This issue of Teaching with Writing gives you a chance to meet Dr. Kate Field, one of OSU’s most experienced and thoughtful WIC instructors; to explore genres of written communication in the OSU Open Source Lab, guided by WIC intern Amanda Kelner, who works for the OSL; to review “take-aways” from the WIC spring lunch panels; and to celebrate the undergraduate recipients of the WIC Culture of Writing Awards in the disciplines. This is also a time for me to thank the hardworking faculty who have taught WIC courses this year. Read more.
For an assignment in WR420/520 Writing Across the Curriculum, OSU junior English major Aleah Hobbs interviewed Dr. Kate Field, Director of the BioResource Research program, Director of OSU’s Bioenergy Project, and professor of writing intensive courses in microbiology, about how she teaches students to write in the field of microbiology. Read more.
Oregon State is home to the nationally renowned Open Source Lab (OSL), which is grounded in open source technology and projects. We wanted to know more about how writing and documentation played out in the open source world. Our WIC intern, Amanda Kelner, who is also the staff writer and media coordinator for the OSL, sat down with Director Lance Albertson to learn more. Read more.
The WIC Team is happy to report on the success of our WIC Spring Lunch Series 2017. Over the course of four weeks, the presentations and conversations facilitated in Milam 215 served as both proof and enrichment of the writing culture across Oregon State campus. Attendees included everyone from tenured faculty to graduate teaching assistants. The varied spectrum of experience led to rich discussions on writing pedagogies. Read more.
WIC and participating units strive to foster a commitment to excellence in undergraduate student writing and recognize the value of writing across the disciplines with the annual Culture of Writing Awards. Participation in the Culture of Writing Awards has thrived since 2006 as students earn recognition and cash awards through either individual or team writing projects. This year, participation continues to be strong. WIC would like to thank all participating units for their continued desire to recognize and reward outstanding student writing. Read more.
The WIC Faculty Seminar for the 2017-2018 school year will be held in fall term. Faculty interested in participating should ask their unit heads to email a nomination to WIC director Vicki Tolar Burton at firstname.lastname@example.org. The seminar is designed for faculty teaching WIC courses and faculty using writing in non-WIC courses, as it focuses on learning best practices for teaching writing across the disciplines. Upon completing the five-session seminar, participating faculty receive a modest honorarium. Read more.
Oregon State is home to an ever expanding computer science program. It is also home to a few computer science organizations that deal with projects beyond the scope of the university. One such organization is the Open Source Lab (OSL), which is grounded in open source technology and projects. Our WIC intern, Amanda Kelner, is an undergraduate studying music performance and English at OSU and is also the staff writer and media coordinator for the OSL. We wanted to know more about how writing and documentation played out in the open source world. Kelner sat down with Director Lance Albertson to learn more.
In an age of competition and ownership, the OSL and the larger open source community is working to expand a new frontier of accessibility and transparency in technology and information. The OSL is a hosting and development center for open source projects that often come from outside the lab and the university (from companies such as Facebook and IBM), as well as an experiential learning program for students in computer science. Students receive hands-on interaction with the coding and development process of real world projects. The projects the lab and other open source centers work on are exclusively focused on open source technology and software. Open source is the belief and implementation of free access to the internet and its technologies. Everything the OSL does is visible to the public in some way. Thus, user documentation is viewable by the public.
Documentation comes in many forms. While computer science does involve a great deal of code, it is just as important if not more so to document work. Documentation is an important part of the development process, both for interested parties and collaborators. Consider the function of lab reports. Lab reports detail the process with which an experiment is completed, including questions, methods, data, and interpretations. The lab report allows other scientists to review and possibly replicate the experiment. The same general principle applies to documentation in computer science. It describes anything from product function to code development to online information. The structure of this documentation varies depending on the purpose, but the goals are all the same: transparency.
