Applying linguistics to writing in the disciplines: a reflection

  • Simon Milligan Language Center of UZH and ETHZ


Writing about research is of critical importance both to science as a whole and to the careers of individual scientists. However, acquiring the skills required to write effectively takes a great deal of time. This reflection paper discusses how writing courses delivered to groups that share a single disciplinary background can enable the development of discipline-specific writing skills faster than broad-spectrum courses for participants from a wide range of disciplines.

Two courses are considered: one a broad-spectrum course, the other a more specific one. Both courses are aimed at doctoral students producing their first (or early) research articles. The particular element examined is the presentation, practice, and production of a schema for structuring introductions called creating a research space (CARS). In both courses, the CARS schema was first presented and then demonstrated with two examples taken from authentic texts. The examples used in the broad-spectrum course differed more than those used in the specific course, and the heterogeneity of example texts under consideration was then increased by asking participants in both courses to examine model texts that they had selected from their target journals. 

Subsequent plenary discussion in the broad-spectrum course tended to focus on differences between examples more than did discussion in the specific course. Introductions produced as assignments for the broad-spectrum course were more heterogeneous than those produced for the specific course, but this does not indicate that any of the broad-spectrum assignments was less successful in reproducing the stylistic specificities of research article introductions in that participant’s discipline. Comparison of quantitative feedback for the courses as a whole indicates somewhat higher satisfaction with the specific approach, exemplified here with introductions, than with the broad-spectrum course, although this will have been affected by many factors. Some qualitative feedback for the specific course explicitly mentions the discipline-specific approach as a positive aspect.

The instances examined here are not themselves conclusive evidence of the superiority of either course, but they are congruent with a growing body of research indicating that participants benefit most directly from learning to write particular genres within their specific disciplines. However, discipline-specific courses can only be provided under a particular set of circumstances, do not necessarily provide a strong foundation for broader long-term writing skills development or a clear awareness of the diversity of writing styles across the academy, and are not necessarily better suited to supporting writers of diverse, nonstandard, or nonacademic genres.