University of Minnesota
interdisciplinary studies of writing
center for writing
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Publications abstract: Writing as a Way of Knowing in a Cross-Disciplinary Classroom

U of MN bus stopP. T. Magee, Biological Sciences
Carol Miller, American Studies
Janine Hockin, Research Assistant

The three-quarter Continuing Education course, "Ways of Knowing," serves as the site of this project and offers a unique laboratory for analyzing how students understand and acquire abilities to make use of distinctive features and conventions of academic writing across the six disciplines which constitute the subject matters of the course. Concrete comparative information about discrete features, processes, and objectives of disciplinary writing, and how the information is transmitted to students, is being gathered throughout the course.

To accomplish collection of information, we are using three techniques: 1) Informal journal writing that is completed and collected in class, collated, and reported upon by a different student volunteer in each segment; 2) Formal journal questions answered by students outside of class and summarized by the project research assistant; and 3) Interviews with faculty and students concerning each specific discipline, including comparisons to the others. Informal journaling, formal journal questions, and the interviews are focused on discovering the characteristics of writing in a discipline, student responses to the writing and acquisition of discipline-specific features of writing, and possible connections between writing and learning in a field of study.

Thus far, the informal in-class journal writing (completed in the third week of each five-week segment) serves as a forum for students to express initial impressions of the discipline, student concerns about class interactions, and individual responses to grasping new course material. Formal journal writing questions reveal that students can clearly identify several writing characteristics of each discipline and understand organizational patterns and themes. Though most students do not believe their writing reflects the writing of professionals in the field, they are attempting to imitate professionals in the disciplines and find value in that process (it helps in understanding how a scholar thinks). Students unanimously affirm through the formal journal writing that their understanding of the subject matter in each discipline increases through writing. They attest that writing organizes thinking, forces contemplation, adds to growth and understanding, and develops thoughts.

The two faculty interviews conducted thus far have been very fruitful, revealing the faculty members' opinions on characteristics of writing in their disciplines, recent changes in the writing of scholars in each field, the kinds of writing assignments given to students in classes, and faculty concerns relating to inadequate time spent in nurturing discipline-specific writing. Both faculty members interviewed discussed their own personal writing techniques, including thoughts on whether immediately committing ideas to writing forecloses new ideas or serves as a technique for further developing them.

Winter and spring quarter research will continue with informal and formal journal writing, faculty interviews, and will include end-of-the-year interviews with students.