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








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