Tag: science writing

What’s Writing to You? The Role of Writing in Living

Kendyl Harmeling, Assistant Director For Graduate Student Writing

As Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing here at the University of Louisville Writing Center, I work at both the Belknap and Health Sciences campuses and frequently have conversations about writing with undergrads, grad students, faculty, and staff alike. In these interdisciplinary discussions, I often find myself told: “Well, we just don’t do a lot of writing in my field.” For a while, my response to this idea was to shrug and accept that, sure, maybe some fields are less writing-intensive than others. My response was not ideal for a number of reasons, but mainly because I was regularly shrugging off an opportunity to question the function of writing, its definitions, and how it changes across communities. Now in my response to this situation I ask: so, what is writing to you?

This languaging shift occurred for me when I was talking with a graduate student in the Dental program earlier this year, who was narrating their program path to me. They kept referring to their probable lack of Writing Center use because there was just no writing in their graduate program; no writing in a program means, of course, no need to visit the University Writing Center. But I was struck – how does a terminal degree program require no writing for their graduate students? I thought there must be something like writing going on there. To fill in the blanks, I began to think about the professional life of a practicing dentist and a flurry of questions came to me: Do dentists write? What do dentists write? What is writing to a dentist? And why do dental graduate students believe they don’t (or won’t) do it? Where’s the disconnect and what caused it?

I happen to know a handful of dentists and can confidently say that dentists write. Dentists are writers. Writing is a tool that dentists use, just like a tooth scraper or floss. My dentist writes me a prescription when necessary. He writes a regular newsletter for all his patients, outlining changes to insurance policies or scheduling systems. He publishes peer-reviewed articles in the major journals of his field on new technologies and techniques. He also writes me (and all his patients) holiday cards. Isn’t this all writing? What is writing if it’s not what my dentist does? What my dentist writes certainly looks different from what I write as a graduate student in the humanities and as a writing teacher, but the differences in the qualities and functions of our writing do not negate either of our claims to being a writer.  Our shared claims to being someone who does writing, for whom writing is a tool of our professions. The face of the writing might change—what its forms, functions, and goals are—but what remains is that we are writers writing.

If you read our Program Assistant Maddy’s blogpost from last week, you’ll learn that if you come to the UofL Writing Center, we’ll call you a “writer.” She does a lovely job writing about why we use this term, and the emotional state that you might find yourself in upon being given a title (like “writer”) that you might not feel comfortable claiming. This is the same response, to me, as when people tell me they don’t do a lot of writing in their field – there is a disconnect between what the general idea of “writing” is and the thing which people do, every day, in their professions and lives. I see this across stations and disciplines, from faculty and staff to graduate students to undergrad students in my English 101 classes. There is trepidation in claiming writing as a tool beyond the humanities, but the reality is quite different. You are a writer, and you do writing. You write, your field writes, and I’ll prove it.

Like my dentist who writes, although who might not claim the title “writer” over the title “dental professional,” we are all writing in our fields and in our lives. From my experience, this disconnect between identifying and claiming writing as a tool of our professions – of our identities in many ways – might come from the lofty myth of writing. This idea that writing must have its head in the clouds with its feet off the ground – that it must loft our better angels of ideas high into the sky where only theorists and artists can find it – is misplaced and misguided. Writing is a tool, and sometimes it can be lofty and heavy-hitting, but sometimes it’s just a vehicle for communication. When I write poetry, I feel like a “writer,” but, when I write text messages, or social media posts, or when I write an email to my boss – I am also a writer in these moments, a writer doing writing. And so are you.

A lawyer will tell you that writing is an essential tool in their profession, likewise a teacher or a professional writer. But so will hospital workers and medical professionals. Nurses doing rounds on call have to write PICO reports of their patients; similarly, they write prescriptions, emails to insurance companies or the billing department, and so many other micro-genres that populate the communicative avenues of their disciplines. A hospital administrator needs to write board reports, grant proposals, budgets, etc. A custodial-professional needs to write order lists and take inventory. An engineer needs to write grant proposals, blueprints, and proofs. A software designer writes code. A postal worker writes “Sorry I missed you” stickers when trying to deliver packages when you’re not home. And these are only examples of mono-modal genres.

