Carnegie Mellon University

Reading and Writing in the Academy: A Comparison of Two Disciplines

Author: John Ackerman
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1989

The purpose of this research was to explore how writers, with extensive experience and learning in an academic discipline, used both topical and rhetorical knowledge to construct synthesis essays. The study design was a hybrid, combining features of experimental, process tracing, and linguistic methods to examine comprehension and composing processes and written products. Forty graduate students, equally representing the two disciplines of psychology and business, wrote on either "supply-side economics" or "rehearsal in memory." Their task was to compose an informative essay as part of an application for research support, and in the process, to integrate and synthesize relevant knowledge (from prior schooling and experience) with information found in source texts.

Half of the writers completed think-aloud protocols, and their composing processes were analyzed for elaborations on the source texts and topic, rhetorical awareness of structure, context, and content, and the task representation invoked. To examine written products, 40 essays were analyzed for the origin of essay information (text-based or original), the importance of information in an essay's organization, and the quality of rhetorical moves which define problem-solution discourse.

Analyses of variance revealed that high-knowledge writers, who composed on a familiar disciplinary topic, produced more local and evaluative elaborations and were more rhetorically aware of context than low-knowledge writers. Rhetorical awareness of structure and content, however, was less tied to a writer's prior knowledge and was sensitive to specific topics and disciplines.

Product analyses revealed that high-knowledge writers included more borrowed-implicit and new information in the top levels of essay organizations but little difference in the rhetorical moves of all 40 writers. Intercorrelations of process and product measures revealed that evaluative elaborations and awareness of rhetorical context corresponded with the presence of new information in essays.

The findings confirm the interrelatedness of comprehension and composing processes and illustrate how writers connect prior learning and experience with content from sources, especially to construct and evaluate rhetorical contexts. Prior knowledge, however, did not account for all composing differences: low- knowledge writers used global elaborations and awareness of structure and found equal amounts of borrowed- implicit information to construct their essays. Knowing a topic well apparently does not circumvent knowing how to read and write rhetorically.