Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

What is the value of students learning to write in your discipline?

Students may have reasonably good writing skills overall yet not be conversant with the writing conventions in your discipline. Good writing in one discipline is not necessarily good writing in another, just as effective writing for one task (e.g., a grant proposal) is not necessarily effective for another task (e.g., a journal article or article in the popular press) even within the same discipline.

Moreover, even though students may have read papers or books exemplifying the writing style of your discipline, this does not guarantee that they can reproduce it in their own writing. Research has shown this phenomenon holds fairly generally: it is easier to comprehend new information or a new style of presentation than it is to generate it.

Students may bring with them habits from other disciplines that are not appropriate in yours. For example, students familiar with expressive styles of writing (from English or creative writing) may bring these habits into scientific or engineering contexts where writing concisely is more appropriate.

According to Carnegie Mellon Emeritus Professor, Dr. Richard Young, there are three main arguments for inclusion of writing in the disciplines:

  1. The activity of writing appears to contribute in various ways to the ability to engage in original thought and to learn. Hence, it can play a significant role in teaching and learning a discipline.
  2. A distinctive feature of disciplinary communities is that they are created, maintained, and changed by language, to a great extent by written language. Hence, students must learn to control the rhetorical practices of these disciplinary communities if they are to become active and effective members of them.
  3. Writing is an extremely complex psycho-linguistic ability. Hence, it must be practiced over time and in varied ways if one is to develop a sophisticated level of competence and if already achieved levels are to be maintained.

Strategies you can use as you begin to teach students writing in your discipline.

Identify and discuss key features of writing in your discipline.

For example, in an introductory anthropology class, you might point out that authors often identify a cultural assumption that they then challenge using cross-cultural evidence. Having identified this trope, you might ask students questions (in homework or in discussion) that require them to identify these characteristics in their readings (e.g., What assumption was the author challenging? What cross-cultural evidence did she employ to do it?).

Highlight different types of writing within your discipline.

It is helpful to point out variations in writing conventions within your discipline, and give students practice recognizing the features of different kinds of writing. For example, in a dramaturgy class, you might ask students to analyze the characteristics of an effective drama review versus a persuasive academic article. This kind of exercise makes students more conscious of different conventions within the same discipline, and better able to apply them in their own writing.