Writing in the Disciplines

College writers not only need to develop the general skills of clarity, organization, and mechanical accuracy in their writing, they also must master the “code switching” required for courses in various colleges and departments.  In other words, while many writing skills are common to all professional disciplines, each field presents its own unique stylistic conventions, genres, methodologies, and documentation styles. Freshman composition courses simply cannot teach students everything they need to know to write successfully in upper level courses.  Writing practice within a discipline is a key activity in disciplinary growth and mastery.

The Bad News

The biggest obstacle to incorporating writing into a college course is the time it takes to evaluate and grade written work at the college level.  Research on writing shows that “commenter time-on-task averages about seven minutes a page” (Haswell).  Thus, even instructors who are faster-than-average readers are likely to spend at least ten minutes per paper when grading a stack of two-to-three-page papers—that is, if they are reading the papers carefully enough to check for clarity, mechanics, and the logical flow of ideas.  Thus, the grading time for 25 student papers could be well over four hours.  EASILY!!!  These numbers multiply exponentially as assignments get larger, such as with a formal research paper assignment or a technical report.

Clearly, evaluating student writing is a daunting thought for instructors who have large classes and/or multiple sections to teach.

WID Methods

In recent years, WID (Writing in the Disciplines) has emerged as a new term among scholars of academic writing pedagogy.   At the simplest level, WID refers to any writing that is discipline-specific and may consist of short, long, informal, or formal assignments.  According to the WAC Clearinghouse sponsored by Colorado State University,  “WID assignments are typically, but not exclusively, formal documents prepared over a few weeks or even months. The final documents adhere to format and style guidelines typical of the professional genres they are helping students learn about.”  But not all WID writing assignments need to follow the length and formality requirements suggested by this definition.

Shorter well-focused assignments, which may be more reasonable for teachers and students, can accomplish some of the WID goals.  Examples of shorter assignments include:

The WAC Clearinghouse offers more useful links regarding WID assignments:

  1. Guidelines for writing assignments: http://wac.colostate.edu/intro/pop10d.cfm
  2. Sample Assignments for Writing Across the Disciplines:
  3. Tips on assigning research projects:

The Good News

Even though students may not seem to improve as writers in the course of a semester, research suggests that

  • Students do improve as writers in the long run over the time span of their entire education (Flowers et. al.; Haswell), especially under WID and WAC implementations (Harris & Schaible), and after students decide on a major and/or establish their authorial and public identities (Sternglass; Haas; Herrington & Curtis).
  • Young professionals looking back on college consistently cite writing courses and writing requirements as among the most valuable professional preparations they received in college (Cox; Driscoll; Krahn & Silzer).

Educators need to incorporate writing into whatever discipline we teach, stay positive, and be patient with slow (or even unnoticeable) improvements in the writing of some of our students.  Writing is a lifelong skill developed by most everybody in literate society.  We need only think back on our own paths as academics and citizens to realize the experience of writing in high school and college is an extended, but vital, rite of passage into the professional world.