Engineers, scientists, managers, pharmacists, doctors, financial consultants, poultry production specialists, farmers, conservationists, teachers, entrepreneurs, electricians. Name any field or profession and you’ll find writing is a key component of what they do. In fact, there’s considerable evidence that no matter what fields our students enter, strong communication skills – especially writing abilities – are what employers look for when hiring and these same communication skills are essential for promotion beyond that entry-level position. See, for example, the national surveys of employers. How then, do we help students work on their writing abilities while teaching them the content of our disciplines?
Integrating writing into disciplinary courses requires us to first recognize the many different kinds of writing that we all routinely produce and that students are most likely to encounter as they move out of our classrooms and into their professions. Letters, reports, summaries, oral presentations, brochures, websites, persuasive arguments, analysis, proposals, projections or implementation plans are only a few of the many different genres that our students will encounter in their professional and civic lives. Given the way technology is changing, our students are likely to encounter forms of writing in their careers that haven’t been even invented yet. So, they need to learn how to work on their writing and have strategies for figuring out the expectations of genres we haven’t necessarily included in our curriculum. The Office of University Writing can help with such instruction through our in-class focused lessons, particularly the one we call Reading Like a Writer. Second, when we write assignments that utilize different genres, we have to recognize that students may not already know the common expectations for these documents and we need to provide resources or instruction that make those expectations clear. Third, we need to think carefully about which genres are the best match for our other objectives. What is it we want students to learn by doing a particular writing assignment? How do we balance what has been called the domains of knowledge at work in any writing task: learning the genre expectations, practicing conveying information to a particular audience and for a particular purpose, and learning to think about or apply the concepts or content knowledge?
But integrating writing into disciplinary courses can also happen when we focus not on the formal genres but on using informalwriting activities to help students learn content. These “writing to learn” activities can actually be quite short, even ungraded, and yet be structured in ways that let students work with the content and practice written communication. J. Scott Finn, the Ann and Batey Greshman Associate Professor of Architecture, has developed one such assignment that we admire for a number of reasons. Finn’s postcard assignment asks students to combine visual elements with short writing to demonstrate their understanding of principles of design and practice applying those principles in creative ways. For Dr. Finn, the postcard assignment gives students practice in combining visual materials with precise writing even as they practice seeing the world as architects would. Because Dr. Finn repeats the assignment five times over the course of the semester, he is able to encourage students to take risks in explaining what they’ve learned and transform the concepts of the course from superficial knowledge into deeper understandings through the activity of writing. In other words, writing helps Finn teach the content of the course by giving students another way to engage with the material they need to learn and make it meaningful.”
Check out other writing resources in the Teaching Writing Library!