In a recent convention known as PyCon, open source documentation was broken down into four genres: tutorials, how-to guides, discussions, and references. Each serves a different function depending on what the documenter is trying to accomplish. Tutorials are learning-oriented, how-tos are problem-oriented, discussions are understanding-oriented, and references are information-oriented. Albertson states all of these documentation styles are important to circulate information. “You use different types of documentation for different things. If you’re a developer looking up quick information, you would use some sort of reference manual, but if you want to see how a project was developed, you might look to the discussions the developers carried out online to figure out how they came to write a specific line of code.”
Git is one example of a program that not only facilities documentation, but stores this documentation and other data. Git is a decentralized version control system, which means it hosts and stores metadata, or data that informs or describes other data. Many programmers use Git during all phases of their development process and other Git users can view what they do. It is free to the public and a major documentation platform for open source users, which has been in operation for nearly a decade and is still used prevalently, even in a world of fast changing technology.
Programs like Git also keep track of who does what to any given project. Because open source means open access, this also allows for other developers to work on a project licensed by someone else. Every developer has their own account, so when they make changes to the code, Git, and programs like it, keep track of this. “All the history of who owns what is in the sourcecode,” Albertson says.
According to Albertson, this is an ideal situation. Often, documentation lags behind the real work. As projects progress, some developers may not put as much time in documentation as they do in the actual coding. To combat this, Albertson says, “At the lab, we try to have fresh eyes review our documentation. They tell us when something doesn’t make sense, or when it’s not working, and we work together to update and fix it.” This form of peer review is an important part of the development process at the lab. Not only documentation, but code is also reviewed by both students and full-time professionals.
The OSL works hard to continuously encourage and facilitate documentation among its workers. Like students in the capstone for WIC students in computer science, OSL students must relate to basic rhetoric, such as audience, genre, and language. The goals are all the same: transparency. As the open source community urges the next generation towards the next frontier of open access, the information and documentation must reflect the diligence and transparency of the ideology. Only then will the open source initiative and the OSL create a sustainable foundation.
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
Writing in a Microbiology Classroom: An Interview with Dr. Kate Field
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.
The OSU Writing Center is undergoing a major transformation from a one-to-one consulting model to what is called a studio model. Writing Studio director Dennis Bennett shared with us those new changes and the ways those changes affect WIC faculty and students.
As of January 2017, the former OSU Undergraduate Writing Center transitioned into a new pedagogical model and format–the Undergraduate Writing Studio.
Prior to the model shift, the Writing Center followed a “fairly traditional, middle of the road” pedagogical model, said Bennett. Under this model, student writers met with writing assistants for one-on-one conferences that lasted 45 minutes on average. During this time, writing assistants addressed what are known as high to low order concerns; writing assistants guided the session through big picture concerns such as organization, content, and adhering to the assignment before moving on to line level concerns such as sentence structure and grammar and conventions. This is a standard model for a significant portion of post-secondary writing centers across the United States.
The new Undergrad Writing Studio departs from this model in significant ways. First, the Studio no longer offers undergraduate appointments. Students walk in and fill out a form detailing basic student and class/assignment information. Students explain what concerns they would like to address. Flip charts on workstations in the Studio inform studio consultants when students would like to work on their own and when they need help.
The studio model emphasizes real-time feedback and the studio as a workspace. Students are encouraged to bring their assignment sheets, unfinished or unstarted drafts, and come prepared to work. Many students bring their laptops to work on their projects, although it is not required. Bennett says the focus is to “create a space for writing” supplemented by feedback from studio consultants.
“The process itself is cyclical. Students propose some writing that the studio consultant critiques and the student then iterates these changes which they propose once more to the studio consultant and the process continues until the student is satisfied with their work,” he said.
In response to the question, “why did the change occur?” Bennett shared that the move to the Studio model stemmed from a new pedagogical goal. The new model is meant to work two-fold, first by helping students “build competence” through learning to ask for specific help on issues in their work as they construct and edit it. Second, the new model acts to “catch the moment of kairos.” According to Bennett, this means making the writing studio a place to write. So, as questions come up during the writing process, consultants are available to respond to those relevant questions in that very “moment of kairos.” The benefit for students is that they are not just told how to be better writers, they are given the environment in which to do so.
