Steal this syllabus! (or, how I taught Scientific Writing)

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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*:

Download the syllabus:   Word format or PDF format

Download the workshop exercises and assignments:  Word format or PDF format

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)


*^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.

 

17 thoughts on “Steal this syllabus! (or, how I taught Scientific Writing)

  1. Willa

    Thank you very much for sharing the syllabus, Dr. Heard! I wonder whether you have any non-native speakers or ESL writers in your writing class.If so, did you treat them differently? Any suggestions as to how to help them become confident/successful scientific writers?

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      That’s a really good question. By chance, this year, I did not have any EAL writers. I don’t think I would treat them differently in most of the course, but they would receive some additional advice. This is treated in Chapter 27 of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing. As a *very* short digest: writing in the native language and then translating seems not to be a good idea. EAL writers should read extensively in English, should (of course) practice writing, and may find it helpful to model available written English. They should also think about particular trouble spots that come up because of features of their native language (e.g., speakers of native languages that don’t use articles often have to work particularly hard to learn English’s use of them). And of course friendly reviewers (pre-submission, I mean) will be especially important. I have to admit, though, it’s something I’m not an authority on!

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  2. Jennifer

    I would disagree strongly with this advice regarding translation. I found that requiring them to write directly in English will cause some students to resort to plagiarism just to produce a document.
    After a decade in the multi-lingual environment of EU teaching programs – the most practical answer I could give is to let the student decide for themselves what works best for their writing. There are no formulas – only the objective to get the paper written and submitted. As the teacher I have learned to adapt to whatever techniques help each individual student express what they wish to say in “scientific” English. If this means helping them learn what translating is and mastering the basic tools of translation, then so be it.
    On the other hand, many students will end up with some kind of intermediate written communication – neither 100% English, nor 100% in another language(s). Instead parts of their work start to exist only in one language or another for them, depending on how (or where) they learned about particular ideas. The challenge is to get them to recognize and “convert” these parts of their written expression. In a multi-lingual environment I have used group correction sessions from time-to-time so that they can see how many different ways a single word or phrase can be interpreted (or misinterpreted).
    And of course, this approach works best when the teacher(s) also have some communication skills in other languages besides English!
    For the rest – spot on, especially the parts about small groups, and arguing with colleagues !
    😉

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks, Jennifer! I will grant that my translation advice isn’t as firmly supported as I’d like. It’s based on what there is of the literature – which as I’m sure you know is limited and rather anecdotal. I would argue, though, the plagiarism is something of a red herring – in that students (not just EAL!) need to be taught to avoid it completely independent of any other issue. If we do “no translation” because we think that builds skills better in the long term, but that’s leading to plagiarism, I think the fix should be teaching explicitly about plagiarism, not changing our minds about translation. However, I’ll recognize here that I’ve read the literature – but you’ve done more actual teaching!

      Your point about “let the students decide for themselves what works best for their writing” is absolutely spot on. It’s actually one of the major message of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing. Writers need toolboxes, not single prescriptions.

      Thanks very much for the feedback!

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      1. Emilie Champagne (@MissEmilieC)

        As an EAL writer, I would say that translating is a real problem and I would never recommend it. Translation and writing are different sets of skills. I do not mean someone should be coerce into writing in English, but I don’t think it will help in the long term. This discussion will prompt me to finish the text about that I was preparing for you Steve!

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  3. Jonny Velasco

    I and quite a few people in my department are trying to create a similar course. I like your syllabus, especially how the entire semester appears to build *a* paper piecemeal so they could put it together for a final product. I am totally recommending this to my department (and yes, I shall plug your book).

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      1. Sabita

        Thank you for posting the curriculum;I would like to try it in my department next academic year. I will read the book as there are references to page numbers(liked your ethical dilemma piece 🙂 It will be great to have your lecture slides .

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  4. Yvonne

    Thanks for sharing! The syllabus and assignments are really thoughtful. I think your title exercise would be especially fun to do. I attended your talk at McGill a few months ago and have been enjoying your book. I coordinate writing courses and workshops – and am moving towards more disciplinary-specific offerings, too.

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  8. Katrina Debnam

    Teaching a writing course this fall. My course is a hybrid (in person and online) so I’m not sure how much of your process I may use, but I would love to have a copy of your slides. If you are still willing to share. Will definitely pass along to others as requested 🙂

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