Since 2002, I have been teaching the course Writing in Biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Every major is obligated to offer a course of writing in their discipline for juniors. Different instructors are offered broad latitude to teach the course as they want. But my focus has always been on scientific writing.

Most students come into the course having recently taken a creative writing class, the Writing Program’s College Writing course. Most of them believe the they already know how to write well and are skeptical that my course is going to teach them anything. Frequently they’re surprised. I describe my course as “Uncreative Writing.”

By their junior year in college, most students have written a vast number of review papers. And I’ve found that if students have sources to draw from, they can write amazingly well — especially with the spell-check and grammar-check that modern word processors offer (provided they use them which, sadly, not all students do.) But in my course, I invite them to do projects where they have to describe their own actions scientifically. And, all of a sudden, they don’t have models for the language they need to write. When that happens, you hear *their* voice. And it’s not scientific at all. That’s what I want them to work on.

I found an excellent resource many years ago that I use to help support them learning the characteristics of scientific discourse. Talking Science, by Jay Lemke, is actually a study of the semiotics of science classrooms. On page 133 is a list of stylistic norms of scientific language: Be verbally explicit and universal. Avoid colloquial forms of language. Use technical terms. Avoid personification. Avoid metaphorical and figurative language. Be serious and dignified. Avoid personalities and references to individuals. Avoid reference to fiction or fantasy. Use causal forms of explanation and avoid narrative and dramatic accounts.” Lemke comments this is a recipe for “dull, alienating language”. In fact, the chapter of the book is actually about constructing educational environments that could demystify science and reduce dependance these norms. But I provide them to my students as a set of heuristics, or hacks, to help their writing pass muster with other scientists.

By the end of the course, many students tell me how surprised they are to have learned so much. And, after the course, I’ve had students tell me in subsequent years how what they learned has helped them get better grades and prepare them for work in science. One student told me he had a “love/hate relationship” with my class: he hated it because it made him do something difficult that he could tell he wasn’t good at, but — at the same time — he recognized the importance of improving his abilities.

I will get to teach this class four more times before I retire and wrap up my career.

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