Doug Brent

Faculty of Communication and Culture

University of Calgary

Note: these workshop materials aren’t intended to stand on their own – they work much better with all the discussion that surrounded them.  But in combination with the lecture, they will give you an idea of what went on at te workshop.

Writing Across the Disciplines:

Pedagogical Nitty-Gritty

A Workshop

University of Regina

November 6, 2003


1.  Micro-Microtheme exercise (Prompt 1)

2.  Journals and freewriting (Prompt 2)

3.  Creating a community of discourse: structuring a course around student activities.

Sidebar: Can we use techniques developed for Writing in the Disciplines in and interdisciplinary course?

4.  Reading Assignments. 

5.  Integrating the library into research-oriented classes.

6.  Integrating the formal and leveraging the assignment: teaching APA format

7.  Dialogic response (Prompt 3)

For literally hundreds more ideas, buy yourself a copy of John C. Bean (2001).  Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom.  San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Prompt 1


Join people next to you to make a group of about 3 people. 

In the next five minutes, come up with one sentence that encapsulates what you think is the most important point made in the preceding lecture.  Strive for the most "objectively" important point; that is, the point that you would be most likely to make if someone asked you what the lecture was about, as opposed to the thing that resonated most personally for you.

After you have discussed this, and perhaps gone through a draft or two, write the sentence on the card.  Be prepared to read it and defend it if necessary.

Write all three names on the card before you hand it in.

Some observations on this exercise:

It is the sort of exercise that should probably not be graded, although it could easily be collected and counted as a "checkmark" assignment.

The main spinoff from this sort of assignment is that it encourages students to pay more attention in lectures, since they not only have to list data in note form but process it for "gist" in order to summarize it in a sentence.

If an assignment like this is given every class, or in many classes, students will get used to it and sit in the lectures thinking about what they might want to take away from it to put on the card.

Other Types of Microtheme

Source:  Bean, John, Dean Drenk, and F. D. Lee (1982). "Microtheme Strategies for Developing Cognitive Skills." C. Williams Griffen, Teaching Writing in All Disciplines. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass: 27-38.

Thesis-Support Microtheme

Choose one of the alternative propositions for each issue and write a microtheme that defends the position.

1.    The price-earnings ratio of a stock (does/does not) reflect the rate or return that an investor in that stock will achieve.

2.    Professional management (is/is not) an effective means of achieving higher than average stock returns.

3.    Random diversification (is/is not) more reliable than selective diversification.

4.    The geometric mean of a return distribution (is/is not) an indicator of the risk of that investment.

5.    Mutual fund performance (is/is not) superior to the average investor's performance.

Bean comments:  These propositions differ from most essay examination questions in that they take positions that are controversial and unproven in the field.  In writing this kind of microtheme, students must stop being passive memorizers and become active thinkers. They must support their assigned propositions concisely, using empirical evidence, syllogistic reasoning, appeal to appropriate authority, and so forth--all the tools of argumentation used by professionals in the field.

Data-Provided Assignment (Sentence Method)

Using all of the data supplied below, write a brief essay on the topic "Is the Energy Crisis Real?"

1.  90 percent of the world's oil (2,100 billion barrels) is still in the ground.

2.  The proportion of oil left in the U.S. is much less than 90 percent.

3.  Experts estimate that the U.S. will ultimately produce a total of 204 billion barrels of oil.

4.  The U.S. has produced and burned 110 billion barrels of oil so far.

5. 75 percent of America's potentially available oil has already been discovered.

6.  Half of all the oil produced in the past 110 years was pumped and burned in the last ten year.

7.  The Alaskan oil discovery added 35 billion barrels of oil to America's proven reserves.

8.  The U.S. presently uses 30 billion barrels of oil per decade.

9.  We have used 1.7 percent of the world's coal supply.

10. Coal contains a lot of sulphur, which vaporizes when burned and gives off noxious gas.

11. Coal burning leaves much ash, which poses a significant disposal problem.

12. Coal smoke is a serious air pollutant.

13. Coal mining can damage the countryside.

14. Miners are killed in mine accidents every year.

15. Many coal miners suffer from black lung.

Quandry-Producing Microtheme

Suppose you put a big block of ice in a bucket and then fill the bucket with water until the water level is exactly even with the edge of the bucket. (The ice, of course, is now floating in the water.)

