ENG-W 221: Writing in the Life Sciences

Two years ago, IU Kokomo began offering a second-year, sophomore-level Writing in the Disciplines (WID) course called ENG-W 221. The initial plan was to offer a customized version of this course to each of the major programs on our campus, organized roughly by school: humanities, social sciences and psychology, STEM, business, nursing, and education. To date, the writing program faculty have developed and are currently offering courses in

  • Writing in the Sciences (life sciences, biology, physiology, chemistry, and medicine)
  • Writing in the Sciences (informatics and computer science)
  • Writing in Education
  • Writing in Psychology and the Social Sciences

The other sections are currently in development and we are working to hash out how they would fit within the major curriculum for which they are intended. Some pre-professional programs, like nursing, have incredibly tight curricula that are nearly impossible to adjust, even if only for a 3.0 credit hour course. This presents difficulties when it comes to adding any courses other than electives. And without the hard and fast quality of a major requirement, some students just won’t go for it.

Still, we’ve had success in getting our colleagues in the sciences, education, and the social sciences to make this course a major requirement for their students, and we will continue to lobby other programs and schools on campus to do the same, recognizing that GenEd is often among the more contentious and politically-charged areas of curricula on college campuses.

At any rate, curricular politics aside, this post is about the version of ENG-W 221 that I developed this summer and am currently teaching (for the first time!) in Fall 2020. The remainder of this post culls materials from the course syllabus to give the reader a sense of my approach to the course. In the coming weeks, I will profile each of the versions that have been developed thus far.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Course Description

We live in a time forever transformed by scientific discovery and humankind’s drive to understand and control the natural world. Scientific and technological advancement in the West has made the present moment what it is—from smartphones to vaccines to NASA’s experimental plasma propulsion systems, science and technology are the twin engines of the modern world. However, as recent events (ahem, COVID-19) have made all-too clear, the benefits of science hinge on our ability to communicate clearly and effectively with readers—both scientists and laypeople (i.e., non-scientists). Without effective communication, all the science and technology in the world is useless. That’s where this course comes in.

When the scientific method became formalized starting in the late seventeenth century in Europe, the need for individual scientists working in different languages in places all over the world necessitated the first scientific societies and academies that would structure the targets, the limits, and even the questions of science. (Dating back to the ancient Greeks, the earliest scientists were actually called “natural philosophers” for reasons that we will uncover this semester.) Communication, standards of measurement, the scientific method, and other features of contemporary science nurtured the scientific enterprise over the last three centuries into the world-changing behemoth that it is today, best known by the acronym “STEM.”    

ENG-W 221: Writing in the Life Sciences is a course in writing and rhetoric that focuses on how science is performed and communicated in the so-called life sciences (biology, biochemistry, microbiology, physiology, etc.). First and foremost, this is a writing course that builds on the skills of critical reading, analysis, and academic writing you were introduced to in ENG-W 131. This course is designed to give you many opportunities to practice analyzing, researching, and writing scientific texts. It does this by offering a rhetorical conception of scientific writing that will enable us to analyze the ways science is conceptualized in the public sphere and drawn on in a wide array of academic, popular, and political conversations.

You will be offered the opportunity to become more knowledgeable in a scientific area of study, work collaboratively with others, learn how to explain scientific arguments and implications in a way that engages and informs a lay audience of non-scientists, think about the relationship between science and culture, and hone your abilities to effectively prepare a formal research presentation. By the end of the semester, you should not only gain knowledge in several scientific fields of study, but also be more confident in your ability to research, write, and discuss scientific topics rigorously, responsibly, and articulately.

Learning Outcomes

  • Develop a rhetorical conception of writing that will help you analyze and/or compose scientific texts using a variety of media for a variety of audiences;
  • Understand, write, and speak about the social and ethical dimensions of scientific writing;
  • Learn techniques for presenting scientific ideas to non-specialist audiences;
  • Demonstrate a capacity to make connections between course readings and your own field of study;
  • Hone your abilities to find, assess, and use appropriate supporting materials (with a particular emphasis on resources provided through university libraries);
  • Understand the IMRAD format used for experimental research and be able to explain the difference between quantitative and qualitative research methods;
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the conventions for integrating and documenting sources in accordance with academic guidelines; and
  • Share drafts, insights, and feedback with colleagues in class.

