By Ambar Meneses-Hall
Ambar Meneses-Hall has been a Writing Center tutor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since fall of 2015. She is also a PhD candidate and dissertator in English literary studies, with a focus on American and African American Literature.
“I believe that the work that we do changes lives,” says Amy Huseby, an experienced writing tutor and Outreach Coordinator for the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
As another Writing Center tutor and student I could not agree more. Amy has many good stories about the positive impact that Writing Center instruction has on UW students from all majors and walks of life, but one in particular stands out. Amy has worn many hats at the Writing Center; she has been a Skype instructor, an e-mail instructor, an Outreach instructor, and a Main Center and Satellite instructor. She is currently the Coordinator for the Writing Center Outreach program. Here is the story that will melt any cynic’s heart:
In 2014 Amy met Kathy* (not her real name) as a Skype tutor. Kathy wanted to apply to Pharmacy School but was feeling discouraged because she was a non-traditional applicant, being older and having left school a while ago. Kathy lived far away from campus and was caring for her elderly mother. Amy not only helped her prepare her application materials, but also encouraged Kathy to persevere. Kathy overcame her insecurities and applied to Pharmacy School. Amy did not hear from Kathy for a while. At the end of the following summer, Amy was at an orientation for incoming students where she was sitting at a Writing Center Outreach table to inform new students of the Writing Center’s services. There, Kathy noticed Amy and came up to her, telling her “You were there for me throughout my application process, helping me prepare my materials. How fitting that I should meet you here, at my orientation.”
Amy’s work had a life-changing impact upon this student, literally affecting the make-up of the incoming cohort for the UW Pharmacy School in 2015.
The thing is; the above story is not exceptional. Rather, it is representative of the work that goes on daily at the UW-Writing Center.
Goal of This Blog Post
In this blog post I seek to raise awareness about the impact that writing instructors from the Writing Center have on UW-Madison science students, their writing, and even their careers. By science students I mean students in the “hard” sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), but also students in interdisciplinary fields that combine humanistic approaches with scientific methods: for example, students in Clinical Psychology. Below I have quoted various writing center instructors and STEM students’ describing their experiences of working on science writing at the Writing Center. In so doing this post hopes to combat the subtle but persistent prejudice that sees the humanities, especially the work of English and Composition, as fundamentally separated from the work of “the hard sciences,” by a vast, insurmountable gulf. Moreover, I hope to combat the pernicious notion that a writing center is only for remedial writers; writing centers work with both experienced and inexperienced student writers at the undergraduate and graduate level.
As Amy’s anecdote above illustrates, the Writing Center at UW-Madison reaches students in all fields through different access points: the Main Center, Satellite Locations, Skype and E-mail Instruction, workshops, and Outreach instruction in classrooms across campus. Moreover, through these access points Writing Center instructors are there for students every step of the way; we help UW undergraduate students through their applications for graduate programs, often at the UW-Madison, and continue to support them through their coursework, thesis and research writing, while they attend graduate school at the UW-Madison. Finally, we help students finishing up their undergraduate and graduate degrees prepare their job applications, postdoctoral applications, as well as applications to faculty and research positions at prestigious universities.
Just last week I provided e-mail instruction to a doctoral student in chemistry who was revising his Teaching Philosophy, one of the academic job-application documents required when applying to most faculty positions. He sent me an e-mail thanking me for my feedback, saying, “Thank you so much for your feedback on my Teaching Philosophy . . . I am very glad I decided to have it looked over. ”
Sometimes things that seem very obvious to writing instructors are not necessarily as obvious to other members of the university community. For some of our readers, particularly new readers of our blog, it may indeed come as a surprise that our Writing Center does not serve primarily humanities majors, nor remedial writers. Rather, we serve students from all majors and of different skill levels, a large chunk of whom are science majors. Moreover, a student can be very experienced in writing within one genre, such as personal statements, but not so experienced writing academic journal articles within his or her field.
Serving Writers in the Sciences Remains a Writing Center Priority
The Writing Center’s instructors impact the writing and careers of undergraduate and graduate students from diverse science majors such as Applied Economics, Industrial Engineering, Clinical Psychology, as well as medical students, nursing students, biotechnology students, molecular biology students, economics students, biomedical engineering students, and students within many other fields. Many graduate students in the sciences have ongoing meetings at the UW-Madison Writing Center, which allow them to receive progressive feedback and support from a writing instructor. Ongoing meetings support students towards the completion of masters’ theses, doctoral dissertations, research grant applications, research-based internship applications, and journal articles for publication, among other career milestones.