This model moves students away from binge-writing and into incremental, process-oriented writing. Bennett explained that advanced writers tend to use this process naturally. Rather than critiquing an entire paper at once, the writer will ask a friend or colleague to review a small piece of the paper as they are writing it. The studio model simply applies this concept in a collaborative, academic setting. This shift is important for the Writing Studio’s proposed relocation to the OSU Valley Library, which could be as early as next fall; the studio model complements the natural work and study environment of a library.
What is more important is to note what has not changed. The Undergraduate Writing Studio still provides students the same benefits the Writing Center did before the shift. The studio is staffed with mostly student studio consultants, from a variety of majors, including STEM majors, all of whom receive pedagogical training prior to beginning their work at the studio. In addition, consultants receive weekly one-hour training session during the course of each quarter.
Regardless of session-specific changes, consultants continue to offer feedback, support and help on writing issues large and small, providing students with all the attention they require. On the whole, Bennett advocates for “a universal design approach” that allows for flexibility and intentionality when adjusting to student-specific needs.
For example, one common issue for English Language Learners (ELLs) is grammar. An old approach would require the consultant to spend time explaining and pointing out examples. The new model asks students to build independence in the process of collaboration and feedback.
In an instance where a student is struggling with article usage (‘a’ vs. ‘the’), a consultant might say, “I’m noticing issues with articles. Why don’t you highlight all the nouns and we can talk about those.” This approach breaks down a more complex task into smaller, more digestible tasks, helping students build independence, one move at a time. “You have to be more specific and mindful,” Bennett said, but the overarching goal of placing the responsibility on the student to bring forward concerns works regardless of specialized needs.
But what does this all mean for WIC courses? Even previous to the shift, Bennett reported that the Writing Studio has established relationship with WIC faculty to assist WIC students with their work. Then, and now, Writing Studio consultant-WIC student dynamics depend on a balance between student understanding of class material and consultant’s ability to ask process questions. When it comes to discipline-specific content, Bennett said, “the student needs to be the expert,” but “we can still ask questions about what their process is like.” Ultimately though, “the more we know, the more we can help,” Bennett said.
WIC faculty can aid WIC student writing studio sessions by providing their assignment-specific goals and expectations to the Writing Studio and its studio consultants. Bennett encouraged faculty to meet with him in person to share any course materials “so we can review assignment resources and student learning outcomes together and ensure that we’re on the same page.” Because most WIC courses discuss discipline-specific ideas and conventions, professors should contact Bennett and articulate what they would like their students to accomplish at the Writing Studio and how the studio consultants can help achieve these goals.
“The Writing Center [Studio] would love to work with WIC faculty,” Bennett said.
For more information on the Writing Studio’s other resources available to WIC instructors, go to the Writing Center’s Faculty Information Page or contact Bennett directly.
In October, in place of a mid-term exam, I asked my students in WR420/520 Writing Across the Curriculum 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 readings in the course as they arose naturally. In this article, Julia Malye interviewed Lee Ann Garrison, Director of the School of Arts and Communication, about teaching writing in the fine arts. Julia Malye is a graduate student from France and author of the novels La fiancée de Tocqueville (2010), Thémoé (2013), and Les fantômes de Christopher Dorner (2016). She is working on her MFA in fiction here at OSU.
-Vicki Tolar Burton, WIC Director
By Julia Malye, (MFA 2017, SWLF) SWLF GTA
The office of Lee Ann Garrison, director of the School of Arts and Communication, is covered with paintings. A first sign that words matter for this fine arts professor, who also writes poetry, is that she is “never ever not reading a novel.” I tell professor Garrison about the change one can witness in French art schools; when my mother graduated from Camondo (Paris) in 1976, her degree did not entail any writing component. Nowadays, Camondo students take mandatory writing classes from their first year on and all the way to graduation. Professor Garrison explains to me that she had a similar experience as she went to school around the same time as my mother did. So, how did this change occur over the years? Interestingly enough, Professor Garrison does not start with defining good writing; rather, she jumps right in with concrete examples of writing assignments.
