Note from Jeremy: This post was co-written with Bethann Garramon Merkle (@CommNatural). She holds an MFA in nonfiction creative writing, has written over 300 articles and essays, edited a textbook, and works at the University of Wyoming as the Director of the Wyoming Science Communication Initiative. She edits the ‘Communicating Science’ section of The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America.
A few weeks ago, we ran a poll about teaching science writing in university courses. We were, most specifically, curious about the reasons why people don’t teach writing in science courses. That poll generated great discussion, and 97 responses. While the poll itself is not a random sample of academic scientists, the results are still worth considering.
The majority or respondents teach writing in some or all of their courses:
Even so, 77% (75/97) feel they should be teaching writing more than they do:
However, the reasons we might anticipate – and the reasons we often hear – for not teaching writing, or not teaching it more often, did not dominate.* Interestingly, the same holds true in some other polls run on Dynamic Ecology. For example, there are a lot of widely discussed (and widely criticized) reasons for lecturing. And yet, when we ran a poll on why instructors lecture (or don’t), those stereotypical, maligned reasons proved to be rare.
Back to this poll.
Most respondents teach a diverse mix of courses. And, we don’t see much sign that class sizes* dictate how likely people are to teach writing.
Surprisingly, people who report teaching only small classes (small undergrad and/or small grad) aren’t any more likely than others to say they teach writing in all their courses (4/25, 16%). Nor are people who teach only small classes any less likely than others to say they never teach writing (5/25, 25%, as compared to 21% among all respondents). Only 5/31 people (16%) who teach large undergrad courses (whether or not they teach anything else) report teaching writing in all courses they teach. That’s pretty close to the proportion of all respondents who report teaching writing in all courses they teach (20%).
Some 53% of respondents have no TAs (51/97; Fig. 4).** Unexpectedly, people who say that they teach writing in all their science courses actually are more likely to report having no TAs (13/19 report this) than are people who say they never teach writing (8/20 report no TAs). Which suggests TA support isn’t a major determinant of whether people teach writing or not. But the sample sizes are fairly small, so that could be a blip.
Although the sample size is modest, we also don’t see any obvious sign that the graduate vs. undergrad course distinction affects people’s likelihood of teaching writing (Fig. 3). Furthermore, 11/15 (73%) people who only teach graduate courses (of whatever size(s)), and reported how often they teach writing, said they do so in some or all of the courses they teach (Fig. 3). That’s similar to the 81% of all respondents who teach writing in some or all of their courses (Fig. 3).
In 85% of responses (82/97), the respondent was the lead instructor:
Since the predictable reasons – class size, class level (grad/undergrad), and access to TAs do not stand out as major reasons people do not teach writing, it’s worth a closer look at the rest.
No one reason for not teaching writing in science courses was dominant:
Three of the top four reasons for not teaching writing related to lack of time for: grading writing-intensive assignments (70%; 42/60); supporting students (60%; 36/60); and planning (28%, 17/60). Lack of training in writing instruction came in third (30%; 18/60). None of the response options received zero responses, although only one person selected “I don’t care.”
There was no indication that people who prioritize course content, or simply don’t see writing instruction as their job, are getting that idea from supervisors and peers (Fig. 6).
Fundamentally, perceptions of time constraints dominate poll respondents’ reasons not to teach writing. These and lack of training are factors that can be effectively addressed through integration of best practices in writing pedagogy. The literature on professional skills needed by graduating students in ecology, wildlife biology (Atkins 2012; Maehr et al. 2002), and beyond (Druschkea et al 2018), also indicates writing and other core communication skills are fundamental to learning, doing, and sharing science (Yore et al 2004). Numerous studies and reports make clear that it is a detriment to exclude writing; rather it should be included in the disciplinary skills fully integrated into disciplinary work (Akkus et al 2007; Rivard 1994). While exclusion and/or isolation of writing skills remains a persistent issue, it can be overcome. If you are looking resources, check out Bethann’s most recent column in The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America: “Writing Science: Transforming students’ science writing by tapping into writing instruction scholarship and best practices.”
Granted, it is considerably more challenging to address negative pressure from peers and supervisors. And, while our poll results indicate that pressure from peers and supervisors is a rare reason for not teaching writing, that doesn’t make it any less important to address. We’re curious, what have you done to address any of this, or any of the reported reasons for not teaching writing? And/or, what kind of support would you want or need to do so?
* In the interests of keeping our poll about teaching science writing in university courses short – and thereby hopefully getting more people to complete it – we skipped a few questions. In hindsight, perhaps we should have ask about career level or type of institution. Without that information (and in light of the non-representative nature of this and most polls), we are constrained in some of the inferences we can make.
** Of the respondents, 38% (37/97) did not indicate any reasons for not teaching writing. These same people all indicated that they taught writing in at least some of their courses.
Akkusa, R., M. Gunelb, and B. Handc. 2007. Comparing an Inquiry-based Approach known as the Science Writing Heuristic to Traditional Science Teaching Practices: Are there differences? International Journal of Science Education 29(14): 1745–1765.
Atkins, N. 2011. The Wildlife Society Blue Ribbon Panel Final Report: The Future of the Wildlife Profession and its Implications for Training the Next Generation of Wildlife Professionals. The Wildlife Society, Bethesda, Maryland, USA.
Druschkea, C. G., N. Reynolds., J. Morton-Aiken, I. E. Lofgren, N. E. Karraker, S. R. McWilliams. 2018. Better science through rhetoric: A new model and pilot program
for training graduate student science writers. Technical Communication Quarterly. 27(2): 175–190.
Maehr, D. S., B. C. Thompson, G. F. Mattfeld, K. Montei, J. B. Haufler, J. D. Kerns, and J. Ramakka. 2002. Directions in professionalism and certification in The Wildlife Society. Wildlife Society Bulletin 30:1245–1252.
Rivard, L. P. 1994. A Review of Writing to Learn in Science: Implications for Practice and Research. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 31(9): 969-983.
Yore, L. D., B. M. Hand, and M. K. Florence. 2004. Scientists’ Views of Science, Models of Writing, and Science Writing Practices. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 41(4): 338–369.