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This semester, for the first time, I taught a course in scientific writing. I was very scared going into it, but now that the course is over I’m quite pleased with how it worked out. Several people who have taught similar courses were kind enough to share their syllabi with me, and that helped – so I’m going to pay it forward here. If you might teach a writing course, or if you have colleagues who might, or if you’re just interested in how one might do such a thing, read on. I’ll tell you a bit about the course, and down at the bottom I’ll post the syllabus and other course materials, which you are welcome to download and adapt for your own use.
My course had both 4th-year undergraduate and graduate course numbers, although the two sets of students met together and did the same assignments. It used a mix of (short) lectures, small-group workshop exercises, and writing assignments. The assignments were mostly organized around the writing (by each student) of a single journal paper. That paper was the Honours thesis (for the undergraduates) or a thesis chapter (for the graduate students). Although the focus was on the journal paper, a lot of the course was relevant to writing more broadly, and we did some work on science outreach, too (both written and for broadcast media).
Here’s the course description from our academic calendar:
A workshop and project-oriented course in scientific writing. The primary focus is on writing the journal paper. Enrolling students must have a research project (Honours thesis or other) advanced enough to be written up as part of the course activity, and must be able to share drafts with classmates. Limited enrolment.
A few observations about the course:
- I used my own book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, as a text. (A bit about how I navigated the ethics of this here.) Most of the lectures corresponded closely to material in the book, which let me keep the lectures short and use more time for workshopping. The workshop exercises were mostly adapted from the end-chapter exercises in the book. However: if you don’t like The Scientist’s Guide, another good option would be Josh Schimel’s Writing Science – and I promise, I won’t judge you.
- I liked (and the students liked) the blend of lecture and workshop. We met twice a week, for 80 minutes each time. I used the first ~25 minutes for a lecture (you’ll find all the topics on the syllabus, below), leaving about 55 minutes for small-group workshops (you’ll find those listed on the syllabus, and explained on the workshop list, below).
- Students did the workshop exercises in groups of 3-4 (most days, we spent the last 10 minutes or so comparing notes among groups). The small-group discussion was extremely productive. Now, I have to admit that as a student, I despised group work – but as an instructor I now understand why it’s useful. It’s especially useful for writing, I think, for a couple of reasons. Most obviously, coauthorship is more and more the norm (and that’s a good thing). Less obviously but perhaps more importantly, deliberate discussion of writing habits and techniques with peers goes a long way to establishing that writing challenges are shared, and that thinking and talking about them deliberately can help writers overcome them.
- I kept the graduate students and undergraduates in separate groups – not because the grad students were that much more advanced, but rather because the undergraduates might have been intimidated and participated less, had I mixed the groups. I think this was the right call. On the other hand, I kept the groups fixed all semester, and I’m not sure whether this was the right call or not – this calls for future experimentation.
- I had a small enrolment: just 11 students (7 undergraduate, 4 graduate). The perennial issue with writing courses is that we generally believe (correctly!) that every student should take one, but they’re extremely difficult to teach with high enrolment. I think I could have handled 18 – 20 students at most (without TAs or coinstructors, I mean). The workshops would scale easily to larger groups, but the assignments wouldn’t: they involve old-fashioned reading and commenting on each student’s draft. I don’t see am easy way around that – even with a fair bit of peer commenting and evaluation.
- Here’s something I didn’t expect: teaching scientific writing means implicitly arguing with your colleagues. That’s because what the students were writing for my course, they were also writing for their supervisors (because the same writing was to make up part or all of their thesis). Repeatedly, this happened: I would read a draft and advise a student to make changes. They would dutifully make the changes – and then their supervisor would tell them to reverse them! So the next time I teach the course, I’ll address this head on, via a discussion of what you do when two reviewers disagree. I’ll encourage them not to just defer to their supervisors right away, but to explain the reasoning behind the change and ask supervisors why they’re rejecting it. The idea here is to help them realize that the thesis is ultimately theirs, and they should be weighing competing advice and deciding for themselves.
- It was an extremely rewarding course for me. I saw students working as hard as I’ve ever seen, and I saw it pay off in writing progress. Did I turn out accomplished writers who churn out polished prose with ease? Of course not; writing is a craft that takes years to master and is never perfected. But I think I gave some early-career writers confidence that they could tackle writing and improve at it. That realization – that writing is a craft you work at, not something that just happens – may be more important than any concrete piece of the syllabus.
So: I was wrong to fear teaching scientific writing. My course wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty good (and will get better). And if you, too, have a writing course in your future: feel free to steal this syllabus*:
(UPDATE: In May 2020, I posted new, updated materials.)
You’re welcome to use these verbatim, or to modify them for your own use. In fact, although I’m not posting them here, I’d be happy to send you a complete set of lecture slides – just contact me by email or Twitter DM. All I ask is that if you use them, let me know – and pay the favour forward in turn, sometime in your own career.
© Stephen Heard May 1, 2018 (but syllabus licensed CC0; workshops and assignments licensed CC BY-NC 4.0) Updated materials as of May 2020 here.
*^Those of you as old as me may recognize the reference to Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. If you don’t: Hoffman was a counterculture activist in the 1960s and 1970s, and the book, according to Wikipedia, “iconically reflects the hippie zeitgeist”. If that’s true, then a lot of the hippie zeitgeist was almost certainly unethical (and absolutely illegal). Fortunately, helping yourself to my syllabus is neither.