Friday, November 04, 2005

Lab Writing/Writing Lab


Sorry to skip a day there, but I wanted to get back to the premise I was working on earlier this week: the ways that writing labs and science labs share a great deal of challenge and promise. As Moira commented on the last post (go KU!), it's easy to be jealous of the ways that graduate students, post-docs, and the occasional undergraduate get to learn in the activity of a science lab. It surely contains the elements of "cognitive apprenticeship" and "situated learning" that's theorized by folks such as James P. Gee, Jean Lave, and John Seeley Brown. At MIT, all undergraduates have the opportunity to work in research labs, either for credit or not, and there's hot competition to get into labs early and often. A resume builder, for sure, but also the kind of hands-on experience that simply doesn't come from classroom learning.

I also wrote in an earlier posting that many of MIT's communication-intensive classes were labs in which students have opportunities for writing and speaking about the problems they're trying to solve in lab. Seemed like a good idea to me, but when I was looking more deeply into the origins of the word "laboratory" as applied to the teaching of writing, I began to find many parallel histories. Teaching science in the laboratory became widespread much later than most folks would guess; it wasn't until the late 19th century/early 20th century that chemistry, biology, and physics were commonplace as laboratory subjects, right around the same time that writing was seen best taught and learned in contexts in which practice was key (rather than elements to be lectured by faculty and recited from memory by students).

Well, just as writing as a laboratory subject became contested in the 20s and 30s, mainly because of the workload involved when overburdened faculty were responding to the writing of 90 to 100 students, laboratory science faced a similar crisis. One point of scrutiny was that science educators were slow to get their heads around how they might assess the more abstract elements of lab science instruction. It was far easier to test for mastery of scientific concepts. And it was far less expensive to have the instructor demonstrate the lab work than to have a room full of butter-fingered students pouring out those dangerous chemicals. Thus, there was a backlash to lab science, particularly in high schools, but in higher ed as well. Still, lab science endured as world events fueled the importance of learning science, whether the atomic bomb, Sputnik, or the Cold War.

Unfortunately, what also endured was a sort of cookbook approach to learning science in the lab that is a distortion of original intent, just as the five-paragraph theme is a distortion of what probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Noticably absent throughout the teaching of laboratory science, and still pretty much absent, was attention to the writing of students' scientific work. In other words, science educators never quite saw students' opportunities to write to learn and to communicate science. One of my particular research interests is tracking down examples of students writing in science labs in the early 20th century and what I have found looks a lot like grammar/usage worksheets in English classrooms: fill in the blank with protocol and some results. Dull stuff.

Ultimately, then, I see terrific opportunities for science and writing educators to work together and provide opportunities for students to learn. We have a common history, and I suppose I'm calling for a common future.

By the way, the photo I show at the top is an Arts Laboratory at the University of Minnesota General College circa 1932. Cool outfits!

Enjoy your weekends,

Neal

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