Writing and thinking are closely intertwined, and disciplinary patterns of thinking give structure to disciplinary writing and speaking practices.
These relationships are easiest to see in lab reports or science articles, where the genre clearly marks the scientific method in its form:
- The Introduction outlines the experimental question and hypothesis
- Methods explains how the experiment was performed (so it can be reproduced)
- Results presents the data obtained through experimentation, and
- Discussion analyzes the data in relation to the initial question and hypothesis.
We see in the tone and syntax of this genre an emphasis on objectivity and precise terminology, and in its inclusion of charts, graphs, tables, and images, a concern for precision in data. The genre differences between science articles and literary analysis might be obvious on the surface, but genre differences also exist between fields that seem more similar, such as between literary close readings and historical analyses of primary sources, or between design reports in Aeronautics/Astronautics and those in Computer Science.
Students, who by their nature move from one field to another, often miss these important genre distinctions in their writing, and they also, correspondingly, miss the methodological differences in their thinking about the material. Thus, we can see students writing about fictional characters as if they were real historical people, using subjective tones and flowery syntax in lab reports, and writing undeveloped work in all fields because they have missed important methodological steps.
When we make these relationships clear, we help students understand both the methods and the genre features.
Historical analysis, for instance, is highly inductive and empiricist, because it begins with archival data and primary sources, with the evidence of the past, and not with grand theories. This methodological imperative shapes sentence and paragraph structures, citation procedures, introduction patterns, and overall logical organization of the writing. For instance, paragraphs tend to present evidence early, and then work through analysis and explanation to a main point near the end. Historians use footnotes rather than in-text citations because their source information tends to be complex and various (unpublished letters, diaries, newspaper reports, census data, etc.) and would interfere with the flow of the text.
In contrast, most fields that work primarily from published sources use in-text citation systems, and writing in fields that are more theory-driven tends to be structured deductively, with examples used to test or illustrate a theory. Paragraphs in these fields tend to foreground the topic sentences and main ideas, and work their way into the evidence.
We can help students see these distinctions, and therefore gain a deeper understanding of disciplinary thinking, by:
Orienting students explicitly to the purposes and methods of the field.
We can try to unpack our own ingrained approaches–our automatic use of methods that we’ve developed through sustained practice. If we not only show students what these methods are and how to practice them, but also discuss and explain why we use these methods, and what we hope to accomplish by using these methods rather than others, we can help students come to a deeper understanding of both the content and how to write in the discipline.
Providing models of disciplinary genres, and discussing the thought-patterns and rhetorical conventions that they encode. [link to Teaching Genre and disciplinary thinking with reading assignments]
Discussing writing assignments in detail, in terms of audience expectations in the field, shared rhetorical conventions, disciplinary methods, types and use of evidence, etc. [link to designing effective assignments]
Commenting on students’ writing in terms that link thinking and structure, evidence use, syntax, etc. [link to responding to student writing]