Two More Cultures: Or, Fostering a Writing Culture at a STEM University

Uncategorized / Monday, September 12th, 2016

By Shaundrea Hirengen and Christopher J. Syrnyk –

Christopher sporting vintage Wisconsin fan hat (photo by the author).
Christopher Syrnyk, a UW-Madison Writing Center alum, is an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition and director of the University Honors Program at Oregon Tech.
Shaundrea and her dog Sampson (photo by author).
Shaundrea Hirengen, an alumna of the George Fox University Writing Center, is starting her second year as the coordinator of Oregon Tech’s Peer Consulting Center.

Shaundrea and I sat down to talk before the start of Fall term (Oregon Tech is on a quarter system, and the academic year starts at the end of September) about how we can do more to foster writing culture, through good writing center practices at our Peer Consulting Center, and how, in doing so, we can connect our campus. By “writing culture” we had in mind all the ways to use writing to refocus student work, to help students process an idea, and even how to refine and revise an orientation to thinking about a product they are diligently working to figure out or produce. About our Peer Consulting Center, Shaundrea has this to say: “The Peer Consulting Center at Oregon Tech is unique for a number of reasons. We are a predominantly STEM university, so the majority of students who make use of our services come to work on math, physics, chemistry, and engineering courses, but also writing. However, our mission is to support, guide, and help students develop the skills and knowledge necessary to build a solid foundation in all of their courses. Our tutors are a well rounded and eclectic group of students—Mechanical Engineering majors who dabble in biology and Computer Science Engineering Technology majors who write fiction.

Prologue: How It’s Done

Peer consultant and student discussing and writing about calculus assignment (photo courtesy of Oregon Tech Marketing Department).
Peer consultant and student discussing and writing about calculus assignment (photo courtesy of Oregon Tech Marketing Department).

Those who know British novelist and scientist C. P. Snow’s 1959 Rede lecture, “The Two Cultures,” which later became the first part of his book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, know something of Snow’s problematic thesis. Snow argues that there exists a split between the sciences and the humanities which, he asserts, dominates the western intellectual tradition. Today, a variety of cultural splits play out in many complex cultural situations, for example, the problem of the qualitative versus the quantitative in a university education, the problem of how to value what is necessary to forge a career and what is necessary to forge a citizen, or the cultural split, we could add, between the product orientation and the process orientation at a predominantly undergraduate STEM university, like our university, Oregon Tech.

Those in the know, and who regularly read Another Word, however, will be highly rewarded to recall Mattie Burkert’s engaging post “What Two Cultures? Helping Tutors Cross Disciplines,” and also Ambar Meneses-Hall’s thorough and insightful post “Where the Humanities Meet the Sciences: The Impact of Writing Center Instruction on Students in the Sciences and Their Careers.” Both of these fine posts take up engaging questions of tutoring writers across disciplines, in particular in the sciences, how writing center pedagogy and writing center instructors can support all manner of science writing and research, and how a writing center supports a diverse faculty to improve the writing in their courses and majors.

The Process Culture and The Product Culture

The purpose of this post, however, concerns how to foster the relationship between two related cultures at a STEM university: the process culture and the product culture. In particular, how can writing center pedagogy, as practiced at a Peer Consulting Center (where students also receive tutoring and instruction in physics, economics, electrical engineering, and health sciences, just to name a few topics) contribute to bring these two cultures together? To those well-versed in writing center work, the answers will be thought of as a constellation of possibilities. To those who are more intent on promoting a rigorous product-focused culture that often shapes the classrooms of a STEM-oriented university, the answers might need to be, well, processed. During our conversation, Shaundrea illustrated the disconnect of how students approach their science tutoring sessions and how they approach writing tutoring sessions: “Students literally spend hours in the center laboring over white boards and dry erase desks covered in mathematical equations, working through the process to solve for ‘x.’ But when a student comes to the center for writing help, it’s a stressed and plaintive plea of, ‘Can I just get a quick grammar check?’ This request makes my English Major’s heart sink because I am reminded more and more that the current writing culture on campus is one centered on product rather than process.” Shaundrea and I know, of course, that this is only part of the description of the writing culture on our campus. Thus, the question that guided much of our thinking during our conversations was how to encourage a similar orientation toward writing, and how to bring more writing into the other tutoring processes, and ultimately the courses taught at Oregon Tech.

Shaundrea brainstorming a tech report topic with a student (photo courtesy of Oregon Tech Marketing Department).
Shaundrea brainstorming a tech report topic with a student (photo courtesy of Oregon Tech Marketing Department).

