Teaching writing through the curriculum

Image: Writing, CC 0

I teach a scientific writing course, and I think I’m doing it wrong.

I don’t mean that I’m teaching my course wrong.  It might not be the course you’d teach, but I’m happy enough with it, and my students seem to be too.  What I mean, I guess, is that we’re doing it wrong, as a department.  That’s because I’m teaching my course to grad students and 4th year (Honours-by-thesis) undergrads – and it’s pretty easy to argue that that’s way too late.

I’ve come to understand that writing is one of the most important things we teach our undergraduates.*  And while I teach scientific writing, I think writing is also one of the most transferable things we teach. It doesn’t matter if our students never actually write a scientific paper.  What they learn, in learning to write one, will help them write anything: technical reports, letters to the editor, legal decisions, erotic fan-fiction, or whatever else their careers and avocations might take them to.  And yet here I am teaching writing just to one small class, 15 students out of the 150 or so passing through our majors each year; and here I am teaching writing to students who have already completed, or are about to complete, their degrees.

It’s not that we aren’t teaching writing earlier – we are.  We teach it piecemeal, in multiple courses – via lab reports in most of our courses with labs, and via term papers and assignments in many of the rest.  We just don’t have the faculty personpower to teach a standalone writing course to 150 majors at a time, so it winds up spread across the curriculum.  Actually, I think that’s a good thing: “spread across the curriculum” is exactly where writing (like statistics) should be.  But I think we’re only doing it halfway, and in that I think we’re very far from alone.

We’re not entirely accidental in our approach.  At least in our lab courses, we scaffold writing assignments across years: in 1st year we concentrate on Methods and Results, in 2nd year we emphasize the Discussion, and in 3rd  year we move to lab reports in the form of a complete paper. But the co-ordination across courses is minimal, and students can become frustrated by instructor inconsistency.  In year 1, someone may teach students that scientific writing should always be in the passive voice (ugh); in year 2, someone else may teach the active and penalize the use of the passive; and so it goes.  This definitely happens when I teach writing to my 4th-year students: I have to un-teach some things they’ve been taught in earlier courses; and worse, some of my students’ advisors tell them not to write the way I teach.

Writing is hard enough without making it harder with this kind of nonsense.  I think we’re missing a big opportunity to make sure that that teaching and assessment is consistent, across courses and across years. How can we do that?  Well, in my department we’ve begun to address that same issue with statistics. We got our Math dept to adopt a text we like (Whitlock and Schluter) in their 2nd-year biostatistics course – and we tell our students to keep their copy because we’ll require it again in multiple 3rd and 4th year courses.  Essentially, we’re trying to require this text for their degree program, not for a course.  Our hope is that they’ll come to know the book well, and that they’ll find it natural to consult it in any course, any time statistical issues come up.  We also hope this will help us teach statistical practice consistently across courses.

I think this is something we should do more – and you can probably guess where I’m headed.  I’d like to see us choose a writing book as a department, to adopt it in 1st year, and to tell our students to keep it.  Then every course that assigns writing can refer to it.  We’ll get consistent writing practice and assessment, and with luck we’ll get students who find it natural to refer to a well-thumbed companion throughout their degree program and beyond.

Ah, which book, you ask?  Well, you might expect me to say it should be mine.  That would be OK with me, of course – but I can’t in good conscience advocate for it.  There are many books out there, and no single one is “the best” – not even mine!  Among other books, Josh Schimel’s Writing Science is excellent; and it’s possible that a somewhat more recipe-like book like Pechenik’s Short Guide to Writing about Biology might demand less of beginning students.  Which book matters much less, I think, than the idea of adopting a single book across the curriculum.

But: I have to add one huge caveat: this is mostly hypothetical. I have not taught writing in 1st year, or been part of a curriculum that stitches writing throughout with the aid of a single assigned text.  Have you?  Does it work (or does it sound like it might work?  Please share your thoughts in the Replies.

