Trajectories of Persons and Practices: Sociohistoric Perspectives of Disciplinary Development. The Case Study of Charles Scott, Jr

Chapter 1 | Re-Mapping Disciplinary Writing, Learning, and Enculturation

Writing and Learning within Autonomous Territories

One significant part of people’s histories is their experiences with writing across the expansive literate landscapes they inhabit. After all, in addition to engagements with some focal discipline, people continually navigate the “textually dense worlds of modernity” (Bazerman, 2004, p. 59), worlds that include a wealth of experiences and textual engagements with other disciplines, work, and a host of social and recreational activities that texture everyday lives.

And yet, in respecting the assumed borders of disciplinary activity, dominant maps locate writing within what are represented as autonomous territories, effectively separating persons and practices from their histories across all those other engagements. Essentially, the dominant metaphor obscures how those histories are woven into disciplinary writing, learning, and socialization, as well as how disciplinary writing and learning come to inform other literate engagements.

Examples of how the dominant perspective of disciplinary development separates disciplinary writing and learning from individuals’ broader literate lifeworlds can be seen in the brief discussions of key studies of disciplinary writing we offer below.

Learners’ participation with the activities of a particular disciplinary landscape passes through multiple educational levels, from their early encounters with disciplinary practice in kindergarten and elementary school, to their deepening engagement in middle and high school, and their increasingly focused interactions as undergraduates and later as masters, doctoral, and post-doctoral learners. Roth and Bowen (1999), for example, addressed people’s encounters with scientific representation practice as high school students, sophomores in college, preservice teachers with a bachelor’s degree, graduate students, and postdoctoral researchers.

And yet, consider how the dominant metaphor of disciplinary development maps learners’ long-term participation within a particular disciplinary field. Gesturing toward apprenticeship models of learning and enculturation, Roth (2003) argued that the representational practices that animate work in the STEM disciplines are appropriated as newcomers with little prior knowledge legitimately but peripherally participate with more experienced members. These trajectories of individuals within communities of practice share a lot in common with those that individuals traverse in traditional practices such as tailoring and midwifery. This is because, as we participate bodily in the world, we are formed by the structures of this world without being aware of it, being immersed in this practice. Roth (2003) concludes, then, that through increasing participation and learning, newcomers turn into old-timers and core participants in the practice as they increasingly reflect the explicit and, more importantly, the tacit relevant structures of the field (p. 7).

For Roth and Bowen (1999) those trajectories of participation do not even begin until people start to engage with the practices shaping their work in the latter stages of graduate education. They wrote,

Our research indicates that present schooling at the elementary, secondary, and undergraduate levels does little to introduce students to the authentic scientific representation practices. Our ongoing work among doctoral students and post-doctoral researchers suggests that it is during these years that individuals begin to participate in those graphic practices that we documented for practicing scientists. (p. 206)

From the perspective offered by these dominant maps of disciplinary writing and learning, the genres and aims of writing as a doctoral student are so different as to be virtually unrecognizable from the literate practices people encounter in their engagement with that discipline as undergraduates and at earlier levels of schooling.

Whatever their focal disciplinary specialization, learners also have experiences with other disciplinary worlds. Early years of education ask students to navigate multiple disciplinary engagements concurrently. Even the initial years of undergraduate education ask students to take classes related to different disciplinary territories (Beaufort, 2007; Carroll, 2002; McCarthy, 1987; Sternglass, 1997). For example, during his sophomore year of college, Dave, the participant in McCarthy’s (1987) study, took classes as different as Cell Biology and Introduction to Poetry. In addition, it is common for students to seek a major in one disciplinary area and a minor in another, or to double major in two different disciplinary worlds. Tim, the participant in Beaufort’s (2007) study, had a double major in history and engineering. Even during advanced graduate study, learners typically navigate different disciplinary emphases. For example, the doctoral student in Blakeslee’s (1997) study, nearing the end of six years of graduate study, wrote for research in electrical engineering and physics.