The process-focused culture, to be sure, is also well represented at our university. It’s clear from Oregon Tech faculty that they value the process and what is produced. Regardless of whether it is a tech report about Mineral Admixtures for High Performance Concrete or a humanities paper on whether androids really do dream of electric sheep, the faculty and students truly care about their education and their work. The challenge as we see it, that we contemplate at Oregon Tech, then, is not simply how to bridge a kind of orientation toward a curriculum that values various products (a report, a bridge, an electric sheep) with writing center pedagogies that encourage process (drafting a technical report, designing and redesigning a bridge plan, thinking deeply about machines that think). Part of the challenge is how to connect the best thinking of both cultures into a unified effort to approach a curriculum and course objectives, sound teaching and student work.

There are wonderful faculty initiatives that support these unified efforts. Last summer, for example, 11 Oregon Tech faculty and I, all from different departments, applied for and received a grant to participate in the 2015 POGIL Northwest Regional Workshop. POGIL is the acronym for a teaching strategy and philosophy, Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning, which is supported by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education, the Hach Scientific Foundation, and the Toyota USA Foundation. As a strategy and philosophy, and one with a rather pronounced oral and written communication component, it promotes a more rigorous and regular process orientation to teaching in the sciences. (As the lone communication professor at this rather large regional workshop, I must confess I was relieved to feel right at home with this kind of pedagogy.) Thus, there are even campus-wide efforts to foster a more process-oriented, if not project-oriented, culture.

Shaundrea, though, notes how it is still common to hear faculty focus on the need for a polished product: “As one faculty member said, ‘The key things I want in the papers from my students is that they be clear, clean, and concise.’ Which is an entirely reasonable request. About the writing culture here on campus, this same faculty member said that it is ‘focused on technical writing. It is about getting things done for an assignment (and later a job), but not to write for pleasure.’ I think we (Learning Centers, Writing Centers, tutors, staff, faculty) have the responsibility to change that perception so that students can take pleasure in the process.” My response to Shaundrea is that I think there is more to gain from refocusing student learning to the satisfaction to be gained from thinking equally about the process and the product, or comprehensively about a project. But, yes, there can even be an appreciable degree of pleasure derived from the experience of doing good, intellectually rigorous, and rewarding professional work.

The challenge at Oregon Tech, thought of otherwise, is how to achieve the goal of bringing these two cultures more into alignment with each other: how to meld these two cultures into a process-product culture, or perhaps project culture, and how can effective writing center pedagogy as practiced by our Peer Consulting Center support this goal.

A Project Culture

Perhaps we need to think in more culturally combinatory terms: perhaps we need to foster a project-oriented culture at STEM universities, a project culture that places more emphasis on writing and how writing can help almost any process, at any stage of the process. By this, I mean instead of only trying to connect process with product, or substitute one kind of thinking for the other, perhaps we should consider what it means to think more in complementary terms of a project. We are, after all, as an institution, concerned with the overarching project of a comprehensive education for students, as much as we are engaged in the projects to which they dedicate their time. This is a complex problem. Then again, students at STEM universities are driven by projects that ask them to solve complex problems. Then again, projects seem to suggest more collaborative work. Whether that collaboration is between professors, or industry professionals, and students, among students, or students and peer consultants, or all of the above, thinking in terms of a project culture might promote a greater understanding of how people make a process into a product, through writing, through calculation, and through complex considerations over the stages of a project, which always happen over a period of time.

Epilogue: To Do!

What is happening at Oregon Tech is very much the proverbially project in progress. But Shaundrea and I devised a list of goals, a kind of guiding “to do” list for this term. For instance, Shaundrea explained “the training I am doing with our writing tutors this year is going to be a process based approach which will yield a better product.” This ongoing training will begin to address how we can use writing center pedagogy to promote, if fortunate, more process oriented thinking across the tutoring spectrum, and even across the campus.

About lists. Experts who try to help perpetual list makers say that it’s best to limit any “to do” list to three items. Of the three, only one item should be thought of as essential. And when considering the one item, it should not be thought that the world will come to an end if it does not get done right away. Here is our list of three starter ideas for tutors, training, and for students and faculty. What would you contribute?