Now we will wait for several hours for the ice to melt.  Which of the following will happen? (Neglect evaporation.)

1. The water level in the bucket will remain exactly the same.

2. The water level in the bucket will drop.

3. Some water will overflow the sides of the bucket.

Your Task: After deciding upon your answer, explain it in writing. Imagine that you are writing to a classmate who doesn't yet understand flotation and who is arguing for what you consider the wrong answer.

Your task is to explain your reasoning so clearly that your microtheme serves as a little textbook, leaching your classmate the physics principles involved. Thus, your microtheme will be judged not simply on whether or not you figure out the correct answer, but also on whether or not you can write dearly enough to teach a fellow classmate.

Prompt 2

Journal: Focussed Freewrite


Write for ten minutes, without stopping, on the subject:

"What have I gotten out of this presentation so far that I could take home and use in my classes in my discipline?"

The object is to write keep writing quickly without worrying about spelling, grammar or structure.  If you get stuck, just keep writing the last two or three words over and over until your mind frees up.  You can wander around various aspects of the topic, but please try to keep focussed on the question rather than following a complete stream of consciousness.

Write on the right-hand side only, saving the left for later comments.

Notes on Focussed Freewriting

Once students have done this once or twice in class, you can make it a daily or weekly out of class assignment.  Students will probably appreciate an example or two of  other students’ freewrites, as well as an explanation of how they will be assessed. 

Bean’s book has a two-page example of a set of instructions for freewriting which includes the following (the example is from a class in Psychology):

Do I get automatic credit just for doing the entries? The syllabus specifies "quality" entries, yet this is a knotty problem to explain what we mean by "quality." You definitely will not be judged on things like spelling, organization, and grammar. But we will be looking for evidence that you are thinking seriously about psychology. Many of the entries will ask you to apply concepts explained in the text or in lectures. Your entries should show that you are wrestling with these concepts and have done your reading and studying before attempting your journal entries. Don't write about operant conditioning until you have studied that concept in your text.

Unlike an essay examination, however, the journal gives you freedom to make mistakes. Writing in the journal helps you learn the concepts themselves, and if you get concepts mixed up, that is often okay. The journal should show evidence of trying, evidence that you are studying and thinking. The best journal entries will be interesting for someone else to read because they will show a mind truly struggling with ideas.

Procedures for keeping your journal.  Every two weeks, you will be given a set of tasks, usually more than a dozen or so. Each entry will be a response to one task, and the more tasks you do, the more credit you get. Number your entries consecutively through your journal, and begin each entry on a new page. At the head of each entry, write the date and the number of the task you are responding to. It is important that you keep up with your journal every week.

In-Your-Face WID:

Sample Activities from

GNST 201: First Year Seminar in Communication and Culture

"Ownership of Knowledge in the Information Age"

Note: The purpose of the course is to introduce students to academic discourse by creating a "knowledge community" in the classroom.  Many of these components are not unusual in themselves.  They have been used by hundreds of disciplinary-area teachers for years.  The unusual aspect of this course is that the entire knowledge-making apparatus of the course depends exclusively on these activities.  There are no lectures and there are only three assigned readings.  Perhaps the most visible component is the massive use of photocopying (though much of this could be replaced by computer-mediated communication).

This list of assignments has been chosen to suggest the range of this type of course.  In practice, students generally receive many more details, on paper and orally.  Some of the assignments are recycled several times with different readings. 

For other courses, these assignments could be chosen from and recombined in a wide variety of ways.  In particular, in a larger class (this one had only 25 students) it would likely be necessary to be more selective.  But this gives you the idea of how assignments can be sequenced to build gradually into a full-scale introduction to academic discourse.

Evaluation question: "How much do you feel you have learned in this course?"

My favourite response: "I didn’t learn anything in this course.  The only things I learned were the ones I found out for myself."

