Writing and Secondary Socialization

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Writing & Secondary Socialization

Three Pedagogical Tips for Teaching Writing in the Context of Communication Studies

Dr. Heather Stassen-Ferrara

Cheri J. Simonds (2001) indicates that each course requires a “secondary socialization” process. In other words, each class requires students (and faculty) to play a unique role in establishing the classroom environment and norms (p. 262). She further posits that this socialization premise relies on the transactional model of communication in that students are “active agents in establishing, maintaining, and changing the conventions of the classroom” (p. 262). These norms and conventions undoubtedly include writing. Writing style, rules, and preferences in relation to the type of course material, the students’ ability, and the instructor’s personal inclinations are all imperative components of the secondary socialization process.

For instance, students studying communication often write in myriad forms. Students may be shifting between journalistic writing, writing for public relations settings, and academic/research forms of writing. Across the 10 unique communication courses that I teach, there is quite a bit of transition in the style of writing. For instance, I teach a 400-level persuasion course which requires strict adherence to APA and a social-scientific style of writing. However, I also teach a course in rhetoric which is better suited for MLA or Chicago and is more of a rhetorical/argumentative writing style. Each of these courses requires a process of engaging in different writing standards and using those standards as the norm for writing (and often reading) in that particular course. As an instructor, I have norms and conventions – some might call them pet peeves – which I ask my students to adhere to including removing the word “it” from the start of sentences. As instructors, we all have small, but significant requests of our students that certainly might not be conventions held by other instructors.  Switching writing styles based on the course content and instructor’s desires is not unique to communication. Students are often shifting between courses in their chosen major and those they take to fulfill general education requirements (or for fun!).

Below, I offer three practical points of advice for pedagogy regarding writing at the undergraduate level including teaching writing for the subject (and your preferences), establishing students as agents, and offering channels to practice feedback.

  1. Secondary Socialization Process

A very important lesson that I have learned in the past several years is to meet students where they are; don’t assume they understand writing for a particular course. Students may know how to write, but do they know how to write for your course? For your discipline? For your subject matter? For your preferences?

This often means that time must be set aside to teach writing for a given topic. Teaching writing is a sacrifice. More time spent covering writing undeniably means less time covering course material. However, a few minutes spent outlining expectations in class has proven to make grading and providing feedback a much more rewarding experience. My comments delve into discussions of analysis and application of course material rather than APA standards and comma splices.

Explain the standards and be clear about your expectations. Provide additional resources and examples of best practices for students to emulate. Allocate time for questions about writing. I often use the last few minutes of class time to provide a writing tip and after handing back assignments have a discussion of both the writing and content – the good, the bad, and the ugly – that I observed in the assignments.

  1. Establishing Students as Agents in their Education

I find that the best writing emerges from writing about a topic that is of significant interest for the writer. In the past four years, I have begun to design assignments that allow freedom in topic area within a set of requirements. As part of this redesign of my courses, students are required to submit a topic proposal with an initial list of references for any assignment that exceeds three pages. This prompts a dialogue about the appropriateness of the topic for the given assignment long before the due date and, I hope, persuades students to think ahead about their final assignments.

Providing students feedback is, undoubtedly, easier when the writing is clear, concise, and clean. However, many instructors, myself included, have at times felt as though they were grading their own work after reviewing a number of drafts on any given paper. While I have stopped short of refusing to review drafts, I have established a strict set of guidelines prior to reviewing a draft.

Finally, students must see the benefit of solid writing. I take the time to explain the importance of writing throughout the college curriculum, for their future occupations, and I designate a grade for their writing on all assignments.

  1. Teach Students to Provide Feedback

My third piece of advice is to teach students to provide feedback on writing. I often will bring in a manuscript or conference paper that I have recently written and ask students to provide feedback. I assign articles – both academic and popular press – and ask students to comment on both content and writing. Finally, I use peer writing workshops outside of class and during class time (often when I am away at a conference).


Student feedback to these minor shifts – more time spent on writing and more freedom in topic area – have been overwhelmingly positive. Prior to stressing the importance of writing, student comments in course evaluations rarely mentioned writing, or noted only that I was too concerned about their writing. Students’ comments indicate that they feel engaged in the writing process, they appreciate the time spent learning to write, and many admit that they had never thought about tailoring their writing to the type of course content.


Simonds, C. J. (2001). Reflecting on the relationship between instructional communication theory and teaching practices. Communication Studies, 52(4), 260-265.

Heather Ferrara
Dr. Heather Stassen-Ferrara is Assistant Professor and Program Director in the Communication Studies program at Cazenovia College. Ferrara’s research interests are at the intersection of rhetoric, public culture, and controversy. As a generalist, she teaches an array of courses including Interpersonal Communication, Speech and Rhetoric, Persuasion, and Group Communication.

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