Writing for your students: some suggestions from Overconfident Greg (guest post)

Note from Jeremy: This post is by my friend Greg Crowther, Instructor in Biology at Everett Community College, former elite ultramarathoner, science song connoisseur, and master of terrible statistics puns. And perhaps most relevantly for purposes of this post, a heck of a writer.


Honest question: how many of you take pride in the things that you write for your classroom students?

My suspicion is that many of us regard this kind of writing as less important than grant proposals and scholarly papers – maybe even less important than committee reports, letters of recommendation, outreach-related writing, etc.

If my suspicion is correct (and it may not be), this seems like a missed opportunity, very much in the same way that dry scholarly papers are a missed opportunity.  Especially for those of us who are somewhat introverted, or not gifted at lecturing per se, we can use our written materials to show students where we’re coming from, highlight possible connections to their lives, express wonder at nature’s ingenuity, etc.

If the general point seems uncontroversial, let’s ask ourselves some specific questions.

Do we ever use syllabi that seem obsessed with rules, rather than conveying a welcoming spirit?

Do we ever assign lab worksheets that show no indication of our own specific priorities and interests?

Do we ever give exams that seem to have been spit directly out of a test bank, with little indication that we created this assessment specifically for these particular students based on what we’ve been working on together?

Full disclosure: I am writing this from what might be considered a position of privilege, in that I work at a community college where there are no requirements for scholarship.  All I do is teach (not really, but true to a first approximation).  But even at places like this, my sense is that many faculty do not inject much of themselves into their written class materials.

Maybe this just means that I like to write more than most people do.  Still, I claim that thoughtful writing for student audiences can be wonderfully clarifying and mood-altering, just like any other kind of good writing.

Can you indulge me in a couple of examples (which I’ll admit to being proud of)?

Example 1: Overconfident Dan

On my first of five human physiology tests of the spring, I introduced a character known as Overconfident Dan, as follows:

Your overconfident classmate, Dan, says the following: “Contraction of the skeletal muscles in the walls of cutaneous arterioles helps the body unload excess heat.” What is wrong with this “Dan-splaining”?

This is perhaps nothing more than an unremarkable question with a silly pun.  But Dan kept showing up throughout the quarter. Here he is in Test 2, for example:

Your overconfident classmate, Dan, is at it again. He flexes his forearms and comments, “See these muscles?  That’s, like, troponin in action!  My muscles are extra-impressive because my troponin proteins pull extra-strongly on tropomyosin!”  Explain what (if anything) is scientifically correct about Dan’s statements and what (if anything) is wrong.

And here he is on the final exam:

You are having coffee with a friend, who quietly confides to you that she might have recently become pregnant.  Just as she mentions this, your mutual acquaintance, Overconfident Dan, pops up out of nowhere and recommends that the friend immediately test her urine for levels of luteinizing hormone.  Aside from Dan’s poor understanding of social norms and personal space, does his advice have scientific merit?  Explain.

By this point, Dan is, indeed, an old acquaintance.  Still, he is more than a blowhard to be laughed at.  The students have learned that Dan makes claims that have some basis in reality but that are not exactly right, and that they will have to check his words carefully for errors in facts or logic.  Thus, they have (I hope) received a message about the type of thinking expected of them, as well as the need to let the non-Dans of the world have their say.

Example 2: A&P Theatre

Our human anatomy and physiology textbook comes bundled with patient case studies (great!) . . . but they are written in a dry tone (not great!).  So I’ve taken it upon myself to re-imagine these straight-text narratives as “A&P Theatre” scenes that the students can perform.  For instance:

DOC:  Sarah, you have mostly been in very good health for a 68-year-old woman. What’s going on?

SARAH:  About five days ago, the back of my right thigh started tingling and burning.  And now it looks really gross too!  Look at this crazy rash!  Also, I’ve been feeling exhausted.  It’s almost as if I’m pregnant.  Which, by the way, I’m not.

DOC:  Riiiiight.  Have you recently exposed your skin to extreme temperatures or weird chemicals or anything like that?  Did you recently change your diet or switch to a new soap or shampoo or makeup?

SARAH: No, no, no, no, no, and no.

DOC:  OK.  Have there been any other recent changes in your life, medical or otherwise?

SARAH:  Well, I’ve been pretty busy and stressed out lately because my husband has needed a lot of care after his fall.  That’s about it.

DOC:  But you haven’t, say, taken up smoking because of the stress, right?

SARAH:  Ew, no!  And I’m still going to my water aerobics class twice a week.

DOC:  OK, good.  Let’s do a quick physical.  [Examines patient.]  Well, everything else seems pretty normal,  except that your oral temperature is a bit high, 100.6 degrees.  Tell me something, Sarah – did you have chicken pox as a child?

SARAH:  Uh, yes – but what does that have to do with anything?