She first mentions an exercise which heavily relies on writing – the goal being for students to familiarize themselves with describing art. Students go on a field trip to an art museum where they are asked to choose an art piece and sit in front of it for forty-five minutes. What do they see? They are encouraged to slow down and list everything they notice, without referring to their emotions or personal experience. This list will evolve as they include research about the artist and then turn it into a one-page essay that they bring to class. “They have to read out loud. If you can’t read it, it means it isn’t in your words,” adds Professor Garrison. I can’t help remembering Flaubert’s gueuloir (from gueuler, to yell), for whom reading in a loud voice was the ultimate test for good writing. Professor Garrison goes on explaining to me that the students do peer-review in class, where she encourages them to work on their word choice and to revisit the structure of their essays so that “the more important ideas are at the top of the page.” I am surprised to see how much she emphasizes revision, insisting on the fact that “the first draft isn’t the last draft.”
The activity shows student writing as a multi-faceted process, as they start with more informal writing – listing what they see – then move on to research, introducing others’ voices in their paper, and finally write down their thoughts before working as community in class to better structure and convey their ideas. I find it interesting that the activity is divided in multiple stages, so that the students can’t just sit and write their essay all at once. Between the moment they come up with the list and the moment they do research, they gain some perspective on what they have written – and one could say the same about the first and last draft of their essay. This activity invites the students to see writing as a process, which echoes Herrington’s conception of writing, as a “discovery process” (127). Hence, this first assignment deconstructs the idea of an immediate perfection, of a final product – something that the students will probably apply to their own artwork, as they will go on polishing what they have first produced.
Professor Garrison mentions another writing assignment, the artist statement that seniors need to present at the gallery as they exhibit their final work. Since they read it out loud in front of the public, I take the opportunity to ask her about audience – to what extent she emphasizes rhetorical awareness to her students. Her response is immediate: the students are taught about and familiarized with different audiences. The artist statement is not only addressed to faculty members, but also to students’ peers, who have witnessed the evolution of the project. Other assignments allow students to target wider audiences; for example, Professor Garrison’s husband, a professor and art critic, gives the students the opportunity to polish one of their articles and publish it on an online student magazine, The Corvallis Review. If they want to, he also offers to work some more on their writing, so that it could eventually be published in an art magazine. Once again, revision is emphasized as a key part of the writing process; the students come to realize that by keeping in mind who their readers are, they will need to write differently. It isn’t about “doing school” anymore, either. Rather, they are stepping into the world of art, jumping into a broader conversation and adding their personal insights on a defined topic.
Students majoring in fine arts must be able to write about other artists in order to build a discourse around their own artistic product. Now that I have a better idea of what students’ writing goals are in this discipline, I ask Professor Garrison to define what “good writing” means to her and her colleagues. I share with her Chris Thaiss’s idea that defining good writing in one’s own discipline is one of the main areas of difficulty for teachers of writing in the majors. She first mentions efficiency and clarity, before adding that it should engage the reader, coming full circle with this focus on rhetorical awareness. One of these elements surprises me, as it hasn’t been discussed much in our articles: good writing in fine arts must be beautiful. And what could be more natural for a discipline with a focal point on aesthetics? Professor Garrison goes further, illustrating her point: “I used to teach a class with 350 students. I would tell them ‘If I’ve already read 328 papers and the 329th one is beautifully written, then I will forget about the number of essays I had to grade.’”
