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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

Writing like broccoli: Disguise the effort so students can get past hang-ups + be better writers

Updated: Jul 27

Does that title sound like a book? Might be a good idea, but I'm already writing one for instructors, and I am wrangling enough other projects right now. 🤹‍♀️

For the time being, "writing like broccoli" is a metaphor that occurred to me recently. I was re-reading some advice I gave to an undergraduate student after reading their end-of-semester goals reflection. [1] The student had started with a goal of becoming a better writer, and they weren't sure they had. They didn't use bigger or "fancier" words, and they felt like writing was still a lot of work.

My intent, in responding to them, had been to help this student see how much writing they had done. It's just that the writing had been in service to a major project, and that writing had been scaffolded to help them build good, productive writing habits without freaking out about a specific sentence or draft.

In other words, their work to become a better writer had been (a) embedded in professionally relevant coursework and (b) mostly disguised. The scaffolding I use de-emphasizes writing. It struck me that this is a bit like hiding vegetables in a smoothie or a sauce, to make veggies more palatable to someone who doesn't like them raw or readily recognizable.

What does all this have to do with you, dear reader? Well, you might not teach a writing course (let alone a scicomm course). But, you might really want to support your students, who likely have the same goals (or anxieties, shall we acknowledge?!?) about writing. So, I'm going to share a bit, today, about how this course is structured, and how it helps students build their skills and confidence without making writing improvement the central focus.

Some context might help.

The course this student was enrolled in has gone by a few names, but these days we call it Applied Principles of Science Communication. The course is a COM 3, which means it is a capstone communications course meant to integrate digital media, speaking, and writing competencies. At my university, all undergraduates are required to take a COM 1-3 sequence before they graduate. So, a lot of students enroll in my course because they have to take a COM 3. (And, my course is a riff off the legacy course that used to be a degree requirement for our department's students. So, I get a lot of students who still think my course is the required course. And-and: mine is an online course [2], so sometimes it's the most viable to fit into all the other responsibilities modern students juggle. Which means, a lot of students feel compelled to be in the course and otherwise might not choose it.)

Beyond some students feeling somewhat forced to take this course, nearly all of them (honestly, probably over 80%) have major hangups about writing. They say so in their start-of-semester goals statements.

The tricky thing is that the course I teach is NOT a writing course (though the legacy version was). Or rather, writing is not the central focus of the course. Instead, I aim to facilitate a learning experience that transcends all that coerced enrollment baggage. Overcoming any resistance they have to being in the class is key, because my ultimate goal is to get students to do A LOT of work (so that the course is actually useful to them later).

The course is designed to help the students themselves make good on the opportunity of the course: build/enhance their own communication skills in such a way that these skills become the mechanism for making their entire science degree into a transferable skill.

Ambitious, right? Lofty, even, I know. :)

But, students get onboard (and actually do experience these goals!) thanks to the structure of the course, the nature of the content, how I facilitate, etc. But above all, they get from the course what we both hope they will because they do the work themselves. And, part of that work is loads of writing.

We're talking writing assignments every week, which include, at minimum:

  • at least two major writing projects during the semester (including brainstorming, planning, outlines, drafts, revisions, reflections, etc.),

  • a final presentation, and

  • a blog post conveying a key theme of their self-selected and self-planned project (including brainstorming, outlines, drafts, revisions, etc.).

Someday, I intend to actually quantify how much writing they do. But, I'd hazard a guess it's well over 10,000 words (~40 double-spaced pages) per student. [3]

By the end of the semester, students reflect back on their work, and they are enormously and rightly proud of themselves. They've done substantial work to connect their interests in science to something that matters to their own hometown [4]. They've done so by making rigorous connections to the science of scicomm literature [5], and then they leverage that knowledge by practicing a wide range of evidence-based tools that are actually/also/regularly used by professional science communicators.

However, some students still don't feel like they made the kind of progress they wanted to on improving their writing skills...until I nudge them to acknowledge how much writing they've done, and how we've gone about structuring and refining that writing.

Specifically, every draft and assignment component the students submit requires them to build on the feedback and ideas of their previous work. As I explained to this student, and as I point out and remind the students throughout the course, that process is the evidence-based process through which we all become better writers -- both overall and with individual writing projects.

I also nudged the student to keep in mind that the sequencing of writing that we do for each assignment is the order of drafting and revising tasks recommended in pretty much all the research on how to become a better writer. That is: focus on first clarifying their ideas. Next, calibrate for the reader/audience/target group, which includes effective organization/flow of content and ideas. Only toward the end do we attend to polishing the writing (line edits, grammar, etc.). [6]

I further encouraged the student to give themself some grace. After all, it is okay to recognize that your base writing (your voice, your approach to writing) is your foundation. Your foundation is an important frame for how you start, and it doesn't need to be "fixed." Indeed, I much prefer to help students realize that what they start with is great, whatever level of sophistication or technical writing skill that may entail.

