Faculty who contemplate teaching a communication-intensive (CI) subject often wonder how it differs from their other subjects, how it fits into the larger CI picture, how to integrate the disciplinary and communication instruction, and even whether they’re qualified to teach writing and public speaking when they haven’t formally studied either. Why does MIT require faculty in all disciplines to teach communication? Why not simply require a writing and speaking subject of all students? The answers to these questions can be found in the research in the field of Rhetoric and Composition.
Learning to write and speak continues throughout the undergraduate years and beyond
Researchers in Rhetoric and Composition have studied how college students develop from writing short high-school-like themes (often, personal essays or the 5-paragraph essay report) to writing senior theses on independent research in their field. What we have learned is that learning to write is a complex process, one that continues not only through the entire undergraduate experience, but also throughout professional careers and graduate training.
Learning academic communication cannot be separated from learning specialized ways of thinking
A common misconception is to think of “writing” primarily on the level of constructing grammatical sentences, and therefore as elementary—something that we learn to do before we learn to think in more complex ways, and that becomes second nature, a transparent platform for conveying whatever we’re thinking. But writing involves not only forming grammatical sentences, but also defining terms, structuring complex ideas, engaging a particular audience with awareness of their expectations, following specific lines of reasoning, using and citing relevant evidence, and more. All of these features fall into the arena of rhetoric, which encompasses both writing and speaking. Much recent work in this field has focused on the comparative rhetoric of the different academic disciplines. Students need to learn some rhetorical theory (which can occur in a stand-alone writing class or in a communication-intensive class), and many different rhetorical practices in context (which can only happen in disciplinary-based communication-intensive classes), to master writing in the many disciplines they encounter.
The Communication Requirement aids student development by integrating communication and content teaching
Building from this base in the research on academic writing development, MIT’s Communication Requirement requires that all students take communication-intensive (CI) subjects throughout their academic career, both in and outside of their major. This structure offers students the opportunity to receive active instruction in writing and speaking in many different disciplines, especially in the context of doing their own research, where they can integrate the writing, speaking, and complex thought patterns in a way that is natural to their development as academics and professionals. In each subject, the communication instruction ought to focus on analyzing the specific audiences, purposes, and genres of the discipline.
Teaching writing and speaking means different practices in different disciplines
In an Anthropology subject, the instructor can explain how to identify relevant evidence, how to analyze it in the way that Anthropologists do, and how to structure the text according to the logic of an ethnography, for instance. A biologist can similarly instruct students in how to accurately develop a methods section, how to distinguish between data and interpretation, so students will know what to include in the results and discussion sections, and how to write an abstract so that the purpose of the experimental research is foregrounded. Each discipline has its own ways of creating, structuring, and communicating knowledge, and it is key for students to be immersed in these processes.
How these resources and the Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication program can help
The resources on this website are meant to aid instructors in preparing to teach a CI subject. You’ll find information on how to design assignments, how to integrate content and communication instruction, how to respond to student writing, and oral presentations, as well as more detailed background information about research in writing. Please feel free to contact the Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication program (firstname.lastname@example.org) with any questions.