C.27: The Risks and Rewards of Collaboratively Teaching Scientific Writing
Reviewed by Sarah Tinker Perrault, University of California, Davis, CA (email@example.com)
Chair: Jonathan Buehl, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Speakers: Katherine Schaefer, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, “A Biologist as an Embedded WID Specialist: Standing with a Foot in Two Disciplines”
Maria Gigante, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI,“Developing Writing Workshops with/for Science Faculty: The Risks and Rewards of Popularizing the Rhetoric of Science”
Christopher McCracken, Kent State University, Kent, OH, “Co-Teaching across the Great Divide: Weaving Content and Rhetorical Process in a Graduate Scientific Communication Course”
Session C.27 offered a range of useful perspectives on three ways to bring rhetorical expertise to science writing in the context of science classes. The first perspective was offered by a scientist-turned-writing-faculty member, Katherine Schaefer. After earning a PhD in biological sciences, doing post-doctoral studies in immunology, and spending more than 20 years working as a scientist, Schaefer joined the merry ranks of writing faculty. As a lecturer in the College Writing Program in the College of Arts, Sciences, and Engineering at Rochester Institute of Technology, Schaefer works as the coordinator and primary instructor in the writing workshop program, which she described as “geared toward embedding writing instruction into content classes.” Her talk, titled “A Biologist Turns Embedded WID Specialist: The Risks and Rewards of Standing with a Foot in Each Discipline,” focused on her experience co-teaching two courses (a molecular biology lab course and a “writing-a-review-article-in-biology” class) with molecular biology professor Cheeptip Benyajati.
While Schaefer’s talk offered many interesting insights, the key takeaway point was that even after five years as writing faculty she found it difficult to identify her own use of tacit disciplinary knowledge; as she observed, “Being a biologist, I tend to forget about the discourse community. It's way too obvious” and, “I do tend to use my own socialization, one I'm not even really aware of, when answering questions." However, even in a biology class—a teaching context that brought out her own socialization—Schaefer and her co-teacher discovered that their differences as scientists could provide useful models of disciplinary discourse for students as the two of them negotiated differences of professional opinion about discursive choices science writers have to make. Similarly, while Schaefer may have seen herself as, in her words, “too much of a biologist,” she also drew knowledgeably on writing across the curriculum (WAC) literature to frame and interpret her pedagogical experiences.
Maria Gigante, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at Western Michigan University, spoke in “Developing Writing Workshops with/for Science Faculty: The Risks and Rewards of Popularizing the Rhetoric of Science” about plans to create a summer WAC workshop. Although the workshops have not yet taken place, Gigante’s talk built nicely on Schaefer’s by continuing the theme of socialization, in this case asking how we might better teach professors to socialize students. In describing her plan for a week-long workshop, Gigante explained how rhetorical training can benefit science faculty by giving them tools for recognizing their own socialization and for making explicit, first for themselves and then for students, their own tacit discursive knowledge. One aspect that I found especially striking was Gigante’s argument that to become truly effective in this way, faculty must recognize the constructed-ness of scientific knowledge, letting go of the “traditional idealist model of science as objective” as a necessary step toward “meta-awareness of disciplinary conventions” related to language use and argumentation.
Christopher McCracken is a PhD candidate at Kent State in Literacy, Rhetoric, and Social Practice. In “Co-Teaching across the Great Divide: Weaving Content and Rhetorical Process in a Graduate Scientific Communication Course,” McCracken described a course co-taught by two professors—one subject-matter scientist and one rhetorician—to graduate students in chemical physics. Continuing the theme of socialization, he explained how the two professors attempted to bring together what Cheryl Geisler (1994) described as “the problem space of domain content and the problem space of rhetorical process” (p. 39) through a series of exercises and assignments.
While McCracken was not shy about describing ways the collaboration fell short (e.g. the science professor’s view of rhetoric as “fixing the text” once the content was correct), he mainly focused on the higher-level lessons learned. Two such lessons stood out. One, based on a failed exercise in which students were meant to focus on rhetorical aspects of a writing exercise, is that students are strongly inclined toward talking about domain content, something he notes could have been addressed better in the prompt. In contrast, the second lesson came from a highly successful exercise: a mock National Science Foundation review board. McCracken described how they staged it like a real NSF review board: they received proposals ahead of time, and each proposal was evaluated by two students who were responsible for presenting that proposal to the full panel. The panel then talked about the proposals, scored them, ranked them, and summarized their responses and ranking. McCracken attributes the success of this exercise to the way it “blended the domain content problem space and the rhetorical one” and allowed students to “enact genres in a more socially relevant way.”
Overall, the panel was highly informative and left me hoping to see published work based on the talks. Each speaker struck a comfortable balance between describing her or his experience, and explaining those experiences in terms of rhetorical and WAC/WID theories. Taken together, these three talks mapped out some important and useful scholarly angles on issues of socialization, disciplinarity, and the teaching of writing.
Geisler, Cheryl. (1994). Literacy and expertise in the academy. Language and Learning Across the Disciplines, 1(1), 35–57.