Mattie Burkert is the T.A. Coordinator of Outreach for the Writing Center at UW-Madison, where she has been a tutor since 2011. She is also a Ph.D. candidate in Literary Studies.
Imagine you’re a writing tutor with no background in biology. A student comes to meet with you in the Writing Center about a draft describing the process of obtaining lysates for an experiment, like the example in the image above. What do you do when faced with this material? Do you admit that you don’t know the first thing about what lysates are and why they might be useful? How can you look beyond these unfamiliar terms to identify and respond to the larger intellectual and rhetorical work the writer is doing?
Every Writing Center wants to help tutors feel comfortable crossing disciplines, and just as importantly, we want to develop and maintain productive partnerships with colleagues in other departments and programs. One way our Writing Center tries to meet both of these goals is through our Outreach program. Every year, staff from our Writing Center are invited to over 150 classrooms, workshops, and events across campus, where we co-teach writing lessons customized for particular disciplines and specific writing tasks. Having had the privilege of serving on our Writing Center’s Outreach staff for the past two years—including coordinating the program this year—I am deeply invested in the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration for teaching writing. Working with colleagues in other fields helps us draw on their expertise about the forms of communication that carry value in their fields, developing knowledge we can bring back to the Writing Center, while also sharing what we know about writing process and pedagogy. Tutors who work in our Outreach program get first-hand experience designing and leading writing lessons with faculty and instructors from across the university, which develops their awareness of conventions in different fields and their confidence crossing disciplines. But beyond the Outreach staff, we want to find ways to help all of our tutors develop this confidence and awareness, so that they can use it in their one-to-one appointments with individual writers.
So, how do we develop training that moves beyond the superficial and draws on the expertise of our partners across campus? One model for tutor education is to incorporate it into staff meetings, building on discussions that begin in our initial training seminar. For example, our November staff meeting featured a panel of faculty members in the social sciences: Tina Winston from the Department of Psychology; Michael Massoglia from the Department of Sociology; and Tracy Schroepfer from the School of Social Work. All three of these guest speakers shared information about the expectations for undergraduate writing in their respective programs, as well as the ways that each department incorporates writing into the curriculum.
Another model for training is that of the Ongoing Education seminars we run each semester, which offer an opportunity for a small group of tutors to engage more deeply with a specific set of questions or materials over the course of multiple meetings. In this post, I discuss an Ongoing Education that we held this spring to increase tutors’ understanding of writing in the sciences. Of course, science writing is not the only kind of writing that tutors need to learn about, but our tutors come largely from Ph.D. programs in Composition-Rhetoric and Literary Studies, and they often express a desire to better understand and more effectively address the specific challenges that face advanced writers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In response to this need, Nancy Linh Karls—our Science-Writing Specialist, who directed a Writing Center in Health Sciences at the University of Colorado-Denver before coming to Madison—invited me to help her design and lead a two-part workshop series for a group of 10 participating tutors. We called it “Beyond the Two Cultures: Strategies for Working with STEM Writers,” a nod to C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959), an oft-cited (and oft-criticized) characterization of the split between the sciences and the humanities.
Session 1: Starting in the Writing Center
In advance of our first meeting on February 14, Nancy and I asked the participating tutors to prepare by reading the first three chapters of Joshua Schimel’s wonderful book Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded (Oxford University Press, 2011). We also asked them to watch this TEDx talk by Judy Swan, Associate Director for Writing in Science and Engineering in the Princeton Writing Program, as well as excerpts from presentations by Laura Hogan, Science Editor for the Institute for Clinical and Translational Research (ICTR) at UW-Madison.
At the first meeting, the group discussed the principles of scientific writing outlined by Schimel, Swan, and Hogan, and compared them to characteristics of writing in the humanities and social sciences. Nancy and I invited participating tutors to reflect on connections they saw to their own experiences working with science writers in the Writing Center. We talked about the usefulness of models when working with unfamiliar genres or disciplines. We also talked about how to respect writers’ content expertise, while recognizing that we have certain kinds of expertise as Writing Center tutors. For instance, we are skilled at analyzing models rhetorically and helping writers learn to make the “moves that matter” in specific contexts; in addition, we bring to every appointment a deep understanding of writing as a process. After compiling a list of principles for working with writers in the sciences, we reviewed a sample draft of a grant application abstract and discussed how we would approach this draft during a one-on-one session with the writer.
