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Coaxing the Lion out of its Lair Or, the Challenges and Rewards of Teaching Writing to STEM Students

by Kris Morrissey

Teaching an English Literature class five years ago, the lights went out for no apparent reason. We sat looking at each other, considering the inherent symbolism of light – be it ambient or fluorescent. Then, when nothing happened, our discussion carried on at a deeper, more intense level to match the near pitch-dark room. At the end of class, I leaned near the door and accidentally turned the lights back on – voila!

It is true that most English adjuncts pooh pooh any position where we are not engaged with those wonderfully prolific humanities students who wax philosophical, take our classics reading assignments to new heights, write beautifully crafted essays, and support every single argument with keen and unusual analyses and properly sourced citations. Indeed, we vie to teach students whose brains we’d like to visit, imagining sitting down to a long leisurely conversation over a dark espresso and crème brulee. True humanities students are the dessert of life to English adjuncts.

Then, there are those STEM students who we use to leave in their science, technology, engineering, or math corner but now are required to take a writing class before they graduate. These lions walk into class the first day feeling unsettled having left their familiar savannah on the other side of campus. After finding the humanities building, they uniformly slouch low in their chairs and growl as I hand out the syllabus that has in bold the word “Humanities” across the top.

I’ve come to appreciate the fact that the lion-like brain accompanies a lion-like confidence that is necessary for their chosen field. After all, these sober seniors are about to embark upon careers where they will eventually build the infrastructure for our country, develop alternative energy resources, save the lives of high risk children, improve prosthesis for injured veterans, code counter attacks on our cyber enemies, or create entirely new ways of communication.

These lions can vanquish differential equations and slay multivariable calculus with nary a worry, but what they can’t abide is this little mouse called writing. It aggravates them. It frightens them. It brings up very bad memories that they want to keep submerged in the murky memory of the past. Their rationale is along these lines: mice exist, there are people who like mice, let them deal with the mice, leave me on the other side of campus so I don’t have to interact with mice, ever.

None of this is a criticism of STEM students. Rather, I find them incredibly brave walking into the heart of a humanities class just months before graduation. Indeed, should a passing grade in a high-level math class have been required in the 1980s, this adjunct would still be pursuing her Bachelor’s degree. Their requests for a formula, an equation, a reliable rule of any sort are honed from many years of academic study in fields that provide such on a regular basis. “If English were a machine,” one student huffed after a particularly long grammar discussion, “it would have become obsolete years ago.”

The basis of their angst about writing is very similar to the actual child’s story about the lion and its mouse: fear. Almost every student has some story of an English class gone awry, a negative comment from a professor, an unhelpful peer tutor, a parent trying to help but making matters worse — moments where their intellectual ability seemed embarrassingly lacking. While a humanities student may have similar, and maybe even more oppressive tales to tell, these poor Lions were so injured by the perceived onslaught to their intelligence that they ran for cover to the left side of their brain and have not come out since.

As to be expected, coaxing them out of the liar takes careful thought and patience. Some ideas my students have liked in the past include:

  • Keep it light – use “Mad Libs” for the basis of report writing or assign a memorandum after watching a video of “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”
  • Use familiar structures – assign a lab report outlining Goldilocks’ testing of the 3 chairs, 3 bowls of porridge, and the like. Or, ask for an abstract providing an overview of their writing goals for the semester.
  • Speak “Lion Language” – instead of asking them to hand in “evidence of your writing process” say “show me your math.” In grading papers, instead of “you are lacking transitions,” say, “the paper is too binary.”
  • Ask them to critique – nothing makes a lion’s heart beat faster than to study a problem (i.e. lights are out) and then analyze ways to fix it (i.e. turn the lights back on). It helps to do this with documents that are published so they are critiquing something that has some heft.

So, I leave you with this, should the lights go out in your STEM writing class, you can evaluate your success with facilitating the friendship between your lions and their mice by the speed with which your lights are fixed. Viola!

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