Over the years the Writing Center has been and remains committed to serving students in the sciences. In an effort to enhance writing instructors’ competency to support scientific student writing the Writing Center has offered professional development seminars for its tutors on working with STEM students and writing in the sciences. Dr. Nancy Linh Karls, the science writing specialist for our Writing Center, frequently partners with science faculty to “design effective writing assignments, discuss strategies for supporting students as they complete them, and offering ways to provide useful feedback geared towards revision.” Nancy has also partnered with staff from different science programs around the university to offer workshops such as “Researching and Writing Literature Reviews in the Sciences,” which she co-developed with UW-Madison Libraries’ staff.
Nancy also collaborates and supports Writing Center instructors by sharing resources for working with science writers through ongoing professional development seminars, staff meetings, and individually. She has worked with writing center tutors, such as Mattie Burkert, in designing and leading ongoing education seminars. In the spring semester of 2014 Nancy and Mattie co-taught “Beyond the Two Cultures: Strategies for Working with STEM Writers,” and you can read all about it in Mattie’s 2014 blog post linked here.
This semester the Writing Center will be offering another two-part continuing professional development mini-course to its staff titled, “Science Writing as Storytelling, Telling Stories about Science Writing.” According to Nancy Karls, in both meetings writing instructors will “look at some science writing samples and develop a set of strategies for responding effectively to science writers and their drafts.” In this training seminar, as in previous ones on science writing, tutors will read chapters from Joshua Schimel’s celebrated Writing Science: How To Write Papers That Get Cited And Proposals That Get Funded (2012). Also, all new Writing Center tutors go through a training seminar for which they read writing pedagogy articles and book chapters from, for example, A Short Guide to Writing About Social Science (2002) by Lee Cuba. Another source of excerpts about discourse communities from Programs That Work: Models and Methods For Writing Across the Curriculum (1990), edited by Toby Fulwiler and Art Young. Through these readings we learn the IMRD format, which stands for Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion, the most common structural format for experimental research reports in the sciences.
Another Word has also published posts on working with STEM and other science students on a regular basis. Previous posts include Mattie’s post, another 2014 post titled, “‘Why Are You Working Here?’ Engineers In The Writing Center,” and a 2011 post titled “Writing Style Matters: An Engineering Student’s Perspective.”
Science Writing as Argumentative Storytelling
In her blog Mattie cited Dr. Laura Hogan, the science editor for the Institute for Clinical and Translational Research (ICTR) at UW-Madison, who confided that, “scientists go into research not realizing how important writing will be to their success” (Burkert). Indeed, writing is essential to completing many career milestones, and many of these milestones take the form of a manuscript: STEM graduate student must write or collaborate in writing many academic journal articles, their dissertation proposals, their dissertations, among others.
According to Joshua Schimel’s book Writing Science (2012), science writing requires telling compelling stories, and it is often a challenge for scientists to learn to tell a compelling story about their work. He claims that nevertheless, this is precisely what scientists do in the Introduction, Discussion and conclusion sections of scientific journal articles, in grant proposals, and in the books they publish on their research.
According to Schimel,
If [scientists] didn’t tell stories, we would write papers with only Methods and Results; we could skip the Introduction and Discussion. We also wouldn’t read Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species; instead, we would read his notebooks and get the raw data . . . a paper doesn’t only present our data, it also interprets them. (3)
Moreover, scientific papers, as any scholarly paper in any field, must use the introduction to place the current research within the context of a pressing question or need within its own field. Each scientific paper must tell the story about how its research findings answer this question or meet that need. Doing so compellingly encourages other scientists in the same or related fields to read the research, or cite it, or maybe replicate it.
Schimel’s book is not the only writing handbook for scientists out there. The importance of writing in the sciences is highlighted by the success of such other writing manuals for scientists as Angelika Hofmann Scientific Writing and Communication: Papers, Proposals, and Presentations (2013) and Hilary Glasman-Deal’s Science Research Writing for Non-Native Speakers of English (2009).
Tutorial Strategies for Meeting the Needs of Science Writers
In informal discussions with my colleagues about tutoring science writers one matter seems to come up often; the trouble with specialized terminology. At first, tutors are often insecure about their ability to provide effective writing instruction to a student-writer who uses very different, field-specific terminology with which the tutor is not yet acquainted. In her post, Mattie cited “lysates,” “high-speed centrifugation,” and I may add “non-linear aggregator,” terms that sound just as obscure out of context as when a writing tutor first encounters them even within a complete sentence. Unfamiliar terminology is mostly a concern when first meeting with STEM graduate students seeking an ongoing appointment. However, during one-on-one sessions with the student a tutor will ask about the terms’ meaning and discuss which ones it is appropriate for the writer to briefly define within sentences in their manuscript. As instructors we will also ask the students to find samples of the kind of manuscript they are trying to write so that with our support they can figure out how to model its rhetorical strategies.
