Biology, Chemistry, and Writing Center Alchemy

Tracy Blickhan '98, Sarah Bray '98, Jana Haritatos '99, Elizabeth Hendrix '99, Jane Kim '00, and Paul Venhuizen '97

Consultants in our writing center hail from a variety of academic disciplines, mirroring Coe College's Writing Across the Curriculum program. Since writing is emphasized for all majors in our liberal arts college, consultants are often faced with papers from subject areas to which they are unaccustomed. Complications most often arise when a consultant from the humanities is working with a paper written for a course in the natural sciences. In the following discussion, consultants from the Coe Writing Center explore the implications of a study conducted by two staff members investigating how a writing center alchemy can work when dealing with the sciences.


Even as a freshman, I've found that Coe's Writing Across the Curriculum program already affects me. As a physics/theater major, I find that, in order to accommodate the demands of different disciplines with variable audiences, I must be prepared switch writing modes for each class.

This is an obstacle often faced by consultants in our writing center. For those of us who are science majors, we are acutely aware of the significant differences that exist between the humanities and the natural sciences, differences which are fundamental to both the writing process and the nature of the final product. The research project conducted by Sarah and Tracy attempted to identify the common difficulties faced by consultants conferencing papers from the natural sciences and to supply a means for overcoming their lack of experience with these subjects.


In order to obtain the data necessary for this study, Sarah and I set about interviewing students and faculty from both the chemistry and biology departments. We analyzed the comments of those interviewed and the papers graded by the professors. These results were then compared to the experiences of consultants who had conducted conferences on papers in the natural sciences. We hoped to discover possible remedies to help the writing center employees alleviate the discomfort and frustration they often experience when presented with a paper from the sciences.


We conducted our study by observing three writing emphasis courses; two in biology, instructed by Dr. Paula Sanchini, and one in chemistry, conducted by Dr. Pete Wickham. The first course in biology was Botany, which was composed entirely of biology majors. At the end of this course, a portfolio was to be turned in containing an abstract written about a scientific journal article, and two lab reports in a formal, four section format.

The second biology course, Topics in Scientific Inquiry, was directed at non-science majors. These students wrote two lab reports, but were allowed to write the lab reports in essay or letter form as long as they conveyed the results clearly and accurately. The final assignment for the course was to write a paper on a scientific journal article which discussed one of the topics addressed in class. Students interpreted the article and defined the researcher's philosophy of science.

The chemistry course, Organic Laboratory, was intended for majors in biology and chemistry and offered a greater variety of assignments with significant changes pertaining to the intended audience of each assignment. The first assignment was to compose a scientific lab report for the professor detailing the isolation and analysis of an organic compound from a biological specimen. The second assignment was to write a memo directed to the CEO of an insecticide company, advising him on the development of an organic insecticide. The final assignment was to write a lab report in the format found in chemical journals. The students were instructed to write this report as graduate students addressing a major professor.


Just by reading these class descriptions, it is obvious that difficulties can arise simply due to the variability of the course type and the professors' assignments. These complications arise when the differences between individual courses and assignments are considered. For example, variations in the intended audience and expected format changed frequently, as demonstrated by the papers examined for the chemistry class. Professors' instructional techniques also contribute to difficulties. Dr. Sanchini, the biology professor, prefers to hand out instructional assignment sheets, followed by a series of science-oriented comments at the end of the paper. By contrast, Dr. Wickham enjoys conferencing with his students over drafts of their writing and makes a variety of editorial comments throughout the finished product, focusing on stylistic and grammatical errors, as well as science-related content.

Non-science majors often feel hesitant about using their typical conferencing styles because of their lack of experience with the format of typical science writing. Science papers often involve the analysis and evaluation of data, requiring the reader to interpret a variety of unfamiliar charts and graphs. Vocabulary and syntactical characteristics or scientific prose may also create a conference barrier for non-science majors. The determination of sodium dioxide concentration through the use of titration with iodine and gas chromatography often proves a daunting subject matter for consultants more comfortable discussing imagery in a Shakespeare sonnet.


By observing these difficulties, we determined that one of the best ways to get a conference started is to talk with the student about the assignment before even picking up the paper. Understanding the assignment is one of the key aspects to any successful consultation because it gives the writer a chance to think through the professor's expectations, as well as providing the consultant with items to identify in the paper.

Variances in audience and purpose within each assignment greatly affect the format, content, and overall requirement that the student-writer is aiming to fulfill. A more profound understanding of the assignment can therefore be essential in guiding the direction and focus of a conference. By discussing the professor's expectations for the paper before reading it, the consultant can help the writer grasp the assignment and have a better understanding of possible directions the piece could take. This technique helps both the consultant and the student-writer visualize the paper's progression and can provide a useful way to initiate a potentially daunting conference.


