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2004-2005 Weekly Brown Bag Lunch Discussion
" Science's Audiences "

September 24, 2004

Elizabeth McCormack (Physics)
The Trials and Tribulations of Academic Writing:
The Case for Cross-Training

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum

Liz opened this session by asking us to "trust her" in the following exercise: we were to write continuously for seven minutes, without editing, on the topic "drum." (She explained later that she had intentionally selected a "neutral" word, one that was not "located" in any of our disciplines.) Liz then asked us to attend as others read their passages aloud, not anticipating our own upcoming reading. Afterwards, we discussed the passages we had heard (see what participants wrote):

  1. What did we hear as reflecting our various disciplinary trainings?
  2. How did this exercise capture some of the challenges of writing in our disciplines?
  3. What did we learn about "drum" as a topic?

We noticed various qualities of writing that might have resulted from disciplinary positioning (two chemists wrote about resonance of wave functions, for instance). But many of us found this exercise very different from disciplinary writing, which "always starts with a structure." Writing for publication involves a consideration of audience, and an awareness of the tension around the role of the observer in the observations being recorded: Is she out there or a part of the record? Is the account one of a subject or a process of perception? There is, in disciplinary work, more of an anxiety about audience reaction, more of a fear of "not doing it well." But this exercise did capture for some of us our resistence to writing. When we write for publication, we have an investment in the product, and a passion for the subject; it is driven by our own interests, rather than externally assigned, as this exercise was. (For others, the opposite was true: this assignment felt "freer" and internally motivated, disciplinary writing more externally driven.)

We agreed that we learned more about the writers than about the assigned topic in this exercise, and more about the writers as people outside their disciplines (those who were musicians, for instance) than about the discipline-specific quality of their writing. We learned that for some of us writing is a joyful experience, for others not. We speculated about whether writing a paper not as a report that occurs at the end of a process of discovery, but considering it instead as part of the process of creation itself, might make writing more enjoyable. If we are constructing as we go, interpreting as we go, if we are writing papers that are always "beyond" us, if the process of writing is one of creating knowledge, and we need to go deep within to do that, then some of the excitement of conducting an experiment might find its way into our writing as well.

There was considerable discussion of what it means to write as an historian: the attempt to tell the story, to "get to how it felt" in the archives, to give the history of the discovery. There was conversation about the anxiety of putting all the pieces together to make the story, and of seeing where it fits with the stories of others. There is anxiety about knowing the audience, the venue, the larger terrain. It is hard for an historian to write "along the way," when he doesn't have all the data; there is also a problem of knowing when you have "enough."

Liz ended the conversation by tracing a spectrum of writing, from the diary through the reporting and scholarly modes. She also suggested that we can transform the sort of writing anxiety that is disabling into something productive, by thinking of it as the expression of a tension. We are nervous about "making a commitment to one narrative" (when we connect the dots between A and B, for instance, we are not connecting C to D). But the ability to construct such an account can also be the source of enjoyment in the process. Liz suggested that we might learn to be more effective writers by learning more about how different disciplines write. She also said that remembering that our brains are always at work "in the background," getting ideas, might help us relax, be less judgmental, open up and use ourselves as a source of data in our writing.

Our discussion of "science's audiences" will pick up again in person next Friday. October 1, @ 1:15, when Tamara Davis of the Biology Department will speak about "Presenting Science Within and Outside of the Lab." In the interim, the conversation is invited to continue online.

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