Monday, June 16, 2014

IWAC 2014: Considering "Discipline"

As promised, I'm diving into some of the things that the 2014 IWAC (International Writing Across the Curriculum) Conference presentations prompted me to consider. Today, I'm going to talk more about the wonderful talk given by Melody Pugh, Naomi Silver, and Anne Ruggles Gere called "Interrogating Disciplinarity in WAC/WID: An Institutional Ethnography."

The scholars framed the discussion around what began an institutional review of the Upper Level Writing Requirement (ULWR) at their university, which lead to interviews with faculties and students about their expectations and experiences with these ULWR. What they found was a real struggle with defining disciplines/disciplinarity and whether their concepts of "writing in the discipline" would actually serve students. Many students and professors expressed a desire to explore more genres, but felt that was outside the bounds of "writing in the discipline," which largely seemed to boil down to write academic-journal-style papers. They also recognized the tension between forcing students to learn to use disciplinary writing as a researcher in the field when most of them would not be going on to do that type of work. Students questioned value while professors questioned ethics. It was extremely interesting.

The trio will likely continue working with the extensive data and perhaps publish some of their findings, so I don't want to give away all of their secrets, but I do really want to use their work to think about what it means to be "in the discipline," as they asked the audience to think about. What does it mean to "write in the discipline"? Is "the discourse of the field" only the work published in journals and books? Where do disciplines start and end? How does the way we conceptualize discipline affect how we assign writing?

I thought some of the audience members' questions and comments were very insightful. Here's just a few:
  • Would it be better to consider disciplines as centers rather than closed-off spaces with boundaries?
  • Is the WAC/WID version of disicplinarity just a selling model that positions us in a power relation  over other departments?
  • Is the WAC model more useful than the WID model? Does wider help, or is "honoring of the occasion more helpful"? 
  • It seems that when we consider disciplinarity in writing courses, we get the rhetoric and epistemology stuff, but we seem to miss the "activity systems" part. How can we/should we be more focused on activity systems in the disciplines?

As I prepare my own Writing in the Disciplines course, where my uses of multimodal texts have been minimal and semi-traditional in that they are fairly linear and usually called "papers"-- write a blog, use a screenshot and hyperlinks in an essay, etc.-- I wonder how my own notions of disciplinarity have shaped and possibly limited my students' learning experiences. I thought they should be learning to write as scholars in their disciplines, learning to mimic the style of academic journals, and that there were other types of writing courses to prepare them for those other types of writing (business writing for memos and executive summaries, for example), but I'm not sure they really are getting it elsewhere., especially if this narrow idea of discipline is pervasive throughout the university.

Though I say I focus on genre diversity and teaching students to address contextual/situational elements, I'm now beginning to question my own understanding and application of these terms in my pedagogy. Am I simply (as a panelist said in another presentation) "putting old wine in a new bottle"? What are the alternatives that come with a new definition, especially one that would be more focused on disciplines as centers or conscious of activity systems?

I will be teaching Writing in the Disciplines again in the fall, and while I thought I had pretty much got my syllabus together, I'm now prepared to go back and scrutinize the application of my conception of "discipline." I'm also considering how I can informally replicate some of the work these women did, finding out what they expected from a course called "Writing in the Disciplines," what they learned that was unexpected but valuable, and what they wish they had learned. Suggestions are much appreciated!


Naomi Silver said...

Nicole, thanks so much for your generous post on our IWAC session! We are mulling through these questions, and the rich discussion they gave rise to, ourselves, and so look forward to continuing these conversations. Regards, Naomi

Nicole Papaioannou said...


Thank you for sharing your findings and the questions those findings raised for us! The work that you're doing is incredibly valuable to the field, and I will definitely be keeping my eyes open for further developments.