For more on the philosophy behind this type of teaching, see James A. Reither (1985) "Writing and Knowledge: Toward Redefining the Writing Process."  College English 47: 620-28

1.  Knowledge Inventory

What do you already know about

- copyright

- patents

- oral poetry in oral societies

- the influence of the printing press

- the history/future of the book

- encryption

- piracy

- plagiarism

- cultural appropriation

- digital rights management

- hypertext linking

- any other related themes

Write down as much as you can in 25 minutes.  Don’t try to cover all the topics – just pick one or a few and see what you can come up with.  Be prepared to read some bits aloud and discuss what you know.

Take your paper home, refine it a bit if you like but don’t labour over it and don’t do extra research.  Type it up (with your name on it) and bring six copies to the next class.

Next day, form some ad hoc groups around topics, trade lists and be prepared to synthesize them orally.

This assignment is intended to convince students that they already know a lot collectively even if most students only know a bit each.

2.  One-page Reading Reports

            1.                     What are the three most important (or most interesting or most novel) pieces of information in the article?

            2.                     In one sentence, state the author’s thesis or main argument.

            3.                     Make an educated guess about who might want to read the article, and why.

            4.                     Write down one item, reference, or idea that you did not feel that you fully understood.  Why not?

This assignment can be augmented by asking groups to compare notes and come up with an integrated list of three important pieces of information.  Other assignments can include marking references, marking transitions, and other activities designed to lift certain components of meaning out of the morass.

3.  “Read-More” Microtheme. 

From your reading of Barlow, Woodmansee and Janszi, and Kurtzweil, especially the notes you made on parts that you did not understand, pick one thing you would like to read more about.  Write it down as a sentence in the following form:  "I would like to read more about _____ because _______."  Trade, discuss, expand, justify.

This assignment feeds the library assignment below.

4.  First Library Assignment 

Find five items (articles, book chapters) about your topic.  Use print sources that you can find in the library (we’ll do e-journals and web material later).  Of these five, select one that you think is the best (most useful, clearest, most comprehensive) reading in your collection of five.  Bring five copies of this one article next day.  You will trade readings with your group of four.  You had five readings related to your topic: now you will have nine.

It is important that a representative from the library is in on this.  I hold this session in the library, and the librarian has copies of the read-more assignments.  This breaks down the absolutely terrifying task of using the library into a highly context specific task in which students are going after specific materials that relate to their assignments.

I believe strongly in building the library structurally into courses in this way.  Librarians get very tired of giving 50-minute "orientations" that students don’t absorb because they create total cognitive overload.

5.  APA Editing Assignment

Compile a Reference List of your five items in APA style.  Make five copies of this reference list next day.

Form ad hoc groups around similar topics, trade reference lists.  In class, make editorial corrections to each others’ reference lists to make them conform perfectly to APA style.  Note any information that is missing (ie, that someone will have to hike back to the library for).    At the end of the class make sure that the author gets a thoroughly marked-up copy back for editorial purposes.

Revise your reference list as needed for submission next day. Marks start at 5/5.  Each entry will lose .5 for a minor error (punctuation, order of name, etc) and the whole value for a major error (wrong order, information missing).

This assignment takes account of the huge cognitive overload created by reference formatting – all the rules are pretty simple but there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of them.  Who can pay attention at the end of term when the term paper is due tomorrow?  So why not front-end the assignment, early in the term, when all they have to do is figure out where the commas go.

The peer-editing portion of this (totally alien to them at first) gets them used to working together in a non-competitive way in which the goal is to get the maximum marks for everybody.

6.  Critical Reading Microtheme     

Read each selection from your group (probably about four in all) and write one paragraph for each selection that argues that the selection is very useful, somewhat useful, or not useful at all in advancing your knowledge of the subject.  Explain why.

7.  Finding a Good Question (Key Assignment for Final Project)

Find a provisional "good question" for your group that meets the following criteria:

·       It has been refined by first doing some general reading to understand the issues

·       It is researchable: that is, it doesn’t require a depth of knowledge beyond what you could reasonably expect to digest, and it is not too general.

·       It is focussed on a controversy, problem, or issue that cannot be answered simply with a string of facts or a passive review of literature.

