Disciplinary Knowledge from the Lab to the Courtroom

This month, we published Connecting Language and Disciplinary Knowledge in English for Specific Purposes by Alissa J. Hartig. In this post, Alissa introduces the themes of her book and tells us where her interest in English for Specific Purposes developed from.

Nanophysics probably seems like a strange starting point for working with legal discourse, but it was a group of nanophysicists who first got me interested in English for Specific Purposes. I had been teaching at a university in Korea when one of my students asked if I might be interested in developing a course on science writing for his labmates. Over the next few months, I learned more about piezoelectricity and perovskite than I ever would have guessed. Most of my work with this group was at the end of their writing process, though, and while I got a good sense of the grammatical constraints of these kinds of terms, I never really got to learn much about how these students developed their research questions in the first place or how they went about their work in the lab.

A few years later, when I started working with international Master of Laws students at a law school in the US, my experience was quite different. At the law school, I followed students throughout their entire introduction to common law argumentation, research, and writing. This offered me an opportunity that I didn’t have with the nanophysics lab. While I became familiar with similar kinds of specialized terms, like parol evidence and punitive damages, I also started to notice a different category of disciplinary concepts that played an important role in students’ reading and writing.

These weren’t the kinds of terms that you would typically find on a legal vocabulary list, though. This new category of disciplinary concepts was built into the discourse itself. Both word-level conventions, like the use of tense, and discourse-level conventions, like the inclusion of particular genre moves, could both be traced back to these discourse-structuring concepts. More importantly, students who could connect these discourse-structuring concepts to the ways they were being asked to read and write were more successful in working with legal genres. This wasn’t just a matter of being able to define these concepts or use them correctly in a sentence. Most students could do that without any trouble. The more difficult part was looking at legal texts using these concepts as a lens.

Connecting Language and Disciplinary Knowledge in English for Specific Purposes follows four international law students as they grapple with these discourse-structuring concepts, looking at how both their writing and interactions in tutoring and classroom sessions reflect changes in their understanding over the course of a semester. The book also offers one approach to integrating these discourse-structuring concepts into the ESP classroom. Whether your students are working with parol evidence or perovskite, I hope that readers with an interest in the learning of specialized discourse will gain a new perspective on integrating language and content.

Alissa J. Hartig, Portland State University


For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Providing Health Care in the Context of Language Barriers edited by Elizabeth A. Jacobs and Lisa C. Diamond.

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