So You Wanna Be an Engineer, a Welder, a Teacher? Academic Disciplines and Professional Literacies
Marlena Stanford and Justin Jory
Many people today arrive at college because they feel it’s necessary. Some arrive immediately after high school, thinking that college seems like the obvious next step. Others arrive after years in the workforce, knowing college provides the credentials needed to advance their careers. And still others show up because college is a change, providing a way out of less than desirable life conditions.
We understand this tendency to view college as a necessary part of contemporary life. We did too as students. And now that we’re teachers, we still believe it’s necessary because we know it opens doors and grants access to new places, people, and ideas. And these things present opportunities for personal and professional growth. We hear about these opportunities every day when talking with our students.
But viewing college simply as a necessity can lead to a troublesome way of thinking about what it means to be a student. Because so many students today may feel like they must go to college, their time at school may feel like part of the daily grind. They may feel like they have to go to school to take classes; they may feel like they are only taking classes to get credit; and they may feel like the credit only matters because it earns the degree that leads to more opportunity. When students carry the added pressure of feeling like they must earn high grades to be a successful student and eventually professional (we don’t think this is necessarily true, by the way), the college experience can be downright stressful. All of these things can lead students to feel like they should get through school as quickly as possible so they can get a job and begin their lives.
Regardless of why you find yourself enrolled in college courses, we want to let you know that there are productive ways to approach your work as a student in college, and we argue they will pay off in the long run.
Students who see formal schooling as more than a means to an end will likely have a more positive academic experience. The most savvy students will see the connections between disciplines, literacy development, professionalism, and their chosen career path. These students will have the opportunity to use their time in school to transform themselves into professionals in their chosen fields. They will know how to make this transformation happen and where to go to do it. They’ll understand that disciplinary and professional language matters and will view school as a time to acquire new language and participate in new communities that will help them meet their goals beyond the classroom. This transformation begins with an understanding of how the language and literacy practices within your field of study, your discipline, will transfer to your life as a professional.
Even students who are unsure about what to study or which professions they may find interesting can use their time spent in school to discover possibilities. While taking classes, for instance, they might pay attention to the practices, ideas, and general ways of thinking about the world represented in their class lectures, readings, and other materials, and they can consider the ways that these disciplinary values intersect with their own life goals and interests.
UNDERSTANDING DISCIPLINARITY IN THE PROFESSIONS
When you come to college you are not just coming to a place that grants degrees. When you go to class, you’re not only learning skills and subject matter, you are also learning about an academic discipline and acquiring disciplinary knowledge. In fact, you’re entering into a network of disciplines (e.g., engineering, English, and computer science), and in this network, knowledge is produced that filters into the world, and in particular, into professional industries. An academic discipline is defined as a field of knowledge within the university system with distinct problems and assumptions, methodologies, and ways of communicating information.1 (Think about, for instance, how a scientist views the world and conducts their study of things in the world in ways different than a historian.)
Entering into a discipline requires us to become literate in the discipline’s language and practice. If membership in a disciplinary community is what we’re after, we must learn to both “talk the talk” and “walk the walk.” At its foundation, disciplinarity is developed and supported through language—through what we say to those within a disciplinary community and to those outside of the community. Students begin to develop as members of a disciplinary community when they learn to communicate with the discipline’s common symbols and genres, when they learn to “talk the talk.” In addition, students must also learn the common practices and ways of thinking of the disciplinary community in order to “walk the walk.”
The great part of being a student is that you have an opportunity to learn about many disciplinary communities, languages, and practices, and savvy students can leverage the knowledge and relationships they develop in school into professional contexts. When we leave our degree programs, we hope to go on the job with a disciplined mind—a disposition toward the world and our work that is informed by the knowledge, language, and practices of a discipline.
Do you ever wonder why nearly every job calls for people who are critical thinkers and have good written communication skills? Underlying this call is an interest in disciplined ways of thinking and communicating. Therefore, using schooling to acquire the knowledge and language of a discipline will afford an individual with ways of thinking, reading, writing, and speaking that will be useful in the professional world.2 The professions extend from disciplines and in turn, disciplines become informed by the professionals working out in the world. In nursing, for example, academic instructors of nursing teach nursing students the knowledge, language, and practices of nursing. Trained nurses then go out to work in the world with their disciplined mind to guide them. At the same time, nurses working out in the world will meet new challenges that they must work through, which will eventually circle back to inform the discipline of nursing and what academic instructors of nursing teach in their classrooms.
It is important to realize that not all college professors and courses will “frame” teaching and learning in terms of disciplinarity or professionalism, even though it informs almost everything that happens in any classroom. As a result, it may be difficult to see the forest for the trees. Courses can become nothing more than a series of lectures, quizzes, assignments, activities, readings, and homework, and there may be few identifiable connections across these things. Therefore, students who are using school to mindfully transform into professionals will build into their academic lives periodic reflections in which they consider their disciplines and the ways they’re being trained in disciplinary thinking. They might stop to ask themselves: What have I just learned about being a nurse? About thinking like a nurse? About the language of nursing? This reflection may happen at various times throughout individual courses, after you complete a course, or at the end of completing a series of courses in a particular discipline. And don’t ever underestimate the value of forming relationships with your professors. They’re insiders in the discipline and profession and can provide great mentorship.