Learning, Attending, & Participating in the Post-Pandemic Classroom

For better or worse, your class is part of an advance brigade of students embarking on a new experiment in learning. To put it plainly, no one knows quite how (or whether) all this will work, but if we have patience and keep a sense of humor about things, Fall 2020 could prove to be a truly great semester.

If you are feeling healthy, I advise everyone to attend as many of our class sessions as possible. I will be holding class every Tuesday and Thursday from 1:00pm to 2:15pm ET from now until Thanksgiving, and if you are able, I expect you to either be in class—properly masked and socially-distanced—or joining us via Zoom. If you have COVID-19 but still feel well enough to join us via Zoom, you should certainly do so. I will not have a regular attendance policy this term other than to encourage you to attend as many classes as possible. My hopes and expectations are that you will want to be with us, either in-person or via Zoom, every chance you can so you can share ideas and get feedback on your work. If your attendance begins to impact the quality of your work and your MPs, I will be sure to let you know.

Students whose last names begin with the letters “A” through “H” will meet in person in our classroom (KO 200) on Tuesdays; those whose last names begin with “I” through “Z” will meet in person on Thursdays. On your “non in-person days,” you are expected to attend the synchronous (or live) version of class via Zoom using the information highlighted in the previous section. This is my personal meeting room in Zoom. (You may also call in to our class meeting if circumstances prevent you from Zoom-ing, but for reasons we’ll discuss in Week 1, I discourage students from doing so; all of the necessary info to do so can be found on the homepage in Canvas.)

I understand that you may not be able to make it to an in-person class on your assigned day. In these situations, please make a good faith attempt to attend class via Zoom if at all possible. The activities that we do in our regular class meeting times will be limited to those activities that are best conducted in person. Most of our other activities will take place in Canvas and Zoom.

This course will meet in person (i.e., on campus) on Tuesdays and Thursdays until November 21, 2020. When on campus, please wear a mask at all times and practice physical distancing. After Thanksgiving, the remainder of the semester will be online, and we will work asynchronously on completing MP3 (see course schedule below for complete details). In addition to our class meetings, all office hours and scheduled one-on-one meetings after Thanksgiving (November 21) will take place on Zoom. The health and well-being of you and your classmates are my top priority; therefore, attendance will be taken, and a seating chart will be used for purposes of contact tracing. If you are not feeling well, please do not attend an on-campus class meeting and communicate with me for alternate options. Reasons involving COVID-19 may require medical documentation to receive extended arrangements.

Required Texts

This section of ENG-W 221 uses the following required texts. Please purchase/rent all textbooks by August 28, 2020 and be sure to purchase/rent the correct editions noted below:

  • Ann M. Penrose and Steven B. Katz. Writing in the Sciences: Exploring the Conventions of Scientific Discourse. 3rd ed., Pearson, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-20561671-8
  • Janice R. Matthews and Robert W. Matthews. Successful Scientific Writing: A Step-by-Step Guide for the Biological and Medial Sciences. 4th ed., Cambridge UP, 2014. ISBN: 978-1-107-69193-3
  • Mary Shelley. Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds, edited by David H. Guston, Ed Finn, and Jason Scott Robert, MIT Press, 2017. ISBN: 978-0-262-53328-7
Photo by Miriam Espacio on Pexels.com

Projects, Assignments, and Grading

The weights for grading are as follows (totaling 1,000 points):

  • Major Writing Projects (500 points total):

Project 1: Science & Culture Essay (150 points)

Project 2: Popular Science Article (150 points)

Project 3: Review Essay/Rhetorical Analysis (200 points)

  • Other Assignments (500 points total):

Canvas Reading Parlor (weekly posts) (200 points)

Six Short Writing Assignments (SWA) (200 points)

Research Presentation (100 points)

