A scientist teaching writing

I’m teaching a first-year seminar this semester, which is quite a different sort of course for me. We’re at the halfway point in the semester, which seems like as good a time as any to reflect a bit on how it’s going.

First, some background. First-year seminars replaced the Core course we used to require of all entering students (a change I strongly supported, by the way). Under the current system, all students have to take a first-year seminar each semester of their first year. These courses cover a wide variety of topics, based on faculty interest and expertise, but they’re all supposed to have certain things in common. Perhaps the most important of these is that all seminars are “writing-intensive.”

My seminar is called “Space is Big.” It’s about how ideas about the size of the Universe have changed over time, focusing on three periods: the Copernican revolution, the early 20th century, and the present.

So what do I have to say at the halfway point?

First, reading and grading essays takes a lot of time. It’s much harder than grading problem sets and exams. This is not a surprise, of course. The most time-consuming part is writing comments on each essay. I find pretty detailed comments are necessary, both to clarify my own thinking about why I’m giving the grade I am and more importantly to give the student guidance for improvement.

There are some teaching duties we scientists have that others don’t (designing labs, for instance). When we feel like complaining about that sort of thing, we should remember how much easier we generally have it when it comes to grading. (Not that we’ll stop complaining. Complaining is one of the great joys of life. It sets us apart from the animals.)

Based on my experience so far, the main problems our students have with their writing involve organization and structure: they’re pretty good at the individual sentence level, but they sometimes have trouble combining those sentences in a coherent way. The most common serious flaw in my students’ essays is the long, rambling paragraph that contains lots of true facts in no discernible order. Other problems include unnecessary repetitiveness and puffed-up, diffuse phrases that add no meaning. (I should add that not all of my students have these problems: some of them write quite well.)

This should be reassuring to my science colleagues, some of whom are convinced that they’re not qualified to teach writing because they don’t know rules of grammar and usage. True, some science professors do get confused about grammar and usage in ways that you wouldn’t expect to see from, say, an English or history professor. (Present company, excluded, of course! I’m a bit of a usage geek, and while I have many flaws, you’re not likely to catch me in a comma splice.) But based on my experience, the main sort of help students need with their writing concern structuring an argument clearly, logically, and concisely, not misplacing apostrophes.

We as scientists are perfectly qualified to teach and evaluate writing in this sense. We spend huge amounts of our time writing and evaluating other people’s writing (papers, grant proposals, etc.). We wouldn’t have gotten anywhere in science without skill in both these areas. That’s not to say that teaching and evaluating writing is easy — for scientists or anyone else. But we can do it.

And by the way, for those who are concerned about gaps in their ability to teach grammar and usage (or other aspects of writing), the University’s Writing Center has good support for faculty and students.

This course is far more work than a “normal” course of the sort I’m used to, but on the whole it’s been fun, mostly because I get to read and think about familiar subjects in a new way. I urge my science colleagues not to be scared to try it out.

5 Responses to “A scientist teaching writing”

  1. Timothy Savage says:

    Ted, an interesting article in general, but I do have one bone to pick. Enjoying complaining does NOT separate us from the animals. Just ask my dog.

  2. Hi Tedd! (I hope that cue is enough to remind you of where you know me from?)

    Your discussion here reminds me of the class Mike Brown and I taught at UCB, more on history of astronomy, but with the same observations about writing. Except for one English major, who was a fantastic writer, almost all the students had serious problems making a coherent argument in an essay. We got stream-of-consciousness, complete lack of thesis statement, and so on — stuff that I thought would have been very solidly learned in high school.

    When I later taught a similar course at Castilleja in Palo Alto, the junior and senior high school students there were generally much, much better writers. I spent most of my time critiquing their argument — did it really convince me? did I think they interpreted the reading correctly? — as opposed to my experiences at UCB which were mostly about trying to make the students actually provide an argument at all.

  3. Ted Bunn says:

    Of course I remember you, Josh! I’d forgotten about Alex Filippenko’s insistence on spelling my name with two D’s. I assume he liked the symmetry of the name “Tedd Bunn”. I should told him when I published a paper with David Hogg, whose last name has the same pattern.

    David Schlegel and I taught a similar course at Berkeley. In fact, it was probably the exact same course number — Astro 9 as I recall. I remember similar disappointment in the UCB undergrads’ writing. I even remember noticing it in Astro 10 (the large survey course): in the little lab assignments and homework sets, they’d have to write at most a couple of sentences at a time, and a surprising number couldn’t even do that coherently.

    My students here are actually much better than that. As a small private university, we probably pay much more attention to applicants’ writing than a place like Berkeley can.

  4. Ashley says:

    I’m very surprised that no one pointed out that it is, in fact, weaseling out of things that sets us apart from the animals. Except the weasel. Is there any situation in which a Simpsons quote isn’t appropos?

  5. You talk about writing comments on each essay. Which is very important to justify to the student the grade they receive!

Leave a Reply