What this resource is about:

In this handout, we explain five contexts that influence the writing assignments you’re given:  the academic, disciplinary, subdisciplinary, local/institutional, and idiosyncratic/personal. Knowing about these contexts can help you understand what you’re being asked to do and why. 

Understanding Writing Assignments

Reading assignment sheets and understanding what’s being asked of you as a writer can be a bewildering task. Though we often talk about “academic writing” as if it has one clear meaning, most students know that the academic writing they do for a literature course is not the same academic writing they do for a biology course. To make things even more confusing, instructors in different disciplines will sometimes use the same language (research paper, analysis, evidence) to mean very different things! 

In their 2006 book, Engaged Writers and Dynamic Disciplines, Chris Thaiss and Terry Zawacki explain that teachers’ expectations of “good” writing actually come from multiple sources. Academic writing does have some common or universal features (see below), but those features don’t explain all of the writing standards students are asked to meet. Often, you are being asked to write in ways that are specific to the teacher’s discipline, department, or interests. Knowing about those other contexts can help you better understand what you’re being asked to do and why. Thaiss and Zawacki offer five contexts to keep in mind: 

The Academic

Pertaining to three broad principles: 

  1. Clear evidence in writing that the writer(s) have been persistent, open-minded, and disciplined in study.
  2. The dominance of reason over emotion or sensual perception.
  3. An imagined reader who is coolly rational, reading for information, and intending to formulate a reasoned response.
  • Ex: asking the writer to “take a position and support that position with evidence”
  • Ex: reminding the writer to cite their sources 

The Disciplinary

Pertaining to the methods and conventions of the teacher’s broad “field” 

  • Ex: requiring the writer use standard sections for a lab report 
  • Ex: requiring that the writer follow APA guidelines for citing sources 
  • Ex: referring to completed texts as “deliverables” 

 The Subdisciplinary

Pertaining to the teacher’s area of interest, with its own methods and conventions, within the broader discipline. 

  • Ex: reminding the writer to keep in mind best practices for statistical modeling
  • Ex: asking the writer to pay close attention to how the poem is crafted 

The Local or Institutional

Pertaining to the policies and practices of the local school or department 

  • Ex: referencing the school’s policies on plagiarism
  • Ex: recommending that writers make use of the MSU Writing Center 

 The Idiosyncratic or Personal

Pertaining to the teacher’s unique vision and combination of interests 

  • Ex: asking the writer to avoid using the verb “to be”
  • Ex: naming the audience as readers of the New York Times
  • Ex: requiring the writer to underline the thesis statement in the first paragraph  



Source:  Thaiss, C., & Zawacki, T.M. (2006). Engaged writers and dynamic disciplines: Research on the academic writing life. Boynton/Cook.