2003 Winner: Cary Moskovitz

The Science Behind the Controversy

To help students develop as both careful readers and thoughtful, deliberate writers, I try to capitalize on the interest in science that they bring to my classes. An underlying goal and driving principle of my writing classes is to have students engage scientific concerns in their writing. Rather than only taking up, for example, ethical or public policy concerns related to science, I want to give students an opportunity to confront the science itself, and to confront it in a more disinterested and critical way than in the science classes they might be taking concurrently. To do this, I have students work directly with primary science literature--reports of research written by the scientists themselves for the scientific community.  

In my writing courses I try to help students get better at crafting arguments that are sophisticated and coherent, and that show awareness of disciplinary writing conventions. I address these goals both in my design of assignments--concentrating on one or two rhetorical or stylistic concerns at a time--and in the selection of texts supplementing the primary scientific literature. Such texts (letters, commentaries, and editorials from science journals) forward scientists' arguments about the interpretation of scientific evidence and the implications of those interpretations for policy. They provide competing claims and differing interpretations of scientific evidence, as well as examples of rhetorical moves and stylistic concerns we work on during the course.  

I believe that students do their best work as writers when they have some sense of authority over the course's texts and ideas. For this reason I limit the amount of reading I ask students to do, and I help them attain a working knowledge of a few concepts fundamental to the intellectual work of the field. The challenge, I find, is to carefully limit the number of these concepts so that "content mastery" does not overshadow the students' development as writers. In my courses, students write about such issues as the environmental effects of genetically modified corn or the risk of using a cell phone while driving, so they need a rudimentary understanding of some statistical concepts to interpret the scientific literature. I select only a handful of key statistical ideas to work with during the term (e.g., the meaning of statistical significance, p-values, and confidence intervals), recognizing that while students will likely not understand or will make errors in judgment about statistical matters we do not cover, they will able to write critically with some ideas of probabilistic evidence.

Overlaying all these ideas, however, is helping students understand the importance of rhetorical context. I believe that many of the difficulties students face in school writing situations stem from a lack of sense of audience and purpose. So I often set up assignments where students write--literally--for other students: major papers are "published" on-line (for other students in the class or for students in another section of the same course) and students are asked to draw on and respond to each others work in subsequent projects. I try to establish, in effect, a miniature discourse community--one in which students have a fair understanding of their primary audience and understand that their writing will be put to use by others engaged with their topic.