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Disciplinary Specificity in Engineering Communication: Rhetorical Instruction in an Undergraduate Engineering Research Class

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Communication Across the Divisions I

Tagged Divisions

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society and Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Jessie Stickgold-Sarah Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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Jessie Stickgold-Sarah received a joint B.S. degree in electrical engineering and computer science, and the Science, Technology & Society program, in 1997 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the Ph.D. degree in English and American literature in 2011 from Brandeis University. She is a lecturer in Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication in CMS/W at MIT.

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Rebecca Thorndike-Breeze Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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Rebecca Thorndike-Breeze is a Lecturer for both the Writing and Communication Center and Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She earned her Ph.D. in English at Northeastern University.

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In the XXX University multidisciplinary engineering course “Preparation For Undergraduate Research,” nearly 200 students perform individual research projects in almost as many different labs. Research topics in this course range from software design, to robotics, to synthetic biology, to nuclear power plants, with each sub-field possessing its own specific disciplinary content and rhetorical requirements. Throughout the year, students communicate their research through the professional genres of proposal, poster presentation, research article, and oral presentation. A unified course curriculum, taught here across all fields by embedded communication instructors (M. Poe 2010), requires new methods to address the challenges engineering students typically face as they learn to write for their fields (L. Carroll 2002, D. Winsor 1996, N. Artemeva 2009, A. Beaufort 2007).

Often in Writing in the Disciplines (WID), following Swales’s model, instruction in rhetoric assumes a uniform set of rhetorical moves for engineering. Extending Beaufort, we propose that students need a more fine-grained instruction in the forms, practices, and disciplinary systems of knowledge production that govern the key genres in their specific fields. One such approach, Middendorf and Pace’s “Decoding the Disciplines” (2004), identifies procedural and epistemological bottlenecks in order to make explicit for students the tacit processes, habits of mind, and rhetorical expectations that underpin research in their chosen disciplines. However, Middendorf and Pace’s approach is designed to help experts in the field identify and resolve bottlenecks for their students. Professional communication in “Preparation for Undergraduate Research” is taught by communication instructors – not disciplinary experts – and contains far too many sub-fields – and thus far too many bottlenecks – to manage the original model. Instead, informed by their insights, we develop a method that trains this diverse set of engineering majors to draw upon their own disciplinary knowledge to decode and resolve bottlenecks in their own specific sub-field. This attention to the specificity of different engineering discourses makes our method applicable in a wide range of engineering communication courses.

Here, we present a two-stage model that supports disciplinary specificity through explicit rhetorical instruction, guided practice, and peer review (L. Wilder 2012). The first stage teaches broad rhetorical concepts supporting the composition of two professional genres: a proposal and a poster, genres typically geared toward a broad audience. In the second stage, students by now familiar with rhetorical analysis learn to perform genre analysis on texts in their own field. They identify and then deploy the rhetorical moves and strategies appropriate to their next communication task: a journal article intended for their specific disciplinary audience. In addition to presenting our model, we will include assessment data on the impact of our rhetorical approach. Rhetorical analyses of student papers will be compared with faculty assessment to determine whether the successful deployment of these moves aligns with implicit expert criteria. We will also use baseline and end-of-term survey data to assess students’s developing understanding of how to make specific rhetorical choices when communicating in their chosen discipline.

Stickgold-Sarah, J., & Thorndike-Breeze, R. (2016, June), Disciplinary Specificity in Engineering Communication: Rhetorical Instruction in an Undergraduate Engineering Research Class Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26852

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