Students lack discipline-specific writing skills
Good writing in one discipline is not necessarily good writing in another. Indeed, 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.
Students may have reasonably good writing skills yet not be conversant with the writing conventions in your 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. A subtler example arises in a discipline such as anthropology where many pieces of writing do not follow the argument/evidence format used in history writing or the persuasive style of a political piece of writing, but rather a description/interpretation framework.
Point out to students the characteristic 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 students 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?).
Also 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 vs. 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.
There is tremendous variation among disciplines in writing styles, citation conventions, etc. Thus, it is only fair to clarify to students what styles and conventions are appropriate for your discipline and course. For example, you might specify that you want students to use MLA style for citations and direct them to appropriate examples or references. In an engineering class, you might choose to emphasize clarity and parsimony by explaining their value in engineering writing, giving examples of clear, concise writing, and designing your grading criteria to give weight to this expectation. Performance rubrics can help to make explicit what aspects of writing are particularly valued in your discipline.
- What questions do you ask yourself before you begin? (You might, for example, ask: Who is my audience? What am I trying to convince them of? What do I want to say, and what evidence can I use to back it up?)
- How do you go about writing? (Do you sketch out ideas on scrap paper? write an outline? hold off on writing your introductory paragraph until you have written the body of the paper?)
- How do you go about diagnosing problems and making revisions in your writing? (Do you ask a friend to read and comment on your work? Do you step away from the paper for a day and return to it with fresh eyes?)
This is not always easy: the instructor must become aware of and then make explicit the processes she engages in unconsciously and automatically. However, it is a useful exercise, illuminating to both you and your students the complex steps involved in writing and revising.
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