Mini-Module: Exploring Disciplinary Discourse

Note: This post is part of a series on “Teaching First Year Composition.”

First Year Composition programs often appear to exist in a discourse universe of their own. They focus on the so-called “college essay,” a genre that most students will not write again in their other courses or in their careers unless they become public intellectuals writing op-eds for newspapers and magazines. Most students in an FYC course are not English majors or future journalists. The purpose of the course is to develop rhetorical skills and practices that will be useful in writing other genres and addressing other discourse communities. Writing essays can help develop these skills, but for students to see the relevance of these skills to new situations, we have to make some connections to other disciplines and their associated workplaces.

A complicating factor is that most FYC instructors are English majors with some training in writing about literature. The elegant style of literary criticism is unfortunately quite the opposite of what is considered good style in engineering or business. But how can we teach all the different genres and styles of all of the disciplines that our students will be going into?

The answer is that we can’t. However, using concepts such as audience and purpose, we can help students explore the discourse of their chosen discipline using web searches. This mini-module, Exploring Disciplinary Discourse, is designed to help students do this. The final project is a version of an I-Search paper, as originally developed by Ken Macrorie in his book Searching Writing. In this I-Search paper, the student investigates the discourse of their chosen major and then writes a paper describing what they investigated, how they went about conducting the investigation, and what they found. The audience for this paper is other students who may be considering majoring in this field.

Learning Outcomes

Students will be able to:

  • Use different search terms to discover the genres and styles of their major field
  • Make decisions as they design and conduct their own inquiries
  • Describe their experience of the research process and their findings from beginning to end in a paper addressed to other students who may be considering the same major
  • Make connections between concepts and strategies taught in their composition class and writing in their majors

A Mini-Proposal

The first step in the module is a mini-proposal. The student submits answers to the following questions:

  • What is your intended major? (If you have not yet chosen a major, explore one that you are considering.)
  • What do you already know (or think you know) about writing in this field? (Note: Some students choose a major such as engineering because they think there will not be much writing. However, engineers write a lot and the ones who write well are the ones most likely to get promoted.)
  • What do you want to find out about the work people do in this field?
  • What search terms will you use in your initial investigation? (A starting point might be “writing in MY MAJOR” or “How to write like an engineer, scientist, CEO, etc.”)

Some Sample Searches and Results

Here are two search strings that resulted in useful links for learning about writing in engineering:

  • What do engineers write?
  • Write like an engineer

Students in other disciplines could substitute “scientist,” “anthropologist,” “manager” or other profession for “engineer” in these searches.

A search on “engineering genres” led to a link at the University of Illinois about “Writing Across Engineering and Science: Genres and Genre Systems.” It presents an interesting word cloud that represents a survey of instructors about what writing genres were taught in courses and what genres students would be expected to write after graduation when they were working as engineers. There is quite a difference.

A search on “engineering sample documents” resulted in useful links to documents that could be used in rhetorical analysis assignments. One of these was a report on “Document Types and Naming Conventions” for the CERN Large Hadron Collider project in Geneva, Switzerland. That is an interesting document, but the student would have to decide if it was relevant to their project, which will evolve as they find things. They will have to decide which paths to follow and when they have gone too far down a rabbit hole. However, these decisions are all part of the description of the research process they will include in the I-Search paper.

A Progress Report

After they have done some searches, the module asks them to submit a progress report to the instructor. This will give the instructor a chance to offer suggestions to students whose searches have been unproductive, or who have gone down too many rabbit holes.

An Academic Extension

The module also includes an optional academic journal component that is appropriate for college-level courses. This section asks them to find a relevant article in an academic database, perhaps after engaging in some online chat with a research librarian, and doing some rudimentary analysis.

Writing the Paper

The module asks the student to look back at the mini-proposal to remember where they were when they started. This is used to establish a sense of audience for the paper–a student interested in this field but uninformed about the discourse community. Then it gives them step-by-step instructions for writing the paper.

Peer Review

The final element is a peer review session in which they trade papers with a student who investigated a different major and answer some questions.

Final Outcomes

One of the questions asked in the writing section is “What connections did you find between the concepts and strategies you learned in your English course and the writing in the discipline of your choice?” This is perhaps the most important purpose of this module. We want students to see that the rhetorical concepts they get from FYC connect to their work in other classes and finally to their careers.

The full mini-module can be downloaded here.

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