Then, what kind of common mistakes would remind her of the crushing number of papers she has to give feedback on? Considering her previous comment on “beautiful writing” (and a part of me wonders how one would clearly define that), it isn’t a surprise when she mentions poor sentence structure and students starting with clichés like “I feel this” or “it caught my eye” rather than jumping right into their own analysis. Professor Garrison adds: “Then there is the paragraph issue, students writing in one block.” This last comment struck me as perhaps particular to fine arts students, since it goes back to something which is visual before anything else, and therefore struck the artist’s eye: an essay with only one paragraph feels rushed and doesn’t invite readers to immerse themselves in the text. Next I ask what kind of strategies she applies to help her students better organize their thoughts. Professor Garrison goes back to the first activity she mentioned, and the peer-review work in class where the students are invited to tackle those sentence-level issues and move around paragraphs in order to clearly structure their ideas. She also mentions the rubric that she hands out for the writing assignment; to her, the grading guide is more important for the student as they are working on the assignment than after.
Professor Garrison is a firm believer in the general education that students need beside their major. She considers that implementing more writing components at Oregon State University has been successful. Still, there seems to be room for improvement, when she recalls this one student who once had the courage to tell her about the research paper they had to work on: “You know you keep on telling us that it’s a short paper. Only 2000 words. We’ve never written that much before.” This student was a senior at the time.
I asked Professor Garrison if she could compare how writing is included in the OSU curriculum with other universities where she had previously taught. Professor Garrison tells me about another concern faculty members have; she remembers a former colleague confiding in her, “I can’t teach writing, I’m a painter.” To which she replied: “You’re a college professor and you can.” This seems extremely interesting to me, this idea that the reticence of certain faculty members can be hiding anxiety – the feeling that they are not expert in this field, that when it comes to writing they don’t have the comfort one has in their own discipline. I couldn’t help thinking about Sommers and Saltz, who argued that the students who would grow as writers would be the ones who accept to be novices again, who “discover they can ‘give and get’ something through writing” (304). This idea could also be applied to professors. How to help them gain confidence in teaching writing, how could one convince them of the importance to be novice in this field? If faculty members attend WIC workshops, they have an opportunity to discuss together the issues they face and if they are the ones coming up with solutions, then they remain the experts in their field, which might help them deal with the anxiety expressed by Professor Garrison’s painter colleague.
I have one last question for Professor Garrison. Talking to a fine arts professor, I can’t help remembering where Thaiss wonders if, considering the democratization of technologies, one should expand the definition of writing to “a greater variety of ‘written products’” such as “visuals-and-text magazines, radio, television, CDs, live theater, Web sites, MOOs” (91). When I mention this idea, Professor Garrison smiles. The answer is yes; to her, writing, just like drawing or painting is about communicating, conveying a message. “When I write a poem or when I paint, I’m commenting on my time.” With such a conception of writing, it is no wonder that Lee Ann Garrison is so involved in incorporating writing component in her course. One can only hope that she convinces more painters that they know how to write, and not only with their brush.
Herrington, Anne J. “Writing to Learn: Writing Across the Disciplines.” Zawacki and Rogers, pp. 118-127.
Sommers, Nancy, and Laura Saltz. “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year.” Zawacki and Rogers, pp. 290-309.
Thaiss, Christopher. “Theory in WAC: Where Have We Been, Where Are We Going.” Zawacki and Rogers, pp. 85-99.
Scientist and best-selling science fiction author David Brin visited Oregon State’s campus in the beginning of October, an event made possible by the collaborative project “SPARK: Arts + Science @ OSU.” Brin gave a well-attended lecture open to the Corvallis community, visited classes and labs on campus, and conducted a small workshop and interdisciplinary conversation about sci-fi prototyping, all in the short time he spent with us. Brin talked enthusiastically about the potential for writing collaboration between the sciences and the humanities. His ideas could have an exciting impact on Oregon State’s writing culture.
To understand the potential for Brin’s ideas to create more collaborative writing projects on campus, I asked two of our faculty, Dr. Raymond Malewitz and Dr. Bill Smart, to comment on Brin’s lecture and workshop.
Raymond Malewitz is an assistant professor in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film and is the director of the MA program in English. His research and writing projects primarily focus on the intersections between literature, science, environmental concerns, and material culture. Dr. Malewitz introduced David Brin before his lecture titled “Adaptations: Storytelling in Novels and Film.”
