Disciplinary Ways of Knowing

Welcoming Students into Our Disciplines

Since the first week of classes didn’t provide the welcome we might have wanted, many of us spent the last week getting our classes back on track and establishing a welcoming and productive classroom community. In addition to the warm welcome we provide on a personal level, it’s also helpful to think about how we’re welcoming students into our academic disciplines. Whether we’re teaching introductory courses or graduate seminars, we are helping students learn to think like scholars, artists, or professionals.

Since we faculty have spent years or decades immersed in our own fields of study or creative work, we may not often think about the conventions and idiosyncrasies of our disciplines. To us, it may seem like our field’s ways of knowing are the ways of knowing, and our field’s ways of communicating are the ways of communicating, but every discipline has its own distinctive traditions that may be totally unfamiliar to students. In fact, first-year students bounce from discipline to discipline as they take general education courses. To them, our courses may simply seem to be about different topics—chemistry, art history, religion, math—but each introductory course is actually the gateway to a discipline. How can we welcome them in?

Of course, we’re not just covering topics, we’re helping students understand new ways of reasoning, ask new kinds of questions, and look for certain kinds of evidence. Students need to learn how to read, write, and think in disciplinary ways because all of our conventions will be new to them. For example, although we may hope that students will learn everything they need to know about college-level writing in high school or in a first-year composition course, the reality is that disciplinary insiders need to make each field’s unique rules and traditions transparent for students so that they can learn to write in new genres and for new audiences. Similarly, students new to a discipline need support to navigate the unfamiliar types of texts we assign, and we can design our courses to provide that support. (Maryellen Weimer edited a Faculty Focus special report that contains a variety of strategies for supporting students’ development as readers—and getting them to do the reading.)

In Engaging Ideas, John Bean explains, “As students move from discipline to discipline, they need to learn the kinds of questions scholars in a given discipline typically ask. Novices often don’t know how to distinguish a good question from a naive one.” Bean shares strategies and examples for helping students ask good questions. “One teaching approach is to model question-asking by regularly posing well-framed questions for students to consider through exploratory writing, small group discussions, or class debates. Another strategy is to help students see how points in a lecture are connected to underlying questions.” For more ideas, you can explore his question templates for the sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

In short, welcoming students into the discipline is not just a matter of framing the coursework as such; a meaningful introduction to the discipline must be reflected in the course design. We must both make disciplinary traditions more transparent and provide opportunities for students to learn to do disciplinary work through practice and feedback. It’s exciting to get to be the representatives of our disciplines, who help students learn to think like scientists, like historians, like filmmakers, and so on. We can show them the kinds of work that we do, why we do that work in particular ways, and provide opportunities that help them get started.

If you’d like support to design opportunities for students to practice thinking, reading, writing, etc. in the ways that matter most in your discipline, we are happy to help. Contact us for a consultation at pro-teaching@fsu.edu. We look forward to working with you!