The working culture at the Writing Center is one that encourages its tutors to be independent learners, researching writing conventions in other fields, including science fields. Reading academic journal articles across the disciplines I have noticed that certain convention of academic writing, such as briefly defining key terms, is fairly consistent in most fields. This dovetails with some of the challenges inexperienced science writers face; how to write the introduction to a journal article in a way that makes their work appeal to scholars in related fields? Moreover, how to write it in a way that makes a compelling case for how the article addresses a gap in the current research. One of the strategies that writers, including science writers, use to meet these requirements is to use compelling examples of “real world” problems within theirs and other fields that their research can potentially redress. But one of the simplest strategies writers in practically all fields use to make their writing accessible to a bigger audience in related fields is to define specialized terms in their introductions.
Working with Science Graduate Students at the Main Center
Working with a Graduate Student in Applied Economics
I put some of the above insights into practice last semester at the Main Center when tutoring two science graduate students on an ongoing basis. One of those students, Yuji Saikai is an international graduate student in Applied Economics. Our meetings guided and supported Yuji through the process of learning the genre conventions of the introduction to a journal article in his field. His article was in a very particular genre; it was a theory paper proposing a new economic model. His model sought to better explain how Local Food Systems (LFS), or the commercial and relational interaction among local growers, supermarkets and customers, create not just economic benefits but also social benefits that somehow could be quantified.
Having written the section in his paper that detailed his model and outlined its mathematical equations and calculations, Yuji was struggling to articulate in his introduction what unique characteristics and problems of LFS his economic model could better account for.
I requested from Yuji sample Economic Theory papers and searched for some on my own. I read the introductions to these papers scanning for commonalities in their delivery. As might be expected, most journal articles contextualized the need for the proposed economic model in terms of resolving a current question or problem. Most journal articles also alluded to and briefly discussed a significant work that served as precedent for the current endeavor. Yuji realized, somewhat surprised, that there was a kind of “art” in the way economists articulated the relevance of their economic models; of course we call this rhetoric. Over several weeks of dissecting, discussing and practicing modeling rhetorical moves from these articles, Yuji introduction began to acquire structure and command greater authority. He became better able to reproduce the conventional moves necessary to tell a compelling narrative about the need for his model in the introduction to his article.
I asked Yuji if he wanted to submit a quote describing his experience with writing center instruction, and he agreed, writing, “I received professional service at the Writing Center. Nothing is more valuable in writing than an objective assessment from a well-trained instructor.”
Writing Center instruction seeks to train students, including science students, to be effective rhetoricians within their fields. Though my knowledge of Economic theory was and is extremely limited, my willingness to read, analyze and explain to Yuji the intentional rhetorical moves economic theorists make in their journal article introductions allowed him to better understand the purpose these conventions served and to be able to reproduce them in his own writing.
Working with a Graduate Student in Clinical Psychology
Making their writing accessible to colleagues in related fields is one of the concerns often evident in the introductions of scientific papers, and it is also one of the concerns of graduate students in the sciences.
Another science student I worked with last semester was Emily Cahill, who is pursuing a PhD in Clinical Psychology and has worked in the UW’s Vigilance Studies Laboratory with Dr. David Plante, who is faculty in the Department of Psychiatry. At the lab, Emily studies the electrophysiological correlates of hypersomnia in depression using Electroencephalography (EEG) technology. If you did not understand that, now you understand what it is like to first encounter this specialized technical language. In lay terms, Emily studies whether there are brain wave patterns specific to depressed patients with hypersomnia in the hopes of developing greater understanding of hypersomnia and better diagnostic methods. Emily had worked with other writing instructors on an ongoing basis and found our support extremely helpful. During our meetings Emily emphasized to me the need to make her dissertation proposal accessible to specialists in related fields that are serving in her dissertation committee.
I prepared for my meetings with Emily by reading sample dissertation proposals in Psychology that she had sent me, as well as others I found through he UW-Madison’s dissertation database in the UW-Libraries page. I subjected these samples to the same rhetorical “dissection” process to which I subjected the Economic theory papers I read prior to my meetings with Yuji. Emily and I focused on improving her topic sentences, transition sentences and sentences summing up her reasoning for including certain kinds of supporting evidence from related studies. I had her do many in-session writing exercises where she would write or revise a sentence several time to make it more like sentences serving those rhetorical functions in the sample dissertations. By the end of the semester, Emily’s dissertation proposal was very close to completion.
