The history of writing-across-the-curriculum (WAC) and writing-in-the-disciplines (WID), both highly collaborative endeavors, has generally been discussed in terms of persistence and patience: persistence in that collaboration involves establishing relationships and patience because of the time it takes to negotiate the differences about teaching and learning writing that are held by those in different disciplines. Writing is often thought of as a “generalizable” skill that, once learned, is adaptable to any situation and context, especially to those outside writing and rhetoric. How often do we hear instructors in other fields complain that students have taken writing courses and are still unable to write? Syntax, spelling, grammar. The lore about writing persists.
Mistaking writing as simply a generalizable skill diminishes its value as a tool to accomplish and enact knowledge-making. It separates form from content, writing from ideas. While a well-known problem, this is one of the issues that creates misunderstanding when instructors from distinct disciplines collaborate to teach writing. Although I had always been invested in WAC/WID, it was not until I was invited into a mechanical engineering department to help improve student writing that I began to understand the distinct beliefs that guide our practices. Ultimately, I came to think of disciplines as different cultures, each with its own way of being.
Adopting an intercultural communication perspective, I explored the degree to which our unique disciplines approached writing. Engineering treated writing as a more generalizable skill, scribal rather than rhetorical. Because the numerical and the visual factor heavily in their field, engineers tend to believe that what counts as evidence persuades more than its written delivery. They erroneously believe that numbers and visuals “speak for themselves.” Initially, the engineers with whom I worked thought of writing through the lens of the Shannon-Weaver model, in which when a message is sent and there is no disruptive “noise,” the receiver must have understood it. Engineers often think of writing as something that conveys information rather than creates it.
From an intercultural perspective, assumptions of universality (Lim 2003) is defined as when participants expect their collaborators to be similar, if not the same. As scholars and academics, we similarly evaluate students’ texts by the degree of their holistic success, including the rhetorical finesse evidenced in their writing. Often, however, disciplinary rhetoric goes unnoticed in some fields. It is not perceived as a critical component of textual meaning. When collaborating, the engineers and I found that being explicit about our disciplinary beliefs increased our understanding of our goal of supporting student writing. Otherwise, we assumed we were talking about the same thing when we each positioned writing differently in the teaching and learning process.
Learning to communicate across disciplinary cultures takes time, and thus persistence and patience—on the part of all those collaborating. Communicating is not just about bridging differences; it’s also about appreciating what a novel perspective can add to the collaboration. The collaboration between writing and engineering lasted seventeen years, a healthy amount of time for most everyone involved to learn from each other, to create new pedagogical spaces in which students could benefit from our knowledges. In embedding ourselves within each other’s cultures, we came to develop trust and understand that assumptions of universality, though well-intentioned, held our own understandings of writing from developing to a fuller potential.
Lim, Tae-Seop. 2003. “Language and Verbal Communication across Cultures.” In Cross-Cultural and Intercultural Communication, edited by William B. Gudykunst, 53–72. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Maureen A. Mathison is associate professor and former chair of the Department of Writing and Rhetoric Studies at the University of Utah. She was awarded the Charles Phelps Taft Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Cincinnati and has published in Communication Theory, Journal of Business and Technical Communication, Journal of Literacy, Written Communication, and numerous edited volumes. She is also the editor of Sojourning in Disciplinary Cultures: A Case Study of Teaching Writing in Engineering.