And yet, consider how the dominant metaphor of disciplinary development maps learners’ participation with different disciplinary engagements. McCarthy (1987) wrote: “[t]he contexts for writing may be so different from one classroom to another, the ways of speaking in them so diverse, the social meanings of writing and the interaction patterns so different, that the courses may be for the student writer like so many foreign countries” (p. 260). Or, as Blakeslee (1997) suggested, a learner’s participation with writing for one discipline can inhibit his or her writing for another discipline.

From this perspective, Lindsey’s participation with graphic design could be mapped as an entirely different country than creative writing, and those textual practices could be seen as likely sources of interference for her in learning the discipline’s ways of writing and representing.

In addition to multiple disciplinary engagements, learners’ literate landscapes also include the textual activities associated with part- and full-time employment. After all, many students engage in some type of work during their youth. And, an increasing number of learners hold employee positions while attending college.

The adult learners Michaud (2013) wrote about describe having held or currently holding part-time and full-time positions as retail workers, hospitality employees, administrative assistants, IT programmers, paramedics, and business managers, all of which immerse them in a wealth of literate activities. One professional education major’s full-time position as an employee training coordinator at an ambulance company immersed him in documenting employee training, creating presentation materials and orientation manuals, and communicating with administrators and supervisors. Part-time employment can involve an even wider variety of literate activities. One allied health major’s part-time position at her family’s construction business involved her in literate activities that included “ghostwriting for her husband (the president of the firm), documentation of internal and external processes, [and] document preparation for project bids” (Michaud, 2013, p. 88).

And yet, consider how cleanly Dias, Freedman, Medway, and Pare (1999) separated disciplinary writing from workplace writing in their book Worlds Apart: Acting and Writing in Academic and Workplace Settings. The authors were not just looking at employment and schooling. They were examining the writing for courses in professional disciplines—architecture, social work, finance, public administration, and management—and for the matched professional workplaces. Analyzing rich, longitudinal data, the authors concluded that the motives of school and workplace and hence their genres are so disparate that sites like a capstone senior course for architecture majors in the spring of their senior year and work at an architectural firm a month later should be seen as entirely different contexts.

Dias et al. argued: “Because writing is so bound up with situation, the title of this book is not so hyperbolic as it appears. Writing at school and writing at work are indeed worlds apart” (p. 222). They elaborate on this conclusion a page later, stating that,

writing at work and writing in school constitute two very different activities, one primarily epistemic and one oriented toward accomplishing the work of schooling, and the other primarily an instrumental and often economic activity, and oriented toward accomplishing the work of the organization. … One might legitimately argue that whereas the two worlds of school and work are indeed apart, it is the people who cross between them who transport and translate what they have learned as writers from one domain to the other. Our book is an argument against (at least facile versions of) such notions. (p. 223)

Finally, they summed up this perspective by writing that “we write where we are. Location, it would appear, is (almost) everything” (Dias et al., 1999, p. 223).

In the dominant metaphor, even writing for such seemingly closely matched activities cannot bridge the borders of school versus writing in workplaces. If this is the case, then how would we understand workplace literacies that seem even less closely related to writing students do for their majors? Students often work, whether part time or full time, while attending school in positions not directly aligned with their chosen disciplines. And, upon graduation, students often accept positions in fields somewhat different than the ones they might have studied. But if the writing an employee does at an architectural firm is “worlds apart” from writing she did for her final architecture courses, then the writing she might do for other jobs must be even further removed from her writing for school.

Beyond writing for other disciplinary engagements and workplace experiences, learners’ dense textual histories also include the vernacular literacies that are “rooted in everyday experiences and serve everyday purposes” (Barton & Hamilton, 1998, p. 251). Both online and off, persons’ everyday lives involve them in the complex textual work of taking care of their families (Compton-Lilly, 2011; Cushman, 1998; Heath, 1983, 2012; Purcell-Gates, 2013); attending to their medical needs (Bellwoar, 2012); creating and cultivating friendships (Buck, 2012; Vie, 2008); documenting, representing, and organizing their lives (Barton & Hamilton, 1998; Garvey, 2013; Lam, 2000); and participating in hobbies and pastimes (Black, 2008; Mahiri, 1998; Prior & Schaffner, 2011; Urbanski, 2010). People likewise navigate the textual ecologies involved in pursuing religious commitments (Fishman, 1990; Guerra & Farr, 2002; Moss, 2003; Vieira, 2012); informing themselves of and addressing civic issues (Grabill, 2007; Sheridan, 2008); and writing themselves into local and transnational communities (Berry, Hawisher, & Selfe, 2012; Lorimer Leonard, 2013; Scenters-Zapico, 2010; Selfe & Hawisher, 2004).

