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Understand How Communication is Shaped by Discipline

In each discipline, our purposes for writing, the situations in which we write, and our audience are different from those of other disciplines. These differences in purpose, situation, and audience expectations give rise to differences in genre–in the function and form of the written or spoken texts.

These genre differences can be subtle, and students often miss these distinctions. In addition, our somewhat limited language for writing assignments can gloss over these differences: a “paper” is a very general term, and even a more specific term like “report” or “analysis” offers little to distinguish one genre from another.

Faculty, too, can overlook the ways our communication expectations are shaped by our discipline. As faculty, we often think we are looking for a basic level of “good writing” that is unmarked by discipline, without realizing how much we have come to internalize the genre expectations of our field, or how the very act of what we’re asking students to do in the assignment (e.g., analyze a literary passage, apply a political theory to evidence, interpret the results of a biology experiment) already require specific genre conventions because those genres have become the vehicle and mode of that kind of academic work.

In addition, students often misunderstand the purpose of writing and speaking assignments because they work from their experience and assumptions of earlier assignments, in high school or in other disciplines. At a deep level, students often believe that they are asked to write and speak in class to “show what you know”–to show that they have paid attention, have read the material, have learned the facts. Thus, students tend to report, describe, and narrate more than they analyze and argue. Even many graduate students, when asked to write an abstract of their research, tend to tell what they did, rather than to explain the research problem, results, and significance.

Assignments often obscure the purpose, situation, and audience for the communication act. When we really grapple with making the purpose and methods of an assignment clear, we often find that it is more complex than we might have supposed. For instance, while our own purposes for writing various genres in our field is clear to us, and we expect students to pursue those same purposes in their writing, the difference in situation and audience often leads to different assumptions from the students. As an example, while a lab report might look a bit like a science journal article, its situation and audience are quite different because a lab report does not present the results of original research, and students usually know what results are expected. Thus, they often believe that their purpose is to show that they have learned a method and conformed closely enough to achieve the expected outcome. Since they assume that their audience (faculty and TAs) already knows the methods and the expected outcome, they often write the methods section to be as brief a summary as possible, whereas in a journal article much more detail would be required for a reader to be able to reproduce a method that was new.

We can help students produce more focused and developed “papers” or “talks” (of any genre) if we write our assignments to make the purpose, situation, and audience (or intended audience) explicit. To help articulate those, consider these questions as you design assignments:

  • How does the kind of writing or speaking you’re assigning function in the discipline? How can you make that professional purpose clear to students?
  • What disciplinary work does this kind of communication do? What kinds of discipline-specific methods must students use, and what kinds of discipline-specific theories, approaches, or reasoning must they incorporate?
  • Who is the typical audience for this kind of assignment (not, who is the typical reader–the TA or faculty–but what audience should students imagine as they write or speak? Management? Other technical experts? A more general population without expertise in the field?)
  • What is the typical situation of the communication, and how does that affect the form? For instance, are these written forms read by other researchers who have to keep up with developments in their field (and thus want more information highlighted more quickly, with clearly marked section headings), or by non-experts, who need more explanation and definitions, or by more leisurely readers, who are free to choose something else if the writing doesn’t grab their attention?