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Writing across the curriculum from one physicist’s perspective

Posted by Melissa on April 17, 2010

Earlier this week, Chad Orzel had a poll about what characteristics of technical writing students most need to learn in introductory classes. The leading response was “organization: a clear logical progression from one idea to the next” followed by writing that is “empirical, specific, and accurate”. The comments are also interesting, and one idea that came up repeatedly in the comment thread is audience analysis.  I would contend that both organization and audience analysis are key characteristics of all writing, not just technical writing, and with some loose interpretation, “empirical, specific, and accurate” could also be deemed important for much writing beyond technical writing. While organization is key to successful writing, I think writing for an appropriate audience is one of the hardest aspects to learn.

This week, I was part of a panel for Carleton’s Learning and Teaching Center about responding to student writing and managing student drafts efficiently. I enjoyed learning about the varied perspectives of my colleagues on teaching writing, as well as discussions about writing across the curriculum and writing in the disciplines. During questions, someone asked me whether I included writing in my courses because it was what we were supposed to be doing to contribute to writing across the curriculum (externally imposed) or whether my commitment was more genuine. To me, the answer is a no-brainer. I genuinely believe being able to write well is critical to students’ long term success, so critical that it can’t be left to one or two writing intensive courses. Additionally, including writing in my courses provides me with an alternative assessment tool to probe my students’ conceptual understanding and their ability to contextualize and transfer knowledge. Nevertheless, I acknowledge this sentiment is not shared by everyone.

I’ve known physicists who feel the only writing assignments that they can be expected to include in their classes are lab write-ups. These hesitant individuals report that they don’t know how to teach writing. A physics course is certainly not a replacement for a writing course, but every course that includes a writing component need not provide a comprehensive treatment of how to write lengthy, beautiful prose. Rather courses across the curriculum ought to provide varied opportunities for students to write because writing truly is a craft that develops with practice. Even physics faculty can design assignments and provide feedback on four or five aspects of written work that they think are important. Developing rubrics for my formal writing assignments helps me identify the key elements I want students to focus on for any specific assignment. Beyond formal writing assignments, informal writing assignments provide an opportunity for my students to explore their understanding of concepts and can spark efforts to make connections between concepts.

Often when colleges require a “writing in the major” course, the course focuses on developing formalized techniques for approaching focused types of writing (ie a PRL-style paper). While these courses are useful in honing a particular type of writing, they can produce the impression that physicists only need to be good at writing for other physicists in a physics-approved format. At the undergraduate level, where our goal is not solely to produce future research physicists, I dislike this narrow focus. Not all of my classes include a significant writing component, but when they do, I include writing assignments that vary immensely, ranging from the traditional lab write-ups and research reports to personal letters, commentary pieces for the newspaper, memos, or informational pamphlets. Whenever I give a writing assignment, I also specify the intended audience for the students because of the importance I place on being able to write for varied audiences. Over the five years I’ve been at Carleton, the audiences I have asked students to address have included parents, friends at Carleton who are not science majors, other Carleton physics majors, a boss at a particular job, members of Congress, high school physics teachers, high school physics students, elementary school students, the newspaper-reading general public, and a grants board at a private foundation. The range of audiences is large, but not inappropriate considering the varied paths my students might take.

After seeing a review in Science News, I recently read Communicating Science: Professional, Popular, Literary by Nicholas Russell. Unlike some books, this is not a how-to-communicate-science book nor is it a polemic about what kind of science communication is most effective or needed. Rather, the book explores the origin of the efforts to improve science communication and discusses the benefits, problems, and complexities of science communication in three contexts: 1) communication among science professionals, including peer review, journal articles, and grant writing, 2) popular communication to the general public and the mass media, including considerations of public understanding of versus public engagement in science, and what the changing media landscape means for science journalism, and 3) science themes in fictional works, including an interesting look at the genre of science fiction. While a good read for anyone interested in science outreach or gaining a perspective on the interactions between science and society, I’d also highly recommend the book for anyone who teaches writing in their college level science courses. It serves as a useful reminder of the breadth of science communication in which our students might engage, and why science communication is both complex and valuable.


One Response to “Writing across the curriculum from one physicist’s perspective”

  1. Sanjay Kumar Singh said

    Very interesting. Can’t resist saying a few words.

    Theorization, as a matter of knowledge simpliciter sans demarcation & division into different disciplines, is a matter of expression & evolution of ideas.

    These ideas, as per the requirement of the subjectmatter, would often require specialized expression, such as say mathematics in the discipline of Physics. But the core of the idea relating to theorization in nearly all disciplines is not only capable of expression in simple language such as to be broadly understood by most; but, importantly, the ability to express thus is often integrally related to how soundly the idea is in grasp & control of the person that is seeking to evolve or develop or communicate the idea in question.


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