I asked Emily if she wanted to contribute to this blog post with her opinion about how writing instruction by various Writing Center tutors has supported her scientific research in Clinical Psychology. Emily gladly accepted:
As a scientist, my weekly work with a Writing Center tutor has been absolutely essential for my continued writing productivity. Critical thinking transcends departmental boundaries; a well-crafted argument is essential in all scientific and humanistic fields . . . In the same vein, though style conventions vary across fields, a clearly written explanation is best practice in all areas of inquiry. I’ve found my Writing Center tutors, all of whom were trained in the humanities, to be the perfect audience for my scientific writing . . . My tutor’s keen eye for style and organization helped me at each step of my drafting process. With my tutor’s assistance, my scientific writing became clear, straightforward, and understandable. This style of scientific writing benefits everyone: greater accessibility to scientific ideas fosters understanding, interest, and future collaborations. Working with my tutor has improved my scientific writing drastically, as well as my confidence in my writing ability.
Other Writing Center Tutors Reflect on their Experiences Tutoring Graduate Students in the Sciences
Working with a Writer in Environmental Studies
Of course, I am not the only one who has worked with students in the sciences at the Writing Center, so I asked other instructors if they wanted to share their experiences and discuss the impact they saw their instruction was having on students’ writing and careers.
A few years ago, Zachary Marshall, an experienced Writing Center instructor and current Assistant Director of the Writing Center, worked with an Environmental Studies graduate student, Tara Davenport, on her dissertation. Her department was the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies.
Tara offered this comment on her work with a writing center tutor:
I found the writing center most helpful in organizing my thoughts and ideas for my dissertation. Often in science, the emphasis is on the presentation and analysis of the data rather than making sure the document itself is structured and written in a way that makes sense. The Writing Center helped create a logical flow and pattern throughout my dissertation so it wasn’t just science, it was science with structure!
She also wrote:
My husband is writing his dissertation and I was just telling him last night that he should call the Writing Center because of how great you all are!
Tara has been working for a small ecological consulting firm since last year researching wetland environments.
Working with a Writer in Mathematics and Engineering
Jarrett Chapin, a very experienced tutor in the UW-Madison Writing Center, shared with me two of his most memorable experiences working with science students. One of those students was D.S.* a graduate student in Mathematics and Engineering with whom he had an ongoing appointment to work on D.S. “job market” materials, or the documents required to apply to most faculty positions; such as a job letter, a teaching philosophy, a research statement, among others. Since our goal is to make better writers, Jarrett’s approach was to make D.S. aware of “the rhetorical situation,” and to question him about his “rhetorical goals.” Through these meta-discussions, D.S. gained greater awareness of his audience, the search committees, of their expectations for each document, and of his constraints, such as word limits, all of which define the rhetorical situation. By understanding the rhetorical situation D.S. was better able to formulate and achieve his rhetorical goals, or the things that he needed readers to take away. On of the writing crutches Jarrett helped him with was D.S. “mechanistic paragraphs,” where he would lay down many facts before making a claim.
According to Jarrett:
His job letter was a bunch of bullet points with periods, but he always had a better sentence somewhere in the paragraph. He was not aware of what his topic sentence was and he would list facts and details before he got to his topic sentences . . . it would not be effective in the teaching philosophy or research statement.
Jarret says D.S was “fascinated” by the concept of “the rhetorical situation and drank in its lessons. Jarret was there to prod him through his revisions and ultimately “He felt good about the results for his documents and being able to see the difference in his revisions.” D.S. eventually obtained a faculty position in his field.
Jarrett also met with another science graduate student on an ongoing basis. We will call this student John. John was an Economics PhD candidate working on his dissertation. While John struggled writing effective transitions and organizing his text, Jarrett realized that a higher order concern was the fact that John was having trouble articulating what his contribution was to the field. After having many meta-discussions about whom his audiences were in a narrow and then a broader sense, John was able to realize that his particular contribution was methodological, addressing what he saw as problems with existing economic theories. The student was ecstatic to have made this discovery and being able to articulate what his contribution was in a persuasive way. He continued to meet with Jarrett up until the time he finished writing his dissertation.
