Earlier this year, students in WR420/520 Writing Across the Curriculum were asked to interview a professor in a discipline that interests them, asking how that professor teaches their majors to write. Students were also asked to make connections to course readings as they arose naturally. Aleah Hobbs is a third year undergraduate at Oregon State University. As an English major and a writing minor, she writes quite a bit, but this is her first published work. Aleah’s initial interest upon arriving at OSU was in microbiology and, though she decided on a different degree path, that interest led her to seek out an interview with Dr. Kate Field, Director of the BioResource Research program, Director of OSU’s Bioenergy Project, and professor of writing intensive courses in microbiology.
-Vicki Tolar Burton, WIC Director
By Aleah Hobbs
In high school, many students were taught how to write a standard, five-paragraph, argumentative essay. This opens a few doors for students in college, and gives them a general understanding of how to present their ideas and defend them with outside sources and evidence. They further develop writing skills in Writing I and II courses. However, those majoring in mathematics, sciences, and many other disciplines, must learn additional methods of writing to effectively communicate in their discipline, new methods they may not learn until their upper-division courses. Educators like Dr. Kate Field, Department of Microbiology, have devised engaging assignments to teach students the material of a course, as well as the conventions of writing in their discipline.
For Dr. Field, the types of writing necessary for her own work are primarily published research to communicate findings to the public and grant proposals to receive funding for projects. These genres are generally not covered formally in introductory writing courses, but to ensure majors learn these skills, Dr. Field has woven them into her writing intensive course through various writing assignments. One way writing is used in her course MB 385 Emerging Infectious Diseases is through a scientific press release assignment in which students are asked to read papers from the 1800s, figure out what scientific breakthroughs are discussed in the paper, and then individually write a modern press release as if these breakthroughs had been made recently at OSU. This gives the students practice in communicating scientific discovery with the public, while also teaching them some history of microbiology. From that point, Dr. Field has each student choose an infectious disease that the rest of their assignments will be focused on. With this disease, the students are asked to write a case report like those used by medical professionals. The students get to make up their case with an imaginary patient but are required to use evidence to support the claims made in their report. This forces students to research their disease and gives them the opportunity to “write like doctors, which is fun for them because they all imagine themselves as doctors,” according to Dr. Field.
Another way that Dr. Field offers students practice in writing for their discipline is through a mini grant-proposal assignment based on the infectious disease they chose. They are asked to identify a problem involving their disease, come up with an approach to solve that problem, then write their grant proposal to get funding for the approach they’ve identified. In doing so, students have the chance to propose their own ideas for research and experimentation, which is the kind of creativity they’ll need as scientists, and it gives students real practice using the writing styles that will be applicable to their future careers. This is reminiscent of Michael Carter’s discussion of empirical inquiry in his article “Ways of Knowing, Doing, and Writing in the Disciplines.” Carter describes empirical inquiry as “a way of doing that consists of answering questions by drawing conclusions from systematic investigation based on empirical data;” he references microbiology as a discipline that exemplifies empirical inquiry. While writing to learn is also incorporated in Dr. Field’s class, these specific assignments allow students to learn how they should be writing in the professional world in their discipline.
Similar writing assignments have been incorporated in lower-level courses through the inclusion of lab report writing in the general series of chemistry, biology, and others, but these are often sans critique and guidance. Students may be asked to turn in a lab report, but are only asked to complete a single draft and thus get very little feedback on their work. This is not the case with Dr. Field’s writing assignments. In order to mark up students’ work, ensure they’re on the right track and writing like scientists, Dr. Field requires a first draft for all of her writing assignments. She leaves it ungraded to keep the stakes low and gear it more toward the purpose of learning, but students are required to hand in this draft in order to receive credit. This strategy is in line with the WAC goals involving “writing to learn,” and slowly teaches students how to “write to communicate” in their discipline. These goals, outlined effectively by Susan McLeod in “The Pedagogy of Writing Across the Curriculum,” can aid in students’ understanding of material as they write to work through their thoughts, as well as their understanding of the expectations of writing within their discipline.
As for what she looks for in her students’ writing, Dr. Field asks for the work to be succinct. There shouldn’t be any wordiness, but often students find it hard to cut out the extra things they think they need to say, “‘the data derived from the research shows that A equals B’ when they could just say ‘A equals B,’” she added. Since some articles in the scientific community have word limits, shorter is better. She states that some writers from other fields may think it sounds rude to “just put it out there,” but to scientists, the quick relay of information “starts to look correct.” In addition to succinctness of writing, Dr. Field actually doesn’t like reports to be written entirely in passive voice. “Something didn’t happen all by itself. You have to have a subject in there,” she stated. She does admit that it takes some balancing, but entirely passive papers tend to sound “very awkward.”
Of course, like most educators, Dr. Field looks for proper grammar in her students’ writing. While she knows it isn’t her job — and realistically, it shouldn’t be her job — she explained “I kind of think of it as being my job,” and marks up papers for their grammatical errors as well as content and form. This is a difficult choice on her part because she is aware that students aren’t required to take grammar courses, and grammar may not be covered in public primary or secondary schools, so many students simply haven’t received an education on proper grammar. This grammar issue puts educators in a position where they must decide whether or not they’ll mark students down for grammatical errors. For Dr. Field, grammar is important enough to affect students’ grades, but she gives them the opportunity to revise and resubmit in order to raise that grade.
Incorporating lessons on writing into an existing course in the major can be a difficult task, but Dr. Field manages to provide her students with information on both emerging infectious diseases and writing like a medical professional. Educators like Dr. Field are giving students the opportunity to practice these skills prior to entering the professional world, preparing these scientists for their future careers in research and medicine.
“Dr. Kate Field.” Personal interview. 21 Oct. 2016
Carter, Michael. “Ways of Knowing, Doing, and Writing in the Disciplines.” Writing Across the Curriculum: A Critical Sourcebook. Terry Myers Zawacki and Paul M. Rogers. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2012. Print. Bedford/St. Martin’s Ser. in Rhetoric and Composition.
McLeod, Susan, “The Pedagogy of Writing Across the Curriculum.” Writing Across the Curriculum: A Critical Sourcebook. Terry Myers Zawacki and Paul M. Rogers. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2012. Print. Bedford/St. Martin’s Ser. in Rhetoric and Composition.