DOC:   I think you’re experiencing a disease that could be called “return of the chicken pox virus.”  It’s usually called shingles, though.

SARAH:  Shouldn’t I be immune to that after having had chicken pox?

DOC:  I’m afraid not.  But, on the positive side, this won’t last nearly as long as a pregnancy!

This scene may be longer than it needs to be.  Unlike the original version, though, it conveys a real sense of humans interacting.  The students can think about the symptoms and the diagnosis, of course, but they can also imagine themselves in that clinic and ponder the non-scientific aspects of the interaction.  For example, my students had a good discussion of whether the doc’s attitude toward Sarah was appropriately friendly or overly flippant.

So, is anyone feeling inspired to make your writing-for-students a bit more creative?  I look forward to your comments.


8 thoughts on “Writing for your students: some suggestions from Overconfident Greg (guest post)

  1. Thanks for the post. I enjoyed reading it and feel very much the same. I haven’t had the chance to write exams for students yet but I still remember one recurring character, Beetle Bob, who performed fantastic feats of strength in my intro Physics (Newtonian mechanics) course in college. He became a running joke through the semester and lightened the mood just a bit for some tough exams.

    I tried my hand at a similar exercise to help students in my discussion section develop research proposals. Instead of giving them polished work to emulate, I lectured them on “How to write a bad research proposal.” They then critiqued three truly awful proposals that I’d written and brainstormed how to make them better. It turned out to be a favorite exercise that I repeated the next year. I’ve posted the proposals here if you want a chuckle:

    • Wow — those fake proposals really are hilarious! I love the vignette set in India followed by the proposal to do a project in Africa, for example, and the plan to kill lizards using “proven methods” and then “put them in bottles for a museum my friend is starting.”

  2. This is nice 🙂 I do this sort of thing on my blog (in Portuguese), where I write many posts on statistics thinking of my former, current and future students, and of people like them. In these texts I speak of statistics, dragons, unicorns and Jedi masters, with titles such as “Harry Potter and the Confounding Factors” and “Study statistics you must, young Padawan”. I also do this on the tests I give to my students, for example asking to calculate the average biomass of a group of red dragons (whose individual masses I provide). I think it has overall good results, making people less scared of stats.

  3. I write humorous problems in part to keep myself sane/entertained. As an example, one recent math problem began with

    Once upon a time, there was a village of Non-Player Characters. Life
    was harsh, both because of the long, cold winters and because of re-
    peated goblin raids. But the villagers (v) shared food as needed and
    banded together to fight off the goblins (g), so that the net per capita
    growth rate of villagers was an increasing function of v. The goblins,
    however, were a nasty bunch, as most goblins are. Not only did they
    kill and eat villagers, they frequently fought each other, so that the per
    capita goblin death rate increased linearly in g.

    Experienced modelers will recognize this as a set-up for a problem on diffusive instability.

    My maximum likelihood class often features the character Mrs. daPoint:

    How many roads must a man walk down
    Before you call him a man?
    How many seas must a white dove sail
    Before she sleeps in the sand?

    How many indeed? Mrs. daPoint suspects that the number of roads a
    man must walk down in fact increases with the number of seas a white dove
    must sail:

    r = a + bs,

    And so forth. I think my students enjoy this — some will write little jokes or poems in response — but honestly, I mostly do it to stay sane as the semester heats up.

    • I do this sort of thing too. My population ecology exam generally includes a question about the population ecology of jackalopes. I do it to amuse the students, but also because it serves a useful pedagogical purpose. If I write a theoretical question, I don’t want the students confusing themselves by drawing on irrelevant background knowledge of the organism concerned. So rather than write a question about a real organism and risk the students confusing themselves, I write a question about an invented organism about which the students have no background knowledge.

    • Robin, your point about self-amusement is a good one. That’s certainly part of my motivation as well. I think that, to a certain extent, us staying engaged helps the students stay engaged too. At least that’s what I tell myself when I’m up all night writing a biology song….

  4. My father used to do this. He taught at Eastern Michigan University, but when he arrived it was Michigan State Normal College (for those not familiar with the terminology, “Normal College” referred to a college dedicated to training teachers). As a child, I remember laughing at his exam questions featuring the bumbling exploits of Professor Spongewit of Farbelow Normal College.

    I enjoy posing questions that make students smile. One asked them to imagine that they have successfully gotten their first job as a demographer, as a consultant to a cosmetic company. They have developed an anti-aging cream that not only hides aging, but actually reverses it. So their task is to develop a model in which age can go backwards as well as forwards, to see what the demographic consequences would be.

    I think this kind of thing really does help students to engage the material and, probably, to remember it. Of course, it doesn’t have to be written material. Google the video of Nancy Kanwisher’s neurobiology lecture at MIT. 🙂

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