Story by Shoshana Dreyfus and Trish Weekes, English Language and Linguistics Program, School of Humanities and Social Inquiry

Study at university is all about learning new knowledge and skills, preparing for a career, making friends and growing as a person … but what about the idea of apprenticeship? We are not referring to a trade apprenticeship here, like becoming a carpenter or plumber; we are talking about an apprenticeship into an academic discipline.

An academic discipline is a subject area like History, Politics or Sociology, and often is an area you can take a “major” in. Apprenticeship involves learning about how to ‘do’ the discipline and ‘be’ a disciplinary expert. It is all about how to think and reason and write like a historian or a political scientist or a sociologist.

Disciplines are quite different. Each has its own knowledge, theories, methods of doing research, and, most importantly, experts. Disciplines ‘build their knowledge in different ways’ (Christie & Maton, 2011, p. 5), and can be identified by the way they define knowledge, what they focus on, what they consider to be true and false, and how claims to knowledge are evaluated. Disciplines have ‘developed norms that are applied to the question of how it is that human experience can be converted into knowledge, and how that knowledge can be appropriately disseminated’ (Freebody et al., 2008, p. 191).

A new student in first year at university has to come to grips with these different forms of knowledge as well as how to communicate that knowledge. This can be a particular challenge as most students are studying in several disciplines. In addition, the requirements of a discipline are not always obvious.

A quick glance at the subject outline pages on the UOW website gives an instant insight into the different disciplines, such as Philosophy, where students learn ‘how to think, not what to think’ and they are trained in ‘logic and argumentation’. In contrast, Science and Technology ‘addresses complex real-world problems such as global warming’ and ‘develops the skills to analyse and advise on technological and environmental policy’. Students could study both these subjects in first year, so it’s very important for them to understand the differences.

For this reason, a student at university is ‘one who is initiated into ways of behaving, of knowing and of thinking, ways of identifying and responding to issues, ways of addressing problems and ways of valuing’ (Christie, 2005 p.162).

And a big part of being an apprentice in a discipline involves communicating and writing. Reading, writing essays and completing assignments are at the core of learning at university. In fact, that’s how students demonstrate their learning, and that’s how they are assessed. But each subject has different and unique ways for students to communicate in these assignments, and that’s part of the apprenticeship: learning how to communicate like an historian like a philosopher or like an engineer. Members of a discipline can be called a discourse community (Gee 1990), as each discipline has a shared way of using language and constructing knowledge.

So how do you become an apprentice?

In our view, apprenticeship means learning knowledge about the discipline and also learning about how to communicate in the disciplines. Our interest focuses on Arts and Humanities disciplines, as we are involved in research that examines the exact nature of discourse patterns in the disciplines of Cultural Studies, English, History, Indigenous Studies, International Studies, Linguistics, Philosophy, Politics, Science and Technology Studies, and Sociology.

University students need to understand the purposes of different kinds of communication in these disciplines (such as reports and essays). Purposes could be: to argue a case, or explain the reasons or causes of event or phenomenon, or to report on an issue. Students also need to learn about the features of different kinds of writing, such as what types of evidence can be used to support a point, whether personal experience can be included, and how texts should be structured and organised.

One prime difference in the ways different disciplines communicate involves the role of the writer and whether they can include their own personal perspective and experience when writing an essay or assignment. In History, for example, the student writer needs to take an objective impersonal distance and typically does not use ‘I’ in their essays. Philosophy, however, takes a different view. Here the writer is encouraged to include their own perspective and personal opinions on different philosophical arguments.

Another difference involves the sorts of evidence that can be used to support the arguments made in essays and assignments in different disciplines. In English literature, evidence can take the form of quotes from poetry, literature and plays, to support interpretations made by the writer. In contrast, Politics uses statistics as well as economic models and theories to support their arguments.

We argue that discourse practices within disciplines should be explicit and evident for both lecturers and students. As part of their apprenticeship into disciplines, students should be taught explicitly about what is valued in those disciplines. Importantly, a successful apprenticeship into any discipline involves students becoming aware of and mastering the ways of communicating in that discipline. And that can lead to great marks and a future career using those skills in the real world as a professional in any field.


Christie, F., & Maton, K. (2011). Why Disciplinarity? In F. Christie & K. Maton (Eds.), Disciplinarity: Functional linguistic and sociological perspectives (pp. 1-9). London & New York: Continuum.

Freebody, P., Maton, K., & Martin, J. R. (2008). Talk, text, and knowledge in cumulative, integrated learning: A response to ‘intellectual challenge’. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 31(2), 188-201.

Christie, F. (2005). Classroom discourse analysis: A functional perspective. London: Continuum.

Gee, P. (1990). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses, critical perspectives on literacy and education. London: Falmer Press.