Okay, okay. Be more mindful of your education so that you acquire disciplinary and professional literacies. You get it. But what can you do—where can you look specifically—to start developing these literacies? There are many possible responses, but as writing teachers we will say this: Follow your discipline’s and profession’s texts. In these texts—and around them—is where literacy happens. It’s where you’re expected to demonstrate you can read and write (and think and act) like a professional.
PROFESSIONAL LITERACY: READING AND WRITING LIKE A PROFESSIONAL
So you wanna be a teacher, a welder, an engineer? Something else? It doesn’t matter what profession you’re interested in. One thing that holds across all professions is that, although the types of reading and writing will differ, you’ll spend a great deal of time reading and writing. Your ability to apply, demonstrate, and develop your reading and writing practices in school and then on the job will contribute greatly to your success as a professional.
You may be thinking, “I’m going to be a culinary artist and want to open a bakery. Culinary artists and bakers don’t have to know how to read and write, or at least not in the ways we’re learning to read and write in school.” While you may not write many academic essays after college, we can confidently say that you will be reading and writing no matter your job because modern businesses and organizations—whether large corporations or mom-and-pop startups—are built and sustained through reading and writing. When we say reading and writing builds and sustains organizations we mean that they produce all the things necessary to run organizations—every day. Reading and writing reflect and produce the ideas that drive business; they record and document productivity and work to be completed; reading and writing enable the production and delivery of an organization’s products and services; they create policies and procedures that dictate acceptable behaviors and actions; and perhaps most importantly, reading and writing bring individuals into relationships with one another and shape the way these people perceive themselves and others as members of an organization.
As a professional, you will encounter a variety of texts; you will be expected to read and respond appropriately to texts and to follow best practices when producing your own. This holds true whether you aspire to be a mechanic or welder, a teacher or an engineer. If you bring your disciplined mind to these reading and writing tasks, you will likely have more success navigating the tasks and challenges you meet on a daily basis.
Listen to these students and professionals talk about academic and professional literacies:
Meet Michele ― Renaissance Woman & Computer Science Major
[More videos in production, coming fall 2018]
We hope this reading can transform the way you understand the discipline-specific ways of reading, writing, thinking, and using language that you encounter in all your college courses—even if these ways are not always brought to the forefront by your instructors. We might think of college courses as opportunities to begin acquiring disciplinary literacy and professional reading and writing practices that facilitate our transformation into the professionals we want to become. Said another way, if language is a demonstration of how we think and who we are, then we want to be sure we’re using it to the best of our ability to pursue our professional goals and interests in the 21st Century.
- The term “discipline” refers to both a system of knowledge and a practice. The word “discipline” stems from the Greek word didasko (teach) and the Latin word disco (learn). In Middle English, the word “discipline” referred to the branches of knowledge, especially medicine, law, and theology. Shumway and Messer-Davidow, historians of disciplinarity, explain that during this time “discipline” also referred to “the ‘rule’ of monasteries and later to the methods of training used in armies and schools.” So the conceptualization of “discipline” as both a system of knowledge and as a kind of self-mastery or practice has been around for quite some time. In the 19th century, our modern definition of “discipline” emerged out of the many scientific societies, divisions, and specializations that occurred over time during the 17th and 18th centuries. Our modern conception of disciplinarity frames it not only as a collection of knowledge but also as the social practices that operate within a disciplinary community.
- The basic relationship between disciplines and professions is that disciplines create knowledge and professions apply it. Each discipline comes with a particular way of thinking about the world and particular ways of communicating ideas. An experienced mathematician, for example, will have ways of thinking and using language that are distinct from those of an experienced historian. The professions outside of institutions of higher education also come with particular ways of thinking and communicating, which are often informed by related academic disciplines. So an experienced electrician will have ways of thinking and using language that are different from those of an experienced social worker. Both the electrician and the social worker could have learned these ways of thinking and using language within a discipline in a formal school setting, although formal schooling is not the only place to learn these ways of thinking and communicating.
Mansilla, V.B., and Gardner, H. (2008). Disciplining the Mind. Educational Leadership, 65(5),14-19.
Russell, D.R., and Yanez, A. (2003). Big Picture People Rarely Become Historians’: Genre Systems and the Contradictions of General Education. In C. Bazerman and D.R. Russell (Eds), Writing Selves/Writing Societies: Research From Activity Perspectives (331-362).Fort Collins, Colorado: The WAC Clearinghouse.
Shumway, D.R., and Messer-Davidow, E. (1991). Disciplinarity: An Introduction.Poetics Today, 12(2), 201-225.