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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: July 28, 1999
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Academic Discourse in Sociology: Practical Writing

by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Copyright, Revised July 1999. "Fair Use" encouraged.


This text was originally designed to accompany Giltrow's Academic Writing. Her text covers writing across disciplines. This supplement serves as a practical guide, built of applications that are specific to those our students have needed in sociology, law, and criminal justice. That means that we have had to add some sections on methodology and statistics, and we have added a considerable number of samples and exercises to cover note-taking, the creation of databases of information, particularly for personal statements and applications, memo writing, letters of recommendation, and the reading and writing of advanced academic papers. We chose Giltrow's text for her insights to developing both the cognitive and social skills of writing. Although we no longer offer the course for which this text was prepared, we think the text itself will serve as an important and necessary guide to students who need some help with writing tasks in real life. We strongly suggest that those who have access to Giltrow's text refer to it, particularly if you plan to continue in graduate studies.

Giltrow begins with an excellent section on genre. She interprets genre as the interaction of form and language in different social and cultural contexts. It's a good discussion for sociologists. It includes many of our concerns, and turns writing into a social issue.

We would like to clarify some of the classroom-related genres we have encountered, and make suggestions for how to maximize their effect for academic performance.

The rest of this file not in html yet. July 27, 1999.


For many years now, through changing patterns of "non-traditional" students, through "first in family" students who shared our classes with other family members, up to the experience of having students whose grandparents were in our early classes, we have sought ways to bring academic writing comfortably into the purview of our students. Over the years the situations have changed. But the experiences we shared with our students in creating a genre that worked for us seem to have produced lasting results. Our research teams present professional papers. We are beginning to seek publication, with our students. This supplement covers the various methods and assignments we used to reach this point. Most of them have proven worthy over time. We have just begun to understand them as part of a whole, grounded in theory, honed in practice. Discovering a Genre Students, at least those who do not aspire to be writers, have long avoided writing. Although they tell us on evaluation forms that they wish they had had more writing assignments, when we make such assignments, they grimace and moan. And we, who were sure that our students should write, though what they were to write we weren't quite sure, persisted in the giving of ever more creative assignments. One year we begged our students to write. Anything. Just write. And, trusting us, they did. About anything and everything. Voluminously. We commented on papers at such length we grimaced almost to match our students. We tried to link all the papers to the focus of the course, but they spewed out in disbelief, wonder, and release. If we just wanted them to write, whatever, they could do that. It was only "academic writing" that confounded them. At the end of that semester, one student told us that if she had understood that we really meant that we would read everything and comment in detail to tie it back to the course, she would have written ten more papers. By that time we weren't sure we could have handled ten more papers. But we knew we had begun the work of "writing with" our students. We thought we knew our students before these "voice" assignments. But with them, we learned so much more. We learned that their stories went far beyond what we had imagined from the relative safety of our classrooms. As feminists we knew we had to maintain the listening, the validation of the reality of what our students said. (MacKinnon describes the methodology of feminism as granting validity to what women say.) As faculty we knew that a shared effort would have to tie these writings into the knowledge base content and theories of the courses. But we contemplated those thousands of "voice" papers and were bewildered. As overworked teachers we knew we had to come up with a genre that was more manageable, with lots less commentary time. Over the years this has been our task, to create a new genre to acknowledge and validate "voice," to link "voice" with specific knowledge base learning and disciplined academic production, and to start some of our students on the way to professional presentations and publication. We have tried to do so with reasonable proportions between the cognitive, affective, and social elements of learning involved, and to do so with reasonable demands on our own and on students' time. The exercises and assignments in this supplement are the outgrowth of shared learning, which continues to grow and change, as every genre must. Defining the Genre In this section we offer the components that presently comprise our genre of classroom writing: voice, knowledge base and theoretical content, critical thinking and application practice, application under stress (timed-response learning), and impromptu application in academic and non-academic settings. 