6.2 Disciplines as Genres

Natalie Boldt and Loren Gaudet

In Chapter 2.2, we introduced the idea of genre, or the idea that as certain conventions of communication are repeated, they become habitual. We offered the example of coffee chains and the communication conventions (venti frappuccino, anyone?) to help you think about how genre shapes assumptions about communication situations.

Well, coffee chains are not the only places where genre works to shape assumptions about communication (and writing is a form of communication). Think about the kinds of communicating that you might do in a university setting: you’re likely writing papers, emailing instructors, taking exams, and visiting office hours. If you think about the university as a kind of community, you can see that there are assumptions and expectations about what communication in this context entails. The kinds of writing that we do in a university are broadly referred to as academic writing (see Chapter 2.3). But within this larger university community, there are different sub-communities that share research interests, problem-solving approaches, data-collection methods, and communication styles.

Writing experts call these communities “discourse communities,” which basically means that the group in question is united through a set of, sometimes broad, goals as well as in how they communicate to achieve those goals. In the case of a discourse community, the way that members of the community communicate (the forms that their communications tend to take) is shaped by the values and purposes they hold in common. (As we discussed in Chapter 2, when they’re shared, generic norms help us communicate with greater efficiency and clarity.) But this influence isn’t uni-directional—it’s not a one-way street!—because the type of communication that a community performs also affects the kinds of work that community members do.

Let’s use an example to make this concept clearer. In the psychology “discourse community,” researchers often communicate with each other about human behaviour, mental processes, and brain functions. They undertake case studies and experiments that are designed to provide information (or data) about human behaviour, so they often involve human subjects in their research. Usually, this research is communicated in the form of scholarly articles in psychology journals, and presentations or posters at academic conferences with other psychologists. The things that the members of this community do often—their methods, the type of language they use, and the forms their work takes—are called “norms,” and these norms are what make them recognizable as members of the same community.

To explain further by way of example: If you order a venti frappuccino at Tim Hortons, then your order may require a bit of translation work (that is, the person working at Tim Hortons might have to “translate” your order from the language of Starbucks to the language of Tim Hortons). Similarly, your psychology prof may need to perform a bit of work to translate psychology research for an audience at, say, a physics conference. Just as Starbucks and Tim Hortons have different languages for talking about kinds of coffee, psychology and physics have different languages for talking about methods, approaches, and research questions. When we talk about differences between psychology and physics, we are often talking about differences in “Disciplines.”

One of the easiest ways to find these different disciplines is through your institution’s academic calendar. Think about when you were choosing what courses to take this year, in previous years, or in the future. You probably looked at the different courses your institution offered and you might have noticed that different courses were organized by different codes. At the University of Victoria (and at almost every post-secondary institution), courses in the undergraduate calendar are organized by program, faculty, or department (sometimes called academic units) and have different course codes depending on which academic unit offers the course. For example, a course offered by the Department of Anthropology begins with ANTH (like ANTH304 – Technology and Culture), one offered by the Department of History begins with HSTR (like HISTR131 – History of Technology), while one offered by Engineering begins with ENGR (like ENGR297 – Technology and Society). These course codes help to organize enrollment, but they also give us a sense of different disciplines or approaches to studying phenomena (or “the world”).

Each of these courses mentioned above is about technology. But because they are offered by different academic units—different disciplines with different discourse communities—these courses approach the same topic differently. Almost every discipline studies technology in different ways. The questions each discipline asks, the tools used to investigate these questions, and the kinds of answers produced will differ depending on their disciplinary norms. A course that focuses on technology and society for engineering students, for example, will likely foreground the role of technology-human interactions and how that has shaped design practices. Whereas a course that approaches technology from an anthropological perspective will likely focus on the relationship between technology and culture and how certain technologies have shaped a culture over time. But of course, as Figure 6.1 suggests, there may also be times when different disciplines ask similar questions. They may even share methodologies. Some ideas, ways of thinking, and ways of researching simply don’t recognize disciplinary borders.

Four people holding textbooks with thought bubbles over their heads. Two of the people are sharing a thought bubble that reads "how has technology shaped human society over time?" These two are holding an anthropology textbook and history notebook, respectively. Another person is holding an "Advanced Mechanical Engineering" book and the thought bubble reads, "How cool are fuel-cell dynamics?!" The fourth person is holding a microbiology book and their thought bubble reads "How does recombinant DNA technology contribute to effective vaccine design?"]
Figure 6.1: Questioning Technology

Just as different disciplines have different approaches to topics, they also have a range of expectations and even assumptions about how to communicate research and scholarship effectively. And as we said earlier, this disciplinary communication isn’t just a one-way street; while disciplinary norms can shape the kinds of writing and research that gets produced as part of a learning community, the kinds of writing and research that are produced also work to shape the discourse community of the discipline over time. In other words, the relationship is reciprocal.

For example, anthropology—the study of human culture and societies—has a long history of violent colonial practices in which White Europeans “researched” Indigenous peoples. This “research” has involved exploiting and taking away sacred items, stories, and knowledges, and in turn using these materials to justify racist categorizations and hierarchies, genocide, and land dispossession. However, Indigenous scholars of anthropology and other disciplines have worked—and are working—to change how research is done. For an amazing example, check out the Collaborative Indigenous Research Digital Garden, an initiative led by Dr. Eve Tuck and Graduate Student Researchers in the Tkaranto CIRCLE Lab, which foregrounds participatory research studies in collaboration with Indigenous communities, often with Indigenous researchers and communities taking the lead. Another example of changing disciplinary norms can be seen in the area of Indigenous-led Archaeology. As the norms of these disciplines change, the kinds of research changes too, and vice versa.

Why are there so many disciplines? Sometimes disciplinary divisions have to do with knowledge; sometimes the separation between disciplines has to do with politics. You don’t need to know the ins and outs of every discipline, but it helps to know generally what the expectations of your discipline are, including how knowledge is produced and communicated. Below we’ll give you a general overview of some of the generic features of the disciplines, but remember, there’s no one right way to write! There’s always a rhetorical situation at play (see Chapter 3.3), and these situations will change from discipline to discipline (and even sometimes researcher to researcher or instructor to instructor). So always be sure to assess who your audience is and what their expectations are!

It’s important to remember, though, that disciplines are not naturally occurring; they’re a way of categorizing knowledge and information in the context of the university. The academic needs of a university do not necessarily overlap with other kinds of needs, such as the needs of a community, family, or culture. Métis scholar, Dr. Aubrey Hanson, reminds us of this when she writes:

“Within my work in Indigenous education, I often find myself considering disciplinarity. I am addressing audiences whose thinking and professional learning needs are structured around academic or subject-area disciplines, such as social studies, language arts, mathematics, and science. However, Indigenous knowledge systems are not organized around, or fragmented into, disciplinary structures. Traditionally and in the present tense, Indigenous knowledge systems and pedagogies undo disciplinary boundaries.”[1]

When we group knowledge into disciplines, we privilege particular thinking and learning needs sometimes at the expense of others. We need to be mindful of this fact and think about how to think, research, and behave in respectful and inclusive ways.

  1. Aubrey Jean Hanson, “Disciplinarity and Decolonization in Indigenous Literary Studies,” English Studies in Canada 46, no. 1 (2020): 22, https://doi.org/10.1353/esc.2020.0008.


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Why Write? A Guide for Students in Canada 2nd Edition Copyright © 2022 by Natalie Boldt and Loren Gaudet is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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