What Type of Writing
Is Best for Your Science Course?
By Mark Crane & Mike Jackman
When preparing a writing-intensive science course, instructors may find themselves concerned about what kinds of writing are appropriate to teach. Should general writing skills, disciplinary facts and concepts, thinking and writing like scientists, or the unique elements of the writing of a particular science be emphasized?
It is not easy to resolve these conflicts. The WR staff recently discussed the difficulty with Greg Myers, Professor of Linguistics and Modern English Languages at Lancaster University, UK. Myers researches science writing of all kinds, including in his study such disparate genres as the journal article, grant proposal, and popular science article. His research insights can help science teachers choose appropriate writing for their courses.
Myers found some general writing strategies quite useful. Perhaps the most valuable is teaching a writing process of drafting, revising, and getting comments in the form of peer and mentor feedback. It is broadly acknowledged that a social writing process is a fundamental disciplinary activity. Myers believes that something more than acceptable scientific writing emerges from the process; scientific facts themselves “emerge from the processes of writing and revising, of responding to criticisms and suggestions from editors and referees, and of rewriting scientific papers for a broader audience.” Exposing students to a writing process may be the best way to introduce them to the nature of scientific investigation. By using this general technique, students are not just learning to "do writing," they are learning to "do science."
Faculty mentorship of students is especially important at this stage, for the "doing of science" is where faculty excel. Faculty should be confident in their abilities to articulate their concerns about student writing projects. Myers' research subjects, biologists and physicists, "are very self-conscious and reflective about their writing.… They're usually aware of the structure of an article in their field, what sort of evidence is persuasive, what sort of presentation is persuasive, down to simple things, such as how to use quotations, which varies from discipline to discipline."
In courses where content is emphasized, Myers points out the problem that students can be "exposed to a view of science in which things are just a set of facts to be memorized." Yet the exigencies of undergraduate education may make this approach to a science class desirable. As always, "whether it's better for…[faculty] to teach the textbook view of things most of the time, that's for them to decide."
However, the textbook approach contrasts with the way faculty themselves experience science. "The teachers are working on articles and proposals where they know that things are up for grabs, that there are many contingencies at work." Faculty, once becoming aware of the difference, may prefer to discuss more about the process of doing science. Myers would like "to see a bit more of that brought in as a possibility."
Another exigency is to make science palatable for students, often accomplished by using popularizations such as articles from Scientific American. Yet popularizations don't indicate how to do writing acceptable to the field. They are couched "in everyday examples that will strike people.… Linguistically it's completely different." Myers advises, "If you want to engage with the writing of one of these fields…you have to be much more specific about the discipline."
As experts, disciplinary instructors should be confident they can articulate the writing in their disciplines and decide which pedagogy is best. Myers' research insights can help science instructors choose from among different writing assignments that promote different views of science and accomplish different thinking and learning tasks
Myers is the author of Writing Biology: Texts in the Social Construction of Science and Words in Ads, and has contributed to such journals as Social Studies of Science, Written Communication, Applied Linguistics, College English, Science in Context, Journal of Pragmatics, History of Science, Science, Technology and Human Values, ESP Journal, and Discourse Processes.
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