Another tool that can be utilized prior to reading the student's paper is discussion of the experiment or scientific article detailed in the composition. This line of discussion can serve many purposes, providing the consultant with valuable background information, and allowing the student to ease into the ensuing conversation pertaining to his writing. By asking the student to explain the line of argument prior to the actual conference, the consultant may also be able to discern the student's comprehension of the paper's topic. If the writer can describe the procedure in a manner which allows the non-science major to understand the process and results, then the paper will likely reflect this eloquence. If it does not, then the consultant can use the student's explanation as a guide to perceive problem areas in need of revision. If the student cannot fluently discuss the paper, then it may be beneficial to have them describe the subject manner in order to aid their revision of the hypothesis or thesis.

In my experiences with conferences of this type, students often leave the session with theories clearly formed as a result of the brainstorming prior to reading the paper. Utilizing this technique, I have had several consultations in which students dramatically changed their hypothesis and reworked the entire write-up as a result of our conference.


Another means which I've often found helpful in preparing myself as the "dumb" reader, is to peruse an assortment of scientific journals article prior to a conference. By completing this preparation, I can familiarize myself with the different writing styles of the various scientific disciplines and begin to learn the diction and format used by the authors. These techniques can give the non-science major a slight advantage, despite the natural apprehension that may be felt when dealing with the foreign territory of science writing.


We can often dissuade this apprehension by assuring writing center consultants who are not science majors that they can provide significant assistance in the revision of science papers. Dr. Sanchini mentioned in her interview that students often have the most difficulty in writing the results portion of a science paper. It is often difficult to communicate the combination of numerical data and explanatory prose necessary in this section. Most writing consultants, regardless of major, can identify choppy areas in these papers and can aid the writers in modifying the flow and transitions, allowing them to better communicate the results.

By reviewing the professors' critiques of the various science papers, Sarah and Tracy's study illustrated that our consultants offered suggestions comparable to over one third of the comments actually made by professors. Any one of these recommendations can help the writer to address areas in need of revision, and when a consultant can identify over one third of the concerns that a professor may bring up, the conference has the potential to generate drastic improvements within the piece. These are improvements which will be expressed not only through the text of that paper, but more importantly, through the student's writing ability and successive composition efforts.

In my personal experiences with writing papers in the sciences, I often find it beneficial to have a non-science major read preliminary drafts to ensure that I am communicating my data and conclusions in a clear and concise manner. If the consultant is able to understand, and even clarify, my ideas, then I can be confident that my theories have been effectively expressed. I will then defer to a consultant more experienced in the subject matter, someone who can help me detect areas that may need revisions at a more scientific level. It helps to have a writing center consisting of writing consultants from diverse majors so that, should the need arise, a consultant lacking science experience may direct a student to a consultant of similar academic background.


Experienced readers do enjoy a certain advantage in dealing with familiar subject matter. For example, knowing the structure of the standard four section lab report and understanding where the divisions lie between the information presented in each area can lend a definite advantage in a conference with this type of paper. A consultant majoring in the sciences is also better equipped to evaluate raw data presented in charts and graphs. The experienced reader will be able to ask knowledgeable questions dealing with serious scientific discrepancies, directing the student toward a better understanding of the experiment and inconsistencies appearing in their writing.


Because science is such a broad and varied field, these seem to be the best general methods for working with scientific writing. Regardless of major, there are certain benefits that any consultant can bring into this type of conference. Dr. Sanchini, the biology professor, stated in her interview that she wouldn't anticipate a need for the writing center consultant to treat a science paper differently than they might any other genre. She felt that common problems exist in any type of writing, and that consultants should therefore be able to detect these problems in a science lab just as they would a humanities essay.

A non-science consultant has the advantage of being the "dumb" reader. He cannot impose his own scientific knowledge to influence the student's own conclusions and is more likely to see literary inconsistencies in the paper.

On the other hand, the science consultant has the benefit of being a member of the scientific community and having a certain familiarity with scientific prose. He may also be better equipped to locate areas where the writer is making unsupported connections between the data and his conjectures. The science consultant may also be able to discern where the student needs to draw on outside literature, more fully use his data, or make statistical comparisons.

In the end, like any conference, there is no easy answer. Each conference is individual. Likewise, each science paper is unique. Just as assignments in humanities differ from subject to subject and professor to professor, so too do assignments in the sciences. The best advice is to show no fear and let the conference take you where it needs to go.

Presented at the Midwest Writing Association Conference in Minneapolis in October, 1996