In the past, I've had students start out by reading up on discourse communities and thinking about the implications of seeing their own disciplines as discourse communities, perhaps stretching the common definitions. For this class, though, I'm going to try to start off with a specific focus on the writing that goes on in their disciplines, in particular by asking students to look at their departments as physical, institutional, and textual spaces. I'm going to ask them to work in pairs (I want to put them in groups comprising students from different disciplines, which will be a challenge) and preparing a PPT presentation in which they'll describe, compare, and analyze the spaces occupied by their departments. Depending on how their departments are physically situated in the school, part of this would involve observing (and photographing) the buildings/hallways in which their departments are located. The other areas might be classrooms, laboratories, lounges, etc., that "belong" to their departments. I want them to pay special attention to the kinds of written texts that are displayed around those spaces and what those texts might tell them about how the department is trying to represent itself to insiders and outsiders. By texts, I'm thinking about not only displays of scholarly work (books, papers, poster presentations), but also signs, postings on bulletin boards, postings on faculty members' office doors, etc. I'm asking students to think about what these texts (including images) might say about what their discipline is "about"--what kinds of activities are valued in the department and how these activities help distinguish the department from or connect it to other departments or parts of the university.
I showed a draft of the assignment to Neal Lerner and Laurie Edwards, the director of the Writing Program and the director of the Advanced Writing in the Disciplines (AWD) program at my school. They kindly provided advice on revising the assignment; in particular, they warned that I should make sure that the students' products don't end up simply listing features and similarities and differences, but that these observed features also need to be analyzed in a theoretical context. So I'm working on revising the assignment to put more emphasis on analysis, and I'm trying to bring in some theoretical perspectives that will be accessible to the students without overwhelming them in the first week of the course.
In writing up this assignment, I've been drawing on several different (and probably incompatible!) sources: the field of linguistic landscape studies, John Swales' concept of "textography" (here's a re-review of Swales' book) and Latour & Woolgar's discussion of the anthropology of the laboratory life, as presented in "An Anthropologist Visits the Laboratory." Most of this material is relatively new to me (thanks to Neal Lerner for introducing me to Latour & Woolgar), but I'm doing my best to cobble it together in a way that will be accessible to students (particularly second-language learners).
I've found the slide presentation below from Dave Malinowski to be useful to me in framing the assignment from a linguistic landscape perspective. In particular, slides 18-20, 22, and 25-33 have been helpful.
One interdisciplinary aspect of this assignment is, of course, that I am asking students to view their own disciplines (or departments--and I know I'm "problematically" equating the two) from the perspective of another discipline (or disciplines! I'm not even sure!). That is, I'm asking them to look at their disciplines from a linguistic perspective, with the values of a linguist (or social scientist, more generally). I'll probably include a question about that in the reflection assignment that goes along with the general assignment.
I'll add more to this post (or add another post) later as I refine the assignment...