Conversations on Writing with Scientists at Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, Mexico

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[Photo: Damian Koshnick, March 2011]
The Historic District in Puebla, Mexico is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre

 

CONVERSATIONS ON WRITING WITH SCIENTISTS AT BENEMÉRITA UNIVERSIDAD AUTÓNOMA DE PUEBLA, MEXICO

Working with Dr. Bazerman (March 12 – 20, 2011), I had the great fortune of being able to deliver a presentation on writing consultation techniques and why they work to an international, scientific audience -specifically for faculty at in the Sciences at Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla (BUAP) [in Puebla, Mexico]. We travelled to BUAP in support of the excellent work (and research) that Dra. Fátima Encinas and Dra. Nancy Keranen are doing to establish institutional forms of direct WAC writing support for faculty in the Sciences across the BUAP campus.

In preparing for this presentation, I started to think about writing consultations through (what is often considered a political science term) “strategic dialogue”. What follows, represents my talking points material. What was particularly interesting for me was coming up with a short, sweet, but critical list for this audience -a truly fascinating audience.

Over the course of the week, we had the chance to talk with six senior faculty, in multiple disciplines -Physics, Applied Mathematics, etc.- on the BUAP campus. Listening gave us the chance to hear about a great deal of leading edge scientific work, of how such successful scientists work, and it also gave us a chance to inquire about the forms of writing practice enacted by distinct scientific communities across the campus. All individuals, and their teams, published extensively and internationally. Parallel to ongoing success at all levels, all also expressed an intimate knowledge of the difficulties for Non-Native English Speakers (NNES) to practice science in, write in, and publish their complex scientific findings in English for an international readership.

The direct and specialized forms of writing center and writing-across-the-curriculum (WAC) support that we have developed and institutionalized over the last 40 years across university campus’ in the U.S. are unique and are
-essentially- absent on the BUAP campus (as with most international universities). After a brief introductory description of the structural and institutional capacities of WAC & writing centers in the US, it was to this audience and in this context that I presented aspects of the following.

 

WHY & HOW, A WRITING CONSULTATION? …

[March 17th, 2011]
By: Damian C. Koshnick, University of California, Santa Barbara
Presented to: Department of Sciences, Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla -Mexico

 

WRITING CONSULTATIONS AS “STRATEGIC DIALOGUE”

A writing consultation, in my view, is a form of strategic dialogue. It comes from the recognition that the writing process –like most forms of human activity– should not and cannot be done efficiently, nor successfully in isolation. Just as the process of science (data collection, etc.) relies on equipment, and networks of support, etc. so does the professional writing process. For example, you know how to publish because you read the journals in which you publish (or, for example, you gain experience over years of what peer reviewers expect, etc.). Sometimes forms of social support are conscious, intentional, and strong, other times they are weak, or implicit. When available, specialized writing workshops and consultations are a form of strategic dialogic support that I have seen be of great value and service to writers at all levels and in all professions. This is often even true when, for example, the writing specialist is not trained, nor particularly knowledgable about the topic (though, of course, being so never hurts).

I. In order to explain, let’s use a simple conceptualization of the three “core elements” of writing:

Essentially, the latter two components –organizaton and interpretation– are primarily communicative acts which typically rely on a clarity and coherence of expression specifically -to and for others (your readership, or largest possible audience).

a. data (the subject matter or material of the essay)
b. organization (the structuring of the essay material)
c. interpretation (the meaning given to the material)

II. Strategic Dialogue: can help in the process of integrating knowledge:

After research activity, there is, in writing, often a somewhat “detached” period in which you, the writer, are trying to catch up with your experiments, thinking, findings, activities, etc. This is a kind of transcribing and documenting period which is writer-centric.

Then there is the period in which you begin to transform that knowledge by telling it to others (including yourself as an audience-internalized), by “integrating” it into broader uses and meaning to an audience larger than your immediate surroundings. This is done through creating narratives, composing-as-narrating and making the necessary connections. This integrating dimension recognizes that readers exist in concrete, social situations and in specific cultural forms; they are part of a readership with which (like your findings) you are concerned.

III. Strategic Dialogue: can help facilitate the ongoing transformation of knowledge:

A good writing specialist (in a strategic consultation), is trained to prompt the writer in careful ways. And amazingly, such prompted dialogue (conversation) can actually help the writer to transform ideas because telling often involves transforming information. Researchers Bereiter and Scardamalia (1987) address telling/transforming models in writing through the:

a) content problem-space
in which problems of belief and knowledge are worked out

b) rhetorical problem-space
in which problems of achieving the goals in a particular composition are dealt with

As Bereiter and Scardamalia (1987) put it:

“The distinctive capabilities of the knowledge-transforming model lie in formulating and solving problems and doing so in ways that allow a two-way interaction between continuously developing knowledge andcontinuously developing text” (1987).

*The strategic dialogue in a somewhat formalized writing consultation can be described as an invitation of “the other” into the rhetorical problem-space (to address aspects of organization and presentation which can impact “transform” data/content).

