Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Student as Writer: A Path to Understanding

It is rumored that a few students pursuing degrees in science and technology do not like to write. Such a judgment may be too harsh. Instead, let’s suggest that people with analytical skills look forward to writing assignments the way language lovers look forward to solving algebraic expressions.

I have not found any evidence that writers can use writing as a path to understanding the abstract regions of the sciences, but there is ample evidence that those who do feel at home in those regions can use writing to help them better understand their own studies and investigations, no matter how specialized or arcane their program content may be.

In his book, Writing to Learn, former Yale professor William Zinsser declared, “…writing is no longer the sole possession of the English teacher but is an organic part of how every subject is taught.”

If the rumor is true, that “techno-types” tend to shun the analog world of writing, then it’s possible that students in other specialized fields – music or nursing, for example – might also want to walk the other way when writing assignments are handed out. But are they selling themselves short when they do?

Ann Garwick, a professor of nursing at Gustavus Adolphus Collage, tells us that she asks students to search pertinent journals for one article that interests them, then write an annotated summary.

“Writing helps them organize their plan of health care,” she says, “and also expands their thinking and raises further questions they should be asking.”

Not only can writing help students learn how they think and feel about a given subject while they are in college, good writing can also help them later in their careers, when and if they want to publish on a much larger stage.

Notable examples of those who did include astronomer Carl Sagan, whose down-to-Earth approach gave us a new and entertaining look at the universe. As I recall, he was the first to introduce the mathematical origin of “Google” to the general public. Rachel Carson, in her books, Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us, used factual observation and lyricism to draw our attention to a neglected environment.

Finally, there is the engaging style of Albert Einstein. When he set out to explain how rivers carve channels in river bottoms, he began, “Imagine a cup full of tea, with several tea leaves floating on the surface.” And when he thought about how to explain his theory of relativity, he began, “Pretend you are on a moving train and you drop a stone to the ground.”

Could it be that we have access to the minds of Sagan, Carson, and Einstein only because they learned to write in ways that helped us relate our world to theirs? They learned to use writing as a tool, and it served them well. Not all students will reach the international stage the way they did, but do they have to? No they don’t. To help them excel on their own stage, all they need do is embrace writing as a way to explore, to discover, to learn, and to understand.
"Writing is not simply a way for students to demonstrate what they know. It is a way to help them understand what they know. At its best, writing is learning." (The Neglected "R," the Need for a Writing Revolution, The National Commission on Writing, 2003)


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