Bill Smart is an associate professor in the School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering. His research in robotics aims primarily at the intersection between humans and robots. He also does work in machine learning with an emphasis on strategies for training long-term robot actions. Dr. Smart was one of the coordinators and facilitators of David Brin’s workshop on sci-fi prototyping.
Question 1: David Brin made the comment that if a person can prove their chops, then they can invade other fields. Do you ever find yourself “invading” other fields during your research? If so, which fields did you find most surprising or unexpected?
Malewitz: “As a scholar of science and lit, I invade fields all the time, which has led to some fascinating conversations with people far removed from English lit. Last year, I met with a veterinary scientist at OSU to discuss the surveillance of zoonotic diseases (diseases that spread between animals and humans). During the conversation, we both reflected on the significance of the fact that reverse zoonoses (humans infecting animals) are poorly represented in lit and culture, which may reflect upon our own biases regarding our status within the animal kingdom.”
Smart: “All the time. Since I work in robotics, I’m forced to dabble in a lot of other fields to get things working. I’m a computer scientist by training, but I dip into mechanical engineering, mathematics, psychology, art, and a number of other fields in the course of my research. None of this is particularly deep, but I do get the chance to talk to and collaborate with domain experts in all of these areas. I find psychology the most unexpected, since it’s the field that I know least about. It’s also the one where I think that I learn the most, probably because of the excellent set of collaborators that I work with.”
Question 2: Brin described science fiction writing as “speculative history,” then connected the idea to the workshop by calling it an exercise in “speculative technology.” To what extent does speculation appear in your field? What kinds of speculative work do you find yourself doing?
Malewitz: “Speculative fiction is near and dear to me. In recent articles, I’ve written about how emerging and future technologies affect human behavior and our sense of orientation within the world—something that fiction can do quite well. For example, I’ve become interested in the ways that enormous clean energy projects—wind and solar farms, etc.—affect our understanding of regionalism, which in American literature tends to be preoccupied with natural rather than artificial elements of the landscape. I’ve also written about a great recent novel by Gary Shteyngart called Super Sad True Love Story, which speculates on the future (or current) effects of social media on politics.”
Smart: “I think that, in robotics, you [speculate] all the time. You have to imagine how these new things will change our lives, and how they will integrate with the way we do things now. Part of that is doing what-if experiments with technology, and then trying to close the gap between what we can do now and the scenario the what-if creates. My hunch is that a lot of research proceeds in this way.”
Question 3: One of the results of our time with David Brin is a possibility for collaborative projects between writers, scientists, and engineers here at Oregon State. What do you think your field could gain from this collaborative relationship? What kinds of projects would you hope to see evolve?
Malewitz: “Some great collaborative possibilities are starting to emerge at OSU under the umbrella category of “Environmental Humanities,” which attempts to represent the dynamic features of our environment in ways similar to the manner by which historians, literary scholars, and philosophers represent human activity. This fusion works quite nicely when applied to things that fall between the categories of the social and natural worlds, including anthropogenic climate change, stem cell research, and artificial modes of human and nonhuman reproduction.”
Smart: “I’d really like to see a science fiction prototyping group emerge here on campus. A group of people familiar with the technologies we use (particularly in robotics, which is my thing), who write short, near-future speculative fiction to frame the sorts of technological and ethical questions that we should be thinking about today. Ideally this group would comprise both writers and technologists, since getting us to think critically about our technology is an important part of the process.”
Most of our WIC Program focuses on writing as it appears in our separate disciplines. David Brin’s visit and the enthusiasm of both Dr. Malewitz and Dr. Smart prove there is something to be said for writing across disciplines as well. We work hard to prepare students to write well during their professional lives. It’s also worthwhile to remind students while they are here that they have an opportunity for collaboration unique to college life. Where else but a college campus is it so convenient to explore writing with someone outside your discipline? My hope for our campus is to see the collaborative projects described above come to life as our writing culture at Oregon State continues to grow.
