From the Archive: Consulting Across the Disciplines (Fall 2009)

By Jennifer Holt, Katherine Fusco, and Gary Jaeger

Writing Studio consultants are trained to be good generalist readers. Many of us have even found ourselves committed to the idea that consultants have a significant advantage in conversation when we lack expertise either about an entire field or about the specific material that a writer has chosen to discuss. A lack of expertise can help consultants be better listeners, more attentive to the development of a client’s ideas and insights, and more likely to ask questions that can help writers see where or when their audiences might need more guidance.

Though at the Writing Studio we tout the benefits of a generalist approach, we often find ourselves negotiating requests from clients (and the faculty who refer them) to meet with only one particular writing consultant who has specialized knowledge in a given field. Both clients and their instructors, in these instances, believe that a consultant in the field can offer the sort of discipline-specific assistance necessary to appropriate completion of course assignments.

There is something well-founded about such a request. We suspect that the desire for discipline-specific writing consultation is founded on the recognition that content and writing are so intimately connected that work on writing cannot be fully divorced from efforts to understand ideas, or that writing may be the academic task which most challenges assumptions about the distinction between having ideas and communicating them.

But does the truth of the claim that writing and thinking are intimately connected render necessary the pairing of clients with consultants who have encountered already the field or the specific subject matter addressed by a given assignment?

Other universities’ writing centers have answered this question in a number of different ways: some refuse outright to do any discipline-specific consulting and have strict policies that refer students back to their course instructors for help with content; some designate special departmental writing fellows or even course-specific writing assistants (typically graduate students who can speak to course content and who receive additional training to foster productive conversation about writing). At some institutions, all of the writing consultants work only in their specific disciplines, whereas at other schools, discipline-specific writing consultants are available upon request or for special projects only.

Although we publicize the role of consultant-as-generalist, we do want to claim that there is a certain kind of knowledge about discipline-specific practices that consultants absolutely need to have in order to help clients successfully address their concerns. The knowledge that consultants need is, however,  not knowledge of all discipline-specific practices themselves.

Instead, consultants need minimally to have an awareness of the practices of the discipline (or disciplines) in which their own studies are focused (e.g.: what kinds of questions does my discipline pose? how does it pose its questions? what counts as evidence? what counts as a defensible or interesting claim in my field?), as well as an awareness of when and how these characterizations might affect the writing process.  A consultant who can articulate the practices in her own field (and recognize those practices as field-specific) is capable of offering possibilities that can help another writer consider and articulate the demands of another discipline. Beyond the scope of the particular practices of their own disciplines, consultants ought to have general understanding of and sensitivity to what makes a claim or topic academically interesting.

While a writing consultant need not only work with writers in her or his own field, there very well might be times — especially when working with advanced graduate students — when a consultant familiar with the habits of a given discipline might benefit significantly a client seeking assistance. Cultivating good generalist writing consultants is, in our view, hinged to having a staff whose disciplinary interests represent a multiplicity of fields and so enable both discipline-specific and generalist conversations. Diversity of interests and expertise contributes to the development of a more nuanced sense of when and how discipline-specific concerns affect the work of writing.