Teaching Writing in Multidisciplinary Graduate Courses

Kate Vieira

Multidisciplinary graduate courses offer forums for exciting collaboration, as well as a chance for Ph.D. students to fulfill their minor requirement. But when students come to a graduate course from varied departments, questions arise about what kind of writing to assign and how to help students succeed at it. After all, what counts as scholarly writing can vary drastically among disciplines—from style and format to the types of questions asked and arguments made. What kind of expectations for writing are appropriate in a multidisciplinary class? And how might professors coach graduate students in successful interdisciplinary writing?

For answers, we turned to three faculty who teach courses that attract students from diverse disciplinary homes—Professor Madeleine Wong (geography), Professor Martha Alibali (psychology), and Professor Susan Friedman (women’s studies and English). Teachers of popular and stimulating graduate classes (I’ve taken two of them!), they generously shared their strategies for designing writing assignments and helping students succeed in their multidisciplinary courses.

Sequence assignments to build shared knowledge and goals.
Our three interviewees agreed that using smaller assignments to build up to the final writing project is an important part of coaching graduate students through the writing process.

Geography professor Madeleine Wong assigns weekly ungraded written responses to reading. Wong refers to these responses throughout class discussion and encourages students to do the same, with the goal of broadening students’ repertoire of approaches to a particular reading. This practice allows ideas from different disciplines to bump up against each other, so that students leave class with new understanding that they can bring to their next written commentary. These sustained, low-stakes activities give students from diverse disciplines shared language and concerns to develop in their final project.

In Susan Friedman’s women’s studies course, instead of weekly repeated assignments, the larger final project is divided into smaller parts. Students turn in an interest statement, a research proposal that Friedman comments substantially on, and a revised research proposal. They also give short, formal presentations on their research, which include fielding questions from their multidisciplinary group of peers. Through her written feedback and individual conferences, Friedman encourages students in these initial stages to find a “burning question” that contributes to their home discipline and women’s studies. These smaller assignments challenge students at each step to conceptualize a research project that an audience of diverse scholars will find relevant and rigorous.

Find common ground or celebrate disciplinary difference.

Faculty members teaching multidisciplinary courses often must make a choice between assigning a genre of writing that their students will have in common or asking students to write a seminar paper in their home discipline—a genre that might be unfamiliar to the instructor. Whichever route is chosen, our interviewees are clear: explicit and realistic expectations are essential.

While psychology professor Martha Alibali offers discipline-specific research proposals as an option for her graduate students, she has also found the “common-ground” approach successful. She offers a literature review as a popular choice for the final paper in her class, asking students to “relate two or more theories of cognitive development to [their] own research interests or program of study.” This assignment cleverly anticipates what will be most useful to a student outside of psychology—to analyze some literature in a different field and begin to grapple with how it might impact her own. Alibali does not expect the curriculum and instruction student to propose an experimental psychology research project. Rather, she aims for a realistic and practical final project.

Drawing on her experience teaching undergrads, Alibali further emphasizes making her expectations for the paper explicit. She not only gives graduate students a specific assignment to fulfill, but also offers them a handout on writing literature review papers that defines the genre and presents guidelines for the writing process. Finally, she ensures that students read and discuss literature reviews throughout the course. This gives students models to work from and helps them to develop the critical understanding necessary to conceptualize, write, and revise their papers. The result? Alibali reports that students from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds write successful papers that help them in their future research.

While a literature review assignment might work to level the disciplinary playing field, another option is to celebrate disciplinary difference by asking students to use course material to write a paper appropriate for their own discipline. For example, my paper for Susan Friedman’s women’s studies class brought the gender analysis tools I learned there to a project whose questions grew out of the fields of composition and rhetoric and ethnic studies.

In order to manage the potentially confusing variations of papers that Friedman receives in her class, she has developed strict guidelines for the writing process. For the research proposal, for example, she requires students to employ a three-paragraph structure, stating the research question, methodologies, and significance of the project. When working without such a structure, Friedman says she had “everything under the sun coming in.”

Evaluating papers from different disciplinary homes can also be a challenge. Friedman notes that for students writing outside of her field, “there’s a certain kind of direction I can give and a certain kind I can’t give.” Acknowledging one’s own disciplinary position in this manner might, in fact, be the key to fair evaluation. Geography professor Madeleine Wong, for example, evaluates how students deal with the content of migration, the topic of her class, in their discipline-specific papers. But she also remains aware that, say, historians use different types of evidence than geographers. In other words, she takes into account students’ disciplinary home in relation to her own as she grades.

Talk about disciplinarity.

These seminars provide rich opportunities to explore disciplinary divisions of knowledge. Explicit discussions of the problems and potential of disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity can raise graduate students’ awareness of the fields in which they are learning to be scholars. Such an awareness often leads to more conscious rhetorical decisions about how to position their work, as well as a more focused idea of audience and purpose.

Susan Friedman’s seminar in research methods in women’s studies, in her words, “raises at almost a meta-level what it means to try to be interdisciplinary.” This framework allows graduate students to consider how their own research fits into the broader academic and political landscape. Students read about the interdisciplinary history of women’s studies as well as case studies of feminist work in various disciplines. They are then instructed in how to do the difficult work of crossing disciplinary borders in their final research projects. Her goal is to “get students to see that they have to understand that their research has to make a difference. That crosses all the divisions . . . humanities, social sciences, and sciences.”

Even if your interdisciplinary seminar does not explicitly focus on methodology, important disciplinary consciousness-raising can be accomplished. After taking Madeleine Wong’s geography seminar and reading articles from a variety of disciplines on migration, a political science graduate student wrote a paper on the limits of her field for conceptualizing migration issues. Understandings of this kind no doubt contribute both to a specific field and to the larger goals of a research university.