For each spring WIC newsletter, we ask undergraduates who have won a WIC Culture of Writing Award to share writing advice with students following in their major. From time to time we also ask past winners who are several years out of OSU to tell us about writing in the workplace. Claire Ranit, graduate from the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, won a Culture of Writing Award in 2012 for her paper titled “The Interplay of Accountable Care Organizations and Antitrust Regulations.” We asked Claire several questions about where she is now and what writing advice she would give fellow writers.
Ranit explained, “Currently I have my own healthcare consulting business with one large grant-based, multi-year contract as a Project Director and a few other small contracts intermittently. My main work focuses on teaching a three county community on ACEs, Trauma Theory, and Trauma Informed Care. Writing is required daily in my role as Project Director including but not limited to strategic plan development, proposal development, and grant proposals.”
“My advice to undergraduates in the College of Public Health is to start as early as possible in the term on any writing projects. Get an outline together in the first couple weeks of the course and start drafting work. Most instructors are willing to look over multiple iterations of a written work so by the end of the term there is no need to cram and you can be confident in receiving a high grade on your work.”
“Having learned how to write proposals would have been beneficial in the program, especially in the healthcare field. A lot of graduates work with doctors on some level and it’s important to be able to present the whole picture succinctly. Early on I adopted the SBAR (situation, background, assessment, recommendation) framework and expanded on details where needed.”
We want to thank Ranit for her excellent advice and encourage our WIC faculty to begin watching for student papers of distinction. Details on nominating student papers for 2017 WIC Culture of Writing Awards will appear in our Winter 2017 Newsletter.
Sally Hacker is a community ecologist and professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at Oregon State University. Among other research and teaching responsibilities, Dr. Hacker developed and co-instructs a 15-credit marine biology WIC course (BI 450 Marine Biology), which is offered every spring at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon. Admission to BI 450 Marine Biology is competitive; students who are accepted into the course live in Newport for the term and take only this one class. In the following excerpts from a longer interview with WIC program intern Natalie Salah, Dr. Hacker discusses her background as a community ecologist, the structure of BI 450, and the kinds of writing students do in this course.
Natalie Saleh: Can you give a brief explanation of what you do as a community ecologist?
Sally Hacker: As a marine community ecologist, I look at how species interact with one another in natural systems on the coast. My current research focuses on the role of species interactions and coastal oceanography in structuring coastal ecosystems including rocky shores, estuaries, and sand dunes. In other words, I study how the physical forces from the ocean influence the ecology on the shoreline.
NS: What inspired you to study community ecology?
SH: I was inspired when I was an undergraduate at the University of Washington. I was really interested in marine biology and ended up going out to Friday Harbor Marine Labs up in the San Juan Islands. I really liked studying animals and working in coastal habitats and being outside. I fell in love with community ecology and ended up going on to graduate school and choosing it as my life’s work.
NS: How long have you been at Oregon State?
SH: I have been here for 11 years. Before coming to OSU, I was a faculty member at Washington State University in Vancouver, Washington.
NS: Can you tell me about the WIC course you teach?
SH: Marine Biology (BI 450) is a WIC class where students spend the term at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. The class is divided into six one- to two-week sections, which focus on different topics and are taught by different faculty. The topics covered in the course are marine invertebrates, marine fishes, marine algae, community ecology, marine conservation, and a final research project of the students’ choosing. I teach the first two weeks, which focuses on marine invertebrates, and the last two weeks, which focuses on the final project.
In the last two weeks, the students take all the knowledge they have gained during the prior eight weeks to design their own research project. The projects involve some kind of research outside in the field or inside the laboratory. The students collect data, and then they write a scientific paper based on that data. Then they present their projects to the class, and we invite everyone from Hatfield to come for their presentations.
NS: What does the average day look like for students in BI 450?
SH: Oh, it’s really long. It depends, but we are often in the field by 6 a.m, if that is when the low tides are. Fieldwork might include walking around, identifying species, collecting some of them to bring back to the lab, taking notes. We might spend two or three hours out there.
