Generic or specific: writing in and across the disciplines

We get a lot of requests at our writing centre, as I am sure is true of many writing centres, for generic writing skills workshops. Requests like: ‘Can you come and tell my students how to write at university?’ or ‘Can you come and run a skills workshop on essay writing?’ I have serious reservations about any kind of workshop that tries to give students a list of ‘skills’ they need to master in order to be a better writer, or a workshop that approaches improving your writing as knowing what writing at university is broadly and matching what you do to that set of characteristics or features. There’s a lot of research in the field of academic writing and literacies that shows that generic, one-method-of-essay-writing-serves-all-disciplines approaches to teaching writing don’t really work for the majority of students. The ones who succeed following these workshops were probably already fairly confident or capable writers. Essay writing guides are often gobbledygook to those who do not already have some knowledge about essay writing (much like user guides for electronic equipment).

My response to these requests is always to ask for more information: what assignments are the students working on? What are the assessment criteria? What are the lecturer’s expectations of the students in relation to the task, and what are some of the things they have noticed their students struggling with? What would an excellent piece of work look like? This information helps me to then explain to the lecturer requesting the workshop how we work, at our writing centre, with students either through workshops or individual tutorials. We prefer not to come in with a completely generic workshop, and leave it to the students to work out how to adapt our generic tools and discussion to their specific disciplinary task. We also, however, cannot come in as disciplinary experts and design a completely specific writing workshop either. We sit somewhere between the generic and specific; somewhere between being in a discipline and working across them. So, what we design, and what we take to students in different departments and faculties, is a mix: a brief framing of the kind of writing they are doing and what its aims and goals are, like a lab report or a discursive essay, followed by a brief and focused ‘toolkit’ for writing that includes useful, more generic tools to help them think  and write. For example, how to write clear paragraphs and why this clarity is important in an essay, report, or thesis. We also try to make space for them to do some writing and to  discuss their particular task and particular assessment criteria and expectations and to connect the tools to the specific task.

These kinds of workshop, often, are one-off and tend to stand alone. Over the past few years we have set up relationships across the university with lecturers who come to these workshops and then build on and reinforce a more process-oriented and explicit approach towards writing in their classes, explaining their expectations more clearly to students and helping them to work on their writing through improved feedback. We have also run more than one workshop in these departments and have had students come to see us for individual tutorials, so we can start and continue conversations about writing, and learn more about the specifics of the writing in those disciplines and modules. But many lecturers want workshops that will ‘fix’ the problems and will help students acquire the right kinds of skills, and they tend to see their role as teaching the disciplinary knowledge or ‘content’ and someone else (a writing centre or academic literacy course) takes on the job of teaching the skills.

We really try, in our planning phase, to include lecturers and to open up conversations about what does count as generic and what is actually more specific about the writing their students are doing, and therefore what we can help with and what we need them to be considering more of in their own ongoing teaching. We think about this a lot as writing tutors, and look at what different kinds of writing entail and require, so that we can use our own disciplinary knowledge and experience to deepen our understanding of academic writing, and use this to inform that ways in which we talk to students, advise, encourage and assist them. We run workshops with tutors in the disciplines, asking them to think of all the characteristics of academic writing they can, and then dividing this list into generic features that apply (albeit realised in a range of texts) to all writing (like having a clear and coherent structure, an introduction and conclusion, references and citations etc), and more specific features that really apply to their discipline (like writing only in the 3rd person in scientific reports, or the necessity of using both contemporary and older research and documents in Theology, or the necessity of using ‘archaic’ terms and phrasing in legal contracts).

These encounters with writing ask lecturers, tutors and also students to stop and think: what is more generic and what is quite specific in this piece of writing? What do I need to do to hand in an acceptable piece of work, how do I do that, and why do these features/characteristics have to be included? Why do I need to be precise, and write in tightly structured paragraphs? What needs to be part of my introduction and how do I need to write one for this essay? These are some of the questions that can be asked and answered, moving lecturers, tutors and students towards a clearer and more focused understanding of what writing counts, what makes it count and how to direct students towards achieving success.

Writing well requires mastery of both the generic and specific features of any type or form of text: understanding which is which and how a writer’s grasp of these features impact on the writing he or she is doing is hopefully one way of ensuring a more conscious and less bewildering writing experience.

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