  1. Focus peer consulting sessions on a process orientation: Whether it’s writing or chemistry or calculus, try to separate work into meaningful stages of a fully conceived whole process. Additionally, match the point in the process with reasonable time expectations. Sometimes students are in a rush, under a deadline to finish a project or assignment: if they have time, and if you can teach them about the value of taking time, then strive not to rush, and take the time. As tutors, you can also use writing to help students understand the stages of what they are trying to achieve. Good writing center pedagogy allows for time to discuss a process, for a process to unfold, and also to write about any part of a process. Students are well served when they are encouraged to talk and write about the process they are undertaking to figure out a step, an introduction, a whole assignment, or an equation, or transition, really any learning object that can be seen for how its parts relate to a whole. Thus, when tutoring, peer consultants can work to guide students to think about the process of their assignment rather than to be focused on completing their product.
  2. Make take time during consultations to consider student growth: In order to understand how they are growing as scholars and career professionals, students need to see themselves as a part of many processes in the whole project of their education. Thus, rather than simply “getting something done,” I like to see students “get into their work.” Reflective writing on how a student’s understanding has changed over a term can be useful to gauge progress and to figure out where gaps in understanding still exist. Reflective writing during a peer consulting session can also allow students to consider how they are working to achieve their educational and professional goals. Writing about one’s progress in a peer consulting session can therefore be useful as a means to consider how students’ learning is affecting their own intellectual and professional growth as people.
  3. Teach students to value time on task—or “writing time”: In composition classes, I’m often working with the lesson of time and writing. Even though the speed and processing power of almost anything we do with technology has increased exponentially, and continues to increase as I type this (something often keenly felt at a tech university), writing, as a technology, still seems to take as long as it needs to take. The process of being able to work in “writing time” is an important part of any thinking process, and it can be extended to thinking about how long it takes students to work out any part of a process, from the sciences to the humanities.

Shaundrea and I would like to hear your ideas for teaching process, tutor training, including tutor training across disciplines, and working with faculty across campus in order to foster a greater sense of writing culture.

*Featured photo courtesy of Oregon Tech Marketing Department.

7 Replies to “Two More Cultures: Or, Fostering a Writing Culture at a STEM University”

  1. Thank you for this wonderful post, Christopher (and for the shout-out!). I have often felt that the product/process binary constrains our thinking — surely both are important — and so I am deeply appreciative for your synthesis of the two in project-oriented thinking. This iterative movement between process- and product-oriented approaches is how so much of my own scholarship and teaching actually take place, and it’s wonderful to have a new way of talking about that with students. In fact, this piece has inspired me to be more explicit with my British Literature class this semester about how their small assignments are part of a larger project, and to talk intentionally with them about not only writing process for each paper, but the workflow of the project as a whole.

  2. I love this post – although I’m no longer at a STEM-focused university (I spent one year at a polytechnic and wish I could have read this back then!), I really appreciate the way that you both draw attention to the problem of thinking in terms of product vs. process because it’s helping me to frame some of the goals that I have for myself this year.

    Last year I started an undergraduate research journal (for the humanities and social sciences) with the hope that it would not only promote undergraduate writing across campus, but provide a forum for writers from diverse disciplines and, hopefully, put them into a kind of conversation with one another. One of the students whose work was published in the first issue recently told me that he was pleasantly surprised by how much he had gotten out of the review process. He said that he had initially been surprised that his reader report had contained so much feedback, especially since a lot of the feedback made suggestions for further revisions. Yet, he came to appreciate the fact that his essay, which he had written for a class (he’d received an “A” on it), needed more work. And he started to see that he could do so much more with it and push the ideas further, which he wouldn’t have considered previously since he’d already gotten an A and finished the class. I was obviously delighted to hear this from the student, but this post really makes me see in greater detail how this journal can help to transform the writing culture on my campus – when you write, ‘rather than simply “getting something done,” I like to see students “get into their work”‘ I realize that although the journal seems to highlight product (these are the best examples of undergraduate research writing on campus), it is not simply about a product. It’s asking the faculty (who do the first blind review) and the students to “get into their work” beyond what is asked of them in the classroom. As students work toward that end product (being published), we need to do as much as we can to engage them in the process so that they shift more of their attention to it. In this case, I do think that the focus on an end product draws students in to the process, and the task we face now is how we might grow that experience of process for them.

  3. What a thoughtful, insightful, and useful post. Thanks for sharing, Christopher.

    I’m going to pick up on Taryn’s remarks and suggest another to-do: Create forums — outside of class — to publish student work.

    Here at the Writing Program at the University of Denver, we put on an annual spring showcase of student work called COMPosium, where students present their work in a variety of ways: some read portions of it; others make poster presentations; some create clever audiovisual displays; etc. The students who participate are typically first-years enrolled in the second course of our two-course writing sequence. The work that they showcase is usually work in progress from that class, and presenting it is often either a class requirement or an extra-credit opportunity.

