Teaching Writing in Sociology Graduate Programs: Training the Next Generation
by Matthew Weinshenker
This past August (August 2013), I attended a half-day conference entitled “Teaching Writing in Sociology Graduate Programs: Training the Next Generation,” that took place during the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting here in NYC. Although the event was aimed at graduate directors of sociology, the majority of the material was relevant to other disciplines in the arts and sciences as well. Below, I summarize some the key points that I took away from the session.
Co-organizer Arlene Stein (Rutgers) opened by asserting that “as a profession, our model of writing is broken.” Graduate writing education in sociology, to the extent it occurs at all, is overwhelmingly oriented towards preparing article and dissertation manuscripts. It does not cover communication with a mass audience (called “public sociology” in our discipline), nor modes of writing needed in non-academic jobs. In addition, students are expected to follow standard stylistic conventions at the expense of their own voices, and graduate instructors are too often unprepared to assist international students whose English writing skill lags behind their intellectual ability.
This opening statement was followed by two panels of speakers, one offering advice on guiding students in their academic writing, and a second covering instruction in public communication, from magazine articles to blogs. Space precludes summarizing even a fraction of the useful ideas covered. However, one point especially struck me because it was mentioned by speaker after speaker: that graduate students are rarely taught the critical importance of revision, or of seeking out (and gracefully accepting!) feedback from peers.
In a final panel, two instructors described graduate writing courses they had developed at the PhD and MA levels, respectively. In the ensuing, freewheeling discussion session, it turned out that few other institutions represented in the room had graduate courses in writing (although many offered courses in research design that provided instruction in certain aspects of academic writing). The discussion focused on the pros and cons of different delivery modes for writing instruction. The traditional apprenticeship model, whereby mentors help advisees sharpen their writing, spreads the burden rather equitably. On the other hand, some mentors are inevitably better writing coaches than others. Offering a course allows all students to receive the same instruction, but the drawback is that teaching writing at the graduate level is a labor-intensive task most faculty members would prefer not to take upon themselves.
A third possibility that was raised is to integrate writing instruction into every graduate course. This means that graduate teachers should routinely assign students to write drafts and give peer feedback, to write in ways appropriate for the general public or for business, and to complete other creative assignments. Although this option is attractive (at least to this reporter), meeting participants noted that it may encounter resistance among faculty members reluctant to change their existing practices. The meeting did not end with a single resolution or recommendation, but it certainly raised participants’ awareness of the writing as an all-too-often neglected component of graduate training.