I start teaching a new course in just a few weeks. For the first time, I’m teaching a whole course in scientific writing. I’m supposed to know something about that – after all, I wrote The Scientist’s Guide to Writing – but nevertheless, I’m scared.
I’ve resisted teaching scientific writing for many years, despite agreeing with my colleagues who argue that it’s one of the most valuable courses a student (undergraduate or graduate) can take. I’ve resisted in part because teaching a good scientific writing course is a lot of work; but mostly I’ve resisted because I’m not sure that I know how to teach a good scientific writing course. I’ve never taken one, and so have no model to emulate or to avoid. On top of that, I don’t actually think of myself as a very good writer. I’m slow, and although I’ve worked hard to become an adequate writer, my papers are never going to be celebrated as outstanding in our literature. So how can I teach writing?
Well, in writing The Scientist’s Guide I argued that my mediocrity could actually be an asset. Most writers are like me: not geniuses, but craftspeople struggling to get better at a difficult craft. I think (I hope) my own history of working to improve can make me more useful, not less, to early-career writers following the same rocky path. And if it’s true for the book, surely it can be true for the course.
So there I’ll be, at the front of the classroom, teaching scientific writing. What am I actually going to do? I wish I knew (because it’s surely time to have this sorted). But here are a few of the major elements of my course design.
I’ll follow much of the content of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing. I wrote it, after all*. It will be interesting to see what works and what doesn’t in a classroom setting. When I wrote it, use as a course text was far from my mind. I wrote, instead, for an imagined grad student reading solo. (Actually, that imagined grad student looked a lot like younger me.)
- I’ll have students do as much as I have them listen to me. Writing advice is useful, but writing practice to put that advance into action is essential.
- I’ll rely heavily on peer commenting. Writing improves when someone else comments on your drafts. But a model where students write and instructor comments doesn’t scale well, and I’ll never be able to serve enough students to matter that way. In any case, I think students can learn as much by commenting on their peers as they do from receiving those comments. So they’ll exchange drafts repeatedly, but only occasionally with me.
- We’ll divide and conquer. While the goal is to teach students to produce complete works – papers, theses, and so on – thinking about whole such project can be so intimidating as to freeze progress in its tracks. So we’ll work on small pieces, and only assemble them late in the course.
- We’ll do real writing. This part I’m not sure I’ve got right, but I’ve restricted enrolment to students who have a research project ready to write up (or at least, a project mature enough for writing to begin). I don’t want writing to seem like an academic exercise. It isn’t. It’s a real, and central, element of what it means to do science every day.
All this sounds like I have a plan. Maybe I do; and maybe some of it will even survive its collision with the real classroom. But I’m still scared. Wish me luck.
© Stephen Heard December 19, 2017
*^And of course this makes me one of those profs who assigns their own book. Although wouldn’t it be odd if I didn’t, really? But I’m uncomfortable with the notion of profiting from the assignment, so on the 1st day of class my students will choose a charity to receive the (rather trifling) royalties I’ll make from their book purchases.