Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Coming Clean in Cambridge

Okay, I have to admit it: I'm not currently engaged in writing center work on a day-to-day basis. MIT does have a Writing and Communications Center, directed by Steve Strang, but I work as a lecturer for the Writing Across the Curriculum Program, a job I was hired to do in fall of 2002. In this blog entry I want to describe this work, something folks sometimes have a hard time getting their heads around (probably due to the prevalent images circulating about MIT, such as theMIT nerd test).

Starting in 2001, MIT instituted a communications requirement for all undergraduates. This far more extensive writing requirement than had been in place previously largely came about as a result of surveys of alumni, who reported that MIT had taught them to be terrific engineers and scientists but not-so-terrific communicators. As a result, their career advancement was less than ideal (following the adage I heard earlier this semester, "Engineers who can't write work for engineers who can.").

Now, each undergraduate needs to take four total classes designated as "communications intensive" or CI. Two of those CIs are in the humanities, arts, or social sciences cluster, and two are within students' major departments. The primary class I was hired to work with is a sophomore-level molecular biology lab class, affectionately known as "7.02" (numbers are big around here). My colleague Marilee Ogren (who has a PhD in neurobiology and lots of experience as a scientific journal edtior and writer) and I designed "7.02 SciComm," a stand-alone scientific communications class in which we help students read and write research articles. You can learn more about SciComm at our website for the current semester or at the version of our class that's been put on MIT's Open Courseware site.

The communication requirement as applied to students' majors has largely been applied to existing lab classes. The thinking was that these were already sites in which students were doing some writing and were organized into smaller sections, even if the larger lecture was hundreds of students. In other words, the infrastructure was largely present, and it was a much easier sell to departments concerned about squeezing in yet another requirement.

In addition to SciComm, I also regularly work with a junior-level biology lab class and have worked with CI classes in political science, management, electrical engineering, chemistry, and architecture. That sometimes means offering writing workshops throughout the semester and conferencing with students, akin to writing fellows programs or it might mean only responding to students' writing, never actually meeting with them. Our level of involvement in any individual class varies according to the department, the class, and our time available. It's a very flexible and often funky job.

I do like this work a great deal and have learned tremendously about WAC in the last three and a half years. MIT undergraduates are remarkable folks, many destined to do great things, all very committed to working hard and solving problems for the greater good. Given that as an undergraduate I never took a science course (except for computer science), one would think my background would be limiting. However, I use my skills as a rhetorician to understand how a scientific article in any field manages to do its work, and I use my skills as a teacher to help students acquire and demonstrate that understanding. I also find it fascintating and ironic that the knowledge in science and engineering is socially constructed in ways that the humanities with its continued glorification of single-authored works sure has not achieved in practice, despite frequent lip-service and theorizing. The model of the research lab as a forum for teaching and learning is one I'm hoping will influence the work we do in writing classrooms. It's the writing laboratory reconsidered, and that's laboratory in the best experimental intent of the word.

So you see, I really often feel like I am doing writing center work here, but not in the conventional sense. That says something quite powerful to me about the ways writing centers and their ideals can transform the teaching and learning at our institutions.



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