Was there one course that had a profound effect on your career path? For me, there were a few courses that were important and influenced my path to ecology. But, without a doubt, the most important one was the Intro Evolution course I took as a second-year undergrad. I took it through Cornell’s Writing in the Majors program, which is “based on the premise that language and learning are vitally connected in every field”. I know others who had similarly transformative experiences in Cornell’s Writing in the Majors class in evolution (and, to a lesser extent, in the WITM version of ecology), and have wondered what it was about that course that was so special. More importantly, I wonder what I can do now as an instructor that might lead to a similarly transformative experience for some of my students.
First, to give some explanation: Writing in the Majors courses are available in a range of subjects and, based on my n of 2 (I took both evolution and ecology through the WITM option), each is taught differently. For Evolution, there were two options. For both, you attended the same lectures. The key differences between the two sections were that, for the Writing in the Majors option, you had one additional discussion section meeting per week, got 4 credits for taking the course (as opposed to 3), and, instead of taking exams, you had writing assignments.
It was that last point that made me opt for the Writing in the Majors option. I was not a fan of exams – I found them really stressful – and enjoyed writing, so this seemed like a fantastic option for me. I’m sure that there are several reasons why this course was transformative for me*, but having the opportunity to work through concepts in a deeper**, lower stress way was surely important. It also allowed for assignments where we got feedback and then edited our work based on that. The opportunity to really reflect on things and edit in response promoted much deeper engagement with the material.
The assignments were also so much more interesting to me than an exam would have been. I can’t remember all of them, but I recall key ones that taught us about reading the literature (originally just by us choosing a paper on our own and then summarizing it) and that had us do a literature review and propose a study. When writing this post, I originally thought my proposed study was on the evolution of melanism in gray squirrels, but, after more thought, I think it may have been on evolution of trees in urban areas in response to altered light regimes. Either way, clearly that particular exercise didn’t lead me to my current research program, but it was an important introduction to the literature and to asking scientific questions. (The course also was responsible for encouraging me to attend my first seminar.) For my colleague Melissa Duhaime, the literature review/proposal assignment more directly launched her on her current path. (She took Writing in the Majors Evolution at Cornell, too.) As a result of that, she wrote one of the scientists whose work she’d cited in her proposal, which led to a summer research experience that got her career as a microbial ecologist off to a start.
I think one key aspect of this course design is that it allowed students who were prepared to engage more deeply (or at least differently) with course material to opt-in to that format, while still leaving a more traditional format for students who wanted that. I feel like a lot of courses could benefit from this dual format – including many of the first- and second-year courses that bio majors take. I’m not sure why it’s not more common. (My guess is logistics.)
So why don’t we have more writing-intensive courses like the one I took? I think the biggest hurdle is that writing-intensive courses are also time-intensive to teach. But, if only some of the students do the writing-intensive option (see previous paragraph), then that is less of a barrier. I don’t know the specifics of how it worked at Cornell, but I think that the TAs who did the WITM option got the following semester off from teaching. (That is: I think it counted as a double teaching assignment, which made it more appealing.) I think it would be fantastic if there was a spin-off of the Intro Bio course that I teach here that got students more deeply engaged with the material through writing assignments!
Of course, one could then ask: if the experience would be so valuable, why shouldn’t it be available to all students? An easy answer to that question is to say that not all students would want to take a writing-intensive course. That’s true, but it doesn’t get at the bigger challenge, which is that it is difficult to teach a writing-intensive course to hundreds of students. But people are working on this – including at my own institution.
So, for me, I hope to one day be more involved in writing-intensive courses. I think they have enormous potential for engaging students and helping them work through challenging material. If any readers have experience with teaching writing-intensive courses (particularly in larger courses and/or in STEM fields), I’d love to hear about them in the comments!
* I’m sure that another factor in this course being transformative for me was that I got very lucky and had Colleen Webb as my TA. She was an amazing teacher, and many of her students went on to grad school in ecology and evolution. But I know people who took the course with other TAs who also found it life-altering, so it wasn’t just that I lucked out with my TA!
** I realize that it’s possible to write exams – even multiple choice exams – that test higher order thinking. I do my best to do that. But, in my experience, engaging at this level is much more readily done with writing assignments than with multiple choice exams.