Once we embrace that we start with where we are, we have a host of tools in the scicomm (and academic writing) world that offer each writer many choices. For example, with tools like readability calculators and plain language tools (e.g., up-goer five text editor or, we can all always adjust our writing for more or less complexity. But, making those adjustments is most effective once you have (a) become clear, for yourself, on what you aim to write and (b) who you are writing to/for.

Ultimately, this student (who did all the work of the course) likely did become a better writer throughout the semester. But, they may not have recognized their progress, because most of the student-focused discourse around writing in academia is about performance, not about thinking and effective communication. With a utilitarian, get-it-"right" attitude to writing, instructors and students risk fixation on the very last phase of writing. Such a focus leads to a chronic, damaging misconception that writing is a magical, one-and-done act; one that precious-few people are born capable of completing at a professional level.

We must help students overcome these misconceptions by reconceptualizing writing and writing instruction ourselves. [7] And if we have to disguise the writing as other kinds of work [8] to get there, I say: bring on the broccoli sauce!



1 Part of my teaching practice is a first-week + last-week goals assignment. Each student articulates their goals (and concerns) for the course at the outset, then reviews those and reflects on them during the last week.

2 Pre-COVID lockdown, I couldn't have fathomed teaching online. My courses are super hands-on, interactive, and very student-centered. And, I'd never taught online. But, the forced transition online in spring 2020 was a pedagogical revelation to me. The adjustments I made to the course for online delivery made it meaningfully better, and I haven't looked back. As long as I have a say in it (and I'm grateful we do at my university), this will be an online course. (As before the lockdown, many students also opt-in to my online course for myriad reasons. I'm thrilled the shift to an online format has actually made the course more accessible.)

3 Before anyone freaks out, this is about half the workload the course was when I first ran it, in an in-person, pre-COVID era. I realize that doesn't make the original version sound any more viable. :) But, I'm an absolute bleeding heart of a teacher. I meet students where they are, and my goal for them is completion of the course at the level that is meaningful to them. Most assignments are pass-fail, and most students wind up saying they expected to be swamped and find the course a slog, but instead have emerged with a strong sense of self-efficacy and a toolkit they will take confidently into their career.

4 See the course syllabus for details on the overarching frame of the course. The tl;dr, though, is: choose a problem in your hometown that you think science could help with, but you don't know how. Research it, research similar issues and how other places have dealt with them, research recommendations from the scicomm literature, and research the shared values that exist in common for you and the focal group/people you decide to concentrate on. Then, propose a communications effort that will add something new to the conversation and move the situation toward a specific goal you have articulated.

5 See my earlier posts highlighting the scicomm bibliography I share with the course (don't worry, I do not assign everything on it!) and a top-20 reading list distilled from that bibliography. [No, I don't assign everything on this one, either. :)]

6 It is both a huge relief and a real frustration to students to hear that line edits are most useful at the end. They've spent their entire writing/school careers having their sentences nit-picked for grammar, punctuation, syntax, and word choice at a stage in the process when they should be drafting and clarifying ideas. Most of their peers and most of their instructors have not learned that this fixation is out-of-order, and thus, they are both relieved to be able to focus just on the ideas and simultaneously stressed that they are not getting feedback (a) as they are accustomed and (b) that is easier to "deal with" than refining complex ideas and developing actionable plans to relay those ideas to specific readers. This whole tangle (and the associated pedagogical misconceptions) play a central role in the instructor-support book I'm co-writing right now.

7 We can make the work of writing visible by modeling and assigning the ideation, iteration, drafting, and revision stages that (should) precede polishing at the sentence level.

8 While it might feel like a leap to students concerned about the grades they get on lab reports and essay exams, I actually see this reconceptualization/shift the focus work around writing hang-ups as closely related to the work I do connecting art and science. In both realms, people experience a lot of anxiety and shame. That they do isn't fair. Art and writing, just like learning and doing science, require introductory training and knowledge development; brave environments for learning, exploring, and experimenting; and frequent, low-stakes opportunities to practice and try out multiple modes of doing and talking/writing about their efforts. However, for lots of reasons I've discussed elsewhere (and present in invited seminars!), we take it for granted that people need a lot of support to become learned and accomplished scientists. BUT, most folks are made to feel like they should (a) be automatically good at writing and art, and (b) just most not be trying hard enough if they aren't. As I said, I've talked about these harmful misconceptions and the importance of countering them in numerous places. See here, here, here, and here, for starters. And, if that's not enough, consider that Darwin, too, had a deep hang-up about drawing, one that he intensely regretted not overcoming.

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