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This past April, I was fortunate to be able to attend the Writing Across Institutions Conference at Appalachian State University. As part of that conference, I listened to Prof. Allison Harl of Ferrum College remind her audience of writing teachers that we should be sure to consider reading transfer an essential part of the experiences we offer our students, and that reading transfer should be an important part of our discussions and explorations of writing transfer.
Prof. Harl’s reminder compelled me to spend time thinking, with a sharpened focus, about the ways I incorporate readings and the functions they serve in my own first-year writing course. I began this consideration of readings in my WID-based first-year writing course by examining where readings are located in my most recent course syllabus, and by outlining the various purposes they serve in my course design:
- To introduce students to particular disciplinary ways of thinking: My first-year writing course is currently organized into a series of units that focus on the reading and writing that takes place in various academic communities: the humanities, the social sciences, the natural sciences, and the applied fields. I routinely incorporate a scholarly reading or two at the beginning of each of these units to support my introductions to these academic arenas.
For example, at the beginning of my unit on the natural sciences, I ask students to read Marazzitti and Canale’s “Hormonal Changes When Falling In Love” (Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2004; on pp. 356-362 in An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing). In class, we spend time discussing the reading with a particular focus on the kinds of topics the researchers explore, the kinds of questions that guide the researchers’ inquiry, the kinds of evidence they tend to rely on, as well as the kinds of conclusions they reach. My focus on these broader considerations is designed to allow students an experience of professional research within a particular academic domain. Over the course of the semester, I hope my students are able to develop a more sophisticated ability to identify similarities and differences among the various domains we explore.
- To introduce students to some of the conventions of writing specific to particular disciplinary domains: Each of my units of study also includes specific attention to the conventions of writing that characterize particular academic domains, and I use readings to highlight these conventional practices. In my unit on reading and writing in the humanities, for instance, I ask students to read Kish’s “’My FEMA People’: Hip-Hop as Disaster Recovery in the Katrina Diaspora” (American Quarterly, 2009; on pp. 565-579 in An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing). In addition to considering Kish’s larger argument and its persuasiveness, we spend time in class exploring the text’s structural, reference, and language features—the presentation of a thesis, the means of creating transitions, the strategies for incorporating textual evidence, and the documentation of source material, for example. By examining how professional academics build texts, or the strategies professional writers employ, I hope to offer opportunities for students to see how the rhetorical decisions these writers make reflect--and sometimes complicate--what it means to conduct inquiry in a particular academic community.
- As a means of introducing students to conventional features of particular genres: I also assign readings as models of particular genres. One of the major writing projects I assign in the social sciences unit of my class is the literature review. In addition to exploring models by students for both their strengths and weaknesses, I also ask students to read professional models, like Gregorowius, Lindemann-Matthies, and Huppenbauer’s “Ethical Discourse on the Use of Genetically Modified Crops: A Review of Academic Publications in the Fields of Ecology and Environmental Ethics (Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 2012; pp. 478-499 in An Insider’s Guide to Academic Writing).
We spend time in class exploring the strategies the professional writers use to execute the demands of the genre. We consider, for instance, how the writers build topics and subtopics, how they introduce sources, how they organize their review of scholarship, how they engage and present their syntheses of source material, how they document their sources, among others considerations. Whether my students are producing a literature review, a research proposal, or a memo, providing access to and opportunities to analyze professional models of specific genres underscores a writing project’s value to students, even as it offers insight into the strategies professionals use in the construction of such genres.
These are the ways, and some of the reasons, I use professional models in my writing course. I’d love to hear how you use readings in your courses. Are there other ways/reasons that you incorporate readings into your course? What specific functions do the readings serve in your own course design?
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