Providing Ongoing Writing Experiences
Last year, Dr. Marc Mergy, a 2018-2019 Integrating Writing into STEM grant recipient, was instrumental in building a successful partnership with introductory biology (BIOB 260) courses. Through his work with Drs. Haley Dunkel and Christa Merzdorf, over 500 students participated in tutor-facilitated, in-class writing groups, collaborating with tutors and peers to refine lab reports and article summaries.
Building on that success, Dr. Mergy collaborated with the Writing Center again this year, providing the opportunity for his students, many of whom were in the BIOB 260 class last year, to broaden their thinking about the types of writing experiences they might encounter as a scientist.
One of Dr. Mergy’s personal and professional values is communicating effectively with different audiences. His “Genetics in Society” assignment arose out of that value and was sparked by a presentation at last year’s WAMSU Showcase. He reconfigured his Biomedical Genetics (BIOH 320) course to include both an essay and presentation tailored to general audiences, creating the opportunity for students to engage in thinking through how scientists effectively communicate to a public audience. Throughout the semester, students participated in writing studios facilitated by Writing Center tutors and could consult with Fellows, former students who offered tutoring in content development.
In Spring 2020, Dr. Mergy continued to build on the foundations he had begun in earlier courses. In his Neuroscience of Mental Illness (BIOH 440) course, he created a simulated grant-writing experience for his students with an optional one-credit writing studio component. Students who chose the studio option would meet an additional hour each week to share their work through the writing studio model. Nearly all of his students (many now in their third semester with Writing Center support) took advantage of the optional studios.
Through his ongoing partnerships with the Writing Center, Dr. Mergy has demonstrated what can happen when faculty provide a variety of writing experiences and opportunities for students as they move through their University careers. Below he reflects on his experience partnering with the Writing Center.
Writing Center: What motivated you to integrate writing into your STEM course?
Marc Mergy: My motivation was threefold. First, in my own undergraduate experience (small liberal arts college), writing was incorporated into all of my classes. It seems like a normal part of the educational experience to have written communication as a part of college classes. Second, in my professional life (graduate school and as a post-doc and instructor here at MSU), I realize that there is a lot of written communication across several genres—for example, professional messages to colleagues and collaborators, scientific publications, and day-to-day communication with coworkers and students. I recognize that effective communication is a skill and that I have had practice and guidance to hone my own proficiency in written communication. And third, in my years of teaching at MSU, I have come to realize that students are often poor writers, but also rarely have the opportunity to develop their genre-specific writing skills.
WC: Describe the writing assignment/experience you designed for your class.
MM: For my [Fall 2019] class, BIOH320 Biomedical Genetics, students had to research a subject rooted in genetics that is also relevant to the general population, then write a brief (2-page) essay explaining their topic and why it is worth public attention. The written assignment, however, was to be written for a general audience (like an NY Times Science Times article), not someone with science experience (a professor, or even a classmate). Then, students had to convert their essay into a brief oral presentation (3 minutes) delivered in front of the class.
WC: Why did you decide on that particular writing experience?
MM: Most of the students in my class were fairly comfortable with technical writing—lab reports, for example—that required them to research a subject and write about it. The students were able to write about complicated subject matter and show their own mastery of the material. However, communication of scientific information, especially to non-scientists, is also important. And a very different skill from the type of scientific writing that the students were used to doing.
WC: Describe the support your students received through the Writing Center.
MM: My students participated in a hybrid writing process that included a required Writing Studio for their assignment as well as aid from Writing Fellows (former students that had content knowledge and were also excellent writers). All studio meetings were facilitated by the Writing Center. These meetings allowed students to repeatedly get peer feedback and gave them a more concrete timeline for engaging in the writing process. Many students reported that the organized timeline and regular checkpoints for the writing assignment, as well as low-stakes conversations with classmates were extremely helpful.
WC: What have you learned about integrating writing into your curriculum from this experience?
MM: In a large-format course (my class was 80 students), integrating a writing assignment can be done, but it takes some extra effort and lots of support. It would not have been possible to have Writing Studios without the Writing Center. Also, in designing my assignment, the Writing Center provided invaluable advice in helping me downsize other assignments and course requirements (quality instead of quantity) so that the writing assignment was not overly burdensome (for the students, or for me!). We also learned that Studio groups do not require a scientific content expert present at each group meeting. The Writing Center facilitators are, generally, not from science backgrounds, but they know how to discuss writing and how to facilitate group meetings to have productive conversations about writing. However, by having meetings with classmates, the students served as each other’s content experts and were able to help each other troubleshoot technical aspects of their assignments.
WC: What will you keep and what will you revise for the next iteration of your class?
MM: [If I were teaching the same classes next year], I'd keep the assignment more or less intact. Challenging students with a new genre of writing (general audience rather than technical) resulted in many very interesting and well-written papers. In addition, the short presentation challenged students to consider effective communication more generally; students really had to consider what information was most important to convey to an audience and tell their story. As for revisions, I would skip the writing fellows component. They were not utilized extensively, and students were able to rely on each other and me for content help. I would also be even more up-front and straightforward about the rationale for the assignment. When the students realize that the skills developed in doing this assignment have lifelong application, professional or otherwise, they tend to "buy-in" and make a genuine effort to do well.
WC: What else should faculty know about your experience?
MM: There are always trade-offs when you choose to add a writing assignment. For example, in my class, I gave up 2+ weeks of lectures in order to make time to have presentations in class. I could have covered a couple more chapters from the textbook, but I think the benefit from a writing assignment outweighs a bit more content knowledge gained from more lectures. Be prepared to alter your course schedule in order to accommodate a new assignment. The other thing for other faculty to keep in mind is that the Writing Center does an excellent job working WITH you to design and support assignments that meet your goals. They do not have a particular writing agenda, but rather want to support you and your students in tackling a realistic writing assignment.