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Geography, Environment and Society, a CLA department enrolling approximately 500 undergraduate majors, enrolled in the WEC program in 2008. The department comprises multiple diverse and emphatically interdisciplinary fields of study, and although the writing students do in GES courses varies accordingly, it typically represents space, place, and geographic networks. Maps, geographic information science, and geovisualization are crucial for supporting geographical writing, but so are graphs, photographs, tables, and diagrams. GES students major in Geography, the integrated study of a globalized world bridging humanities, social sciences, and ecological processes; Biology, Society, and Environment (BSE), a major combining training in biology with inquiry into its relevance to social and environmental problems; or Urban Studies, a cross-disciplinary field in which inquiry into contemporary urban and postindustrial society is conducted via traditional coursework and fieldwork experiences.
Writing in Geography, Environment and Society
The Geography, Environment and Society faculty generated the following list in response to the question, “What characterizes academic and professional communication in this discipline?”
The Department of Geography, Environment and Society encompasses a broad array of topics and sub-fields, which translates into a tremendous variety in written projects. Students across all three programs focus on the spatial aspects of human existence and look at issues such as development, sustainability, poverty, cities, and health. Physical geographers and some BSE students study the natural world, including patterns and processes of climate, land forms, water, vegetation, and animals. Many students study both human activity and natural systems together, looking at topics such as hazards, environmental degradation, and natural resource use. GES students use many approaches, ranging from personal interviews and archival research to digital technologies like Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to understand the world.
Many GES papers will offer analyses that rely on a standard structure: introduction, background, data, methods, result, and discussion. The coherence of the argument lies in how well the paper can logically develop the argument through this form. The introduction defines the question or problem. The background section describes the theories or knowledge currently employed to address the question or problem and sets up the rest of the paper. It may present the paper as adjudicating between two theories or answering an unresolved question posed in the literature. The data and methods sections describe the observations and approaches needed to affirmatively answer the question, ideally taking their cue from the background section to justify why given data and methods are employed. The results section describes what the data and methods yielded and the discussion applies these to answering the question and positions these findings within the larger field.
- Critical human geography papers may focus on a qualitative analysis based on ethnographic fieldwork and/or close reading of key “texts” (e.g., film, policies, archival documents, photography). The introduction poses the larger thesis or issue while the background will address how existing theories and approaches conceive of or treat the subject matter (e.g., ‘how is race constructed?’ or ‘what is nature?’) The paper can then offer a framework for presenting the basic data or media being examined and describe how a given theory or approach is suited to ‘critically read’ or analyze the media (e.g., a feminist or Marxist examination). Effective papers offer arguments that offer a new reading or insight into the basic matter. In addition, or perhaps instead, they may demonstrate how, compared to other theories, the approach employed offers newer, better, or deeper insight and understanding of the subject.
- Literature reviews from any subfield seek to deliver a comprehensive analysis of the state of a given field. A review answers a series of questions: Where did the problem or issue come from? What is already known about the issue? What have other people done to approach this issue? Why should anyone care? Beyond these specific questions, the review should clearly and succinctly summarize the major authors, contributions, and themes in the field. It should create a mental architecture, where the writer creates their own typology, or borrows and expands on a well-known one. It should contextualize each contribution and relate them to one another, including lending historical context where useful, recounting debates, and keeping track of the rise and fall of theories. It should critically evaluate where each contribution has relative advantages and disadvantages. How does the student find them useful or not useful? Importantly, they must justify their critique and must address ideas, not the authors directly.
- Policy-oriented papers, found across GES programs but particularly in BSE and URBS, will examine a problem and its existing political dimensions and, ideally, offer evidence and arguments for policy interventions, or at least provide some ways forward for future research. Most Urban Studies majors, for example, aim toward careers in the public sector, non-profit world, or private sector development. With that in mind, the most important discipline-specific writing is the sort that communicates simply and directly. Most Urban Studies students will move from here into a world of writing memos, policy support material, and prose that is constrained by a regulatory framework (municipal plans). In these cases, the introduction outlines the problem and its significance. A background section develops the history of the problem, existing policy prescriptions, and a structured exploration of key causes, symptoms, and effects of existing solutions. The paper at this point may then focus on describing possible ways forward and can draw on a range of arguments. It may marshal examples from other contexts and apply them to the existing problem, or it may instead offer evidence from a case study. It could conclude with a discussion that points out the evidence and arguments and make a case for a specific solution, or it may lay out research directions necessary to determine what policy actions should be taken.
