Magazine article National Forum

Beyond Specialization: Writing for Readers

Magazine article National Forum

Beyond Specialization: Writing for Readers

Article excerpt

Beyond Specialization Writing for Readers

Increasing specialization is a symptom of our technological society. Our educational patterns both follow and lead its advance. Some academic subjects, notably mathematics and English, remain crucial, although they struggle to keep up and adapt. In any event, our dependence on the discipline of language, especially on effective communication through written discourse, continues. In recent years, the administrative maneuver to meet this need has been to decentralize written composition from its ancestral home in the English department and to initiate campus-wide programs of "writing-across-the-curriculum." The basic idea is the old and valid one that writing is everybody's business. The result, however, is that writing instruction in higher education is now inclined to support specialization and the further separation of academic disciplines rather than filling its traditional role as a skill central to liberal education and as common ground for interdisciplinary collaboration.

My awareness of this was strengthened--and agitated--when the all-points bulletin of the new Writing Program at my own university quoted a gleeful professor in the Psychology department regarding a student who "got an A on her first paper in his class" and mentioned "how pleased he was with the student's writing abilities" learned in the basic class. His comment: "She writes more like a Psychologist than the other students." He was right, of course, but something essential seems to have been lost in the transition.

Having taught the reading and writing of English since mid-century, I have survived a number of curricular civil wars and their aftermath--that is, the reconstruction periods of political and pedagogical adjustment. Fads, experiments, shifts of emphasis, and the reconstitution of professional terminology have come and gone in regular cycles. I've become aware that as long as English is identified as a discipline rather than as common to all the disciplines that contribute to human community--basic, indeed, to discipline itself--it will continue to sterilize its own vocabulary and promote its own professional jargon in order to certify its legitimacy in the academy and its intellectual position among the exploding fields of advanced learning.

Still, on a personal level I've gone along for the most part with the shifting tides. I've chaired two departments of English and encouraged the diversity and depth of their concerns. I've administered programs of composition, first navigating the four seas of "Basic Communication" in the 1950s, and later, in the 1960s, when English teachers at all levels became linked (articulated was the buzz word) in fealty to the "Language Arts," extending those concerns to the public schools. In the years since, I've devoted a portion of my energy and faith to the poetry-in-the-schools movement, encouraging the potential for surprise, delight, and insight in the play of language. In the early 1980s I directed the Creative Writing Program, which runs through the Ph.D. at the University of Utah.

I also went along a considerable way with the current pattern which distributes writing instruction laterally throughout the curriculum and across the campus. Writing is everybody's business; ergo, every teachers is a teacher of writing. Yes. But in higher education and the world of academe, if not always in the world for which they intend to prepare the student, increased specialization (as the statement I quoted earlier from the professor of Psychology documents) leads to specialized language and distinctive rhetorical modes for each field of study.

Writing-Across-the-Curriculum programs diversify writing instruction and thus attempt to make the act of composition more democratic. Politically and educationally, however, the program is likely to be more republican than democratic. In any case, it will be more bureaucratic. Such relocation of the responsibility for writing instruction supports and hastens specialization in undergraduate as well as graduate writing: psychology majors learn to write for ("like") psychologists; physics majors, for physicists; microbiologists, for microbiologists; economists, for economists; and so on. …

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