© Stephen Heard  October 22, 2019


*^Yes, to the collective tired-but-anguished eyeroll of all my friends in the arts and humanities, who have known this forever.

6 thoughts on “Teaching writing through the curriculum

  1. dljindrich

    Another problem is that many programs don’t even have a scientific writing course at all — even one that comes too late (and I agree that 4th year is too late). However, the students that come to my classes tell me that they have had lots of guidance and courses about writing (over their entire academic career). Lack of _writing_ doesn’t seem to be the problem. The problem (as I see it) is that what is taught as “writing” is buried in guidance on _formatting_ (i.e. APA guidelines), and the most important aspects of scientific writing (logic and structure) are often not covered at all. The focus is all on the superficial, not on the structural (I extend the same critique to most of the books available — writing compelling stories or narratives will be difficult and ineffective if the underlying arguments are unclear and not strong). I created a website to try to address this problem: https://reasonedwriting.moodlecloud.com/ (more mobile friendly: http://www.reasonedwriting.com/). It’s still a bit longer than I would like… but I still use it to dramatically improve my students’ writing in my laboratory (non-writing) class. I’m interested in hearing if anyone might find it useful and/or how it can be improved…

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    1. Perlkonig

      Amen! I’m helping a number of family members as they go through master’s programs as adults and am really shocked by the weight profs seem to give to the most arbitrary of things. Ultimately, who cares if you were absolutely precise in your application of a particular citation format? If the citations are complete and consistent, then great! Actually teach the students how to argue and present the content! Model good writing for them. Give them examples of good writing. Give them opportunities to write more than a few pages.

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  2. Drew Kerkhoff

    Great post, Stephen, and I agree completely. Writing is part of being a scientist, and a citizen, so we should work to incorporate it at every level in the curriculum. In my department, writing scientific papers is a main learning goal in our intro lab courses. At the mid-level, many of us focus on writing for a more general audience. In upper level courses, the focus is on work like proposals, presentations, and still – scientific papers. In my opinion, two of the keys (at any level, and in any form) are a clear idea of audience and a focus on story/narrative. Both of these goals go beyond the nuts and bolts of active vs. passive, etc. Instead of (or in addition to) rules of thumb like “never use passive” we need to give students principles to guide their choices as authors – “what does your reader need?” and “how does this serve the story you are telling?”

    Your book and Schimel’s are both great, and I also like Writing Science in Plain English by Anne Greene.

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  3. Perlkonig

    Basic writing skills should be taught as early as possible—absolutely. But I think departmental consistency is absolutely critical. Students have enough to worry about without having to track the pet peeves and practices of each of their individual professors. When I was a student, my core program was highly consistent. The profs worked things out between themselves (sometimes visibly and heatedly), but they taught all the students the same approach. And when I was taking classes in other areas, I could really feel the chaos.

    I don’t envy your task. Professors are pretty set in their ways 🙂

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  4. Kate

    I’m currently teaching an experiential intro bio lab that mimics the research process- students write a proposal for their experiment (Intro, Hypotheses, and Methods), TA “funds” their project, they run experiments, rewrite a bit, add in Results & Discussion and turn in the final paper. Since most students will have more specific writing classes later, I provide feedback on grammar but primarily focus on 1) how to assess sources, 2) what kind of & how much content to include, and 3) how to structure that content effectively (i.e. hourglass shape). We talk a lot about content vs. style, and how they both contribute to an argument. The ability to design their own experiment is pretty interesting for most students, and I think helps keep them engaged through the long writing process.

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  5. Marco Mello

    Great post! I totally agree with you. A minimum level of departmental consistency in courses would be awesome for all key skills in the scientific career: (i) logics and rhetoric, (ii) scientific method, (iii) project design, (iv) data analysis and interpretation, (v) coding, (vi) writing, and (vii) public speaking. Those are the skills required by contemporary scientists in all disciplines, regardless of differences in the specific problems studied. I tech courses (ii), (iv), and (vii) and face the same problems as you.

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