Writing Abilities Expected of Geography, Environment and Society Majors
After reviewing ideas submitted by undergraduate majors, graduate student TAs, and faculty colleagues, the Geography, Environment and Society faculty generated the following list in response to this question: “With which writing abilities should students in this unit’s major(s) graduate?”
GES faculty agree that all students graduating with a major in Geography should be able to write in a way that reflects their ability to:
Offer a central thesis. While the thesis is often framed in terms of answering a question, it is important to recognize a broader range of theses. It may be an issue addressed, problem solved, experiment completed, or literature synthesized. The thesis should be significant (see below) but also focused enough that the writing can address it in a substantial way within the confines of the writing product (e.g., within a page limit). Importantly, the thesis should be grounded in the questions and approaches of a given subfield within GES. As highlighted above, GES has an array of subfields with specific styles, expectations, and practices. While much of the job of developing a central thesis involves the actual structure of writing and marshaling evidence (#2 below) and using effective written, visual, and/or numerical expression (#3 below), effectively developing a thesis involves articulating its significance and demonstrating awareness of the intended audience.
- Articulate significance. Writing should articulate the significance of the thesis. This can include notions of relevance such as real-world impacts or import (e.g., understanding how flooding happens is important because it affects people and property) or be framed as purely academic contributions that seek to advance understanding of a given topic (e.g., offering a new critical reading of a well accepted text, positioning an existing issue in a new way within broader debates within a field, or synthesizing existing literature on a topic in a new way). Where germane, writing should adequately characterize existing understanding or knowledge, which most often means providing a representative overview of other views and research that define the topic or issue.
- Demonstrate awareness of audience. While many students write for academic audiences, some will be writing for non-academics. The student should signal an awareness of an academic audience via the trapping of that sub-field, such as appropriate use of references and demonstrating knowledge of broader theoretical engagements. Students writing for a non-academic audience should signpost their intentions (and thereby awareness of the audience) through strategies including highlighting potential audiences or explicit outcomes such as policy recommendations.
Develop the thesis. Students should be able to support their claims with well-reasoned arguments of varying kinds, such as empirical, logical, inferential, and text-based rationales. Writing should offered a structured and persuasive argument for the central thesis, where structure implies an organized progression of evidence and statements designed to support the thesis, and persuasive means being coherent, well-stated, and logical, rooted in its data and observations. There are a number of sub-elements for forging the argument.
- Make observations. Much writing is based on fieldwork, laboratory work, and/or archival research. Students should be able to record and analyze observation based notes, including, if relevant, making field maps, taking photos, etc. The skill of observation extends to reading critically. Critical “reading” of films, photographs, and maps, as well as traditional texts, is essential to scholarly writing. Not all writing will necessarily involve observation but majors should have experience with making observations.
- Assess evidence and arguments. Writing in support of a central thesis evaluates observations, facts, or arguments made by others. This varies by paper, but any work that marshals observations or facts should evaluate their quality with respect to the issue being addressed. For numerical data, what are the limitations and advantages of these data for the question posed? For maps and other secondary material, what is their reliability and how is it shaped by their originally intended purpose? If primary materials are used, how does their provenance affect their use (e.g., for newspaper clippings, did the newspaper or writer have an identifiable bias?) For journal or diary entries, how do the goals of the writer or nature of the text affect their utility for the paper’s arguments? Students should be able to assess the veracity and relevance of the arguments and/or conclusions they encounter. Such assessments should be considered part of their own ability to reach and communicate inferences and conclusions.
- Use appropriate structure. Students should be able to structure their writing effectively, as determined by the writing assignment. Well-structured writing may include opening with an introduction that discloses the scope and intent of the written work; dividing the whole into meaningful sections with headings that serve as guideposts for the reader; composing paragraphs that stand alone yet obviously relate to the preceding and subsequent paragraphs; presenting and discussing methods and/or evidence where they contribute most fruitfully to the reader’s understanding; and closing with a summary.
Use effective written, visual, and/or numerical expression. The writer employs numerical, written, or visual expression in a manner that is furthers the arguments of the thesis. Writing should demonstrate good style (e.g., basics like grammar, of course, but ideally more purely stylistic elements such as mix of word choice and avoiding jargon where possible) as well as substance, such as well-structured paragraphs, continuity between paragraphs, avoiding irrelevant or repetitive information. There are number of specific elements:
- Use effective writing style and syntax. Students should use correct spelling, punctuation, and syntax, choose appropriate words, and avoid repetition.
