The humanities paper in a STEM class: a misled and deleterious approach.

A common concern of STEM instructors when trying to integrate writing into their curriculum is that this will take time from their teaching of the context. Of course, as WAC fellows we are taught to quickly dismiss this fear and tell them that the WAC way seeks to precisely avoid that, that’s what the “across the curriculum” stands for after all. I have noticed recently that fully realizing writing tasks for STEM classes has to avoid a certain number of pitfalls and would like to suggest here some recommendations that I think will help make WI courses a cohesive whole were the objectives of WAC pedagogy are truly met.

Most of us were not taught with WAC principles in mind, traditionally we only got big writing assignments in humanities classes. In my personal case I didn’t have to produce a serious piece of writing in my own field, Mathematics, until I had to write my undergrad thesis. I was however more than used to presenting all kinds of writing in history, philosophy or literature classes. I think the way we have been educated in which writing is a matter of the humanities heavily colors our perception and results in big problems when we try to implement writing curricula in STEM fields.

Recently, as I was reviewing writing assignments in a textbook for an algorithms class it dawned on me. While the book had writing prompts these were not about algorithms or discrete math, they were about the humanities surrounding  algorithms and discrete math. You don’t see what I am talking about? Writing assignments in STEM classes are often the ones where you are supposed to research about Einstein’s life and social context or about the ethical implications of the atom bomb, or about why Galileo was condemned by the Catholic Church. While the interest of scientists in the social background or ethical consequences of scientific advances is certainly commendable and something that should be encouraged, I want to argue that this practice is hurting the students’ formation in the STEM field itself, in the humanities issues surrounding the field and in their perception of what a writing assignment is and why they have difficulties with it.

The most problematic part of this practice is that the student is being asked to do something that the class is not preparing them for. This should be in my opinion always avoided, leaving the students to their own designs and so far afield can have devastating effects. Very often the student will know very little of the what they are expected to do and how to do it, this will lead them to produce subpar material which will lead to a bad grade. Even if the grade is not important in the class, the feeling of failure will leave students with an idea that they are bad are writing. This will ultimately reinforce the relationship between humanities and writing and an association in the student that they are not good at either. Other students might do well in this kind of assignment but it is very likely that this will take time from their study of the core of the subject, thus doing what instructors fear from writing assignments.

Additionally, the instructors are missing the potential that writing might have within their disciplines and foregoing teaching how to produce a piece of writing within the field. What’s the alternative? We need to think about writing assignments that are about what is being taught in class and that are contributing skills to the students that are adapted to the field. The problem is that these are usually harder to design, not necessarily because they are more complex but because we are not used to thinking about writing as a tool for some of these things. Let’s return for instance to the example of an algorithms class, here students need to learn the principles of how computers operate. Typical exercises usually have them modify some other algorithm, express something as pseudo-code (a language halfway between natural language and computer code) or take something in pseudo code and translate to a programing language. Natural language can fit right into this whole schema, explaining in plain language an algorithmic approach is an extremely valuable exercise, one some instructors probably already do. The problem here is often instructors either do not consider this approach or do not realize that this is precisely the kind of exercise that WAC needs to promote. Writing exercises do not have to be essays they can be anything that fits along with the rest of the courses work, be it mathematical proofs in a math class, summaries of a procedure on a chemistry lab, etc. Shifting away from the idea of the Humanities essay might be the first step towards finding this other kind of writing assignments that promotes understanding of course content and  asks students to do things that the course is actually preparing them for.