Additional Notes about Your Assignments

  • First drafts and revision: Scientific research and writing are collaborative activities, and you have to be willing and able to discuss and defend your ideas as well as consider alternative perspectives if you wish to be successful. Revision—the ability to critically assess and rethink your work—is one of the most important skills of a writer and of a scientist. In ENG-W 221, we will distinguish between revision, editing, and proofreading. Proofreading focuses on correcting errors in punctuation, spelling, grammar, and citation style. Editing focuses on clarifying or polishing a document (e.g., simplifying prose, offering further details or better examples, creating syntactic variety). Revision, on the other hand takes a larger view of your writing in order to “re-see” possibilities. For example, if a paragraph is off-topic, then correcting its spelling errors is an unproductive waste of time. And agonizing over sentence-level changes to your prose when the paragraph itself is unnecessary or lacking evidence is an even greater waste of time when you have a deadline to meet.
  • The centrality of revision: The ability to revise is a crucial capacity if your goal is to become a successful writer of scientific prose. Effective scientific writing emerges over time in collaboration with others (colleagues, team members, lab partners, reviewers, editors), and scientists typically engage in rigorous revision of their work before publication. To that end, I encourage you to use peer review to develop new lines of argument, find alternate ways to organize a paper, and/or help you to expand and clarify your initial insights. For each of the major writing assignments, you will first submit a full, complete draft on which you will receive feedback from me and/or your classmates. You will use this feedback to help you revise each assignment and turn in a final draft, which I will grade. I am also available for consultation throughout the process and encourage you to bring drafts and ideas by my office to discuss with me before you submit final papers. Because course time will be set aside specifically to help you with revision, anyone who fails to post a full draft by the designated time on workshop days and/or who fails to submit revision notes with the final draft cannot receive a grade higher than a B (85%) on that assignment. (The draft you post on workshop days will not be graded.) If you fail to post a draft on a workshop day, you are responsible for getting feedback on your draft from the Writing Center and submitting a paragraph summary of what you discussed with the peer tutor. (See below for details on the IU Kokomo Writing Center.) 
  • Paper format: As a rule, all work completed outside of class should be word-processed, double-spaced using Times New Roman typeface, and formatted according to the appropriate academic guidelines. APA is the default citation style for the Short Writing Assignments (SWAs) and your first writing project, but we will discuss other citation styles you may use for your last two major writing projects. Furthermore, all work must be posted to the appropriate discussion forum or assignment space in Canvas by the deadline in order to receive full credit. It is your responsibility to make sure your documents attach and that you have posted the correct versions of all assignments. (As someone who has taught writing for nearly twenty years, I know all the tricks, so don’t think it will be easy to slide one by me!)
  • Research and documentation: You will be required to use and properly document outside sources, using the appropriate academic format. Anytime you use someone else’s ideas, you must acknowledge it in your paper, whether you are summarizing, paraphrasing, directly quoting, or including a graphic, table, chart, or figure. If you fail to accurately and completely document your sources, you will be subject to the academic honesty policy (see below). Even so, different academic disciplines have significant differences in how and when they cite. We will discuss some examples in class, and please ask me if you have questions about such matters.
  • Six Short Writing Assignments (SWAs): Six times during the semester, you will be asked to write an SWA in response to a specific prompt, some of which are direct preparation for your major writing projects. Each SWA must be posted to the appropriate Canvas discussion forum and/or assignment space, and you will generally have until 11:59pm ET on the due date to complete your assignment (see the course schedule below for details). You may either type your response in Canvas or attach your response as a .doc or .docx file. You are responsible for ensuring that your file has been attached properly. If you submit an alternate file that I cannot read, you will not receive credit—even if it is posted before the deadline. Although short, these are important assignments and if you desire full credit, all entries should be edited carefully so that they are free of errors, and they should also have brief, informal titles. No late or handwritten responses will be accepted. Unless otherwise specified, each response should be around 1 page for full credit. More information on each SWA can be found in Canvas and these will also be discussed in class.
  • Late work: With the exception of the final drafts of the first two major writing projects, late work is not accepted. (It just isn’t.) You are always welcome to submit your work early if you know you will be absent or if you want to get it off your plate. All work is due before 11:59pm ET in Canvas on the day that it is due. Telling me a tragic tale at the beginning of class does not constitute meeting the deadline. However, if you encounter special circumstances that you think warrant an exception, please see me (ideally, before the assignment is due).
  • Grace period for first two major writing projects: For the first two major writing projects, I will allow a 48-hour grace period with no penalty for submission on your final draft—if you need the extra time. However, work submitted more than two days late cannot receive a grade higher than a B (85% of total point value) and will receive no written feedback from me. Late work will not be accepted for any other assignments.

