Helping Students Explore Writing in Different Contexts

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Think about a time—maybe as a student, a teacher, or another environment—when you had to write something in a genre that was new or unfamiliar to you.

  • What did you do?
  • How did you figure out what was expected?


I’ll never forget how out of place I felt in my first graduate seminar in applied linguistics. I had done my undergraduate work in literature, and I didn’t have the first clue about how to structure a graduate seminar paper that reported data I had collected. I tried to write something that looked like the thesis-driven essays I had learned to write as an undergrad, and I was stunned by the grade on my paper and the comments about cryptic things like “a literature review,” “a methods section,” and “limitations of the current study.” I was a fish out of water.


Many of our students will experience this feeling at some point in their undergraduate careers, or perhaps in their professional lives after they leave our classes. Yet, as Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak point out in their book Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing (Utah State UP, 2014), students who have been successful writers in school are reticent to change up what they’ve been doing. If it’s worked well thus far, why change course?


My goal as a writing teacher is to make sure that my students have a set of effective tools to help them figure out what to do when they find themselves in unfamiliar writing territory. But if they haven’t yet realized that they will be called upon at some point in the near future to write things that don’t look much like five-paragraph essays, my first job is to help them discover what professionals write in their areas of interest.


When I taught a first-year writing course this summer using An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing, I asked students to do a couple of assignments at the very beginning of the course that introduced them to writing in their majors and future professions:

  • An interview. I ask students to interview an upper-level undergraduate or graduate student in their field of study to ask them about the kinds of writing they do and how they learned what was expected. I used to ask students to interview a faculty member, but sending dozens of first-year students out to interview faculty across campus can make you unpopular quickly, even though you have the best of intentions. Students learn a great deal from speaking with others in their field of study, and their interviewees have an ethos that you, as a writing teacher, don’t necessarily have.
  • A rhetorical analysis of an article. One of the major projects in my course is always a rhetorical analysis of an article written by someone in their field of study. I ask students to try to find a piece written by one of their professors. I encountered an interesting challenge this summer with a student of dance, who couldn’t find a scholarly article by one of his faculty members. We found several reviews and other pieces they had written, though, and so he was able to think about the various kinds of writing his faculty members do. He also made exciting connections between dance and the composing process.
  • A rhetorical analysis of other writing assignments. I also like to have students analyze writing assignments they are completing in other classes. They can learn a lot by looking at the expectations of assignments in different fields of study and by comparing what they bring to class with the assignments from their classmates. I wrote more about this activity, introduced to me by Rachel Buck, in “Low Stakes Writing in a WID-Based Curriculum.”


Giving students the opportunity to hear about writing from professionals in their fields of study is invaluable. Of course, hearing from faculty members on their own campus is very effective, but it can be time-consuming to build partnerships with colleagues across campus. The videos that accompany An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing in LaunchPad Solo give you the opportunity to introduce students to writing in different fields from professionals who do that writing on a regular basis.


What are some other ideas you have about helping students understand the different contexts in which they will be asked to write in college and beyond? What are the biggest questions and concerns that you have about trying a WID approach? If you’ve tried it already, what are some of the strategies you have found to be most effective?

About the Author
Susan Miller-Cochran, now Director of the Writing Program at the University of Arizona, helped shape the First-Year Writing Program at North Carolina State University while she served as Director from 2007-2015. Her research focuses on instructional technology, ESL writing, and writing program administration. Her work has appeared in College Composition and Communication, Composition Studies, Computers and Composition, and Teaching English in the Two-Year College, and she is also an editor of Rhetorically Rethinking Usability (Hampton Press, 2009) and Strategies for Teaching First-Year Composition (NCTE, 2002). Before joining the faculty at NC State, she was a faculty member at Mesa Community College (AZ). She has served on the Executive Committee of the Conference on College Composition and Communication and the Executive Board of the Carolinas Writing Program Administrators. She currently serves as President of the Council of Writing Program Administrators.