Iowa State University
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
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  • Writing for a discipline

    English's Viviana Cortes teaching international students how to write for their own discipline.

    English 101D. It's the academic writing course required of some international graduate students.

    One section in particular has caught the fancy of international graduate students in disciplines across campus.

    English 101D is taught by Viviana Cortes, assistant professor in applied linguistics. She is just one of several faculty members in the Department of English that teaches the course.

    "Advanced Academic Writing for the International Graduate Student" instructs students on several academic genres, such as formal letters and memos, conference abstracts and a research report.

    Cortes teaches the course with a somewhat different approach. Her research is in corpus linguistics and she uses computers to analyze the language patterns of very large bodies of texts (corpora).

    Because of a LASCAC (Liberal Arts and Sciences Computer Advisory Committee) grant, she was able to take that research and apply it to English 101D. Each student in her English 101D section now has access to a corpus of recent articles in their own field.

    "The one complaint that we had on the course is that we were teaching the same basic skills to everyone regardless of their academic discipline," said Cortes, who has taught the new corpus-based session since 2004. "I came up with the idea that we could design the class so that students could research how to write in their particular discipline."

    Cortes has even developed her own set of computer search tools that allows the students to investigate how to write a research paper in their own particular academic discipline.

    "This section of English 101D has raised the students' awareness of how to write for their own discipline," she said. "Teaching international students to analyze real examples of academic genres is a very positive way to help them become aware of the writing conventions and linguistic choices of their academic communities.

    "By the time the class is over, the students have a solid idea on how researchers in their field write articles. Many students have come to me and said they have discovered trends in the writing of academic articles in their disciplines."

    The course is currently only offered to non-native speakers but word has gotten out about English 101D to the entire graduate student community.

    "The class is potentially for everybody," she said. "I have had students from education, physics, plant pathology, and community and regional planning to mention only a few programs. Many non-international students have also expressed their interest in the class."

    Once the enrollment is finalized each semester, Cortes talks to professors in the disciplines represented. She finds out what the top journals in those fields are, particularly those that include what the professors consider good models of writing.

    When the LASCAC grant was in force, Cortes and her assistants established a database of around 100 articles per discipline. Since the grant has run out, she will typically use 25 articles from two to three academic journals for a corpus in a particular field.

    Cortes has also learned that not only is writing for varying disciplines different, but the same holds for different fields within a discipline.

    "Some journals are different among inorganic, organic and analytical chemistry," she said. "The same happens with plant pathology, plant physiology and biology."

    The classroom work has also spilled over into Cortes' own research and others in the department. The corpora have formed the basis for several master's theses in the Department of English.

    After she gave a presentation at a recent conference, Cortes was besieged with questions about the course.

    "The use of corpora in the classroom is rare," she said. "There are not many classes like this out there so this is serving as a model for other universities."
Vivana Cortes

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May 1-31, 2006