The promise of writing in the disciplines

academic libraryFor many of us who teach writing, we often think about the rhetorical triangle: ethos, pathos, and logos. Although, when speaking to our students, colleagues, or peers, we tend to use the more colloquial terms of speaker/writer, audience/reader, and message/content, and then in terms of genre and purpose. Through these terms, I teach writers what good academic writing is and how it works: about how and why we cite sources, use first- or third-person, active voice, even adverbs.

I first heard of Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) years ago in the K12 context of writing to learn and learning to write to be understood across K12 subjects: social studies, English, mathematics, and science. Undergirding WAC is the understanding that good writing in any subject requires writing to be clear and accessible. In math classes, for example, we asked students to write out the process by which they solved a problem. At the time, this allowed us to zero in on where students struggled and allowed us to give partial credit for a math problem almost solved correctly, but it did not yet have to do with writing well academically in the discursive styles of a specific discipline. But students were learning the mode of what we called “process writing.”

Regardless of the terminology, one of the many reasons why I appreciate both WAC and WID is because when thoughtfully integrated into PK-16+ curricula, the responsibility of teaching students to write well falls to teachers across the disciplines. Language Arts and composition faculty no longer carry the weight of teaching writing because disciplinary experts are no longer only allowed to be expert purveyors of content. In well-run WID programs, science teachers are now equally responsible for teaching students to communicate clearly in the discourse of science. In other words, if students aren’t writing good ethnographies in an anthropology class, say, the anthropology faculty needs to take time to teach them how to write based on the discursive conventions of the genre (here, ethnographies) and their discipline. Sure, writing centers can help students learn to write better academically, but it is no longer only its responsibility.

My hope and point here are that when WID programs are firmly in place, faculty across the disciplines work with students in their courses through assignments and assessments, in-class instruction, and course readings to understand and articulate the disciplinary discourse conventions of that discipline.

We only need to remember how important Gopen and Swan’s 1990 article, “The Science of Scientific Writing,” was to those of us who were teaching writing at the time when faculty called upon us to “fix” their students’ writing. This article spoke to those teaching science about not only writing more clearly themselves but teaching their own students how to communicate in their discipline.

Gopen and Swan wrote:

Science is often hard to read. Most people assume that its difficulties are born out of necessity, out of the extreme complexity of scientific concepts, data, and analysis. We argue here that complexity of thought need not lead to impenetrability of expression; we demonstrate a number of rhetorical principles that can produce clarity in communication without oversimplifying scientific issues. The results are substantive, not merely cosmetic: Improving the quality of writing actually improves the quality of thought.

The fundamental purpose of scientific discourse is not the mere presentation of information and thought, but rather its actual communication. It does not matter how pleased an author might be to have converted all the right data into sentences and paragraphs; it matters only whether a large majority of the reading audience accurately perceives what the author had in mind. Therefore, in order to understand how best to improve writing, we would do well to understand better how readers go about reading.

Almost 30 years later, this article continues to ground the work I do with departments and faculty across the country. However, it remains true that, for the most part, unless a high-level administrator institutes writing requirements in the disciplines, especially in the courses needed to satisfy the major, student writers will not learn how to write within the genres and disciplinary discourses of their majors and required of the jobs they seek in their fields.

References

Gopen, G. D., & Swan, J. A. (1990). The science of scientific writing. American Scientist, (6), 550-558. 550.


Caroline EisnerCaroline is a certified professional co-active coach and has extensive experience working with faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates on all aspects of their writing projects. She has owned Eisner Consulting LLC since 2012 and works with professionals across organizations to communicate strong, precise, and engaging messages. Her previous experience includes positions as Executive Director and Academic Coach/Consultant at Academic Coaching and Writing (ACW), Associate Director of the Sweetland Writing Center at the University of Michigan, and the Director of the Writing Center at Georgetown University. Caroline co-edited a collection of essays, Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism: Teaching Writing in the Digital Age (UM Press 2008). Caroline received a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania, an MA in English from Middlebury College, and a PhD in British Literature from George Washington University.