By Shaundrea Hirengen and Christopher J. Syrnyk –
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
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.
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.