Identifying Disciplinary Models

Activities to Help International Graduate Students Become Familiar with Disciplinary Writing Conventions

Students beginning graduate studies face the challenge of being expected to write according to the disciplinary conventions of academic scholarship in their field. This can be particularly challenging for international students who may be most practiced in academic writing models somewhat dissimilar from American academic writing.

Hilary Glasman-Deal, an ESL specialist and Instructor of Science Writing at Imperial College, devised a writing activity, "Building a Model" to help international students learn the conventions of writing in the sciences. This activity can also be used in disciplines outside the sciences, although students writing in disciplines (such as the arts and humanities) in which written scholarship may have more stylistic variety might want to practice this activity multiple times.

Glasman-Deal recommends that students practice this activity for each section of an essay. In the sciences, these sections might include: the abstract, introduction, methodology, results, discussion/ conclusion.

Activity 1 

Building a Model: Introductions

Adapted from Glasman-Deal, Hilary. Science Research Writing for Non-Native Speakers of English. London: Imperial College Press, 2010. 

1. Choose a scholarly essay that you think well represents your field. It might be research that speaks to you or any other recently published essay in a respected journal. Set aside about 30-45 minutes for this activity.

2. Print out a copy of the essay. Number the sentences in the introduction. Write a numbered list (leaving blank lines between each number) on a clean piece of notebook paper.

For example:

1. ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, is a fatal adult-onset neurodegenerative disease characterized by loss of motor neurons1.  2. Although ~10% of cases have a family history of ALS (FALS), the majority of cases are sporadic (SALS). 3. There have been several recent advances in defining the genetic landscape of FALS. 4. These include the discovery that mutations in TARDBP, FUS, VCP, OPTN, UBQLN2, C9orf72 and PFN1 are causes of FALS2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. 5. Together with mutations in SOD1 (ref. 11), the causes of two thirds of FALS cases have now been elucidated. 6. There have also been substantial inroads into understanding SALS etiology, and genetic contributors for ~11% of SALS cases have been discovered. 7. As it is likely that genetics is central for this form of the disease, there is intense interest in defining additional genetic causes and risk factors for SALS.

8. A possible genetic mechanism for sporadic disease is de novo mutation, in which a mutation arises spontaneously in the germline of one of the unaffected parents. 9. Indeed, de novo mutations have recently been identified as contributors to neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia and mental retardation12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18. 10. There have been confirmed de novo mutations in known ALS genes in apparently SALS cases19, 20, 21, indicating that, in principle, this mechanism could also contribute to ALS.

Chesi, Alessandra, Brett T. Staahl, Ana Jovičić, Julien Couthouis, Maria Fasolino, Alya R. Raphael, Tomohiro Yamazaki et al. "Exome sequencing to identify de novo mutations in sporadic ALS trios." Nature neuroscience 16, no. 7 (2013): 851-855.

3. Start with the first sentence of the introduction. What does the writer do in this sentence? As you think about the rhetorical purpose of this sentence, try to write in somewhat general terms to help you focus on structure. For example, instead of writing, "This sentence says that ALS is fatal and appears for the first time in adults," you might say, "This sentence defines the essay's topic and demonstrates it significance."   

4. Continue this exercise for the remaining sentences in the introduction.

  1. The writers define the topic and demonstrate its significance.
  2. The writers provide general information on the topic.
  3. The writers introduce current research.
  4. The writers identify developments in current research.
  5. The writers identify some conclusions made from these developments.
  6. The writers provide more information on these research developments.
  7. The writers announce the central area of interest in current research.
  8. The writers identify a focused direction for continuing this research.
  9. The writers explain why this research focus makes sense.
  10. The writers identify their central research hypothesis (that de novo mutations contribute to ALS).

5. Study your list. Which sentences work as a group? In the example above, sentences 3-7 identify the current research context for their study.

6. Streamline your sentence list to deduce a smaller number of basic components of the sample introduction. For example:

I. Defines the topic and demonstrates significance

II. Identifies current research context

III. Introduces the essay's narrow research focus

IV. Identifies the research hypothesis

This is your introduction model.

7. Test your model. Review a few more introductions to essays in your field. Do you see the same basic components in these introductions? If so, are they presented in a different order? If they differ, what other components do you find? Or, are any components missing? Why do you think the authors of each essay made these choices? You may choose to repeat this exercise with additional essays, or you may annotate your original model to make notes on other possible choices available when writing an introduction.

Activity 2

Genre Analysis

Adapted from Burgess, Sally and Margaret Cargill. "Using genre analysis and corpus linguistics to teach research article writing." Supporting Research Writing: Roles and Challenges in Multilingual Settings. Ed. Valarie Matarese. Oxford: Chandos, 2013. 55-72.

Sally Burgess and Margaret Cargill developed a similar activity, which invites students to collaboratively explore disciplinary models. This activity can be used in a class or workshop, ideally with students in the same field. It follows these basic steps:

1. Students bring in scholarly essays that they consider "exemplary." Often, these essays come from journals they are targeting for publication. The instructor chooses 1-2 of these essays to discuss with the class.

2. The instructor asks students to prepare something along the lines of what we might call "the elevator pitch." In just one to two sentences, the answer to these questions:

  • What do my results say?
  • What conclusions do these results offer?
  • Who needs to know this?
  • Why do they need to know this?

3. In small groups, students share their "elevator pitch" and help each other clarify and refine these statements.

4. As a whole, the class then turns to the introduction of a sample essay. Together, they discuss the individual rhetorical moves that make up the sample introduction to get a sense of a basic model. Burgess and Cargill note that this group study can provide opportunities for discussion of responsible "language re-use" (the use of shared disciplinary language) and the distinctions between language re-use and plagiarism.

5. Students then turn to the essays they brought to class and compare these introductions to the model introductions.

6. Students draft their individual introductions.