The Center for Science Education at Portland State University invited me to do a three-week instructional unit with their Master of Science Education students in Spring 2016. Center director Bill Becker and faculty member Stephanie Wagner attended every class session, creating what composition scholars call a situation of shared expertise between disciplinary faculty and writing specialists. I sat down with Bill and Stephanie to learn about their experience of our work together and their thoughts about graduate-level writing.
Daveena: You are educating science educators. Why invite a writing specialist to work with your MS students?
Bill: Our program requires students to complete a thesis and it is my opinion (and I think it’s shared by the faculty) that students need to be able to write a piece of work that does critical thinking based on evidence as a benchmark for graduation. If you can’t write about it, how do we know you can do it? Writing is the primary means for communicating findings in the science profession. Language is really important in science, though people may not acknowledge it. Scientists are very picky about the language that gets used and the precision with which it gets used. We don’t have anyone on our staff who has the expertise to teach writing and the students desperately need, it as you know.
“You can’t just assume that someone coming out with a bachelors degree is prepared to write a thesis”
A lot of times our frustration is that we know the writing isn’t good when we see it and we want to help, but sometimes the best we can do is just criticize the writing without actually being able to help. I learned to write by doing a lot of writing and having people correct it and criticize it and eventually I got the hang of it, but there is a better way and that’s what we’re exploring with you.
Stephanie: The strength of this program is the fact that students go through this thesis. It’s not the classes they take; it’s what they learn in the process of doing the thesis. In order to be successful they need to develop writing skills and as Bill said, we aren’t trained in writing pedagogy. We can tell when it’s not well written, but there’s an art to figuring out how to help them fix it. How do you set it up so that you’re not just criticizing them, but you’re helping them with that process? If you’re going to have a thesis requirement, writing is going to be a substantial part of that and you can’t just assume that someone coming out with a bachelors degree is prepared to write a thesis, because they’re not.
Daveena: Why did this program choose to focus on the thesis? You could have chosen a capstone project or an action research project.
Bill: It’s the coin of the realm in science. It’s a written document that makes knowledge claims that are defended by quality data and sound reasoning. Some of our students’ theses are of a quality that they can be submitted to a peer-reviewed publication. It’s the vehicle for reaching the benchmark of being the capable researcher.
Daveena: One of the preconceptions compositionists often hold is that folks in the sciences tend to see “writing up” as a kind of separate process from generating thought, rather than, say, as a tool for generating thought. Do you see people in your field using writing as part of the science learning process?
Stephanie: There is a huge new emphasis on how writing and thought development relate to science education. We’re learning that students need to be writing and discussing as they go through the scientific process. Writing is an integral part of the learning process.
Bill: Stephanie is referring to the sea change that is occurring in K-12 education, especially with the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which emphasizes argumentation from evidence and multiple perspectives. I think your supposition at the beginning that scientists traditionally think of writing as a separate activity is probably true for some, or maybe even many scientists, but all researchers have to be able to write both pre-and post-investigation. You can’t get money if you can’t write a proposal. I don’t know that scientists actually see writing as a thought process as much as a conveyance. But I think that as a faculty at the Center, our sense is that the act of writing about something and the act of organizing something and bringing language to your ideas is a way of critically processing information. Being able to do that in an organized and constructive manner sets our students up before they even start to do research.
“From a faculty point of view it was really useful seeing the things that you felt needed to be emphasized. “
Stephanie: This is also true for everyone I have ever worked with in traditional science research. The people who are really successful, who really get things done, are the people who use writing and are comfortable using writing to organize their thoughts and get feedback from other people. [Bill agrees].
Daveena: When I was in science classes in public education, we were encouraged to use writing to record facts and observations, but there wasn’t really a space to use writing to express uncertainty or tentative hypotheses. Do you think that’s changing?
Bill: When I was in grad school writing was not the way you communicated ideas within your peer group. It was almost always verbal. I think with the Internet writing has become more and more the vehicle for communication. We don’t teach writing as part of a whole process but rather as a separate practice. I don’t think that most science faculty even now feel comfortable assessing writing or critiquing or making any kind of developmental attempts in the area of writing. That said, I don’t know anyone in the sciences who wouldn’t agree that being an effective writer is very important. I think all the changes in writing practice that have come with technology have opened up an opportunity for students to really hone the craft of writing. Revision is much easier when you are not using whiteout and having to retype everything, as we had to do. But there is still a kind of void where everyone believes that writing is important and agrees that we need to be able to do it, but where students actually going to learn it? As we’re talking about earlier, students don’t come to the university with this skill. Some do, but those that don’t, we have a hard time helping.
“We can tell when it’s not well written, but there’s an art to figuring out how to help [students] fix it. How do you set it up so that you’re not just criticizing them, but you’re helping them with that process?”
Daveena: Do you see changes in the use the use of active voice, first person, and narrative in the scholarly writing of your field and the sciences more generally? If so, why you do think these conventions are changing?
Stephanie: Maybe in science education writing, but not in traditional science articles. In fact, they look pretty similar to the way they’ve always looked.
