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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Stretch Your Teaching Muscles

Lessons in teaching undergraduates from across the (imagined) Humanities/STEM line.

October 21, 2018

Neelofer Qadir is a Ph.D. Candidate in English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a Research Associate at the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center. You can follow her on Twitter @_neelofer or check out her website.

When I tell people that I have been teaching in a science department, shock slowly registers on their face. Their mouths contort into a “but” until I add that much of my role in the required writing course for the major involves giving workshops on topics like “Science Writing for the Public,” “Writing for a Live Audience,” or “Inquiry Based Writing.” Their faces settle into a kind of understanding: Yes, of course, you teaching writing in a science class. You know how to teach writing; you’ve been doing that for years.  

But I can sense that underneath there’s still a bit of confusion. It’s true that years of teaching first year composition has given me a strong foundation for teaching writing in a range of settings. Having worked in a writing center also helps; after all, a writing center session is very much like a student conference without the added pressure of being the student’s evaluator.

My current role requires me to work with students in the one-on-one conference style and to consult with their faculty members on developing and assessing writing assignments in addition to building the workshops to support the students’ writing process. On those days when I’m not in the classroom, the students are digging deeply into science that exceeds my expertise.

Collaborating with science faculty to support their students has invigorated my approach to teaching in profound ways, a refresh that I sorely needed since I haven’t taught in the previous three semesters.These days, my week-to-week teaching preparations for designing workshops have me reaching for my usual writing support guides, such as the UNC Writing Center’s fantastic website, and searching for new resources like Nature’s blogs for science writers. Inevitably, what I find reaffirms aspects of writing pedagogy I’m familiar with while giving me fresh ways to express it to the new audiences with whom I’m working.

My colleague, Jenny Krichevsky, a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric and Composition Studies, is one of two graduate students who, alongside the department chair and faculty, have built this model of Writing Fellows from the ground up. After two successful years of their programming, they hired me to help them continue this work. Like me, Krichevsky has taught first year composition and worked in writing centers, but her research expertise in Writing Across the Curriculum and Writing in the Disciplines has prepared her especially well to co-create such a model. She tells me, “Working with the writing and rhetoric of another discipline has made me stretch my own skills for externalizing my values for ‘good writing,’ and in turn has given me a chance to practice composition pedagogy with more nuance and care.”

As I learned in my conversations with STEM graduate student colleagues last spring, the similarities I find between scientist and non-scientist students far outnumber discernible differences. My colleague Edwin Murenzi’s travails in dissertation writing as a bench scientist ring familiar to me each time I work with one of my current students: they are incredibly bright and excellent at communicating complex scientific thought during our one-on-one conversations. Yet, despite omnipresent social and digital technologies that prioritize  textual communication, students of all majors seem to find writing in an academic or professional context to be a challenge.

In a time when the stakes of partisanship are high, I’m feeling quite fortunate that I get to devote some of my weekly energies to bridging divides between humanities and STEM fields. Our day-to-day work in the university can often feel alienating, but I know that for many of us teaching provides a strong sense of purpose and a community. Stretching the contexts in which we get to practice our pedagogy not only revitalizes the work we might do in our conventional disciplinary spaces, it can create pathways for new professional opportunities.

[Image by Flickr user Giulia Forsythe and used under a Creative Commons license.]


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