Why you have to write in my genetics class.

I discovered recently MySpace’s version of Ratemyprofessors.com, and naturally I looked up my own rating.  The most recent post, from last semester, reads like this:
Me on MyProfessors

I like genetics but I will never write a scientific paper so I will drop this class. I just wanted to learn enough for MCAT. Did not in my wildest dreams expect to write five papers in a upper level biology class. Dr. Gathman is a neat guy, highly intellegent and pretty fair about everything…just wish he would teach biology and leavethe english to the english department. Only my opinion, it’s his class to teach as he wishes and on balance he has the ability to be a really good teacher.

Now, I know better than to take this sort of anonymous criticism to heart, but I was sort of surprised to see that this person was writing 5 papers in my class, since only 4 are assigned.  Of course, the “papers” referred to are responses to some questions about four scientific papers the students read in class, and the average length is about 2 pages typed — a total of 8 pages of writing, which strikes me as pretty minimal.  Now, if all you want is to take the multiple choice part of the MCAT, then my class may not be very good preparation — no multiple choice tests.  On the other hand, I think the most important thing that I do in my genetics class is teach students to read scientific papers.  If you do get to be a doctor, where are you going to find out about new developments?  From the drug company reps?  You have to be able to read the scientific literature, and it’s not easy.

How do you come to understand the scientific literature?  How do you come to understand genetics, or any complex topic, for that matter?  I strongly believe that you don’t really understand a topic unless you can explain it.  And the best way to focus your thoughts into a clear explanation is to write it.  Not necessarily in English, but it’s the only language I’m really fluent in, so that’s what I have to use.
So, sorry to lose you, anonymous dropper of my class, but I think that courses in the sciences at our institution probably need more, not less, writing.   I suppose this means you won’t be taking my science and religion course, in which students write three 2-page and three 5-page papers?

16 Responses to “Why you have to write in my genetics class.”

  1. Travis says:

    Firstly, I wish I had as few writing assignments as you give.

    Twoly, he wants to be a doctor but disdains academic reading and writing? Give me his name so I will never, ever get stuck with him as my doctor.

  2. Reno says:

    I just linked from my blog — I hope you don’t mind. I wish more science profs felt the way you do.

  3. Allen says:

    The more the merrier, Reno. And it’s interesting — in the College of Sci and Math, faculty opinions about this run the gamut. I’ve heard at least one faculty member make almost precisely the same statement about “leaving english to the english department” when encouraged to have students write more in his classes. Others do in fact feel the way I do.

  4. Reno says:

    If you have more than a scant handful who feel the way you do, you’e in a wonderful place. Alas, in my experience, the student’s sentiment is far more common. Worse, when people say “leave English to the English department,” what they almost inevitably mean is “why don’t you teach my students exactly the same grammar and usage I prefer?”

  5. Allen says:

    I have a colleague in my department who is a fanatic about not splitting infinitives. He also used to include in his lab manual a list of about 200 irregular verbs, including “beget, begot, have begotten” and “beseech, besought, have besought.” My suggestion that his students might be unable to find the forest in all those trees fell on deaf ears.

  6. Liza says:

    I came via Reno’s blog.

    Years ago, I had an awful academic job, “grader” — for folks with large classes but no TAs. It was in the top ranked Sociology Department in the country, and most of the courses were upper-level, mixtures of undergrads & early-career graduate students.

    The quality of the writing was shockingly bad. By the second round of papers in one course, I sorted them so that every 5th or 6th paper was by a good writer. Otherwise I got too annoyed to stay objective.

    My point is, good for you! And thank you for encouraging basic good writing skills for all well educated people, not just those who focus on writing. Your students’ future employers appreciate it, even if the students themselves do not.

  7. kicking_k says:

    At least he thinks you’re intellegent!

    I am so glad you told me about the chap who thinks his students might want to use “begotten” or “beseech” in their papers.

    Three two-page and three five-page papers doesn’t sound a lot to me, but then I suppose your students take other courses too… I used to have enough difficulty co-ordinating two subjects at university, so I take my hat off to American undergraduates who have to manage a large number.

  8. Cabell says:

    Liza, when you say it was the “top ranked sociology department in the country,” do you refer to my own illustrious department at Wisconsin, or are you assigning this honor to Berkeley? :p

  9. Allen says:

    Oh noes! Sociology SMACKDOWN in the offing!

  10. Cabell says:

    Oh my god.

    Where did you learn to say “oh noes,” Dad?

  11. Reno says:

    Speaking for Liza — She was referring to Wisconsin. Just don’t ask her about hair and exams. (Except I think that was law school, also in Madison.)

  12. Allen says:

    Okay, I’ve been caught attempting to employ the hip lingo the kids today are using on the internets. Chalk it up to reading your blog, Cabell.

  13. Liza says:

    Cabell, Reno is correct, I had that lovely job at Wisconsin. But my then-advisor has subsequently decamped to Berkeley. In fact, a brief perusal of the Dept web site suggests that everyone I know is gone.

    I was in the “Law, Deviance & Social Control” concentration, which always struck me as having the best name. After that awful job, I got one with another good name — I became one of the COWS.

  14. Liza says:

    Oh yes, and the program I was in was joint with the law school. During my first year of law school, I cut my own hair in the wee hours of the night, during exams. It kept getting in my face, you see.

    This was NOT a good idea. However, it was less painful than the other bad idea I had that week, plucking my leg hair with tweezers.

    I found law school a tad stressful.

  15. Cabell says:

    Wow. I know someone in that joint degree program. I wonder if she’s given herself any midnight haircuts. She does seem stressed out a lot, but frankly, it’s hard to differentiate from the rest of the soc students.

    We don’t have much deviance anymore, except for Delamater, who mostly does sexuality and deviance only coincidentally. I took my prelims in EMCA and social psych, but am now working in STS.

  16. Christian Barr says:

    Not surprising! I WISH that I was required to write more as a science major. Luckily, my husband was an English major and is a major help, but that won’t help me on the MCAT.

    I’ve started doing research here for Professor Elizabeth Aylward in the Radiology Department. I was thinking maybe after a year or so I would ask her if I could learn how to write papers on our research and grant proposals and things of that nature. I would really like to be able to write scientific papers.

    Damn! I wish I had taken your science and religion course. Is it offered online? I did take a Philosophy of Science course my first quarter at UW—AWESOME! Strangely enough, my professor taught at UMSL a long time ago, Lynn Hankinson Nelson was her name. I asked her if she knew Dr. Hill and she didn’t. What material do you read in that class. I’m definitely interested in reading it.

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