Attendance and Participation

ENG-W 221 is not a lecture course. When you miss class, you miss opportunities for practice skills, test out ideas, and hear from your colleagues; you also miss the opportunity to provide your own input and to grow and develop as a writer. However, if you are absent, you are responsible for learning the material we covered in class that day, keeping up with new assignments, and submitting any work that may be due on time. To be clear: being absent does not exempt you from current or future deadlines. (Ignorance is not bliss, regardless of what you may have heard!) Should there be any changes to the syllabus, assignments, or due dates, this will be noted at the start of class and in Canvas—it is your responsibility to keep up with any such changes, even if you are absent or tardy. Our class sessions begin and end at the scheduled times, so please do not arrive late or leave early.

Participating in Discussions: The Canvas Reading Parlor

Part of your grade for this course will be based on your participation in online discussions. Your colleagues and I are counting on you for a vibrant and meaningful discussions. Respectful disagreement and alternative perspectives are welcome. Timely and thoughtful posts contribute to everyone’s learning experience.

You should

  • Make an original post to the discussion board topic in Canvas each week by Wednesday night at 11:59pm ET
  • Respond to at least two of your colleagues’ posts each week by 11:59pm ET on Friday night
  • Feel free to interpret, synthesize, or integrate various threads or make connections to your field of study
  • Be sure to complete all of the readings

Your discussion contributions should

  • Be thoughtful and relevant
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the readings and course material
  • Provide specific, constructive, and supportive feedback that may extend and sharpen the thinking of others
  • Provide evidence of critical thinking regarding the assigned topic
  • Encourage and continue deeper thinking
  • Offer additional resources or experiences

Your discussion board writing should

  • Be concise (please limit posts to ~ 250 words)
  • Be respectful and civil
  • Use standard edited American English (and don’t forget to spell check!)
  • Clearly state ideas
  • Use citations when appropriate (either MLA or APA)

IU Kokomo Writing Center

The IU Kokomo Writing Center provides an array of one-on-one services for students in courses across the curriculum, including Spanish-language tutoring and help with your ENG-W 221 major writing projects! The tutors who work in the Writing Center are advanced undergraduate students who have excelled in writing-intensive courses like this one. (They’re also really friendly and approachable people!) Take a few minutes to visit their website and register for a WCOnline account so you can make an appointment, check drop-in hours, ask a question, or attend a helpful workshop. Here is the link:

https://www.iuk.edu/writing-center/index.html

Course Schedule

I reserve the right to adjust due dates and readings with advance notice in Canvas. Please get into the habit of checking Canvas each day for announcements and other updates. All readings are due on the date next to which they are listed.

Texts
WS = Writing in the Sciences
SSW = Successful Scientific Writing
F = Frankenstein
C = Canvas reading (.pdf or .docx in Canvas)

Week 1 (F2F): Intro to Scientific Communication; Course Policies and Procedures

August 25: Introduce course and course members, review Canvas, the myth of Prometheus, concepts: paradigm shift and nine dot problem, Discuss: “Are Toxic Political Conversations Changing How We Feel about Objective Truth?” (Canvas)

August 27: Read WS, Ch. 1 (pp. 3-13) & F, Preface (pp. 1-16), post your reading response to our Canvas Reading Parlor by Wednesday, August 26 (you are welcome to respond to anything in either reading, make connections between the readings and our discussion on Monday, or briefly describe a theory that has been challenged or debunked in your discipline); Check Canvas in the Discussion tab and post a question or comment to the “General Questions about this Course” forum. Let me know when you have reviewed the course syllabus and whether you have questions about the materials; respond to at least two colleagues’ Reading Parlor discussion posts by Friday, August 28 at 11:59pm ET.

