Combs, D. Shane, Erin A. Frost, and Michelle F. Eble. “”Collaborative Course Design in Scientific Writing: Experimentation and Productive Failure.” Composition Studies 43.2 (2015): 132-49. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
Writing in the “Course Design” section of Composition Studies, D. Shane Combs, Erin A. Frost, and Michelle F. Eble describe a science-writing course taught at East Carolina University, “a doctoral/research institution with about 27,000 students, serv[ing] a largely rural population” (132). The course has been taught by the English department since 1967 as an upper-level option for students in the sciences, English, and business and technical communication. The course also acts as an option for students to fulfill the requirement to take two writing-intensive (WI) courses, one in the major; as a result, it serves students in areas like biology and chemistry. The two to three sections per semester offered by English are generally taught by “full-time teaching instructors” and sometimes by tenured/tenure-track faculty in technical and professional communication (132).
Combs et al. detail iterations of the course taught by Frost and Eble, who had not taught it before. English graduate student D. Shane Combs contributed as a peer mentor. Inclusion of the peer mentor as well as the incorporation of university-wide writing outcomes into the course-specific outcomes resulted from a Quality Enhancement Plan underway at the university as a component of its reaccreditation. This plan included a special focus on writing instruction, for example, a Writing Mentors program that funded peer-mentor support for WI instruction. Combs, who was sponsored by the English department, brought writing-center experience as well as learning from “a four-hour professional development session” to his role (133).
Drawing on work by Donna J. Haraway, Sandra Harding, and James C. Wilson, Frost and Eble’s collaboratively designed sections of the course were intent “on moving students into a rhetorical space where they can explore the socially constructed nature of science, scientific rhetoric, and scientific traditions” (134). In their classes, the instructors announced that they would be teaching from “an ‘apparent feminist’ perspective,” in Frost’s case, and from “a critical gender studies approach” in Eble’s (134-35). The course required three major assignments: field research on scientific writing venues in an area of the student’s choice; “a complete scientific article” for one of the journals that had been investigated; and a conversion of the scientific article into a general-audience article appropriate for CNN.com (135). A particular goal of these assignments was to provoke cognitive dissonance in order to raise questions of how scientific information can be transmitted “in responsible ways” as students struggled with the selectivity needed for general audiences (135).
Other components of students’ grades were class discussion, a “scripted oral debate completed in small groups,” and a “personal process journal.” In addition, students participated in “cross-class peer review,” in which students from Frost’s class provided feedback on the lay articles from Eble’s class and vice versa (136).
In their Critical Reflection, Combs et al. consider three components of the class that provided particular insights: the collaboration in course design; the inclusion of the peer mentor; and the cross-class peer review (137). Collaboration not only allowed the instructors to build on each other’s strengths and experiences, it also helped them analyze other aspects of the class. Frost and Eble determined that differences in their own backgrounds and teaching styles impacted student responses to assignments. For example, Eble’s experience on an Institutional Review Board influenced her ability to help students think beyond the perception that writing for varied audiences required them to “dumb down” their scientific findings (137).
Much discussion centers on what the researchers learned from the cross-class peer review about students’ dissonance in producing the CNN.com lay article. Students in the two classes addressed this challenge quite differently. Frost’s students resisted the complexity that Eble’s students insisted on sustaining in their revisions of their scientific article, while students in Eble’s class criticized the submissions from Frost’s students as “too simple.” The authors write that “even though students were presented with the exact same assignment prompt, they received different messages about their intended audiences” (138).
The researchers credit Combs’s presence as a peer mentor in Frost’s class for the students’ ability to revise more successfully for non-specialized audiences. They argue that he provided a more immediate outside audience at the same time that he promoted a sense of community and identification that encouraged students to make difficult rhetorical decisions (138-39). His feedback to the instructors helped them recognize the value of the cross-class peer review despite the apparent challenges it presented. In his commentary, he discusses how receiving the feedback from the other class prompted one student to achieve a “successful break from a single-form draft writing and in-class peer review” (Combs, qtd. in Combs et al. 140). He quotes the student’s perception that everyone in her own class “had the same understanding of what the paper was supposed to be” and her sense that the disruption of seeing the other class’s very different understanding fueled a complete revision that made her “happier with [her] actual article” (140). The authors conclude that both the contributions of the peer mentor and the dissonance created by the very different understandings of audience led to increased critical reflection (140), in particular, in Combs’s words, the recognition that
there are often spaces in writing not filled by right-and-wrong choices, but by creating drafts, receiving feedback, and ultimately making the decision to go in a chosen direction. (140)
In future iterations, in addition to retaining the cross-class peer review and the peer-mentor presence, the instructors propose equalizing the amount of feedback the classes receive, especially since receiving more feedback rather than less pushes students to “prioritize” and hence develop important revision strategies (141). They also plan to simplify the scientific-article assignment, which Frost deemed “too much” (141). An additional course-design revision involves creating a lay article from a previously published scientific paper in order to prepare students for the “affective impact” (141) of making radical changes in work to which they are already deeply committed. A final change involves converting the personal journal to a social-media conversation to develop awareness of the exigencies of public discussion of science (141).