Each discipline (Psychology, History, Sociology, Biology, Philosophy, Physics, Literary Studies, etc.) maintains certain traditions, preferences, and guidelines for how analyses and arguments within a discipline are carried out in writing. As a student, you de facto participate in these communities of practice when you enter a Psychology, History, or Physics course and must discern the discipline’s particular ways of doing things in writing. At some point in your Davidson career, you will likely be asked to produce special forms of writing valued within disciplines: lab reports, literature reviews, policy statements, bibliographic essays, theses, and position papers. You probably are familiar with the fact that disciplines adhere to a variety of citation styles (MLA, APA, CBE, Turabian, etc.), but you should also know that disciplines, more fundamentally, think of the nature of argument itself in quite different ways. What counts as evidence, whether reasoning proceeds inductively or deductively, what sort of voice is preferred (active or passive): all of these are determined by disciplinary practitioners who choose to adhere to one or another tradition based on the epistemological needs and methods for inquiry used to accomplish things in a discipline.
In 1976, Stanley Fish coined the term “interpretive community” to describe a group of practitioners who settle on certain ways of doing, acting, and speaking (or writing) for themselves. Fish goes on to say:
An interpretive community is not made up of persons who, because they share some of the same ideas and aims, get together to form a club, as Star Trek fans do. Rather, an interpretive community is made up of those who, by virtue of training, experience, and practice, have internalized the norms of some purposive enterprise—law, education, politics, plumbing—to the point where they see with its eyes and walk in its ways without having to think about it. Interpretive community members are not independent agents who self-consciously choose to think and act in a certain way; if they are deeply embedded in the community they have no choice; the world just appears to them already organized by the emphases and urgencies that are the community’s content. (Winning Argument: What Works and Doesn’t Work in Politics, the Bedroom, The Courtroom, and the Classroom. New York: Harper Collins, 2016: 160.)
If at times you feel awkward moving from the writing requirements in one class to another, that’s understandable. You are travelling from one “intellectual culture” to another. Each has its own lexicon of special terms and concepts which you must, at least provisionally, become familiar with. Each has its ways of getting intellectual work done: through experimentation, through data collection, through textual analysis, through archival research, or fieldwork. If your professor doesn’t unveil at least some of the preferences and traditions for getting work done in his/her discipline, we suggest that you ask about these.
We also offer you a number of handbooks and guides, all of them developed by Harvard University’s College Writing Program in collaboration with particular departments and disciplines. They will give you a sense of a discipline’s preferences for reading, writing, and/or researching as a biologist, philosopher, historian, anthropologist, etc.
Writing in Anthropology
Writing in Art History
Writing in English
Writing in History
Writing in the Life Sciences
Writing in Philosophy
Writing in Psychology
Writing in Religion