Daveena: it sounds like there have been really significant changes in how people are thinking about how to teach science to kids and high school students, so there’s going to be a generation of students coming through who will have a very different view of science.
Stephanie: This is why there is a huge concern among certain faculty here about how are we preparing our faculty to be ready to appreciate what these students are bringing to the table.
Bill: I don’t want to paint too rosy of a picture. The sea change that needs to happen is not entirely set up to occur. Next Generation Science Standards and the new practices of science teaching is a step in the right direction and would have profound effects, but how well it gets implemented and to what extent in terms of fidelity is still a very open question. Writing is hard for teachers because it is time intensive and many of our teachers don’t have the skills to be writing teachers. There is very little communication between the sciences and the English department, so if a science faculty member in a high school really wanted to emphasize writing, there isn’t a tradition of English departments showing up and helping.
Daveena: You guys very trustingly invited me to take over your class for three weeks, which takes a huge leap of faith. I am wondering what it was like for you to participate in this process.
Bill: First, it was not such a big leap of faith. You have worked with a lot of our students already and we have seen the results of that, and as you know, we value the writing process immensely. And we don’t have the skills to teach writing. So when you put all that on the table, it becomes clear that we want to get you in here to help.
Daveena: I greatly valued your presence because I often work in a guest capacity where faculty are not present. So what I want to get at here is your experience as faculty experience and to learn what you took away.
Bill: I think one of the best ways to teach is to model good learning. So us being there helps make transparent the learning process for ourselves as well as our students.
Stephanie: And as advisers in the students’ thesis development we need to understand what you are doing so that we are giving them consistent messages. When we were putting this class together we thought really hard about what skills we could offer that would help them be successful in their thesis development and obviously writing was a big part of that. From a faculty point of view it was really useful seeing the things that you felt needed to be emphasized. So instead of us telling you what to do we said, “This is your three weeks. What do you think you can give them now that will help them down the line?” I think this kind of teaching should always be a team effort.
Bill: We were really fortunate this year to be able to call upon the resources of folks that we have worked with like you and Mark. You bring your best talent to the table and you learn yourself in the process. It’s just a win-win situation for us. I certainly learned a whole lot.
Daveena: For me it was great in that when there was disciplinary content I didn’t know, I could turn to you and have you address those issues in real time.
Bill: It’s kind of like it takes a village.
Daveena: What kinds of collaborations would you like to see between science faculty and writing specialists in terms of graduate education more generally?
Bill: Departments still own their programs and there’s very little cross-pollination. Sometimes there is collaboration across departments based on interdisciplinary lines of inquiry, but there is very little if any cross-pollination in terms of departmental programming. All of the departments have self-contained programs. This gets to another ax I have the grind, which is that we need to get away from the hierarchical structure of education in terms of its content. We teach too strongly to a content-driven focus. Certainly when I went through graduate school, skills development was not part of the academy. It was simply what you got when you learned your content. Many times it was relegated to the writing lab or somewhere outside the discipline rather than being integrated as part of the learning process. I don’t know that this will change anytime soon until the notion of the academy changes. That would mean breaking away from these disciplinary and content-based hierarchical structures. There’s relatively little cross-disciplinary work with in the sciences, let alone outside them. I don’t know of many situations, for example, where a science department would be working with an English department.
Daveena: Why not just reach out to the English department or the writing center? Why call someone like me who is outside the system? I mean this more in a general sense than in terms of me personally.
Stephanie: We didn’t actually go out looking for a writing specialist. We happened to learn your name because [a former dean] had referred you to one of our students, and at that time we had a little bit of NOYCE money and we are able to bring you in [for a few workshops].
Bill: You and Mark are not part of the main portion of the university and are willing to work outside the box, if you will. There is an honesty from both of you guys that is refreshing and valuable. There is so much about the culture of the academy that gets in its own way of being effective. Much of what the CSE has done over the last 25 years has been about challenging the assumptions that people within the academy make about education, about what students can do, and about partners outside of university, including relationships with K-12. Much of this is countercultural to the university. One of the opportunities my colleagues and I have had at PSU is to create the Center, which allows us to explore new relationships without getting in trouble with the system. I am very concerned about this insular notion that you either don’t invite or you close out the partners of the world outside the academy. It’s wrongheaded and I think in the long run it’s going to be detrimental to the university’s financial success. We need to be able to try new things and work with people who are outside the traditional academic enterprise.
Daveena: I realize that the term is not over and you haven’t seen their final theses, but have you seen any outcomes from this process yet?
Stephanie: I definitely see outcomes. You have been so great at helping them bear down and identify what they really want to accomplish and sometimes that is the hardest thing.
Bill: One of the things that I saw this year that we haven’t had in the past is that students have made more progress in the writing process and I think they have probably been more productive in terms of their writing. I’m seeing less of a hesitancy to actually get started. One of the challenges students always have, as you pointed out, is that they don’t want to write until they are “done”—they don’t see writing as part of the development process. I think that has changed with this cohort. I see them as being more willing to engage in writing as part of how you actually make sense of things.