WAC Reflections: Writing in Mathematics

It is easy sometimes to feel like there are limits to the utility of writing across the curriculum or writing in the disciplines.  Even if instructors agree that learning to write can’t be restricted to English departments, and even that each discipline has its own writing standards that students need to learn and practice, some may feel that there is no room for writing assignments in their course.  Perhaps they feel there is simply too much material to get through, or that the things the students are learning don’t lend themselves to writing assignments.

There are no easy answers for these concerns, but if you find yourself wondering whether including writing assignments in your course is really worthwhile, you might want to take a look at the website of Annalisa Crannell, Professor of Mathematics at Franklin and Marshall College.  She makes the case clearly and persuasively that writing is important, even in math, perhaps the least intuitive place to assign writing.  And if writing is important in math, surely it is important across the curriculum.

The reasons she gives for the importance of writing are very much WAC principles.  In her excellent Guide to Writing in Mathematics Classes, written for students, she justifies the choice to include writing assignments in three ways.  In her words,

  • With each additional mathematics course you take, you further distance yourself from the average person on the street. You may feel like the mathematics you can do is simple and obvious (doesn’t everybody know what a function is?), but you can be sure that other people find it bewilderingly complex. It becomes increasingly important, therefore, that you can explain what you’re doing to others that might be interested: your parents, your boss, the media. 
  • Professional mathematicians spend most of their time writing: communicating with colleagues, applying for grants, publishing papers, writing memos and syllabi. Writing well is extremely important to mathematicians, since poor writers have a hard time getting published, getting attention from the Deans, and obtaining funding. It is ironic but true that most mathematicians spend more time writing than they spend doing math. 
  • But most of all, one of the simplest reasons for writing in a math class is that writing helps you to learn mathematics better. By explaining a difficult concept to other people, you end up explaining it to yourself.

Writing in math, as she says, is very much writing to learn.  Being able to explain complicated concepts in clear language is often the best measure that a student has really mastered a concept, and practicing doing so is crucial to that mastery.  However, she also rightly points out that this ability is crucial in the real world, connecting the students’ ability to explain the math he or she is capable of with the home, the workplace, and the media.  In this way, writing in mathematics is also professional development.  These are things that the WAC movement says about writing in all courses.

Crannell’s website has a number of excellent resources, including sample writing assignments, but the aforementioned guide is the real star.  In it, she describes very well how writing in mathematics is different from other kinds of writing, provides a helpful checklist for students engaged in the writing process, and points out helpful terms for math writing and how to use them.  This is great information for any student learning to write according to specific disciplinary or professional standards, the importance of which is central to the WAC philosophy.

She even points out that mathematical equations are much like sentences in a way, with their own kind of punctuation and grammar, reinforcing how much information is communicated in both equations and writing by the placement of specific symbols and punctuation marks.  Of course, either a sentence or an equation can serve to mislead rather than communicate clearly if things are presented in the wrong order.

Crannell both demonstrates the importance of WAC principles, even in mathematics, and models them quite effectively.  The sample assignments may be of primary interest to faculty in math and the sciences, but her guide for students is a good read for anyone thinking about how help students write according to disciplinary or professional standards that may be unfamiliar to them.

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