Teaching Writing to the Haters

“No offense,” the email began, “but I don’t need to learn how to write. I’m a Software Engineering major,” continued the almost-endearingly misguided 19 year-old in an email to me about why he didn’t want to do the writing assignments in my writing class.

I was about to reply with lols, then deleted it and wrote up an explanation of what Software Engineers do all day (write), then deleted it, then wrote up an explanation of how Software Engineers get jobs (write), then deleted it, then wrote up a reply that just said, “ok.”

I changed plans the following class period. I asked the class, full of skeptical STEM majors just like him, that if they could create a document in the next 40 minutes that could convince me they don’t need to learn how to write any better than they do right now to get through college and get a job, I’d pass them on no work for the rest of the semester.

I thought they’d charge into typing furiously. But a lot of them, maybe most of them, just looked at me dejectedly for a while, then pecked at their keyboards mopishly.  They seemed to know it wasn’t possible to win this game. Some tried hard. A few wrote jokes, which I appreciated. One sent an AutoCAD drawing of a spiral staircase, to prove, I guess, he was all done learning anything. 185328-635537244141828293-16x9After the little nerdy polytechnic university where I teach ‘consolidated’ with (COUGHwasconsumedbyCOUGH) a big footbally state university I thought my classrooms would change, that they would slowly be overtaken by cool kids, by nursing and business majors. But it largely hasn’t happened: our campus has generally remained the STEM contingent of the university, what with all of the major STEM departments housed there.

So my writing classrooms remain STEMy, and anxiety over this fact continues to circulate in the ranks, as many of our core faculty left this campus and few new instructors having any experience teaching this type of student from the outset.

First ideas writing instructors come up with when confronted with STEM-filled Comp classes: panic, All of the Essays Will Be About Science, panic, Pretend it Doesn’t Matter, Proselytize for the Humanities. Oh I have done all of these things. They are as useless as they seem for improving students’ writing.

And yeah, I get the whole STEM-themed Comp classes, it makes sense. But are we selling our students short when we force these themes/topics on them?

not a student

They aren’t STEM Robots. They’re teenagers.

They have all kinds of thoughts and experiences and feelings and I don’t know if any of them are suffering for MORE STEM content in their Humanities classes, like they have to have 100% saturation on cell division or cascading style sheets in every classroom they join.

I think the panic comes from an old dusty division between the STEM world and the Humanities: you learn the content in the STEM classes, you analyze and synthesize the content in Humanities classes. And Humanities profs are perceived to be disadvantaged against all of the confusing science content with all of its intimidating jargon and cutting-edge research our brains are not qualified enough to comprehend.

Of course this is a false and outdated binary. Learning to write is ‘content,’ hefty content imho. And as much as STEM profs pretend writing doesn’t matter in their classes, doesn’t need to be taught in their classes, until direct brain-to-brain transfer comes along, writing still stands as the best way to prove you know something. So they begrudgingly assign writing without teaching it, thereby devaluing it as a learned skill.

There is no need to panic. There is no need to shift your topics/themes scienceward. Here are the actual things I do in my actual STEM student-filled writing classrooms that actually work.

These students want to know that there is a way to master writing, since STEM students are practical minded and they tend not to believe in things like innate talent but rather hard work and discipline when it comes to performance. This is good news, because there is a way, a way I constantly repeat in my writing classes like an anthem, like a lullaby: writing is a set of discrete tasks.

There’s invention, research, collaboration, drafting, revision, revision, revision. And there is not only the identification of these steps, but there are moments in the classroom when I teach how to actually do each one of them. Here’s how to revise. It’s not just peer review. It’s not just go home and do it. It’s a d i s c r e t e  t a s k. Writing is not a magic slot machine into which the Coin of Brilliance is passed and A+ Paper spits out. It’s can’t be faked, it can’t be crammed-for, it isn’t a gift you either have or you don’t.

Then, there’s praising good writing. Praise good writing at every possible second in the class. STEM kids don’t read. They don’t know what they’re aiming at, because they don’t know what the finished product is supposed to look like. So day one we start an activity we’ll repeat over and over in the class: reverse engineering. I hand them all kinds of lovely finished products: a memo, a lab report, a meta analysis, grant proposal, etc. and I ask them to pull them apart and figure out how they work, just like they’d do with a toaster or gear assembly.

Increasingly, I value concision and precision, considering where writing is now headed (to the ether of the digital world). Attention spans are shorter, for better or worse. To deny that is to ignore audience, Rhetoric 101. And to lift up directness and clarity over fanciness (or, as they read it, fakeness) is captivating and refreshing to these kids. So we talk about elegance in Comp, not the roses-on-pianos kind of elegance, but the kind that engineers talk about: maximum beauty in minimum space.


Ok fine that was basically a Sade quote but you get the idea.

Plot twist: all of these things I’ve said about how to reach STEM students in writing classes are basically all of the same things I use to reach non-STEM students in writing classes. There’s no Them v. Us, no Humanities v. STEM. There are humans, the end.

Writing is thinking made visible. No one is born knowing how to make it visible.


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