By Claire Roth (MA 2017), WIC GTA

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.

By Kristina Lum, (MA 2016, SWLF) WIC GTA, and Natalie Saleh, (MA 2017, SWLF) WIC Intern

Chris Thaiss, Clark Kerr Presidential Chair and Professor in the University Writing Program at the University of California Davis, visited Oregon State on May 13, 2016 to provide a workshop for STEM faculty and spoke at the last Spring Series WIC Lunch. He shared his techniques of rhetorical approaches to STEM reading and writing at both events, and the following is a summary of some main points from a rich day of faculty development.

According to Chris Thaiss, a rhetorical approach to STEM reading and writing “relies on tradition in science communication studies of analyzing 1) the argumentative structure of scientific articles and 2) differences in scientific writing for specialist and non-specialist readers.” This approach focuses on analyses of purpose, audience, genre, style and graphics in science writing, allowing for students to better understand how certain elements of science writing communicate meaning in their field.

Thaiss explained that a rhetorically-aware teaching approach also emphasizes the connection between reading and writing. He says, “I don’t think I could teach writing in this field without teaching reading in this field.” Critical reading skills can introduce students to important rhetorical principles behind scientific writing genres. Thaiss encourages the use of critical reading heuristics to improve students critical reading skills and help them recognize how science writing differs across genres. These heuristics require students to analyze differences in science writing in six different areas: purposes, audiences, types of evidence, order of information, tone and style, and graphic elements.

When designing rhetorically-aware writing assignments, Thaiss recommends incorporating the same heuristic topics from his critical reading assignments. These heuristics help students better understand how different elements of their writing can be clearer and more effective. For instance, asking “Who are the readers?” and “How can they use the writing?” can help students address their audience rather than write to a nebulous “general public.” Thaiss also emphasized the importance of scaffolding to help guide students through their writing process.

Thaiss advocates for a continuous cycle of thoughtful assessment that includes peers and instructors. He explained that a common problem with STEM writing feedback is that it tends to focus on grammar. This problem is particularly prevalent when instructors respond to second language speakers’ writing. As a result, those students do not receive much feedback on the actual content of their writing.

One examples of Thaiss’ own rhetorically-aware assignments and documents are provided below:

Comparative Document Analysis

  • “Compare three articles (on the same specific topic of your choice). One should be from a peer-reviewed journal,  another from a popular news publication, a third from a science blog or government report”
  • “Using the heuristic, identify the purposes and audiences for each article.”
  • “How do the writers of these articles use
    •      (1) types of evidence
    •      (2) order of information
    •      (3) tone and style, and
    •      (4) graphic elements

to achieve their purposes for their target audiences?”

Heuristic for Critical Reading in Science Table








Rpmatsuda_bigBy WIC Team

Paul Matsuda, Professor of English and Director of Second Language Writing at Arizona State University and an international leader in the teaching of second language (L2) writing, visited Oregon State on Feb 11, 2016, to host workshops and share strategies for teaching and assessing L2 writing. He conducted workshops for tutors in the OSU Writing Center and for graduate teaching assistants in the Writing program.  He also presented a lecture entitled “Writing Assessment in the Linguistically Diverse Classroom.”

Matsuda’s afternoon presentation addressed issues that many WIC instructors encounter when assessing L2 writing and provided concrete strategies to address these issues.

Assessing vs. Evaluating

Matsuda explained the difference between assessment and evaluation of writing. Assessment is “formative,” and includes observing writing performance, monitoring progress, and providing feedback. Evaluation, on the other hand, is “summative,” and includes grading and ranking. Based on this distinction, Matsuda explains that grammar should be “assessed” rather than “evaluated.”

Dealing with Error in L2 Writing

Matsuda observed that faculty are often concerned about errors in L2 writing, but the fact is that L2 writing improves very slowly and only with lots of practice.  Rather than focusing on errors, he recommended, teachers might:

  • Focus on content, organization, and other elements of writing that L2 writers can address and improve upon
  • Focus comments on specific areas for development, not on deficits
  • Limit grammar to, say, ten per cent of the total grade
  • Add points for language improvement
  • Include reflective assignments such as grammar logs, portfolios, and self and peer assessment, all of which research has shown to benefit L2 writers.

Because students frequently misunderstand written feedback, teachers can mitigate this misunderstanding both by paying particular attention the clarity of feedback and by conferencing with L2 and with all students. Not grading grammar or minimally grading it helps encourage students to see writing as something more than a system of grammatical rules. However, in the case where grammar is an extremely important component of an assignment, Matsuda suggests that the percentage grammar is worth be proportional to the grammatical instruction and feedback the teacher provides.

Reflective writing also provides a valuable opportunity for students to examine their writing practices. Students might turn in a letter or process memo with their assignment responding to these questions:

  • What did you struggle with in your writing?
  • What issues do you want the instructor to address in their feedback?
  • What aspects of this assignment are you proud of?

Matsuda recommends that teachers take every opportunity to make the improvement of second language writing a collaborative process.