Internalizing the Field:
Charles Bazerman on Teaching Writing in Disciplinary Classes
By Jack Ramey & Mike Jackman
Charles Bazerman, Professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is this year's Thomas R. Watson Visiting Distinguished Professor of Rhetoric and Composition. He is the winner of the 1994 National Council of Teachers of English Award for Excellence in Scientific and Technical Writing, and a renowned scholar of disciplinary writing. Recently, Dr. Bazerman discussed ways in which WR can be helpful to University of Louisville faculty. An excerpt of our interview is reprinted here.
Q. What do you think are the benefits
of using writing in your classes?
In most classes the primary method students have for communicating is writing. When you have lectures, class discussions are necessarily limited. But students have much more chance to develop thoughts over the term if there is any writing in the course at all. They will communicate much more of what they’re learning, and they will develop their thinking about the material, develop a familiarity with the material as they articulate it. This is why teaching writing is not doing somebody else’s business. Even formally teaching the writing of your field is simply supporting them in participating in the learning of your course.
Q: So accomplishing those student-oriented
goals also benefits the teacher as well?
Yes, in the direct sense that you’ll be getting more interesting things from your students. But it also [accomplishes] the teacher’s goals in having the students learn the material, articulate the subject matter, think within the modes of expression appropriate to the field. Even if the students are not majors or going on to graduate school within that field, still, to be able to think with and about that material for whatever purposes they will be using that material for. It very much benefits the teacher, both in the sense of getting more pleasant reading from the students but even more in helping them fulfill their teaching goals to the various groups of students that they have.
Q: I was wondering if you felt that
the explicit teaching of genre could aid students.
When students are motivated and attentive to certain genres, it is useful to help them see a little bit more about what is going on—to provide them ways to produce the kinds of things that they’re trying to produce. It’s called “teaching at the point of need.” To me, that is the whole art of teaching, to identify points of need and teach to that and perhaps to help it along by creating points of need or needs that the students will actually want to take on. One of the great advantages of writing-across-the-curriculum is that students are identifying discourses they want to enter into, conversations they want to be a part of, so the need is there. These are also discourses that they recognize to some extent. You can say specific things to them that will help them, give them guidelines; for example, you can create a good assignment which excites the students’ imagination, makes them think new things. You can help them find a shape to put those thoughts in. You can structure the assignment so as to help their thinking along and help them produce a better paper. So I very much do believe in a kind of explicit teaching to the task at hand.
Q. What is the value of teaching a
The recognition that, “oh yes, we do have a process, the white page doesn’t fill up all of the sudden by itself, and there’s something inadequate about you unless you can fill it up with stuff right away.” What it [teaching writing process] also has done is opened up conversations between teachers and students or between students about what they’re doing. So a lot of very specific local information and problem solving gets shared because, we say, “Oh we are in the process of writing, we can talk about it now.”
Q. Are there disciplinary factors
in the writing process?
Certainly disciplines help organize the tasks and activities and forms one writes in. I wouldn’t say it’s simply disciplinarily determined, or that there are sharp boundaries necessarily between disciplines, but disciplines are important organizing factors. Sometimes though there are surprising conjunctions. For example, talking about artifacts from the past actually makes archeology and literature sort of comparable, and using observation makes astronomy and psychology sort of comparable. You see, it cuts in different ways. In terms of using contemporary data, journalism is a lot like astronomy—you’ve got this thing which is out of your control and you’re having to find ways to tell stories about it and capture your data as it’s happened based around the kind of story you want to tell. That doesn’t mean that they’re all exactly alike, but there are surprising cross-disciplinary conjunctions.
Q: What about critical thinking skills?
Writing as a mode of learning?
People who are knowledgeable in disciplines do a lot of work in their head. Some kids in school can do math problems in their heads. However, when they’re doing this, they’re using the literate tools, the symbolic tools of mathematics. Whether or not they are seeing the plus sign in their head, they are using skills that only were developed historically as symbolic tools like the invention of the zero. And they couldn’t do it in their heads unless somewhere they’d seen it represented visually or symbolically. People who are professionals in their fields often love to do lots of stuff in their head and get very quick at it. They know how to think about their field, and they in a sense can forget the processes of articulation and the symbolic processes by which they learn to think in their field.
Beginners in the field, no matter how quick they are, need at least once or twice to run through the actual symbolic manipulations. To get a sense of what that thinking is all about. To internalize the thinking processes of the field. Writing across the curriculum can be viewed as a way of helping people to learn how to think through the specific methods of the field. That’s a benefit for the student. Now for the teacher—even if the students know and are fairly successful at or have already internalized a lot of thinking methods of the field, you can’t intervene or comment on it unless their thinking is made visible to you in some way.
If you really want to see where it goes wrong or if there’s a more efficient way, they have to display their thinking to you in some form. And again, that’s where writing is very useful—to explain what they are thinking, how they come to an answer, or if there is a concept, what they think the concept means. Now that doesn’t mean they can articulate everything the concept means to them. However, in that very struggle to try and articulate it they will be refining what that concept is and what it is they think about it. And if they can’t articulate what this concept is they will come up with the wrong words that betray something that needs to be refined in their thinking about this process. So the process of writing out what they are thinking is once again very important.
Bazerman has authored and edited many important books and articles on writing across the curriculum, including Shaping Written Knowledge: The Genre and Activity of the Experimental Article in Science; Landmark Essays in Writing Across the Curriculum (with David Russell); and Textual Dynamics of the Professions (with James Paradis). Forthcoming from MIT is his The Languages of Edison’s Light.
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