An essay is an essay is… an essay? Not quite. I’m not talking about heady questions of what is an essay, questions which would lead us into the metaphysical qualities of essay-hood and which would be much too complex for a single blog post. Rather, I’d like to briefly delve into the different writing expectations that students can come across in different disciplines. This is especially prevalent at Athens State: maybe you are a dual major in English and History; maybe your major is in the College of Arts and Sciences and your minor is in the College of Business; maybe you are a new transfer student from a local community college and have an AS in General Studies and have yet to become fully immersed in a single discipline. Any of the above could describe a good number of our university’s student population, and all of them can lead to some serious confusion when writing in a foreign discipline.
First, I’d like to present a quote from Douglas Hesse, Director of the writing program at the University of Denver, who wrote in “Saving a Place for Essayistic Literacy” that “within the academy the term ‘essay’ has evolved into a generic term for all works of prose nonfiction short enough to be read in a single sitting” (35). At the student level, though, things can be a lot more complicated than that. As a Writing Center client told me in a recent session, it can be difficult to go from writing an English paper to writing a History paper. Similarly, it can be difficult to go from writing a paper in freshman composition to writing a paper in an upper-level humanities course. One discipline will want you to use present tense while another prefers past tense. One discipline will want you to include your own opinion and ideas while another would like you to stick to the facts and only the facts, if you please.
Below are some things that have helped students who have visited the Writing Center, students who have become entangled by the confusion of going from writing in one discipline to writing in another—
- Don’t be afraid to write in a new voice with a new approach to how you present information or ideas. The voice in which you write a paper in a history course is probably not the perfect fit for a paper in a biology class.
- Talk to someone about it. Let someone else read your paper. Let the person know the tone that you are trying to set, and see if they read it in that way.
- Speak with your professor or your advisor about writing expectations within the discipline.
- Speak with a student majoring in the discipline. Ask for advice!
- Visit the Writing Center. A writing consultant is the perfect audience for sitting and listening to your concerns as we work through a paper together.
With any of these, feel free to read your writing out loud, either to yourself or to someone else. Often we are more familiar with speech than with writing (we talk much more than we write), and it can be easier to catch things by the ear than by the eye. This is especially true when writing within a discipline, as a writer can become so accustomed to a certain discipline’s requirements that these requirements become second nature. Having been immersed within a discipline, a writer begins to automatically write as expected, whether that discipline is History, English, behavioral science, natural science, business, or education. It can be hard to get out of the routine, but with enough attention to detail and revision, the work can be done. Similarly, a recent community college graduate with an AS in General Studies (or a transfer student) may not yet be immersed within a discipline, having touched lightly on everything through completing general education requirements but not having become well-versed in any one thing. The situation is similar in each, as both have to essentially learn an academic language. The cure is also similar: write, write, write, and revise.