Bonsai professors

I have been mulling over writing in the disciplines, and much of our reading and discussion has been centered around writing in the technical and scientific disciplines. Now that I have gotten a little more familiar with the type of writing done in these formerly mysterious disciplines, I have started to think how maybe rather than being more difficult (my previous assumption), the teaching of writing in the technical disciplines may have an advantage over teaching writing in the humanities because there is a fairly defined trajectory for its students from university course work to career.  For example, a student who is an engineering major becomes…an engineer. A student who is a chemistry major becomes…a chemist. I know I am simplifying the issue, but my point is that while there can a variety of careers for these majors, the type of writing taught in the discipline correlates closely with the type of writing the student will do in the workplace.

But now let’s consider the situation in the humanities. These are majors in which the career paths of its majors are not as clear cut. How do you complete these sentences? A history major becomes___________. A philosophy major becomes____________. And finally, the fill-in-the-blank question we are all hoping to answer—an English major becomes______________. This is not to imply that these disciplines are less valuable because they are less vocationally oriented (perhaps that is actually a strength), just to acknowledge the situation. With less of a one-to-one correspondence between major and career, writing in the disciplines of the humanities has many challenges to address. One that I’ve noticed is the tendency of faculty in these disciplines to conceive writing in the disciplines to consist of primarily academic genres. Carter in “Ways of Knowing, Doing, and Writing in the Disciplines” relates that faculty in “Research from Sources” metagenres (mainly humanities) identify “the historical narrative from sources, literary criticism, paper, research paper and research project” as the typical genres, and he continues to observe that “the first two are clearly disciplinary genres, but the last three terms, which were used most often, best capture the ambiguous nature of the genres that comprise this metagenre, particularly their lack of correspondence to disciplinary or professional genres in a field…These may be understood as quintessential academic genres, writing that is used to promote certain ways of knowing and doing without much pretense to practical application beyond the classroom” (224). Do instructors only envision their students writing in academic genres? Do they not foresee them in careers outside of academia? Or is the problem that there are SO MANY options for careers following undergraduate studies in humanities? Or that instructors believe that the ways of knowing, doing, and writing taught in the humanities disciplines will easily transfer to the workplace?

Here is where my phrase of the week comes in. Mary Fainsod Katzenstein, in “Writing Political Science,” admits that perhaps professors fail to envision the breadth of career options available to political science majors and that “unwittingly perhaps, we set about cultivating our students to be bonsai…professors (diminutive replicas of ourselves)” (172). That phrase—“bonsai professors”—sums up all that I was thinking about writing in the disciplines of the humanities and writing in the workplace. It seems viewing the humanities through the lens of its disciplinary writing points to few career options outside of academia. “Writing in the disciplines” of the humanities translates to “writing in the academy.” Yet the writing in the other metagenres clearly points to a defined professional practice.

Daniel Ding, in “A Study of Four Engineering Documents,” observes that in contrast to scientists, who frequently produce reports on research that are published in scientific journals, “engineers do not usually publish as a career objective.” (298). This is a simple but profound observation. If publishing is not a career objective for most engineers, it follows that it should not receive focused attention in the education of engineers (and what we have read about the discipline of engineering suggests that it does not.) Similarly, unless a career in academia is the goal of students in the humanities, why should the primary genres humanities students write be such narrowly academic ones—unless the goal is to produce bonsai professors?

I realize that the value of writing in the humanities is to acculturate students into “a distinctive way of knowing that characterizes the discipline” (Carter 224), not just to teach students to write for a particular career. However Severino and Trachsel’s research, quoted in Rebecca Nowacek’s article “Why Is Being Interdisciplinary So Very Hard to Do?” questions whether this actually happens. They report that in a college of liberal arts and sciences, they “did not see disciplinary genres acculturating students to distinct patterns of thought” (388). The differences were found among individual teachers irrespective of disciplinary training. Consequently, I question why we should focus so intently on teaching disciplinary discourse—on producing “bonsai professors”—when this may not produce a distinctive way of thinking.

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