Teaching Writing in the Social Sciences and related tangents

Or “No Academic Discussion is an End Unto Itself”

Teaching Writing in the Social Sciences

While I don’t teach it anymore, it was an adjunct gig for me and the university which housed and required the course has abandoned it, Writing in the Social Sciences was an important course for me. It was the first completely across the curriculum course I taught, though it was not the first cross-discipline course. (That was a freshman composition for Health Science Professionals.) It impacted my life enough that I thought it worth writing an article about and this was published in Currents in Teaching and Learning.

Because of my personal connection to the course, when browsing through the WAC Clearing House I was intrigued to find an article entitled Teaching Writing in the Social Sciences: A Comparison and Critique of Three Models.

You might find it fascinating too. The abstract says:

This article describes and evaluates three approaches to teaching writing in the social sciences, particularly psychology: an English department-based course for all social science majors; a team-teaching model that embeds writing in core courses in psychology; and a stand-alone course dedicated to teaching writing in psychology, often taken concurrently with other core courses. Using Beaufort’s (2007) five knowledge domains of expert writers as a lens through which we view each approach, we describe each model and appraise the success of each in providing what Ding (2008) and Collins, Brown, and Holum (1991) call a cognitive apprenticeship, i.e., an educational experience that makes the thinking and practices of a discipline visible and gives students tools and experiences to help them become insiders in a discourse community. Each of these approaches to teaching social science writing can provide some elements of a good cognitive apprenticeship, but the drawbacks to each make the goal of providing such an apprenticeship elusive because of the constant challenge of developing competent faculty, sustaining faculty commitment, and guaranteeing adequate department resources to support these efforts.

What is Beaufort’s model?

“Beaufort’s (2007) conceptual model of writing expertise, which postulates that proficient writers draw on five knowledge domains when composing: (1) knowledge of writing processes, (2) knowledge of rhetoric, (3) knowledge of subject matter, (4) knowledge of genre, and (5) knowledge of the discourse community they are operating in—a domain that encompasses the other four.”

looking like a professorWho is an expert?

The discussion of subject matter expertise was fascinating. I personally often feel as if I am faking it; I am a professor because I act like a professor and I will act like a professor until I become one. So this area really caught my attention. How does one become an expert? How is an expert created or recognized?

This is an interesting and simple question in some ways. Clearly an expert painter’s work is sold for high prices. An expert fiction author’s work makes the best seller list or is loved by the critics (depending on whether one is writing high or low literature). An expert journalist has a Pulitzer.

So what is an expert professor? In some ways, the term expert professor almost seems redundant. One cannot become a professor unless one is expert. But it is, perhaps, an expertise that is in writing papers that will be accepted by senior scholars, an expertise in doing the reading and research that are required to write something coherent and intelligent, an expertise in choosing a field in which one can–if not shine–at least prosper.

Genre knowledge is key.

This was a focus of my dissertation and is still a focus of my attention. Genre in all its many quirks and byways catches my attention.

Hansen and Adams’ discussion of genre, as social action (Miller) and as a study of the “textual dynamics of a discourse community” (Berkenkotter and Huckin 497), strongly reverberates with what I wrote in my dissertation. Both of those sources are ones I called on for my work.

How does this relate to me today?

I think Beaufort’s model of writing expertise might be an interesting approach to take with my MLA presentation “Avoiding Academic Rigor Mortis.” I will have to consider that.

I also think that the cognitive apprenticeship discussion may have something to say to my other MLA presentation, “Utilizing Scholarship to Improve Teaching.”


[C]ognitive apprenticeship is a “model of instruction that works to make thinking visible” (Collins, Brown, & Holum, 1991). Cognitive apprenticeships derive their characteristics from being embedded in a subculture, or discourse community, in which “most, if not all, members are participants in the target skills” (Collins, Brown, & Holum, 1991). The challenge in creating a cognitive apprenticeship is to “situate the abstract tasks of the school curriculum in contexts that make sense to students” and “deliberately bring the thinking to the surface, to make it visible” (Collins, Brown, & Holum, 1991).

In fact, the more I think of it, the more that conferences (which are the focus of the second paper) are a cognitive apprenticeship. Doesn’t that make perfect sense? Seriously. They are embedded in the discourse community. Members participate in the target skills and conferences situate the abstract tasks of writing and presenting, bringing–for example, pedagogy–to the surface and making the process of teaching and thinking about teaching visible.

Perhaps I want to look at my philosophical/rhetorical roots for how to present the information at MLA. Maybe I want to focus on genres, expert status, and the concept of attending conferences as a cognitive apprenticeship of its own.

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