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Teaching Writing in the Biological Sciences

the planet Earth inside a corked glass bottle
November 21, 2016

The recent election has reminded us of the importance—and difficulty—of communicating our work in academia, of “translating” expert or specialized knowledge in a way that is both understandable and relevant. Climate change provides a poignant example of this problem. While 97% of scientists agree that its causes are manmade, many, including the president-elect and some of his proposed cabinet members, insist it’s a “hoax.” A failure to understand the science is only a part of the problem; poor communication among and from scientists also plays a role.

 CW 161 Writing in the Biological Sciences explores these types of communication. The aim is to help students write better both within their scientific discourse communities and to those outside their communities. The first phase of the course focuses on the rhetoric of science. Students read analyses of writing in biology and learn terms that help them talk about the rhetorical moves they’re seeing. Students also conduct their own analysis of scientific writing, comparing a few different genres that target different audiences. In the second phase, student practice these rhetorical moves themselves, developing their own research projects, and then writing in different genres for a variety of purposes and audiences about this research.  Along the way, scientists from industry, academia, and journalism visit the class to talk about their own writing.

Students also reflect upon their work, and this reflection is a vital component to developing an awareness of their own writing style and strengths as well as an awareness of disciplinary conventions. It can be difficult for experts within a discipline to teach these conventions because it can be hard to step outside a discipline to see such conventions. For example, while I was directing a writing center at a previous university, we were flooded one week with students from a history course. They had all received Fs on an essay, and the instructor sent the students our way. He hadn’t provided a lot of commentary on the essays, and when I asked students for the prompt, they said he had simply told them to write an essay. So I called him to ask for a bit more guidance, and he replied, “Everyone knows what a good essay is.” I don’t think he meant to be difficult or opaque, but I think he was unable to see the specifics of what he wanted in a good history essay because he was so immersed in that discipline.

So that is where I—a literary critic with a sub-specialty in Writing in the Disciplines—come in. It’s my status outside each student’s discipline that allows me to help students see the conventions of that discipline. I am a mirror of sorts.  I start by introducing terms and techniques for rhetorical analysis where I have much more experience, but eventually, students pursue their own research projects about which they know more than I do. So there’s a shift that happens in the course where the students go from being “students” to being “experts.” I can see their rhetorical moves, but they have mastery over their content. This process mimics their futures in biology research—where they, or their research team, will eventually be the experts who have to explain themselves to others. In the end, I want students to develop a meta-cognitive awareness of rhetorical situations, to see techniques in others’ work in biology or other sciences and apply them in their own, enabling them to communicate with as wide a range of people as possible.

The last assignment that students tackle is to write for a public audience, which involves “translating” scientific discourse. Students are often surprised to find this assignment to be the hardest. The sample articles they read seem so simple, but they soon find that writing them is frustratingly not so. It’s eye opening. These skills are important because we need more people to understand science and scientific writing—regarding climate change and a host of other issues—but, as has been made so clear recently, writing without an understanding of an audience’s perspective risks missing a target entirely.


Kim Freeman (College Writing Programs)