Blog Post

The Backburner Problem

The Backburner Problem

The Backburner Problem


            My freshman STEM students gaze at me bleary-eyed without having done the reading for my college writing class. They tell me they’d all just taken their chemistry midterm. Their faces appear equally unfocused mornings after they have written a paper for me or for any other class.

Freshman stress and distraction may be as acute as university time-management, and anti-stress and anti-procrastination workshops abound. Yet, as a teacher of a humanities-themed writing course to STEM students, I’ve also noticed my students suffer from an additional particular problem, one I call the “backburner problem” for lack of any better nomenclature. They consistently place my course in last priority behind their STEM courses. Having had my courses “backburnered” for years, I have begun to grasp this situation and have developed a couple of solutions to this constant relegation of my class to the lowest status in the students’ work schedule.

Students tell me that their constant deferral of my assignments to the last possible minute occurs because their other course content is so much more “stressful” and “hard-to-learn.” They also report that since science is collaborative, they have to conform to group study schedules and review sessions of peers and tutors. Surely the same could be said of writing courses: Writing well is difficult and increasingly writing is collaborative.

Writing is different, they respond, because there are so many opportunities to improve, and they only have one shot at a STEM exam. It’s much easier to ask for an extension in a writing class or show a writing instructor a draft. Why not put it off? Lucky are those, who study in writing programs that structure assignments and teaching schedules around multiple steps in each writing process. In an ideal world, such regular intermediate writing assignments help students develop good habits of consistently writing and rewriting every project.

Some like to blame the backburner problem on freshman immaturity and excessive socialization. Some suggest that if it were as hard to get an A in college-writing as it is in organic chemistry, students would take my courses more seriously and not put off working on my assignments. Still others intimate that the threat of the pop-quiz or some other assessment to “keep students on their toes” is the best method to prevent my assignments from being relegated to the backburner. I’ve tried some of these techniques, and have played the tough “coach,” who “trains” my students to work harder for the goal. Asking students to struggle and then watching them receive rewards for learning is tried and true.

But in addition to keeping goals challenging and interesting, these days I’m thinking more about the carrot than the stick. In fact, I’d much prefer that my assignments were considered not the equal burden of chemistry, but its compliment; the kind of work that stretches the mind in another, yes perhaps more pleasurable direction. To this end I offer many shorter cumulative assignments that model the kind of writing students do in future STEM careers and elsewhere. In addition to the practice in presentations, writing abstracts, learning the language of clinical protocols and grant proposals, students also enjoy critiquing and editing already published articles in their fields. Students especially enjoy seeing how writing in supposedly polished pieces could also be improved. Having some sort of writing practice daily in class that helps them with their other university work and prepares them for the world beyond is often an attractive “carrot” for them, especially because they find themselves answering questions, solving problems and opening doors for themselves.

Students in fact understand—surely somewhat through my endless propagandizing—that writing is one of the key skills students must acquire in college. But even more importantly I see that many of my STEM students begin to realize they possess equal strengths in writing and languages, and must not allow these gifts to wither as their minds run nonstop on the science treadmill. Many often confess to me privately in hushed tones, that they always enjoyed writing and critical thinking but chose a STEM field in order to obtain more “practical” career skills.  I always affirm this choice, and suggest they add to their STEM fields some other kinds of writing experiences and courses. Most return in a quarter or year or so and ask for help to add a second major or a minor. Many of these tell me they’ve even found a way to integrate their science study and writing habits.


1 comment

Thanks Ruth I have enjoyed both your blogs on your courses. I teach biology to freshmen studying in degrees in biological science, environmental management and conservation biology and also observe that assignments requiring writing get 'backburnered', even in the science classes. As a biologist I certainly battle the perception by students that biology has nothing to do with being able to write, as much as I battle the 'there must be one right answer - this is science' misconception.
From August I will be part of a team from within my department (all scientists) delivering a compulsory unit of study in communication to second semester first years - lots of writing, talking, reflection, web2 and so on. I look forward to the chance to share the experience with you and our other HASTAC colleagues.