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Thoughts on Teaching Writing Courses for STEM students

Thoughts on Teaching Writing Courses for STEM students

At a recent meeting in my college writing program, faculty presented their strategies for teaching courses with content aimed at STEM undergraduates. The strategies were prescient, offering suggestions for how to equip college writers with skills that will help them with university audiences and beyond in science or humanities professions. Sentiments, meanwhile, ranged from bright confidence to extreme doubt.  Many argued that mastery of rhetoric enabled them to evaluate any argument successfully, regardless of the content. But others wondered whether as instructors with humanities PhDs—or rather, generally without much background in the sciences—we were truly qualified to comment on STEM content. Everyone agreed that ideally STEM students would come to us to develop a professional voice for writing and presentations that will serve them in multiple public spheres, but opinions differed on how to implement this ideal.

I left the meeting with many questions: What sort of content should I offer? What sort of assignments should I teach STEM students? What depth of reading and discussion could I offer? What will my STEM students expect?

Every day I find there is more I need to know in STEM fields. As a nurse with degrees in literature and philosophy, I am ostensibly trained in both humanities and sciences, but in practice often discover that my students choose research projects with unfamiliar technical vocabulary and specialized debates, especially in computer science and engineering or with the latest biomedical research. Rhetorical skills alone will not save me here. Despite my own science background, I find I need to do more research on my own to teach a course that enables students to both strengthen rhetorical skills and also learn how to better articulate STEM content.

So far, I see that teaching rhetorical skills and analytical techniques helps STEM students grasp their respective audiences better, but merely analyzing the rhetoric of scientific topics feels insufficient to me and often leaves my students disappointed. Surely, understanding the rhetoric of healthcare or the rhetoric of climate change teaches students much about the arguments and power dynamics of science. Just as certainly, having students know which rhetorical appeal a scientist or industry member or policy-maker uses aids students understanding the art of persuasion. But rhetorical analysis is only part of the project. Students also want to engage the content as well as the language they hope to master. That is, they want to know how to write a Chemistry abstract in 100 words, discuss their products correctly and also address their Chemistry audiences properly. Likewise, in longer projects, such as a grant proposal on the FOXO3 genotype and longevity, or a research-based argument on the ethics of the newest neuro-interventional technology like optogenetics, students want to receive feedback not merely on their persuasiveness, but also on whether they are communicating properly about the content.

Students also want to use the tools we teach to be productive. For example, this winter I forwarded a notice for a summer internship in social media at a prestigious Ivy League university. Many of my STEM students shrugged: “What’s the point of a social media internship if you’re just going to analyze the media and not use it, make it, or otherwise do something with it?”

The old answer was “Well, you make and use this stuff in your STEM courses, the humanities help you learn to comment and comprehend.” This division of labor is no longer tenable. Students want to be able to use the technologies, scientific problems and formal reasoning that humanities courses require them to analyze. We have to find ways to both analyze and deploy STEM content in writing and humanities courses. Similarly, it could be possible to teach writing in STEM courses, but both scenarios require that instructors learn new material: writing instructors have to learn some science, and scientists have to learn about teaching writing.

Such efforts require not that I transform myself into a full-fledged research scientist in order to teach STEM students, but I do have to expand my skills to be conversant with scientific content so I can help prepare my students for a world where both science and rhetoric are undergoing rapid transformations. In many cases, I conserve my own humanities material and use it to reflect on STEM topics. I’ve discovered, however, that I have to drop many texts I once thought so pressing in order to teach and integrate new material, which must also remain short. After all, the course is about writing. Whatever may become of those courses with long and deep reading assignments is another complicated story, but not one that I can solve in a writing class.

Instead, my courses focus on different kinds of writing assignments and some experiments, which I'm hoping will work: having students engage in various forms of citizen science and use wikis on science topics so that they can share their research ideas with other kinds of publics. Some things about teaching STEM students are not so new at all--I continue to assign essays that require MLA and APA formats for humanities and social sciences, and others specifically for STEM fields: Concise 100 word abstracts, reports, patient histories, grant proposals, and protocols. In the end, the goal is for students to write clearly and cogently about their topics in terms of the conventions of their various disciplines and with an eye to diverse publics.



1 comment

Sarah Pittock read and made many helpful suggestions for this blog!