1. Voice The "voice" papers for us are the means through which we come to know our students and their stories. As Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author, reminds us, every person has a story. And that story is an integral part of everything he does, of all his responses, even to serious and life threatening illness. Through the sharing of our stories, our genre remains at all times interactive. These are assignments through which we can validate and act together on our learning. "Voice" papers today are expressed in the students' Journal assignments, which focus largely on the affect that accompanies their learning and narratives they choose to share with us. 2. Content and Process Base Each course assumes a knowledge base, a set of facts whose truth-value has been agreed upon in this course, for the sake of a grade. Sometimes they are historical or general knowledge facts, of the kind you use in Trivial Pursuits. Sometimes they are summaries of theories that we need to draw upon in the course. Sometimes they are complex conceptual formulations synthesized from a number of theories. This section addresses the solutions we have tentatively found for measuring through writing students' mastery of this knowledge base. a. Questions, with Plausible Answers Every university course has content that must be learned. Most of that content spans the gamut, as does ours, from simple factual material, through conceptual material, through the synthesis of high level concepts. Many of our writing exercises focus on process, the process of synthesizing knowledge from the course with our own stories. We needed a genre that let us share process as well as content with students. Process and critical thinking, the development of academic argument, the marshalling of theory to support hypotheses, these are the stuff of which entire academic careers are made. It seemed like such a lot to ask of undergraduates who were just beginning to enjoy writing. As a first means of sharing, we decided to delimit, in the most traditional academic form, the specific knowledge base material that had to be mastered. One always delimits the focus of an academic study. We carefully delimit the universe of legal concepts in our undergraduate moot court. Delimiting was something we knew how to do. With our writing exercises we accomplished delimiting by telling students precisely what we wanted them to know, by offering illustrative answers to illustrate the process, and by promising not to ask on tests for any samples to which we had not demonstrated the kind of answer we had in mind. This delimitation was meant to eliminate the anxiety provoked by the student's need to guess at what we might ask and to guess at what we might expect in the answer. This had the added advantage of forcing us, in providing a sample answer, to discover the ambiguities in our own questions as we tried to answer them, and samples of the process in critical thinking and argument development that we wanted students to develop. Since we wanted, just as we did years ago, for students to write freely, to express what they are learning, with as little care as possible to satisfying the questioner, we wanted also to provide some guide as to how we would grade each question, since grades are another sources of anxiety. We had by then recognized the need to elicit student resources in correcting and commenting on papers. Sacrificing the absolute freedom we had all so enjoyed with our early narratives, we worked with our research team to train multiple readers for the essay answers to questions on course content. We parsed our sample answers into points, so that each of us could see how we were grading the answers. Now genres are difficult to create. They do not grow smoothly, or spring up naturally. This one suffered starts and stops and glitches and miserable confusion as students and teachers struggled to communicate across the written document. Our answers, all parsed out with points, confused both students and the research team. We got excellent inter-grader reliability, and managed to see that every paper was read by more than one reader. But we all started to look for the points that we had carefully assigned to each answer. Students tried to memorize the answers so they could get the maximum points and an A. But that wasn't what we intended. We just wanted students to know how we would parse answers into points. Their answers, in their own words, with their own applications and stories, not ours. We translated more accurately what the research team was really doing as they graded. As one of us read an answer, we marked the key words or concepts in the margin. We noted each component that should have been there, according to how the student answered. We noted missing points, and marked that, too. The grade was calculated on percentage of points actually covered, and our notes served to establish inter-grader reliability. Each of us knew precisely what the points given were for, and what was missing to cause points not to be given. Now we could focus more effectively on students' own answers. And students' can focus on the process of constructing their own answers without trying to memorize ours. We carefully delimit the content of the course, providing all questions that will appear on homework and/or on any test in the course. We provide page number references to the texts. We offer one plausible sample answer, which is not to memorize, and certainly not to plagiarize. The plausible answer is our attempt to guide you through the process we are trying to teach with the content of the course. Then we parse a lot of our plausible answers into points, so you can see how we establish inter-grader reliability. We hope that in 1996-97 this system of delimitation will offer you the least possible anxiety with the most possible writing practice. At least we think the model will provide you with solid opportunities to develop reasoned arguments and to cite authority, skills you will need as a sociologist. b. Performance Under Stress Practice Increasingly, one of the writing tasks that all students are facing is the timed writing test. The timed-test is traditional in the classroom mid-term and final. But it is becoming more extensive in its appearance for job interviews and applications, for promotions, for competency tests as admissions to certain programs or for some certifications. Timed-tests serve our genre in a variety of ways. We know that they constitute practice for the real world use of your writing skills. And they constitute practice for the mid-term and final in our courses. The questions used are the ones we have provided as the delimited universe of questions with plausible answer samples. We'll select a small group of questions we are currently covering in lecture and discussion groups. One of that group of questions will be on the timed-test for the following week. You will have five to ten minutes, depending on the complexity of the question, to write an essay answer in class. After a semester of practice you should have timed-tests down pat. And the lagniappe is that this provides ample practice for our own mid-term and final exams. Essay writing is formulaic. Especially when you know what the reader wants, what process she wants you to follow, and what the universe of possible