University of Minnesota
interdisciplinary studies of writing
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Publications abstract: Interdisciplinary Writing through Multidisciplinary Writing

UMN imageRiv-Ellen Prell, Anthropology and American Studies
Amy Farrell and Halgren Kilde, Research Assistants

This study proposed to restructure the course, American Everyday Life, by integrating writing assignments with course content and encouraging students to write in a variety of genres which would directly imitate the ones under study. Students were asked to use reflective as well as critical and theoretical approaches to the writing assignments. Writing was tied to a variety of research designs: historical, ethnographic, and cultural and media criticism. The class was designed to teach students how to integrate theory with ordinary experience with the hope of deepening their ability to read critically and to reason.

One of the more striking findings of the research occurred within the first week of the course. Seventy-five students had enrolled with five on a waiting list. After receiving the course syllabus which outlined the writing requirements, students began a mass exodus from the classroom. By the second week of the term, fewer than thirty students remained in the class. Approximately sixty students who had expressed interest in the class left when they learned they would have to write papers, none of which were major research papers, all of which were topical and lively. We learned that writing is not a good way to attract students if one seeks high enrollments. Students were less concerned about what they had to produce than by the number of pages required. Short papers were tolerated; papers of ten pages were extremely upsetting. Throughout the term, students frequently questioned the need for writing in a course that was not about composition.

We attempted to integrate writing into the class by devoting one of every four class sessions to peer conferencing. Students resisted showing others their drafts and expressed discomfort with critiquing others' papers or asking others to comment on their work. However, students were greatly appreciative of any feedback they received on their drafts. Students wanted drafts required, but they found the process of writing, reading, and showing drafts to their peers very distressing.

We had also developed a questionnaire designed to elicit information about students' perceptions of writing and themselves as writers. We concluded that writing and attitudes about writing were closely linked to how writing is presented and the frequency with which it is required, that student authority is very much involved in the process of self-evaluation about writing, that students are more inclined to use passive than active strategies in their writing processes, and that students have difficulty seeing themselves as central to the writing process.

The first lesson that we learned from this challenging, exciting, depressing, and thoroughly interesting project is that we will never teach without assigning writing. However, we have also learned that we must consider the nature of our assignments more carefully for them to be effective. We concluded that it is better to require a few papers and to incorporate more informal writing, particularly short in-class papers and journals. We have also concluded that to integrate theory and experience, writing and reasoning, requires assigning less reading and using that reading more carefully, covering less material to deepen understanding and engagement.