Week 2 (F2F): Questions Concerning Technology and Science

September 1: Read F, pp. 16-69 & F, Doctorow, “I’ve Created a Monster! (And So Can You)” (pp. 209-13)

September 3: Post Reading Parlor response by Wednesday, September 2 at 11:59pm ET (respond to the first Doctorow essay prompt on p. 271); Respond to at least two colleagues’ Reading Parlor posts by Friday, September 4 at 11:59pm ET.

Week 3 (F2F): Ethical Considerations; Begin Major Writing Project 1; Email Conventions

September 8: Read WS, Ch. 3 (pp. 53-87), F, Vol. II (pp. 71-125), and Maienschein & McCord “Changing Conceptions of Human Nature” (p. 215-21); Major Writing Project 1 assigned in class; Ethic of expediency activity, review email conventions

September 10: Read “Victor Frankenstein’s Institutional Review Board Proposal, 1790,” (Canvas) and skim through various documents related to the IRB process at Indiana University (Canvas handouts and links); decide on a tentative direction for your Science and Culture essay (i.e., Major Writing Project 1); post your Reading Parlor discussion posts by Wednesday, September 9 at 11:59pm ET (to focus your response, you could inform the class of the kinds of IRB-governed research that takes place in the life sciences or in your field of study/discipline; Respond to at least two colleagues’ CRP posts by Friday, September 11 at 11:59pm ET; SWA 1 due Friday, September 11—Assignment 1 a & b (WS, p. 87).

Week 4 (F2F): Historicizing Science and Scientific Hubris

September 15: Read F, Vol. III (pp. 127-87) & Bear, “Frankenstein Reframed; or the Trouble with Prometheus” (pp. 231-36)

September 17: Read Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (pp. 1-22) in Canvas; post your Reading Parlor discussion posts by Wednesday, September 16 (you could focus on the idea of normal or abnormal science in the life sciences and/or related fields or disciplines); respond to at least two colleagues’ Canvas Reading Parlor discussion posts by Friday, September 18.

Week 5 (F2F): Understanding Writing Process; Intro to IMRAD; Myth of Transparency; Major Writing Project 1 Workshop

September 22: Read WS, Ch. 4 (4.1 – 4.3) & Ch. 9 (pp. 229-50); form peer critique groups (these will change with each major writing project)

September 24: Read SSW, Ch. 10 (pp. 123-40); skim Ch. 13 (pp. 170-86); post full draft of Science & Culture Essay (MWP1) to appropriate Canvas discuss forum by 11:59pm ET on Wednesday, September 23; in your post, note 2-3 specific items on which you’d like feedback; post responses to the Science & Culture Essay (MWP1) drafts for everyone in your peer critique group by Friday, September 25.

Week 6 (F2F): Communicating with Publics, Part I; Begin MWP 2; MWP 1 Due

September 29: Read WS (pp. 266-71), Revising the Science & Culture Essay, discuss Beal’s list of predatory journals; MWP 2 assigned

October 1: Watch Marshall’s Nobel Prize lecture (C) & read Marie Curie’s Nobel Prize lecture (C); post your Reading Parlor discussion by Wednesday, September 30 (you could focus on some aspect of one of the lectures or you could compare/contrast them; for instance, what seems to be the purpose of a Nobel Prize lecture?); respond to at least two classmates’ Reading Parlor discussion posts by Friday, October 2; Science & Culture Essay and revision notes due Friday, October 2

Week 7 (F2F): Communicating with Publics, Part II

October 6: Read Sapolsky (pp. 13-24) (C), & WS, Ch. 9 (pp. 258-65)

October 8: Read Diamond (pp. 13-29, 67-81) (C) & Sacks (p. 3, pp. 8-22) (C); post Reading Parlor discussion by Wednesday, October 7; SWA2 due Friday, October 9—Write a 1-2 page response (including examples) to the question: What should be the scientist’s role in public policy debates?

