Information Sheet #85

November 30, 1994


[One of the most stimulating meetings I've attended this term occurred earlier this month at a carry-tray luncheon for faculty and staff when Dr. Jane Nesmith discussed the results of her doctoral dissertation, a study of Coe's writing program.  As she shared with us her findings about some of the tacit assumptions evident in faculty/student attitudes towards writing, her comments on the tensions between a "private" and "public" writing voice reminded me of a dialogue published in a book entitled Writer's Craft, Teacher's Art.  Included in this anthology is a bitnet conversation between two writing program administrators at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst:  Charles Moran, a professor of English, and William J. Mullin, a physicist who describes himself as a "condensed matter theorist."  Charlie and Bill, as they identify themselves, explored two related issues in composition:  How do early writing experiences affect an instructor's teaching of writing?  How do two disciplines as different as English and Physics influence how faculty teach writing within those disciplines?  --Bob Marrs]


CHARLIE:  As a writing teacher, I have always felt that the student writer must somehow be connected to the writing.  Without this connection, all is sound and fury.  Therefore, when I find a student connected to a subject, I break all the rules:  permit student writers to miss deadlines, conflate assignments.  As long as the writer is engaged, connected to the writing, I feel happy.  My best imaginable class is one in which I sit silently while student writers write.

The roots of this pedagogy are to be found in my early writing experiences--chiefly academic or "school" writing, unpleasant and unproductive, when I wrote papers because I had to.  One of these disasters I remember with an awful clarity.  In the twelfth grade, we were assigned a senior English term paper.  We had to present a topic on week one, an outline on week two, a rough draft on week four, and a final draft on week six.  I wrote the rough draft on the night before it was due, on the topic "Hemingway's Use of Nada in his Fiction."  I remember writing all night, alone, in an empty classroom.  By morning I had enough writing to satisfy the teacher.  I've not liked Hemingway since.

I remember also a good writing experience.  I was given an open-ended topic and wrote a piece describing night fishing with my father on Lake Champlain.  The writing wasn't easy, but I kept at it and I liked what I had written.  The piece was published in The Dragon, the school literary magazine.  [Because of these experiences] I stay away from assigned topics and prescriptive formats like those of my Hemingway paper.  I don't teach the term paper, because this ersatz genre carries with it so much that can inhibit real writing.  Assigned topics that I do give are meant as prompts, a means of starting the writer in some direction, not a means of limiting or restricting fields.  I try to teach my students how to connect to a given subject or discover a subject to which they already have a connection.  "Imagine that you face this particular issue (e.g., whether or not to approve of an abortion) in your own family" may lead the writer toward personal, rather than abstract, implications in the issue--one kind of connection.

BILL:  I agree that the presence of an emotional connection is absolutely necessary for a successful writing experience, but for me something more is also needed:  an intellectual connection that comes from knowing my subject matter well.  I began to find this out in high school--from a bad experience.  I was asked to produce the senior class history (1952) for inclusion in the yearbook.  I had no idea how to construct interesting descriptions of the Fathers and Sons Banquet (which I hadn't actually attended), or the football team's losing season.  I remember the result as fairly humiliating to my writing reputation. . . . I should have interviewed my classmates and found out what the class history really was.  No wonder I could not write it; I didn't know it.

Perhaps I began to make some progress in this regard as a graduate student at Washington University.  I took an atomic physics course with Edward Condon, who assigned a term paper that had only one real requirement besides a word count:  to include at least three references that were not in English.  Despite this vague assignment, I made a connection to the topic.  My essay was solid because it was based on material I knew, understood.  I had overcome my usual problem of not digging for or creating enough information.  Physics is probably the ultimate limit of this need for background work, since it is almost always 95 percent "research"--doing mathematical calculations or experiments--and only 5 percent writing in the traditional sense. 

I have published theoretical physics papers and have co-authored a text on modern physics.  Those experiences lead me to agree, Charlie, that connectivity is vital--intellectual as well as emotional.  Unless I have done the research that goes with the writing, I'm writing nonsense off the top of my head.  I didn't say "that goes BEFORE the writing."  Some of my bad pieces might have been useful if I had used them to tell me what I needed to learn and understand before I went on to a final draft.

CHARLIE:  Bill, we do overlap on the need for connection, even if you emphasize knowing your subject and I emphasize caring about it.  Clearly, there's a relationship here between caring and knowing about a subject.  It would be hard to know which comes first.  I feel that in English we tend to highlight the caring, and in physics you tend to highlight the knowing.  As writing teachers we do agree:  students need to be permitted, and encouraged, to write about subjects they know and care about.