·       The answer is not assumed in the question.  "Why are copyright laws bad for scholarly endeavour" closes off the inquiry.  "What are the arguments for and against relaxing copyright laws to support scholarly endeavour" or even "In what ways might copyright laws pose a threat to scholarly endeavour" is more open-ended.

·       The inquiry is capable of coming to some sort of resolution, even a tentative one.  A string of pro-con statements is not, in the end, very useful to anyone unless it results in some conclusions about the essential nature of the controversy itself.

8.  Web Workshop  Go to  All of the links relate to intellectual property and ownership of knowledge, and may (or may not) provide useful material for your project.  That's for you to decide later.  Right now, we want to find out more about them.  Click on the first link below and decide, in your group, on provisional answers to these questions:

·       Why is this piece here?  What is the motivation for writing and/or publishing it? Who wrote it?  Why?  Can you find out more about them?

·       What sorts of references does it use?  How much evidence does it show of building carefully on the works of others?  Of being reviewed by others?

·       What is the source?  Personal web page? On-line magazine?  On-line journal?  Research site?  Does the electronic version have an original print source?  Does this matter?

Assign a confidence rating:

4.  Clearly a highly reputable source.
3.  Clearly a thoughtful source but not necessarily fully reviewed.
2.  Not necessarily authoritative but might be useful for some specific facts or arguments.
1.  You'd trust it about as much as your neighbour's ideas heard over the back fence.

Some tips:

·       See if you can find other works by the same person.  Drop the author's name into a search engine and see what you get.

·       See if any links lead you to more heavyweight articles.

·       Do you recognize any names that the author cites?

Try to get back to a home page of some kind to find out where this came from.  Always click anything labelled "home".  But if this doesn't work, try snipping pieces off the url.  For instance, take and backspace out sciam.html.  See where it takes you.  Keep taking out one directory at a time, and see if you can get back to the main page.  (Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't.)

9.  Reading presentations

Select one good substantive article or chapter that you have found so far.  (It may or may not be one of your original five but please do not select an article that you included in the Critical Reading Project.)  Be sure to select one that makes a specific argument with regard to your topic--not just a source of facts.  Also, try to find one that is potentially interesting and informative for the rest of the class.  Make a five-minute oral presentation.  You are advised to speak from notes but not to read a prepared text (which is really boring to listen to).  Your presentation should have the following elements:

10.  Major Assignment

Prepare a 5 to 7 page paper with the following

·       An introduction that introduces the problem and the significance of the problem, and forecasts where you are going with it.  "Where you are going with it" could include a direct statement such as "In this paper I will outline the basic facts about XXXX and explore how it has changed over the years.  I will then explore the arguments of the pro-XXXX writers, and of some who take a more cautious approach.  Finally, I will argue that ...."

·       An extended literature review that cites and discusses some of the most important sources of information and argument on the topic.  Quote or paraphrase this material.  Some of it will be the material from your proposal, but by now you may be in a quite different place and your material will be different.

·       A discussion and conclusions section in which you explain what you think all of the above means, and attempt to create at least a provisional answer to the inquiry question.

·       A list of references.  In the final project, every person whose work you have used (cited or quoted) should appear in the references, and no other. This is not a list of everything you have found to read; it is a list of everything you have found good enough to refer to in the body of the paper.

Marking criteria:

This assignment will be peer edited in draft, discussed with me, presented orally by the group, and formally critiqued, on paper, by the class. BRING ENOUGH COPIES FOR THE ENTIRE CLASS  -- and one for me. 

This looks a great deal like the "traditional" research paper assignment.  The difference is that students have been working toward it since September, and will now spend almost a month on proposals, drafts, oral work-in-progress presentations, etc.

The key to effective oral presentations, I believe, is to allow time for students to revise their papers based on feedback received (as we do with our conference papers), rather than having them read a fait accompli aloud.

Prompt 3

Dialogic Journal Entry

Go back to your original journal entry.  Reread it quickly.  On the left-hand page, make additional observations or comments that relate to what you have written before.  These can be questions, doubts, further connections, expansions, personal reflections – what you will.

This part of the exercise is not technically a freewrite.  You should write quickly without bothering to agonize over what you are writing, but you don’t have to keep your pen moving constantly.