Week 8 (F2F): Science in the Public Imagination

October 13: Analyze WS, Ch. 11 (pp. 338-43) & two satirical texts about science; before class, find a podcast or short video clip relevant to the life sciences that you find interesting and post a link to the appropriate Canvas forum along with a one-sentence teaser to interest your colleagues

October 15: Read WS, Ch. 8 (pp. 198-222); for fun, watch Epic Rap Battles of History: Einstein v. Hawking; Canvas Reading Parlor—by Wednesday, October 14, analyze a popular science magazine that draws on scientific studies for some of its articles (see Canvas for details); respond to two colleagues’ posts by Friday, October 16 at 11:59pm ET

Week 9 (F2F): Narrative, News, and Newton

October 20: Analyze WS, Ch. 10 (pp. 272-70) & Krauss (pp. xi-xiii, pp. 3-36) (C)

October 22: Canvas Reading Parlor—respond by Wednesday, October 21 (post a tentative title and introductory paragraph that could “hook” a public audience on a scientific finding in your field); by Friday, October 23, post responses to at least two colleagues, noting any titles/passages that might be either tool technical or too “dumbed down” for a public audience

Week 10 (F2F): Popular Science Writing Strategies; MWP 2 Workshop

October 27: Review sample Popular Science Projects; popular science strategies: narration, example, definition, analogy

October 29: By 11:59pm ET on Wednesday, October 28, post full draft of MWP2 to Canvas; note 2-3 specific items on which you would like feedback; by Friday, October 30, post responses to three Popular Science drafts using the questions provided on Canvas

Week 11 (F2F): Reviewing the Literature, Part I; Begin MWP 3

November 3: Read WS, Ch. 5 (5.1-5.5) & Ch. 10 (pp. 313-19); see Canvas for your MWP3 assignment; write a 1-2 page response to exercise 5.4 (WS, p. 137) & pot it before class to the Canvas discussion I set up for this exercise

November 5: Read WS, Ch. 5 (5.6-5.9); MWP2 & revision notes due Friday, November 6 (email to me as a .doc/.docx file)

Week 12 (F2F): Reviewing the Literature, Part II

November 10: Read WS, Ch. 9 (pp. 234-46)

November 12: No Canvas Reading Parlor responses due this week! Use this time to work on MWP3

Week 13: Public Presentations and Visual Arguments; Understanding Proposals (Last week of F2F classes)

November 17: Read WS, Ch. 6 (pp. 149-74) & SSW, Ch. 7 (pp. 81-91); review “Oral Presentations” and “Presentation Rubric” handouts in Canvas; SWA3 due in class—Exercise 8.1 (WS, p. 203); focus on a current or future presentation for this assignment, whether for this class or elsewhere

November 19: Read WS, Ch. 7 (7.1 – 7.4), Ch. 12 (pp. 352-65); suggested readings: SSW, Ch. 8 (pp. 92-105) & Ch. 15 (pp. 209-20); SWA4 due Friday, November 20—exercise 7.4 (WS, p. 185)

Week 14: Thanksgiving Holiday (no class)

November 24: no class (Thanksgiving)

November 26: no class (Thanksgiving)

Week 15 (online): Common Editing Concerns; MWP3 Workshop

December 1: Read WS, Ch. 7 (7.5 – 7.10), Ch. 11 (pp. 326-29, 330-37)

December 3: Read SSW, Ch. 16 (pp. 221-35); Wednesday, December 2—post draft of MWP3 to Canvas by 11:59pm ET; in your post, note 2-3 items for which you would like feedback; SWA5 due Friday, December 4—write a 1-2 page critique for a colleague using the guidelines posted in Canvas

Week 16 (online): Presentations

December 8: Presentations begin (via Zoom, of course)

December 10: Schedule a Zoom conference with me to discuss your final MWP

Week 17 (online): Presentations 

December 15: Presentations conclude (via Zoom, of course)

December 17: Last week to schedule conferences; SWA6 due Friday, December 18—write a 2-3 page reflective letter describing what you’ve learned about scientific writing this semester. Draw on course readings, class discussion, and your own writing to provide meaningful examples. Please take some time to complete the online course evaluations for ENG-W 221 and have a great holiday break! You’ve earned it!

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