Investigating the invisibility of writing practices in the engineering curriculum

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Engineers are expected to have high level communication skills in order to carry out their work, which includes interacting with diverse stakeholders, colleagues, employees and clients. Of particular importance is the ability to negotiate, evaluate, persuade and make recommendations, both in speaking and in writing. However, it is difficult to see where writing practices are developed in engineering degree programs. Specifically, the gap between writing practices in the engineering curriculum and those of engineering practice has been acknowledged for decades by employers and by organisations such as Engineers Australia, but the continuing emphasis on engineering science in the Australian engineering curriculum provides little room for the development of writing practices which negotiate meaning and which provide opportunities to develop critical analysis and evaluation. Writing practices can be said to be invisible. This study investigates the contributing factors to the invisibility of writing practices in the engineering curriculum, looking at how writing practices are made invisible. A practice theory perspective was used to inform the research questions and to analyse the data collected from the case studies of nine engineering educators from five different Australian institutions and a range of engineering disciplines. The study found that there was a range of practices across the case studies, but that the majority of practices in the participants’ sites of practice constrained rather than enabled the development of writing practices in the context of learning engineering knowledge. Some of the practice architectures which held the constraining practices in place were at the local level, while others appeared to be part of institutional practices. However, some case studies had practice architectures which held in place practices to enable the development of students’ writing, within a subject, across sequential subjects or throughout an engineering discipline. These case studies provided evidence of the arrangements which prefigure supported writing practices in the engineering curriculum. The significance of this research is to provide empirical evidence of the constraints around writing practices in the engineering curriculum which have been acknowledged anecdotally for some time. Further, the study shows how writing practices can be supported, given the appropriate practice architectures, and provides a language with which to talk about these arrangements.
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