Reaching STEM Students through Our Outreach Program
I also met with other writing instructors to ask them specifically about how the Writing Center reaches science students through the Outreach program. This program is part of the Writing Center’s “Writing Across the Curriculum” program. Through the Outreach program the Writing Center partners with instructors across campus who request that writing center instructors give in-class presentations in their courses. Some of these presentations can be quite tailored, and are often led in the form of a “co-teach,” where the writing instructor works alongside the teacher to give specialized writing instruction to meet the needs of students within a field.
Zachary Marshall, an experienced instructor and current Assistant Director of the Writing Center, agreed to meet with me and to share some of his experiences doing Outreach geared towards science students. On his third year at the Writing Center, Zach was invited to teach a writing workshop on science writing at an introductory course in the Masters in Public Health.
Zach admits that “Since I thought of myself as not-an-expert in science writing, I was a little intimidated at the thought of teaching masters-level graduate students who were well on their way to being doctors, lawyers, and public leaders.” However, as writing center instructors we have been encouraged and trained to be independent learners, researching the writing conventions of other fields. So Zach rose to the occasion by researching “science writing;” “I spent a lot of time preparing for this session, reviewing the materials from previous presentations, a video on science writing from the course instructor, and two sample research essays from previous semesters of the course.“ Giving this workshop was helpful to the students, but also to Zach as a writing center instructor; his preparation for the presentation as well as the students’ response and feedback allowed him to learn about the needs of science students.
Zach notes that,
[The students] agreed that it was indeed a trend in science to show some of their study’s findings in the title and abstract, though they hadn’t thought about it exactly . . . During our discussion of the samples, I was pleased to hear many students raise questions about some of their writing pet peeves: . . . such as relying on vague jargon or abbreviations to carry an argument. We discussed and debated these questions, and their instructor weighed in on many of them. Overall, I was thrilled that the sessions went so well. We all, myself included, had come to agree that writing in the sciences was important, that it was much more than merely reporting the data but a fundamentally argumentative and potentially aesthetic process.
It is interesting to note that once again Zach and his students came back to the insight about the importance of rhetoric in scientific writing. Indeed as Schimel emphasizes in his book, compelling storytelling about the need for a particular study is the kind of writing that wins grants.
Another writing center tutor, Leah Pope, author of last week’s post on neuro-diversity and writing instruction, contributed an anecdote about doing an Outreach writing presentation for the Meat Science Master Meat Crafter Program.
Her anecdote captures everything that is so exciting about writing instruction so concisely that I want to include it in full below.
An Outreach Presentation for Meat Science Master Meat Crafters, Written by Leah Pope
I joined the Writing Center’s Outreach team last semester, and my very first event was a lesson on science writing for the Master Meat Crafter training program over in Meat Science. My audience was to be professional meat crafters working on developing their expertise in various kinds of meat production — folks who spend more time considering the mold on salami than the correct use of an m-dash. I was so nervous, because I thought an hour and a half of me talking about writing would bore everyone! My presentation worked through the different sections of a typical scientific research report: talking about tone of voice, where and how to incorporate research, and ways of presenting data.
To my surprise, I had a room full of attentive meat crafters! They engaged with every part of my presentation, from my explanation of the genre to the exercise for planning their own reports. And they had so many questions! It seemed to me by the end of the session that these folks saw their research project as intimidating, because they were not used to writing in this way. But that did not at all mean they weren’t excited about it. Instead, it seemed to me that most of the students in the program wanted to become better communicators about their work, and they saw my presentation as part of that process. What an honor! One student, at the end of the session, handed me a note, part of which said: “Thank you for reminding me why I enjoy writing! I can’t wait to start!” I hope I will never again make the mistake of assuming that writers in scientific fields aren’t interested in writing, because with this group, at least, they seemed to crave a conversation about writing specifically because it wasn’t something they often had.
Conclusion: Writing Is the Oil in the Machine
As I was discussing the topic of this blog post with my colleague Amy Huseby, our Writing Center’s Outreach coordinator, she said something very clever and very true. She likened the University of Wisconsin to a machine, and writing to the oil that keeps it running. So you see, we can find even a sciency metaphor for writing!
If the University as a system is a machine and all the departments are cogs, writing is the oil that keeps the machine running smoothly: Professors don’t make tenure unless they write. To fund research, you may have to write grant proposals. Students are required to write for assignments, to apply for internships and fellowships. Teachers have to write instruction materials, and everyone has to write to apply for jobs.
When it comes to writing in the sciences at the UW-Madison, it turns out that the Writing Center is part of the engine, supporting student writers through the often long writing projects that will start their careers.