Teaching Discipline-Specific Writing: Resources and Advice

By Laura Rosche,  IWP Intern, RTW MA Student

The best piece of teaching advice I ever heard with regards to composition was simple.

In his article, “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting out Three Forms of Judgment,” Peter Elbow, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, writes, “Good writing teachers like student writing” (200).

It seems so obvious to me in retrospect. I am a better teacher when I am enjoying my students’ writing because I feel more capable of being constructive rather than critical. However, what happens when the writing isn’t good? I am, after all, teaching an introductory writing course. I can’t expect my students to come into my classroom with all of the skills they need to write sufficiently for the academy; part of my job is to provide them with that skillset.

I must find the good. A professor will more successfully teach writing if he or she finds the good.

Elbow writes, “I increase the chances of my liking [students’] writing when I get better at finding what is good – or potentially good – and learn to praise it. This is a skill […] Maybe, in fact, this is the secret of the mystery of liking: to be able to see potential goodness underneath badness” (202). Elbow continues to discuss the importance of positivity in feedback. Students are much more likely to learn the material we are presenting them if they feel capable of and supported in doing so. In my experience as both a teacher and student, I know that students perform better when they are confident. When a student feels competent, he or she is more likely to participate, ask questions, and set higher goals for him or herself. We must remember this when we teach writing.

Also, we must not forget to actually teach it.

In exploring the role of writing in different fields, I’ve learned that most of the departments at NAU do not have preparatory writing courses. Students are, however, asked to complete a 300-level writing intensive course their junior year. This means that students are taking English 105 their freshman year, and not writing intensely again for 1 ½ – 2 years. We know from research that “students in basic writing and College English courses do not transfer their knowledge about writing to their content area courses. In other words, students view writing as exclusive to English and do not recognize its value as a mode of learning” (Greene and Johnson n.pag.). The first step in effectively teaching discipline specific writing, to me, would be to revamp departmental curriculum so students are introduced to discipline-specific writing expectations much earlier in their academic careers. Students must know that writing is valued in their field. They must believe in its relevance. Students know when their writing assignments are simply tacked onto the curriculum. In order to effectively teach writing within the different disciplines, professors must find a way to efficiently incorporate writing into the curriculum. Professors must articulate and demonstrate its importance. Professors must believe in it themselves.

In A TA’s Guide to Teaching Writing in All Disciplines, Beth Finch Hedengren writes, “Perhaps the most important reason to include writing in the subject-based classroom is that writing actually helps students learn and remember material” (10). There are many ways for professors to incorporate writing into their lessons. In my opinion, one of the biggest mistakes teachers make when starting to implement writing into their classroom is assuming that it must be formal. Professors shy away from teaching writing because they don’t know how to grade it. Writing can be treated simply. By asking students to complete in-class writing-to-learn activities, journals, and learning logs professors are giving students the opportunity to apply their knowledge independently. When writing, students must think critically of their answers rather than filling in a bubble that represents what they believe to be correct. Students don’t have to write research papers to demonstrate their knowledge if professors don’t feel comfortable teaching that genre of writing. In my experience, journaling can be just as influential on student learning if students are asked to write with the same formal and discipline-specific language that would be expected in a larger assignment. Ultimately, when teaching writing, we are teaching communication. We must teach students to write with the same formality we would expect in conversation.

Just as our students must feel supported to improve their writing skills, our professors must feel supported in teaching them. NAU has a couple resources that professors can use to access information meant to help them develop their teaching style, but nothing that is writing specific. The Graduate College offers a course, GC: 599 Seminar in College Teaching, which is meant to give TAs support as they stand in front of the classroom for the first time, but again, it’s not writing specific.

However, if we look to other universities, we see resources that help professors, instructors, and TAs become more comfortable teaching writing across the disciplines.

The Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon University, which I’ve discussed before, addresses how professors can improve student writing skills most effectively. http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/solveproblem/strat-cantwrite/cantwrite-02.html

The Center for Writing at the University of Michigan discusses the importance of motivation when it comes to writing in all disciplines. http://www.lsa.umich.edu/UMICH/sweetland/Home/Instructors/Teaching%20Resources/MotivatingStudentstoReadandWriteinAllDisciplines.pdf

Writing@CSU (Colorado State University) offers professors tools that can help them feel confident in giving feedback on student writing. http://writing.colostate.edu/guides/teaching/commenting/discipline.cfm

Resources are available for more effective teaching of writing, but if they’re not in front of us, we’re unlikely to look for them.  The IWP could help with this issue.  Our interns are available to research different ways of incorporating writing into unfamiliar classroom settings.

My suggestion to professors wanting to include writing in their curriculum is to look for help.

Look for the good. Look for the resources. Look for support. It’s all out there.


2 responses

  1. I liked this article because it was aimed at teachers. I think it’s so easy to blame students for their poor writing, but it is also important to include teachers because they are in the position to help the students. I’m glad that you brought up that some teachers might be afraid of teaching writing, not that they just think that it’s the English Department’s job. I never thought of that as a possibility before, but it makes sense. Writing is a serious component of learning, and I can see how some would be insecure about taking on that task.

    I am also glad that you brought up the example of journaling. I think that that is a great method just to get students communicating, which is the end goal of writing. You did well to mention that they should use the language that is expected of them in their field. Of course it shouldn’t be completely informal, but like you said, they are applying the information independently. And by applying the information to themselves, they are more likely to remember the information in the first place.

    This was a really interesting article. It was nice to see some support for the teachers as well. Thank you for sharing Laura!


    • Hi Marisa,

      I really like the idea of more formal approaches to journaling. I think it could be very useful. I think there’s a really powerful aspect to journaling, and that’s that students are allowed to ask questions and make mistakes while doing so. If we ask students to write about specific topics in their journals, they’re able to become familiar with the language, while learning the most effective way to use it!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s