questions is. You need practice to eliminate what many of you have experienced as "blank page" syndrome, or starting over fifty-three times. The inclusion of timed-tests in our genre allows us to provide practice in this essential form of writing. c. Knowledge Production Practice Timed-tests focus on having to perform quickly, meeting the reader's requirements in a highly pressured time, and in a room with other people, at least in our version. To perform well, you need the cognitive section of your task polished and of minimal concern to you. It's performance that counts in timed-test situations. No one is going to ask for a contribution to new knowledge under those conditions. But part of the goal of our writing class is that you experience genuine cognitive production. We want you to do more than master a set of glib answers that can be trotted out quickly to impress. We want some serious cogitation about the concepts and synthesis from our courses. That we accomplish with the writing you do in a quiet place, of your own choosing, within your own time frame. That is your homework. We assign limited homework each week, designed to provide the stimulus for your contemplative writing. Because writing discipline, like sports discipline, must be developed over time, we expect you to turn in such homework regularly, over the semester. Because it is about the development of disciplined skills, it will not suffice to do it all at once, just before an exam. In the provision of questions and sample plausible answers, we have given you the best support for your homework we know how to provide. There should be no anxiety at guessing what we want or how to use the process. We have tried to give you maximum freedom to enjoy cognitive exploration in writing. 3. Practical Documents We have found over the years that students need solid note-taking skills, find themselves often in situations where memos or short notes are called for, need to write for applications, promotions, awards, and need to request and give letters of recommendation. These documents have been a daily part of our life with students; they are part of student writing. Then there are, of course, the academic papers, which ought to lead students on toward future publications and presentations in whatever circle of community they have chosen: the religious center, the community council, local clubs, the local schools, the university. These types of documents cannot be left out of our classroom genre, for they are an integral part of our exchange and sharing with our students. Not every student will need every document. But the text and the lectures must provide samples and techniques from which students will be able to construct such documents when they are called for. Some, like note-taking, SUPERCHICKEN files, and memos, we expect each student to cover. But each must be adapted to the story for that student, to the situation in which that student finds himself, and to the needs in that situation. Others of these documents suffice as a class project to produce a sample guide in case it's needed in the future. ***** Conclusion This section of our genre brings us full circle. From our early "voice" explorations, through the measurement of mastery of content and process, back to the use of that mastery in our own stories. We have a long way to go to perfect this genre, but it seems to be developing a life of its own. Write to us, please do. But maybe not ten more papers, unless, of course, you'd like to join the research team and do a professional presentation next semester. ***** GENRE AND VOICE Study Questions Giltrow, pp. 9-26. 1. How does Giltrow see the situation of communicators as fitting into genre? (p. 21) 2. Why does Giltrow believe that we need to explore new genres? (p. 22) 3. Identify some of the traditionally recognized genres in literature. (p. 21) 4. What are some of the new genres we need to recognize? (p. 22) ***** EVALUATING AUTHORITY AND TEXTS An important task for students is judging the writing of others. In this section we focus on how you can evaluate texts. For every book, for every film, for every sound bite, there is a perspective, a need to persuade someone to believe something, if only that he/she should buy the product that has provided access to the information. The perspective dictates what is seen, what is said, what is written. The perspective also dictates how we gather the information that goes into that process. Ways of Knowing There are many ways to gather information. In a world where we want to win an argument, we need to gather that information in a way that permits us to validate the "truth" of what we say or present. The following is one taxonomy of ways to validate knowledge: Scientific data collection and analysis Recognized authority Intuition Personal experience Often the author of texts uses several of these. Often he/she uses them out-of-awareness. By actively alerting yourself to the methodology and hence the validation of information approach used by the author, you will be in a better position to judge how much of the material is appropriate to your critical understanding of issues. This is one of the means of selecting which texts you need to pursue in more depth, which texts can fit compatibly into your belief system, and which texts you need to know to understand the arguments of those who oppose your belief system. This process of identifying methodology helps provide you with some critical distancing from the text, so you may feel less need to strangle the author of the sound bite. That is helpful to reduce your stress. Some authors base their work on their personal experience. But often they include some mention of experiments they have tried to see what works best. Although these are not clinical research experiments, they are attempts at validating personal experience as it applies to others. Authors who base their work on personal experience occasionally do reference other authorities, telling you where their information comes from, even if formally with formal citations to text and page. Academic texts rarely use personal experience as a source of information, and reliably report formal citations and all authorities, as well as identify data sources. Scientific method and rational argument are the modes preferred in the scholastic world. Journalism, though it cites sources, is less rigorous in this than scholarly texts. One journalist, Sykes, references Reinhold Niebuhr, a Catholic theologist, to support