Teaching Disciplinary Conventions
“Effective writing assignments aim to immerse students in the discourse of a discipline and help them think as its members do” (The Bedford Guide 8). To this end, Writing Intensive Program faculty will want to articulate the “ways of knowing” that are unique to their disciplines: what counts as evidence, what methods are used to ascertain that evidence, how that evidence is “vetted” through scholarly dialogue, and how the case for that evidence is argued. Likewise, WIP faculty will want to articulate the disciplinary conventions of writing that support those “ways of knowing,” such as organization, format, and documentation styles. For example, to think like a scientist and to write like a scientist requires one to understand the purpose of a “materials and methods” section and the distinction between a “results” and a “discussion” section.
To teach disciplinary conventions is to “make the language and culture of a discipline explicit” (The Bedford Guide 9). These starting points for teaching disciplinary discourse are adapted from The New St. Martin’s Handbook (622-29) and discussions with WIP faculty and teaching assistants:
Teaching Disciplinary Language
- Require students to keep a concept log of unfamiliar words, defining the terms both formally and informally in context.
- Require students to keep a log of the main metaphors that come up in their reading or in journal articles.
- Point students to the authoritative dictionaries or handbooks of terms in your discipline.
- Ask students to keep a log of how people in a field talk to each other, the technical words or jargon that comes up in discussion or reading.
- Give students opportunities to practice discipline-specific terminology in their writing without penalties for misusing it before requiring them to use it appropriately. This is a form of sequencing—giving students “low stakes” assignments before involving them in “high stakes” assignments (Peter Elbow, “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing” 5).
Teaching Disciplinary Styles
Show students models of effective writing in your field, and point out features that make the writing both effective and distinctly discipline-specific. Few lab reports, we imagine, ever begin with an epigraph featuring lines from a poem; few close readings of poetry proceed with the subheads of a lab report. Disciplinary styles are, of course, related to disciplinary formats. To teach them, provide students with models—and identify the style manual for your discipline—and analyze these models according to cues like these:
- What organizing strategy does the paper use?
- Where does the writing state its main point?
- What citation format is used (MLA, APA, CBE, Chicago)?
- Does the writing use subheads? How do they function?
- Does the writing use visual elements (graphics, charts, tables, maps)? How are they used and incorporated?
- Describe the tone of the writing (very formal, somewhat formal, informal), and give an example of why you describe it this way.
- Envision and describe a typical reader and the context in which he or she is reading the information.
- Does the writing aim at a distanced, objective stance or a more clearly personal view?
- Does the writing use first person or terms such as “one” or “the researcher”?
- Are the verbs generally active or passive?
- Look at the paragraphs: Do they use clear topic sentences, and if so where are they placed in the paragraph?
- How long are the paragraphs?
- In general, how long are the sentences?
After analyzing a few pieces or working in groups, students may be asked to generalize about the writing in a field and, guided in their generalizations, to outline a profile of writing in a field or for an audience in a main journal. (Teaching them, also, the distinction between “peer-reviewed” academic journals and magazines for a popular audience can be a “light-bulb” moment for students in terms of understanding the purposes of disciplinary conventions.)
Teaching Disciplinary Evidence and Argument
Some questions you may want to answer for your students or guide them to discover, so they can best go about making the best case in a particular assignment in a particular field:
- What kinds of evidence have most authority in a field (or for a particular assignment) and how that authority is determined?
- How does your discipline use primary and secondary sources?
- How does your discipline use quantitative and/or qualitative data?
- How are statistics used and presented; are graphs, tables, and charts expected?
- Specifically, what kinds of textual evidence are cited (journal articles, books, websites, electronic databases, for example)?
- How is cited material treated or integrated in a paper: is it set up with a signal phrase, quoted directly, summarized, paraphrased; does the text use quoted material?
- How much evidence does it take to “make” a major point? A smaller one?
Teaching Disciplinary Formats
Some WIP instructors report that one of the challenges of their courses is teaching students to use disciplinary formats: for example, how to write a formal diplomacy memorandum in a political science course; how to set up a lab report in microbiology or a case study in sociology. Again, the kinds of information you can provide for your students, such as your discipline’s style manual, or send them to find should help them learn the formats and organizing principles that can serve as prompts for their writing and make it more credible. Some suggestions:
- Tell students what types of writing (reports, journal articles) are common in a field. Even undergraduates should be reading the kind of writing that they will be doing.
- Show students the preferred models for organizing and preferred formats for types of writing.
- Explain the meaning of and reasons for the parts of a format for a report such as a lab report or other document.
- Also part of disciplinary style: explain disciplinary expectations about placement of topic sentences, use of transitions, and special types of paragraphs.
- Make format guides clear and available for students’ own work. This may mean offering handouts with organization or format prompts.
Document originally composed by Parker Middleton.
Revised by Michelle Ballif 07.06