None of these genres are any more “writing” than another. Their variance is part of what makes writing such an incredible, essential tool. Lofty or not, writing is about communication – and communication is a fundamental human experience. So, come by the University Writing Center to have a fundamentally human experience, to talk through what writing means to you, what it looks like, and what it does. More so, come by to talk about how the UWC can help you build a relationship with your and your field’s writing. Challenge yourself to question and analyze the role writing plays in your profession or program. Maybe, even, write about it.

Some reflective questions to begin analyzing your relationship with writing in your professional and personal life:

  1. What do you imagine the definition of “writing” is – what elements of a text must be present for it to be considered “writing”?
    1. Where and when did you learn this?
    1. What is the relationship between when/how this idea of “writing” formed for you and how it frames your relationship to writing today? In other words, how were you socialized into this view of “writing” and how has that socialization impacted how you view “writing” today?
  2. What genres (categories) of “writing” do you interact with daily – if we can accept that “writing” can mean any written (alphabetic or otherwise) communication?
  3. How is writing integrated into the systems you work within? How does it affect operations and functions of your workplace/space? What about in your personal life?
  4. Would you call yourself a writer – considering your creation of text with these genres and conventions? Why or why not?
    1. How many times do you have to write, and in how many ways, before you can call yourself a writer?

How I Write: Thomas Geoghegan — Graduate Dean

Our “How I Write” series asks writers from the University of Louisville community and beyond to respond to five questions that provide insight into their writing processes and offer advice to other writers. Through this series, we promote the idea that learning to write is an ongoing, life-long process and that all writers, from first-year students to career professionals, benefit from discussing and collaborating on their work with thoughtful and respectful readers. The series will be featured every other Wednesday.

This week the “How I Write”geoghegan headshot series features Thomas Geoghegan, the current Associate Dean for Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies at the School of Medicine, as well as a faculty member in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. He recived his BS degree in Biology from the University of Massachusetts/Boston, and PhD in Biological Chemistry from the M.S. Hershey Medical School associated with Penn State.  Thomas Geoghegan  joined the faculty at UofL in the Department of Biochemistry in the School of Medicine in 1979.

How I Write: Thomas Geoghegan

Location: UofL School of Medicine

Current project: Associate Dean for Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies

Currently reading:  David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

  1.  What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?

    I began my career as a bench scientist (molecular biologist) writing papers and grant applications (not always successfully I might add).  I also teach and of course needed to write lecture notes, study guides and test questions (again not always successfully).  I no longer write scientific grants and manuscripts. I do however continue to teach and write reports of activities of our office.  For a short time I also wrote a blog on graduate education (once again not always successfully).

  2. When/where/how do you write?

    I mostly write in my small, cramped, and overly cluttered office. geoghegan office

  3. What are your writing necessities—tools, accessories, music, spaces?

    For the most part a pad and paper, and computer.

  4. What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision?

    Tip for getting started – get started; no really get started.  People write differently but everyone has to get started.  I’m big on getting something down on paper and editing the hell out of it.  In fact I’ll spend 5-10 times more time editing than writing.

    My best tip is to post a bullet list with principles of writing right in front of you.  When you’re stuck (and everyone gets stuck) it refreshes your memory and get’s you started again.

    One caveat; my son is a journalist/writer.  He sits down to write and most of the time it comes out perfect, with few revisions.  Proving that much to my dismay as a molecular biologist , it’s not all genetics (because I can never do that).

  5. What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

    Most of my serious writing is (or was) scientific.  And the best advice I got was to “keep it simple stupid”.  The more you try and elaborate, the more complex and less understandable your arguments are.