- Use visual information. Students should be able to comprehend and assess visual information in a variety of forms, such as maps, graphs, tables, charts, film, photographs, and video. They should be able to design and employ such forms as needed. Not all writing will involve using visual information, but students should graduate knowing how to use these forms of expression.
- Revision. Students should understand the importance of revision and should be able to undertake it, not only by taking direction from instructor copy-edits and/or comments but also independently. Students should see writing as a multi-step process that involves brainstorming, outlining, drafting, and revisions.
- Adhere to the university’s ethical standards. Student writing should conform to the University’s ethical standards concerning plagiarism, “hate speech,” indication of funding sources (if relevant), indication of IRB approval (if relevant), and other standards as they apply.
While the order in which these objectives appear here is not a strict, linear “to do” list, it is structured by a loose logic. Writing is often oriented around a question (or questions) in hopes of developing some argument or interpretation. Such a question may carry with it certain implied or explicit observations to be made and drawn upon. Many times these observations are translated into some form of visual communication and then employed in the writer’s text. Good writing demands attention to the quality of information sources and judicious handling of evidence. Writers may be expected to understand the expectations of the audience to whom their writing is addressed and, in any event, to compose a text in an appropriate manner, with an ability to employ acceptable grammatical and other such “mechanical” rules. As writers reflect on the claims they are making they might find that they care about what they have to say, and that they develop a clearer sense of what makes their claims significant or important. They might, in other words, have an acute sense of the value-laden quality of their statements. All of these qualities of writing are eligible for consideration in the process of revision, essential to the writing process. In so far as the University of Minnesota requires attention to certain ethical standards, these must be of interest as an overriding principle. In reflecting on these criteria several faculty members emphasized that what undergirds the above list of objectives is the relatively straightforward necessity for students to be able to describe clearly what they see and read and to be able to communicate their ideas succinctly when appropriate. Descriptive clarity in writing, all might agree, is to be highly valued.
Menu of Grading Criteria Used in Geography, Environment and Society Courses
Below is a menu of criteria that can be offered to faculty and instructors for selective adapting where germane as translated from writing abilities (above).
Offer a central thesis. While the thesis is often framed in terms of answering a question, it is important to recognize a broader range of theses. It may be an issue addressed, problem solved, experiment completed, or literature synthesized.
- Articulate significance. This can include notions of relevance such as real-world impacts or import or be framed as purely academic contributions that seek to advance understanding of a given topic.
- Demonstrate awareness of audience. Signal an awareness of an academic audience via the trapping of that sub-field, such as appropriate use of references and demonstrating knowledge of broader theoretical engagements, or when writing for a non- academic audience should signpost their intentions through strategies including highlighting potential audiences or explicit outcomes such as policy recommendations.
Develop the thesis. Students should be able to support their claims with well reasoned arguments of varying kinds, such as empirical, logical, inferential, and text-based rationales.
- Make observations. Students should be able to record and analyze observation-based notes, including, if relevant, making field maps, taking photos, etc. The skill of observation extends to reading critically. Not all writing will necessarily involve observation but majors should have experience with making observations.
- Assess evidence and arguments. Evaluates observations, facts, or arguments made by others.
- Use appropriate structure. This will vary by sub-field and is tied to the assignment used.
Use effective written, visual, and/or numerical expression. Writing should demonstrate good style as well as substance.
- Use effective writing style and syntax. Students should use correct spelling, punctuation, and syntax, choose appropriate words, and avoid repetition.
- Use visual information. Not all writing will involve using visual information, but students should graduate knowing how to use these forms of expression.
- Revise effectively. Ideally writing as part of most assignments is a multi-step process that involves brainstorming, outlining, drafting, and revisions. Note: We may not be able to use this directly as criteria when grading a final product.
- Adhere to the university’s ethical standards. In addition to obvious elements such as adhering to ethical standards concerning plagiarism or hate speech, cites to pertinent authorities such as IRB or discloses funding sources.
Highlights from the Writing Plan
Geography enrolled in the WEC program in 2008 and received approval for the third edition of its Writing Plan in Fall 2013. To address the varied nature of writing in its majors, the department developed and published a Departmental Writing and Research Writing Guide, intended to clarify expectations and to offer resources for students writing in the many disciplinary subfields. In addition, the department is endeavoring to collect and organize numerous "exemplars," excerpted samples of strong, middling, and weak student writing, for faculty members and TAs to use strategically for timely, efficient in-class writing instruction.