Session 2: A Trip Across Campus
Our second session was a field trip to the Health Sciences part of our campus on March 7 to meet with Dr. Laura Hogan, the science editor for ICTR. Before the meeting, the tutors sent along questions for Laura to consider ahead of time. Their questions had to do with the vocabulary scientists use to talk about writing and writing process, the common challenges that face early-career scientists learning to communicate with their research communities, the workflow of writing in the sciences (especially collaboratively written papers and grants), and the specific kinds of help science writers might be looking for from a Writing Center tutor. She generously offered insights based on her experience as a researcher in Cellular and Molecular Biology, as well as her work editing grants and manuscripts and running writing workshops at ICTR.
Much of her message was reassuring, reinforcing ideas that are central to Writing Center practice. For instance, she noted that many scientists go into research not realizing how important writing will be to their success, so they often first learn to think of themselves as writers in graduate school; as tutors, we can help these researchers become more aware of their own processes and identity as writers. In addition, although tutors are sometimes daunted by the vocabularies of unfamiliar fields, she reminded us that no one can know all the methods and literature even in all subfields of a single discipline; nonetheless, smart generalist readers with rhetorical awareness are useful responders, especially to sections like the abstract and discussion that do the work of framing and contextualizing the more technical sections (such as the methods and results). Finally, she emphasized that research writers need multiple readers, and encouraged us to be sure that advanced writers are not only bringing their work into the Writing Center, but also showing it to faculty advisors and mentors. On the whole, she offered concrete advice for positioning ourselves as part of a larger ecosystem of readers that advanced research writers should be drawing on for different kinds of feedback.
Science Writing as Storytelling
A theme across both of our discussions was the idea of science writing as “storytelling.” This is a key idea in Schimel’s book, but by “storytelling,” Schimel doesn’t mean fictionalizing one’s work, creating dramatic characters, or crafting beautiful imagery. Rather, he emphasizes that, like all good stories, the best scientific papers are engaging, surprising, and unexpected; they ignite the reader’s curiosity by highlighting the knowledge gap that drives the current research; and they are deliberately and self-consciously crafted efforts, rather than mere “write-ups” that happen after the real intellectual work is done. Judith Swan takes on the issue of science writing as storytelling from a slightly different angle in her TEDx talk; she talks about how the passive voice in methods sections allows the materials to be the main characters of the story, without the unnecessary syntactic intrusion of human agency.
As tutors, we’re often helping writers figure out what story they’re telling, but there are real risks to using terms like “story,” “genre,” or “narrative” that can connote fictionality, fabrication, or creativity rather than objectivity. I recently experienced these risks during one of my Outreaches, at a WARF Discovery Challenge Seminar on scientific writing. I had the opportunity to present alongside Joan Jorgensen, a Professor in the Department of Comparative Biosciences, on the principles of argumentation and storytelling that can help scientists develop successful grant proposals. During the Q&A, one member of the audience asked us whether scientists who approach their work as storytelling could end up obscuring rather than clarifying the subject matter by manipulating the reader’s focus. He wondered, in other words, if the idea of scientific writing as a story opened up the door to deception. In that context, Joan and I were able to clarify the difference between scientific “stories” and fictional ones, but the exchange was a useful reminder that this terminology might not click with all audiences.
We talked about this risk in the first meeting of our Ongoing Education seminar, but we also learned in our second session that Laura uses the same approach when working with researchers at ICTR. One participating tutor, Rubén, later commented that he was “surprised to hear Laura Hogan use the word ‘story’ in talking about how she coached and helped writers make sense of reviewer feedback.” Like Schimel, Laura has a background as a research scientist, so she understands deeply the values that drive scientific communication, and she finds the idea of “storytelling” useful despite its connotations. The term serves as a reminder that research writing appeals to the same sense of curiosity—and follows the same arc of exposition, conflict, and resolution—that underpins good stories.
Our discussions around this specific word, “storytelling,” also reminded tutors of the need to define the vocabulary we use when talking to people in other disciplines, remembering that the terms we sometimes take for granted in the Writing Center are not universally recognized. In his reflection on the Ongoing Education, Rubén remarked: “it’s gotten me to think more carefully about the meta-talk I use when working with writers.” Just as a tutor without training in biology may need to ask a writer to explain what a “lysate” is, we should also remember to define our specialist vocabularies—terms like “rhetorical situation,” “genre,” “signposting,” and yes, “story”—when crossing disciplines.
Do you have thoughts on tutor education in writing across the disciplines? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!