However, I remember when knowing, the activity I called "research," became an avoidance behavior for me.  I should have started writing sooner than I did--before I knew what I was writing about.  In a graduate course I wrote a paper on "Milton's Chaos in Paradise Lost," which the professor thought I could expand into a Master's thesis.  I agreed.  So off I went to the library.  I kept the results of the research in file boxes of note cards, which piled up in a gratifying way.  When I sat down to write the thesis, however, I didn't have anything to say.  The note taking and research had assumed a momentum of their own; the research had not served a clear purpose. 

Contrast this, Bill, with your class history.  You were writing without sufficient information; I was buried by mine.  This experience, and others like it, lead me to teach prewriting strategies in my writing classes.  I encourage students to try out the "write-first-then-think" model, not the "think-first-then-write" model.  In my research the "research paper" becomes the "documented essay"--one where you write until you need more knowledge--and then, after writing, you go looking for the information you need.  And we've proceeded in this way, you and I, as we've written this article.  We generated a tremendous amount of material and then did the chainsaw-pruning needed to bring it all under some measure of control.

BILL:  Earlier, I said that physics is only about 5 percent writing:  the creation of the research article.  But that estimate neglects a great deal of writing of a nontraditional kind--what you in composition call prewriting and writing-to-learn--that we usually lump into the term research.  I think that the nature of the research process may have implications concerning the teaching of physics and the use of writing to teach physics.

Physics skills span both math and language skills.  If you discuss a subject but can't put it into a mathematical formulation, you're not doing physics.  On the other hand, if you can't put your mathematical derivation into some form of plain English, you haven't really understood it.  Richard Feynman used to test how deeply he had understood an idea in physics by whether he could explain it to the general public.

When I teach physics majors, I often ask students to write essays (usually short ones) using mainly words instead of equations on a variety of basic concepts in the course.  In my senior quantum mechanics course, a several-page essay written on Bell's theorem, directed to other seniors and containing little math, plunges students into the depths of the differences between quantum logic and common sense.  Writing is almost imperative to develop an understanding of this profound and weird subject.

I would also like students to learn to write material that integrates both the mathematical and the verbal argumentation.  Since student problem solvers almost always leave out the words, perhaps I should demand in my nonwriting physics courses that some of the problem homework be written carefully in an integrated fashion that includes verbal interpretation.  That is something I have yet to try.  I bet the students won't like it.

CHARLIE:  Bill, your description of your research in physics makes me realize how important collaboration is in your field.  In a sense, you are writing to your team, composed of fellow physicists, and it's in their interest to help the team produce the best possible result.  Certainly I find writing collaboratively--as we are now doing--a new and pleasant experience.  Generally we humanists write, like monks in their cells, or in library carrels, alone.


BILL:  Collaborative writing does seem to be a hot topic in composition theory circles, but as you correctly point out we physicists have been doing this kind of thing all along; we just didn't give it a name.  A recent important paper in the most prestigious physics journal has 225 authors, but that is the product of an accelerator "factory" and is not a typical physics collaboration.

Last year I took part in a more typical case.  I had published a short paper proposing an experiment.  Brian Cowan at the University of London read my paper and suggested a way to measure the same thing by a different technique.  Brian worked out the first rough cut of the theory and sent me his notes.  I continued where they left off, reduced the calculation to the point of necessary numerical work, and did the computations.

Time to write the paper:  Brian wrote the introduction and the background theory and faxed me the results.  I felt that this writing was too concise.  I rewrote his part.  I added the results of the methodology and a summary of the numerical results, including some graphs.  I faxed that to him.  He rewrote my sections [to enhance clarity] and faxed that back to me.  I retyped it all and sent the completed article to a journal.  It would be interesting to include more group activity and group writing in my classes.  So far, I have not incorporated collaborative assignments into my Writing in Physics course.  While students use peer review extensively, it has not gone much beyond that.  But why not have one pair- or group-assignment out of the six in a semester?  The problem is to insure the teaming of individuals who can really benefit from the joint effort.  I cannot collaborate with everyone; the chemistry--I mean the physics--has to be just right.


BOTH:  So at the end of a dialogue:  a brief chorus, or duet.  Both of us write, and write a great deal.  Both of us use writing in the early stages of our work as we define and work through a problem.  Both of us write well when we feel a personal connection to our subject.  Both of us work collaboratively--in the writing of this essay and, generally, in our other professional work.  We find that our experience and practice as writers form the basis for what we say and do as writing teachers.  We would hope that such a connection between personal experience and pedagogical practice would be not the exception but the rule.

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