his arguments on morality and responsibility. He even cites the actual texts in chapter notes for his book, A Nation of Victims. And he supplements his own opinions and experiences by collecting data, not with any very strict methodology, just checking for actual examples that will prove his point. Intuition is often one of authors' sources, even though they don't specifically say so, because it is not socially acceptable to rely on intuition, unless you are Einstein, of course. In a physicist's biography of a Nobel Laureate geneticist, the geneticist is quoted as saying that she will not use technicians in her research laboratory because of the important role that intuition plays in her understanding of scientific problems. (Keller, 1983, pp. 102-3) We tend in academia to look askance at intuition, failing to recognize the extent to which scientific discipline enhances and is enhanced by intuition, as in Einstein's case. The source of the knowledge you encounter in a text matters in your interpretation of the text for your own needs. Understanding the author's perspective and the context from which it springs, you can more readily decide whether you share his/her perspective and want to apply the advice offered to your own contextual situations. You may have chosen to rely on specific and well-documented information (with scientific sources for back-up) because you are uncomfortable with an intuitive, experiential approach, that leaves you vulnerable to counterargument, particularly if grades depend on your work. Or you might just like the straight scientific approach better. On the other hand, you might choose to try to balance your own approach, since convergent production rarely trains us in working creatively, though it does guarantee some right answers. If you try divergent production when you have the chance you might stimulate your own creativity. That is your choice. But whatever your choice, you should be alert to the choice of the authors you read, for that choice affects the text and its relationship to you. Intuition is one of the least accepted methods in the academic environment because it is less easily quantified and verified than the other methods of gathering information. But as the method most identified with creativity it is not one you should ignore. One of the major objections to use of intuition is fear that one might not have any, that one can't trust one's intuition. Bayles and Orland, in a wonderful book called Art and Fear, call for a moratorium on such cynicism, on complaining that the world just doesn't understand and won't support your creative attempts. Bayles and Orland say that "healthy artistic environments are about as common as unicorns." Great art and great ideas spring from intuition, intuition backed by solidly developed discipline and skills, but intuition nonetheless. Intuition requires freedom to explore the unthinkable, like the possibility that earth is not the center of the universe, like the possibility that unicorns are. Unicorn environments have, as near as we can tell, been scarce since man/woman first recognized and demanded the need for them. So that explains the cynicism. But cynicism saps energy; it breeds anger and frustration; it drives the unicorns away. The moratorium on cynicism is an attempt to free ourselves from that anger and frustration so that we can focus at least our own energy on creating for ourselves a unicorn environment. (You might want to review Niebuhr's explanation of resentment and how it damages us. [Sykes, p. 103] The arguments are related.) Willingness to Incur the Wrath of Those Who Disagree One of the hobgoblins that chases intuition out of the academy is the fear of being made to look foolish by counter arguments. Einstein looked foolish when he first proposed relativity. Ford must have looked foolish with the first cars that hit our roads. I'll bet even the cows laughed. Confronting the sacred cows of privileged and unstated assumptions will predictably raise the hackles of those who live by them. But if you choose the role of critic, then you must confront them. It is just a tad unreasonable to expect the system you criticize to thank you for pointing out its excesses and shortcomings. Bayles and Orland have a wonderful way of saying this: "The American Revolution was not funded with matching grants from the Crown." Sometimes we say "it goes with the territory." But one word of caution. Before you decide that it is your role in life to take the critical perspective, consider the social context in which you choose to do so. Just as the American Revolution was not funded by matching grants from the Crown, student revolution is not likely to be funded by the university. Revolution and confrontation can be exhilarating, but "frozen words" tend to stay around to haunt us. Some scholars of the gay community who wanted to attract attention to their theory did so by open confrontation and by calling their theory "queer theory." That does draw attention. But such use of words does "label." All the connotations of "queer" may be with us and with those who adopt the label for a long time. An understanding of the perspective of the text, something that Giltrow also calls "Knowing your reader," if you are the writer, is essential to incorporating the text into your knowledge base. In student writing it is easy to use an affect-laden term or tone that unintentionally provokes a confrontation we did not intend, or whose consequences we had not well thought out. Conscious attention to the agreement or disagreement with the position of texts, and of your teachers, can prevent such untoward happenings. ***** Study Questions 5. What is the importance of perspective to a text? 6. In addition to perspective, what else is essential to the critical evaluation of a text? 7. Why is intuition undervalued in the academy? 8. What do Bayles and Orland mean by a "moratorium on cynicism?" ***** Journal Assignment Assignment 1. Read Bayles and Orland, Art and Fear. Record your progress as you read it over the next two weeks. Write a few paragraphs on your evaluation of the text. ***** NOTE TAKING Summarizing Material -- Getting Ready to Take Notes Study Questions Giltrow, pp. 27-63. 9. In what ways is summarizing an academic skill? (pp. 28-29) 10. Why do teachers want you to summarize what you have read? (p. 30) 11. Why do you need to put summaries in your own words? (p. 35) 12. Why do you need to distinguish between main points and lesser points? (p. 36)