Comparative Genre Analysis

In the University Writing Seminar, the Comparative Genre Analysis (CGA) unit asks students to read writing from varying disciplines. The goal of the CGA is to prepare students for writing in their courses across the disciplines, as well as in their future careers. The CGA acts as an important introduction to the fact that, while elements of writing (e.g., evidence, motive) exist in all disciplines and genres, these elements often look different.

Over a 2-3 class sequence, students work independently and in groups to identify how writing across the disciplines varies and is similar in content, style, and organization. Instructors select four academic articles, typically one from the humanities, one from the sciences, and two from the social sciences (ideally one more humanistic social science, such as cultural anthropology or history, and one more quantitative social science, such as sociology or economics). These articles become the foundation for observing similarities in differences in writing. Class discussion on the final day of the CGA highlights not just HOW academic writing varies but WHY this variation exists.

At the end of the CGA class sequence, as well as at the end of the semester, students are asked to write reflections on what they have learned about writing across the disciplines and about what this might mean for them in future courses. Student reflections suggest that the CGA is effective in beginning the conversation about how writing is similar and different across the disciplines (Sample Student Reflection below).

What does this mean for Writing Intensive (WI) classes?
  • Your students know that the writing in your discipline may be different in some/many ways from the writing they did in UWS or in previous courses.
  • Your students have the tools to start to predict how writing in a new discipline may be different. Because they understand, for example, why name/date citations are used in one discipline and name/page number citations are used in another, they can anticipate what a new discipline will require.
  • If you identify a writing convention in your discipline, students should be able to fit this into the larger conversation around writing similarities and differences that they participated in during UWS.
  • Students have discussed and reflected on what questions they might need to ask their professors / teaching assistants when writing in a new discipline (e.g., What citation style should be used? Is the first person allowed?).
  • WI instructors can facilitate the writing process for students by 1) identifying what element of writing they are discussing, using UWS language, and 2) explicitly describing the disciplinary-specific expectations for this element and reiterating why this convention is used.
Sample Student Reflection 

I believe the absolute most important thing a writer should consider is their intended audience. Whichever discipline the essay is for they all have a distinct and diverse readership. This readership cannot be overlooked when creating an argument.

In future writing, no matter the subject, I will try to build a firm foundation of the writing in a discipline. By reading academic articles from respected sources, it will allow me to grasp the different ways the argument is presented in that particular field. I would also open a discussion with my class, colleagues, or teacher about the different ways they are approaching this discipline.

When presenting their ideas in writing, I think the most important thing for scholars to consider is the audience who they are presenting it to. When writing, audience can affect multiple facets of any article or paper. For example, when presenting to a scientific audience, technical language can be used and an expectation for certain background knowledge can be considered. However, when presenting to a broader audience such as a public awareness piece, the writer may choose to use language that isn’t quite so technical and complex, making the paper more accessible to its desired audience.

The CGA exercise has made me more aware of the types of data used in different disciplines when writing. For example, scientific pieces do not usually use many quotes because it’s not so much what was said that was important, rather the actual conclusion that can be drawn from the data. In more humanities focused pieces, quotes can play a major role in the focus of the paper while numerical data and experiments may not. The CGA exercise also made me more aware of how different disciplines require varying levels of formality in the presentation of ideas or information and differences in determining when to use a thesis or a hypothesis.

Although we only examined four disciplines within our analysis, as I approach other disciples in the future, I feel that this exercise has given me a good base. I know that in the future I will approach the writing by first determining what matters most to my audience that I am writing for and the relationship between my audience and the motive behind my writing.

In future classes when I need to know the writing style of a new discipline, I will ask the professor the writing style I should use and what format I should do my works cited in. I could also ask what the structure should be, what the length should be, and if I should be concise or more flowery. I could also ask if the essay should be personal and opinionated or more impartial.

The CGA exercise has made me more aware that different disciplines have their own style of writing. It has made me realize that I cannot just carry over my writing style from a biology or physics paper and use that same style in an English essay. I am also aware that citation style is very important to writing papers. The differences in structure in the different disciplines is also very important when it comes to writing papers.


Elissa Jacobs and Paige Eggebrecht