I’ve just finished the 3rd go-around of my Scientific Writing course. When I first signed up to teach it, I was very scared, but now that I’ve been through it a few times, I’m quite pleased with how it worked out.
After the first offering, I posted my syllabus and other materials, and quite a few folks found that useful. But I’ve polished and improved the course, so today I’m posting an updated set. I’m also including some notes about adapting the course to online delivery – something I had involuntary experience with this year, as most of us did!
My course is open to both 4th-year Honours undergraduate students and graduate students, but they meet together and do the same assignments. They also tend to perform similarly. The course uses a mix of short lectures, small-group workshop exercises, and writing assignments. The assignments are mostly organized around the writing (by each student) of a single journal paper. For many students, that paper is their Honours thesis (for the undergraduates) or a thesis chapter (for the graduate students).* Despite this primary focus on the journal paper, a lot of the course is relevant to writing more broadly, and the course also includes content on science outreach (both written and for broadcast media).
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 use my own book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, as a text. (A bit about how I navigate the ethics of this here.) However: if you don’t like The Scientist’s Guide, another good option is Josh Schimel’s Writing Science. Most of the lectures correspond closely to material in The Scientist’s Guide. That lets me partially flip the classroom, keeping the lectures short and using more time for workshopping. The workshop exercises are mostly adapted from the end-chapter exercises in The Scientist’s Guide.
- The blend of lecture and workshop really works. We have two 80-minute meetings each week. I use the first 25 minutes or so for a lecture, leaving about 55 minutes for a workshop (see syllabus and workshop list, below).
- Students do the workshop exercises in groups of 3-4 (and most days, we reserve a few minutes for comparing notes among groups). I’ve had grad students and undergrads in different groups or mixed together; both work fine. Small-group discussions are very effective in a writing course. This is partly because deliberate discussion of writing habits and techniques with peers goes a long way to establishing that (1) writing challenges are shared, and (2) thinking and talking about those challenges helps writers overcome them.
- I include two guest lectures from my university’s librarians: one on literature searching and reference management, and one on “deep reading”. University librarians are, in my experience, eager to help with teaching; I strongly recommend involving them in a writing course (or, for that matter, in any other course).
- I limit enrolment to around 16, and given my other commitments that’s all I can handle without TAs or a co-instructor. 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. The workshops scale very easily to larger groups, but the assignments don’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. However, co-instructors or very experienced TAs could share the assignment load.
- It’s an extremely rewarding course for me. I work hard – but I see students working just as hard, and I see it pay off in writing progress. Do 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 give some early-career writers confidence that they can tackle writing and improve at it.
Moving the course online:
The Covid-19 pandemic forced the last ¼ of the 2020 course to move entirely online. The good news? Turns out that a writing course is well suited for online delivery – pandemic or not.
- The lectures moved very easily to asynchronous online delivery. (I recorded them using Microsoft Teams and uploaded them to our LMS, but there are many alternatives.). If I was doing the whole course online from the start, though, I’d hold some limited synchronous meetings, especially at the start, to build a sense of course community and to set up the workshop groups.
- The workshops (all but one) worked very well in what I’d call a small-group-synchronous format. The students completed the workshops in small groups, at the time of their choice (before a weekly deadline) and using the meeting technology of their choice (some used Facebook Messenger, some FaceTime, some Zoom…). The workshops use some material posted in the LMS (copies of papers, etc.) plus routine office supplies like highlighters and scissors that students had at home. Each group sent me their workshop product electronically; when the workshop involved a physical product like a highlighted or cut-up printed paper, they simply snapped a cell-phone photo and sent me that.
- The one workshop that wouldn’t adapt as easily to small-group-synchronous-online is a mock radio interview. In 2020, I skipped that one (because we lost a week of instruction); but if the course were online, it’s the one workshop I’d do fully synchronously. That’s because the students really enjoy being the audience, and it builds a sense of community.
- The assignments were already submitted, commented, and graded online, so no change was needed there.
In summary: if you’d like to (or if you have to) teach online, Scientific Writing is easy to adapt.
Would you like my materials?
If you’re teaching a similar course and would like my materials, then go ahead: “steal” this syllabus! You’re welcome to use anything verbatim, or to modify as you’d like.
Would you like a complete set of lecture slides? Just email me and I’ll steer you to them.
Find more information about the course text, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.
© Stephen Heard May 26, 2020 (but syllabus licensed CC0; workshops and assignments licensed CC BY-NC 4.0)
Image: Writing, CC0 by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels.com
*^And if there’s one apparently unsolvable problem with the course, that’s where it arises: because supervisors suggest that their students take my course, but then refuse to accept the writing practices the students learn there.