IV. Strategic Dialogue: can help the writer with addressivity:

A writing consultation is a method to emphasize the value and role of addressivity in writing succesfully. The complexity of the act of addressing –to engage in communication, i.e. thinking, speaking and writing –for an audience. Bakhtin emphasizes the value of the role of the active listener’s response in shaping what you say (write) and how you say (write) it.

The audience’s influence on this (what and how you say/write) varies between genres, circumstances, and context, but within each thing said, or written the audience (listener) exists and exerts influence. This varies according to the nearness of the audience:

a) from an immediate audience in everyday dialogue

… writing consultant … [can act out audiences at varying distances]

b) to an indefinite, or less concretized audience (at various distances)


V. Strategic Dialogue: can help the writer recognize “over-automatized” language:

Finally, it is worth mentioning that a writing consultant (as a strategic, active audience) can recognize –as a partial outsider (at some distance)– what you the writer (immersed scientist, etc.) may take for granted in your thinking, speaking, and writing. When immersed we often internalize the language which surrounds us. As a result, we often replicate phrases, terms, technical knowledge automatically. A strategic, consultant-listener will be careful to prompt you to think about these -assumed, or automatic- words and understandings. Often only through this concrete live speech (dialogue) can we hear ourselves reproduce what might deserve additional attention.

Conversations on International Writing, BUAP campus 2011: Dr. Bazerman (UCSB) and Dr. Keranen (BUAP)

HOW A WRITING CONSULTANT ENACTS “STRATEGIC DIALOGUE”

A. General introduction

-After any informal introductions (to est. a relationship), the tutor should intentionally inquire about writer’s background, and current circumstances; this includes asking specifically about:

i.  what prompted the writer to begin this writing project?

ii. at what stage in the process is the writer currently?

iii. what sort of time-line the writer envisions for finishing the project?

iv. specific concerns (especially for advanced students/scholars) about audience & potential placement (journals, conferences) for current project

B. What can you accomplish in a session?

i. Writer should be prompted (by consultant) to express a short hierarchy of -first general and, -then specific problems, or problem areas that the writer would like to address

ii. Consultant should make a preliminary assessment (based on writer’s response) of what might be possible in a given session, but remain open to new areas of difficulty/focus as the writer talks about:

a. the topic
b. the paper and
c. the process of writing the paper throughout the course of the consultation

iii. If consultant is familiar with paper (sometimes in writing centers, tutors consult on papers that they have not yet read), consultant should anticipate potentially introducing global, or obvious problem areas that the writer has not brought up, may not be currently, or has not yet considered (though these should be kept to a minimum -1 or at most 2 topics)

C. Typical hierarchy of consultant focus

i. Over the course of a given session, it is very important for the consultant to be very attentive to hear, recognize, and identify the ways in which what the writer says in conversation either does, or does not match up with what the writer has written

a. It is important to remember both that it can be as useful to point out success, “Yes, I see that what you have just said shows up very clearly in paragraph x” …

b. as it is equally important to point out areas of weakness, “I hear what you are saying, but I am not sure I recognize how that idea corresponds to … Is idea expressed in this draft …?”

c. Across such consultant/writer exchanges, it is often most helpful for the consultant to prompt the writer to direct both of you from spoken dialogue, to the locations where what is said matches up with what is written

ii. Generally, a consultant is interested in the following hierarchy of concerns:

First:              Interaction with the writer        [open, facilitative, supportive]
Second:          Ideas … Argument … Thesis     [for clarity of expression]
Third:             Structure … Logic                         [for clarity of progression]
Fourth:           Individual Paragraphs               [for closer analysis of the above]
Fifth:              Phrasing, Wording                      [especially, often, for NNES]
Sixth:              Syntax and Grammar                 [though often not at all]

D. Concluding a session

i. When concluding a session, it is important to ask the writer for a brief summary of what they think just happened, “What is your take-away?”. This can often be in both general terms, but the consultant should also prompt the writer to express, or list, some specific things they found helpful, etc.

ii. Sometimes too (if there is time) the consultant can/should ask the writer “what next?” … for the writer to express a preliminary plan of how they plan to proceed

iii. Often, especially when working with less experienced writers (though this is helpful advice for everyone), I prompt writers to try to find some time to work on their paper/project immediately after a session when it might be likely that they have some particular thoughts, ideas, or revisions to follow up on

iv. Offer one, or two key ideas -in brief terms- on what you, the consultant, want to emphasize

v. Offer space and time for follow up ideas and questions, etc.

[Photo by: Damian Koshnick]
BUAP Campus Commons

Sources/References

Bakhtin, M. (1986). Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Austin: Univesity of Texas Press.

Bereiter, C. and Scardamalia, M. (1987). The Psychology of Written Composition. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Hounsell, D. (1987). “Essay writing and the quality of feedback” in Richardson, T., Eysenck, M., and Piper D. (Eds.). Student learning. Open University Press.

Light, G. (2002). From the Personal to the Public: Conceptions of Creative Writing. Higher Education 43 (2), pp. 257-276.

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