor has provided.  Do you need to do research?  If so, what kind?  What are the overall guidelines for this prompt?
  • Outline:
  • Make an outline. Think about your thesis (if needed), major themes and topic sentences, and other ways to organize. Consider doing so before starting to write.
  • Consider the Rhetorical Situation:
  • Who is your audience? To whom are you writing?  How will you most effectively communicate with them?
  • Start Drafting:
  • In what format should this paper be written?
  • Are there organizational requirements you must consider when drafting?
  • Have you solidified your thesis?  How can you make sure that each of your body paragraphs supports your thesis?
  • Do you have concise topic and concluding sentences for each paragraph
  • Evidence:
  • How do you sustain your arguments? Remember: an argument needs concise evidence.
  • Meet or contact your professor:
  • Have a critical conversation about the direction your paper has taken. Are you addressing the issue as your professor would like?
  • Revision:
  • After completing personal revisions, make use of the Writing Center on campus, if needed.  Consultants are available to look over student papers and offer feedback on content, organization, and development.
  • Final Draft:
  • Before turning in your final draft, be sure to read your essay out loud, with your pen in hand. Doing so will help you avoid grammatical and other mistakes.
  • If available, use the prompt, rubric, and/ or guidelines provided by your professor to assess the effectiveness of your paper.

All of the professors agreed that strong student writing is thoughtful and clear. They can almost always gauge the amount of work a student put in to his or her assignment based on the academic level of its content.

So, if we understand the professors’ expectations for writing – and if we understand that students must engage enthusiastically in the writing process in order to be successful writers – then we must now take it upon ourselves to figure out how to most convincingly translate that message to our students.

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