Fusing Form and Function
in Sociology: Combining Fluency in Disciplinary Conventions with Critical
By Mark Hall
WR courses require writing suited to the discipline and writing integral to the course. But what does it mean "to make writing integral to the course"? A cornerstone of the writing-across-the-curriculum approach is that writing should produce more learning. "Integrating writing," then, means using writing to enhance critical thinking, analytic ability, and the incorporation of abstract ideas.
But herein lies the rub: teachers sometimes feel a tension between the need for students to master disciplinary forms and the need for students to learn more. These two often-competing purposes for writing have been described as training students to "write like professionals in the discipline" and to critically explore the subject matter of the course (Faigley 141).
When form wins out over function, students may demonstrate that they can write something that resembles a qualitative research report or field notes, but excessive attention to stylistic conventions too early in the drafting process may come at the expense of meaning-making, of having something new and interesting to say. By contrast, WR courses unite form and function. They include writing assignments that both suit the discipline and enhance learning.
WR writing assignments in sociology, for example, help students to master the character and conventions of social science writing while using writing as a tool for thinking and discovery. Below are a few examples.
The Integrated Paper
The integrated paper is an alternative to the traditional comprehensive exam. This assignment invites students to choose a movie, briefly summarize it, then offer a detailed analysis of specific scenes or incidents using sociological terms and concepts. Students not only define and explain terms but also apply them by discussing examples from the movie. Finally, students conclude by reflecting on their analysis.
According to Theresa M. Chandler, "Conceptually, the emphasis is on a writing requirement in which the student goes beyond the memorization to the proper use of sociological concepts. What makes this assignment work in lieu of a multiple-choice examination and what makes it surpass a traditional term paper is the deeper understanding required of numerous terms that span sociological topics" (184).
Another writing assignment to help students learn to apply sociological concepts is journal writing. "Effective teaching," argues Bradley J. Fisher, "often requires the instructor to link course material to life experiences. The personal journal demands deeper involvement from students because it requires them to make these connections to their own experiences" (157).
This speculative writing provides students with the opportunity to discover what they think by writing informally. Freely expressing their views and opinions on a concept or topic helps students to link abstract ideas to their own lives.
Journals also provide a place for students to engage in dialogue with their teachers, emphasizing the process of idea exchange and development, not just finished products. Together in dialogue, students and teachers learn from each other.
Likewise, this conversation can be extended to include classmates when students share their journals with others. In this way journals establish a real audience and a real reason for writing in an environment that privileges content. Having a place to play with ideas, to examine them from various angles, and to get feedback from interested readers helps students to invent ideas that they can later develop in more formal, extended, and polished writing assignments.
Summary and Critical Analysis of Research
This assignment invites students to read, summarize, and critically analyze a sociological research study. It is designed to help students understand sociology and to learn the representational style of sociological writing by providing an approach for critically reading professional writing in the discipline.
Students first summarize the research
study by answering a series of questions:
What’s the rationale for studying the topic?
What research questions does the study address?
What is the scope of the study?
What kind of data does the study use?
How were the data collected?
Who are the subjects or participants?
What is the role of the researcher?
How were the data analyzed?
What are the results or findings?
What conclusions does the study draw?
A second set of questions next prompts
students to read the research study analytically:
What values, beliefs, and assumptions underlie the study?
How useful and appropriate are the data?
How useful and appropriate is the analysis of the data?
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the study?
What further questions does it raise for both the researcher and reader?
Summarizing published sociological research helps students learn the discipline’s generic representational style. Analyzing helps them critically examine both the degree to which professional writers adhere to those conventions and the ways the character of sociological writing reflects and shapes what is valued in the field.
Writing assignments such as these teach both disciplinary conventions and critical thinking. According to Wayne R. Morgan Jr., "Critical thinking is a fundamentally different act than merely thinking ‘about’ something. It goes beyond the thinking that recalls past events or anticipates the future when there is no deeper processing involved. A father may be ‘thinking’ of his children, and remembering past events, and he may even engage in flights of fancy about future events concerning his children. These activities are not critical thinking. Without a deeper processing there is no critical thinking" (338).
Such "deeper processing" occurs not when students merely imitate the disciplinary conventions of sociological writing but when they use sociological terms and concepts, relate them to their own lives, and examine and critique the ways those ideas are deployed by professional writers.
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