    A couple of years ago, however, I taught that second course out of sequence, in winter, and so, in spring, I invited several of those winter-term students to present their winter-term work in the spring showcase. I thought that I might get, at best, a couple of yeses: I mean, who wants to create more work for themselves by revisiting old work for zero credit, right? To my surprise, everyone I invited accepted. Indeed, they were happy to take part. Each of them met with me more than once to revise, repurpose, or otherwise reimagine a paper they’d turned in the previous term. And their new efforts were terrific. They worked really, really hard to retool the previous term’s to suit this new context.

    The experience made me realize that opportunities to create new products for new contexts and audiences can lead students to engage in new and, often, more complex processes, in particular when their efforts are self-sponsored. The students I discuss above were no longer writing papers for a grade for a class, i.e., for me, the teacher who grades them — for many, a familiar product aimed at an all-too familiar audience, generated via a prescribed process, and whose purpose is simply a grade. But this new opportunity enlivened product and process alike. With their work no longer tied to a grade and addressed, ultimately, to the audience of the teacher, “old” writing became new and exciting again; indeed, newer and more exciting than when they’d first started it the term before.

    I think that Writing Centers are uniquely suited to creating these kinds of opportunities for self-sponsored publication, which, in my experience, can foster students to engage in new processes and create new product at the same time.

    John Tiedemann
    Teaching Associate Professor
    University Writing Program
    University of Denver

  4. I’d like to echo Mattie’s note about project-oriented thinking being a useful synthesis of the product/process binary that too often confines our thinking about student learning— and our own development as writers. I’m thinking too about your second item on the to-do list–about making time during consultations to consider student growth–as a site for project-oriented thinking to take hold in a particularly useful way. Specifically, I can imagine working to help students take ownership of the project of their development as writers, helping them see stages and important transition points in the trajectory of their undergraduate studies. Given the competing demands on students’ time and the necessity for them to shift rapidly from doing homework assignments in one class to completing assignments for another class, it’s often difficult to see how even a single semester’s work charts a path of progress toward one’s goals. By talking with students about writing development as a project, I think we might be able to help those apparently disparate, unrelated writing experiences to snap into focus as part of a movement toward greater complexity and refinement. Thanks for this, Christopher!

    Matthew Capdevielle
    Associate Professor of the Practice, University Writing Program
    Director of the Writing Center
    University of Notre Dame

  5. My campus isn’t a STEM-centered school, but it is the American University in Cairo. Engineering and medicine are the most respected career paths here in Egypt. There’s even an upscale neighborhood in Cairo called Mohandiseen, which literally means “Engineers.”

    Some of this is the familiar, and familial, pressures on students to pick something that will get them a job, the tech-centeredness of a lot of global discourse, etc. Combine that with the global South’s gospel of economic and technical development and the underdevelopment of cultural institutions, and you have an environment that’s not the most receptive to humanities teaching and writing pedagogy.

    So I think a lot about how to bridge the cultures. I need to find ways to appeal to budding engineers, and to give my English and Comparative Lit majors appeals to use on their parents. Process versus product is one way to do it, selling literary study and writing as tools for living well. For seeing more clearer and loving more dearly, etc. But another approach was handed to me by a student.

    He was studying computer science, but had a passion for literature. One day in my office, he wondered aloud why the study of computer programming gets the label “science”: “It’s not really about observing the world and drawing conclusions from what you find at all. It gives you useful tools to do that, but coding is morel like math, logic, rhetoric. It’s about arranging symbols. It’s more like what we do in Shakespeare than Biology.”

    And that’s a useful bridge right there. Much of what gets lumped into STEM, especially fields like mathematics, computer science, etc, is about symbol manipulation, about taking various languages and learning how to make them do things. And scientists and engineers need words as much as they need numbers. Hypotheses are still words, and the shape of the words shapes the experiment that emerges.

    That strikes me as the best approach for getting students to value writing. It’s not merely instrumental, but embedded in every field already. We’re never free of language. We live in it like fish live in water. Understand that, and you’ll be better at the sciences too.

  6. Thank you for this terrific post!

    As a former coordinator for the UW-Madison Outreach program and a current Assistant Director of the Madison Undergraduate Fellows Program, I’m struck by the portability of a focus on a project culture. In both my former and current position, I’ve regularly been given the chance to talk about writing skills in STEM contexts, and even when the lessons have been tailored for the audience, I’ve often forgotten the extent to which I take a process focus for granted. I can remember moments when I’ve lost audience, because I didn’t remember that that way of talking about value didn’t automatically translate.

    I think this framework will be particularly useful for our undergrad fellows from STEM backgrounds, as well as those from humanities backgrounds working in STEM classes. As you’ve said, complex problem solving is already happening on both side, and they just need more tools to bridge the conceptual gap.

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