How I Write: Jeffery L. Hieb — Engineering Professor

Our “How I Write” series asks writers from the University of Louisville community and beyond to respond to five questions that provide insight into their writing processes and offer advice to other writers. Through this series, we promote the idea that learning to write is an ongoing, life-long process and that all writers, from first-year students to career professionals, benefit from discussing and collaborating on their work with thoughtful and respectful readers. The series will be featured every other Wednesday.

hiebOur featured writer this week is Professor Jeffery L. Hieb. Dr. Hieb teaches in the Engineering Fundamentals and Computer Engineering and Computer Science departments in the J. B. Speed School of Engineering at the University of Louisville. Although he has a range of research interests, one area of specialty for Dr. Hieb is information assurance and security.

How I Write: Jeffery L. Hieb

Location: In my office or my office at home

Current project: A technical report on the availability and effectiveness of currently available industrial control system cyber-security technology for the Dams Sector.

Currently reading: What the Best College Professors Do, Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

  1. What type(s) of writing do you regularly engage in?

    a. Conference and journal papers
    b. Technical reports
    c. Letters of recommendation
    d. Grant and research proposals

  2. When/where/how do you write?

    a. In my office or in my office at home.
    b. Almost any chance I get

  3. What are your writing necessities—tools, accessories, music, spaces?

    a. I write on my notebook computer, and since I have it with me most of the time I can write almost anywhere.  I usually like to have a cup of coffee next to me when I write.

  4. What is your best tip for getting started and/or for revision?

    a. When I have trouble getting started I like to stand up and talk about the subject matter to an imaginary audience.  Usually after 10 to 15 minutes I want to start writing down something I have said.

  5. What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

    a. The best advice I ever received was from Dr. David Shaner, my philosophy professor when I was an undergraduate.  He once told me: “Just throw up on the page, you can clean it up later”.  I have always found that helpful when starting to write something, it takes away the pressure of getting it right at the beginning, and acknowledges that rewriting/revising is part of the writing process, not what you do to fix or correct something you got wrong initially.

A Two-Way Street: Learning from Clients in the Writing Center

Scott Lasley, Consultant

With my first semester at the writing center complete, I call up the images of all the students I’ve worked with and surprisingly, find more faces of science and business students than English major students.  In the few months of my infancy as a writing consultant, it was especially daunting to work almost exclusively with students in fields of engineering, business, and chemistry because what could this lowly English student help with outside of mundane grammatical and surface-level concerns?  This sentiment was a mere manifestation of my “newness” anxiety that was barely a whisper by the end of the first month.  I became entranced with what work the non-English major students brought in to the writing center.  I found myself learning ideas and concepts that I never dreamed would cross my path from deformable models regarding imaging software to simpler things like how to write business letters and memos.  It was as if I had become the student, my eyes wide as I listened to the teacher inform me of some new piece of knowledge. 

I remember reading a student assignment about some new findings regarding a hominid species that supported the possibility of co-evolution in Southeast Asia.  Staring down at the pages of pictures and blocks of text on this new hominid, I found myself getting lost in the circled and highlighted prints and lines, entranced by the unexpected nature of this newly found knowledge.  What if it were true?  What if this changed our very understanding of world?  Dramatic, I know, but being presented with something I had never considered or even thought of made such findings like a stop sign of sorts in that I must wait and take notice of what lies in front of me.  Even though I knew next to nothing about evolutionary studies, I could not help but absorb all that could from what I saw, like a young boy does when listening to his father.  I craved to know more and found myself taking mental notes of names like homo floresiensis and co-evolution as I worked through the session.  As I sat down in front of my computer after the session, I quickly brought up Google, typing my mental notes into the slender search bar, excited less by what I may or may not find and more by the shear possibilities of what might be found.

This experience, like many others so far while working at the writing center, has demonstrated the importance ofScott consultants not only tutoring and teaching students in order to help them become better writers, but learning from them as well.  That’s not to say that we have to play the role of the engaged student or that we will always enjoy and want to know about what our clients are working on.  Desire and curiosity have their limits.  However, by being intellectually curious of the world outside the English department, we not only see what other writers are doing, but we also open our minds and by extension, our writing, to new areas of intellectual exploration.