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Science Writing Bibliography Essay

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Teaching Scientific Writing Conventions: Learning to Write is an Integral Part of Writing to Learn in the Sciences by Julia Romberger, 2000

There has been a great deal written about both positive and negative experiences with teaching writing in non-English classrooms and the overall effect on student learning. Randy Moore's article “Does Writing About Science Improve Learning About Science?” opens with a critique of many of the commonly held assumptions that increased writing in the science classroom will automatically lead to improved writing and comprehension by students. He charges that many “faculty do not understand its [Writing Across the Curriculum's] tenets, strengths, or limitations, nor do they grasp the way in which these features affect writing-to-learn in science.” (Moore 212). After conducting a study utilizing varying amounts of writing and direction in four sections of the same biology class, he concludes that “learning-by-writing occurs only when students know how to use writing to learn” (Moore 214). Moore believes that not explicitly teaching students the principles of effective writing in the sciences will only handicap them in their future.

This understanding of the complexity of teaching students to write in the sciences is not new. Nearly twenty years ago, Brillhart and Debs's article came to similar conclusions about the link between instruction and improved writing in the sciences. In their article “Teaching Writing — A Scientist's Responsibility,” they contend that because it is “unlikely that students can write successfully about a concept they do not understand, science teachers should demand good writing” (303). However, they do not believe that good science writing will develop on its own through simple practice. Instead, they lay out a concise method for introducing concepts and emphasizing different critical portions of lab reports over a series of assignments.

The necessity for teaching students what constitutes good writing in a particular discipline is not limited to the natural sciences. Sociologist Susan Day reports in her article “Producing Better Writers in Sociology Classes” that “requiring a number of writing assignments is not sufficient in itself to produce a measurable positive change” (462). Her study, which did not report instruction in the principles of writing in sociology, comes to very similar conclusions to the work of Moore, Brillhart, and Debs.

There are examples of these types of conclusions that can be drawn from nearly all branches of the academy. What is to be understood from them is that students are engaging upon a far more complex task then simply putting words to their thoughts. They are entering into what are termed in rhetorical studies “discourse communities.” A discourse community is defined in this way:

It shares assumptions about what objects are appropriate for examination and discussion, what operating functions are performed on those objects, what constitutes “evidence' and “validity,” and what formal conventions are followed. A discourse community may have a well-established ethos; or it may have competing factions and indefinite boundaries (Porter 39).

To participate effectively in the community, a speaker must possess a particular body of knowledge and be recognized as a member of the community (Porter 39). Students in a university, and especially undergraduates, are not in a position to know either what objects are worthwhile for examining, nor have they been taught the conventions that vary between the natural sciences and the humanities and even between the specific disciplines.

Along with their ignorance of disciplinary conventions, students also frequently have difficulty drawing analogies between writing tasks and applying the strategies taught to them in their high school or freshman year composition classes. The article “A Stranger in Strange Lands” by Lucille Parkinson McCarthy follows a student, Dave, though his academic writing career. McCarthy discovered that despite some obvious commonalities between the writing assignments in his composition class, his Cell Biology class, and his Poetry class, Dave was often unable to draw upon his previous experiences to assist him with new work. McCarthy discovered that “Dave's attention was occupied by the new conventions of interpretation and language use in each community” (246). Her study reinforces the position that “school writing is not a monolithic activity or a global skill” (260). The article suggests that instructors “in the disciplines must then provide student newcomers with assignments and instructional supports which are appropriate for first steps in using the language of their community” (McCarthy 262). Therefore assignments in writing should not be adopted uncritically. The principles of the conventions should be taught to them before they can be expected to write effectively within a discipline.

These negative faculty experiences with writing in the classroom often arise from the misunderstandings that Moore mentions. Some of this can be traced to the adoption of the traditional writing-to-learn assignments such as journaling and micro-themes stems without investigation of the purposes and limits of these types of writing or perhaps an unfamiliarity with the original works written on their use. "The Journal Book" edited by Toby Fulwiler is the primary source for many advocates of the use of journals in the classroom. This collection, far from merely advocating that students simply write at random in their journal, contains a number of essays that discuss particular types of journal writing, provides suggestions for guidelines and prompts, and generalizes on what an instructor should expect in terms of content and efficacy. The work on micro-themes by John Bean, Dean Drenk, and F.D. Lee contained in "Teaching Writing in All Disciplines" is similar in that it advocates particular strategies for adopting the use of micro-themes in classrooms and gives guidance on grading and samples of micro-themes designed to elicit specific cognitive strategies in the writer.

In addition to the works on specific strategies for incorporating more writing in classrooms that traditionally do not focus on writing, the general literature on writing in the disciplines seldom suggests that writing be introduced into a classroom without the students being given critical strategies. There have been many handbooks, designed toward either specific disciplinary audiences or for the sciences in general, that address specific style and organizational concerns in the writing of a variety of genres such as reports, proposals, and critiques. The analyses contained in these books of the conventions of genre and language can provide a very good model for developing the tools and skills for understanding the conventions of each discipline in particular and then passing this information along to students.

The bibliographies included on these OWL pages hope to bring resources to light for teachers both in the sciences or in research-based writing classes. Through the use of these resources, assignments valuable for student learning can be adopted, ways in which to teach students the principles of good scientific writing can be developed, and some of the negative experiences with writing in non-English classrooms can be mitigated.

Works Cited

Brillhart, L.V. and M.B. Debs. “Teaching Writing — A Scientist's Responsibility.” Journal of College Science Teaching 10.5 (Mar 1981): 303 – 304.

Day, Susan. “Producing Better Writers in Sociology Classes: A Test of the Writing-Across-The-Curriculum Approach.” Teaching Sociology 17 (Oct 1989): 458-464.

McCarthy, Lucille. “A Stranger in Strange Lands: A College Student Writing Across the Curriculum.” Research in the Teaching of English 21.3 (Oct 1987): 233 – 265.

Moore, Randy. “Does Writing About Science Improve Learning About Science?” Journal of College Science Teaching. (Feb 1991): 212- 217.

Porter, James E. “Intertextuality and the Discourse Community.” Rhetoric Review 5.1 (Fall 1986) 34 – 47.