The rest of the day usually includes a couple of lectures and a few hours of lab work. Sometimes at night, there are special lectures. We will have somebody come in and talk about their work or their research or about what it’s like to be in graduate school. During the first week, we schedule a lot of evening activities so that people can get to know each other.
The course instructors are always beat by the end of our two weeks of teaching. We’re basically working all day long, and there’s no time to do anything other than be part of that teaching experience. But after our two weeks, the students are still there. They love it, but it’s pretty intense. They’re really devoting ten weeks of their life to that class, away from Corvallis, not being around their friends. But most people who do it say it’s the best class they ever took at OSU.
NS: What kinds of writing do students do in BI 450?
SH: They do all kinds of writing, but the major formal assignment is a scientific paper about their final project. To do that, we teach them how to write different parts of the paper in each section of the course, so by the time they actually write their papers they know what they are doing.
We also have them write an op-ed in the conservation section of the course, about a topic they are interested in. They have to take a side and write an opinion about the topic. This is a really different writing style than scientific writing, so it gets them out of their comfort zone.
We have a blog for this course, and students are responsible every week for writing a blog post in which they reflect on what happened that week. It is informal writing; the only requirement is that they write about their experiences in the course, try to spell things correctly, and make sure it is PG-13!The blog is really fun for the professors too, because you can find out what the students are up to in the sections you aren’t teaching.
The course involves a lot of memorization of species names. To help with this, one instructor has the students make ID cards. She gives them a certain group of marine algae that they have to work with, and then they have to teach the other students about that group of algae, using the ID cards.
The students always have notebooks out in the field to record their observations. Just taking notes is a skill, especially when it’s pouring down rain. Taking the time to observe something about a given species and write their observations down on paper can help quite a bit in learning about the species.
NS: Going back to the formal writing assignment, can you give some examples of final projects students have done?
SH: They do all kinds of projects. The Hatfield visitors’ center has a resident octopus living in one of the tanks. It is really popular. Students have done projects looking at how octopuses find and determine whether something is prey. For example, one project involved trying to trick an octopus with a plastic crab versus a real crab to see if the octopus can detect which is which. The octopus of course picks the real crab, because octopuses are really smart.
Other students have investigated limpet feeding or fish foraging behavior in the intertidal zone. Also there are a lot of projects looking at crabs—where they live, their habitat preferences, and how they avoid being eaten. And there have been projects about the behavior of mother and baby seals. Students will look at harbor seals and examine how often the baby seals feed. Some students have looked at whether seals are scared by boats or are disturbed by people.
NS: What advantages do you see about writing the scientific paper in such a condensed time frame?
SH: I think it gives students a sense of accomplishment to be able to complete a research project from start to finish in two weeks. It’s a culminating project, pulling from all they have learned over the prior eight weeks of the course about how to do research, write a research paper, and give a talk. My experience is that they are excited to finally sit down and write their own paper on the discoveries they have made. All the preparation they have had for that moment unleashes a sense of independence and accomplishment that is great to see as a professor.
NS: In what ways do students help each other on the final project?
SH: They can work in groups of up to three (some do work alone though) and they help each other with all aspects of the project from writing the proposal to collecting data to analyzing their data to reading each other’s work. But they are all responsible for their own papers in the end.
NS: How do you think the genres that aren’t typical in science fields, like the blogs, help students learn the course concepts?
SH: I think it helps them a lot, because they are not pressured by getting the writing right. They are just thinking about communicating something to somebody else.
NS: What do you think is the main advantage of taking the 15-credit marine biology course as opposed to more traditional classes at OSU?
SH: What people have told me is that they benefit from being immersed in marine biology all the time. The students don’t have anything else to think about but this class. The class is also split up into sections, and once a section is done, it’s done. I think students quickly realize that that’s a really good way to learn, because they are not thinking about multiple topics and trying to get many different projects done at the same time.
They also meet so many people at the marine lab. There are many people who work for the state and the federal agencies, so students get to meet people who can help them potentially get a job, further their career, or help with their research. It really benefits the students once they leave OSU.