And yet, consider how cleanly Poe, Lerner, and Craig (2010) separated learners’ disciplinary writing and learning from their vernacular engagements in their book Learning to Communicate in Science and Engineering: Case Studies of MIT Students. Based on their analyses of the writing by undergraduates in the STEM disciplines, the authors concluded that,

while many of these students do have secret writing lives, those activities are centered around what they often describe as “humanities writing,” such as fiction, poetry, essays, or informal writing over the Internet. Overall, the idea of writing as a scientist or engineering is somewhat foreign and fairly intimidating to them. (p. 1)

While acknowledging MIT undergraduates’ “secret writing lives,” the authors then dismiss these literate activities based not only on associations with different disciplines but also differences in genre and the seemingly “private” nature of “informal” writing as opposed to the “public” nature of writing as a scientist or an engineer. The authors seem to suggest that what MIT students stand to learn from engaging in those kinds of literate activities offers very little in terms of helping them to participate in the “foreign” landscape of the STEM disciplines.

Such a mapping would posit a wide gap between Alexandra’s engagement with writing fan fiction and her STEM writing for engineering.

The effect of this perspective takes particularly clear form in Anne Beaufort’s (2007) book College Writing and Beyond, the result of a six-year study of one undergraduate, Tim, majoring in history and engineering. Informed by discourse community theory and the dominant metaphor that Beaufort endorsed of “writers moving from outsider to insider status in particular discourse communities or activity systems” (p. 24), Beaufort traced Tim across two years of his trajectory toward a major in history.

Beaufort’s analysis of Tim’s writing for history captures traces of a number of his other literate engagements. In addition to his writing poetry and song lyrics in his spare time, Beaufort also indicated Tim’s commitment to religious worship. She noted, for example, that, “Tim had an active religious life during college and spoke to me of his need to ‘see my own heritage and … personally understand what can go wrong in a church’” (p. 95).

Beaufort further noted that Tim’s religious engagement informed his writing for history. For example, five of the twelve samples of his writing for history she collected “dealt with issues of faith informing the views of historical figures he chose to study or issues of institutional religion’s role in social issues of a given age” (p. 95). Tim’s participation in religious worship informed not just his choice of topics but also drove the analyses for his papers.

And yet, even having indicated these interplays, Beaufort nonetheless located Tim’s engagements with religion as basically irrelevant to his developing expertise with writing in history. She mapped them into entirely different worlds, writing that, “But, the two purposes—Tim’s own and his professor’s in assigning the writing—apparently did not align” (p. 95). And, ultimately, when Beaufort mapped the different kinds of knowledge that constitute writing as a historian, she listed five types: discourse community knowledge, subject matter knowledge, genre knowledge, rhetorical knowledge, and writing process knowledge, none of which would include the knowledge Tim accrued from his literate activities with religion. Worlds apart.

In respecting the assumed borders of autonomous disciplinary terrains, the dominant metaphor of disciplinary writing effectively erases a person's rich histories with writing for other disciplines, for work, and for their everyday lives in telling the story of disciplinary development. At the same time, it offers no way of mapping how a person’s disciplinary activities inform those other textual engagements. When viewed from this perspective, consider how difficult it would be to even glimpse Lindsey’s physical manipulation of images for graphic design and Alexandra’s inscriptional practice for generating characters for her fan novels, much less understand how they might be linked to their disciplinary learning for creative writing and engineering.

1.02 « PREVIOUS | NEXT » 1.04