Let’s do one from a more advanced class. This is the final assignment in my science writing course, a junior-level advanced writing course. As I have done with the previous two, I’m leaving out some of the procedural details and in this case, I’m also leaving out information about the visuals and citations, neither of which are important for our purposes.
|Write a public piece on a topic of your choosing.
|The “science-public” of a popular magazine or newspaper like Time or Scientific American or the New York Times
|Scientific research reports (at least two); an interview (at least one); any other sources you would like to use, but all sources must be reputable
During the last part of the term (and occasionally before this point), we will be looking at articles written for public audiences. These articles differ from the research reports and literature reviews written for expert audiences in many ways, which we will talk about in class.
Topic and Purpose
Your topic for this article will be grounded in the annotated bibliography you have already done. That is, you should already be familiar with the most recent scientific research necessary for this piece by the time you write your public article. You are not required to write about everything that you covered in the last project, however. You may choose any aspect of this research to focus on, even if it doesn’t completely overlap with your literature review.
You may choose to write either an informative piece or an argumentative piece. We will talk in class about how to use your choice to guide your approach to this assignment.
Audience makes all the difference in this assignment. Instead of assuming an audience already familiar with the concepts, background, methodology, significance, and the like, authors of scientific articles written for the public must explain their work for readers who are not steeped in the jargon and who are not automatically engaged with the material. Thus, you will need to generate their interest and stimulate their understanding.
For this assignment, you will choose a magazine that publishes scientific articles (e.g., Time, Scientific American, Discover). You will need to find at least one model article from the publication you have chosen; we will use this article for audience analysis and discussion of visuals appropriate for your article.
Sources and Citations
I am requiring a minimum of three sources for this piece: two research reports and one interview. You are already familiar with research reports, and we will talk about interviews in this unit. Your interview should be with someone knowledgeable about the research topic you are exploring; this may include researchers (including professors), local authorities, activists, government officials, or anyone else with the knowledge you need. Keep in mind that not all interviews need to (or can) take place face-to-face.
Note, though, that authors of this kind of article use many sources — as many as they need to make their point — and sources from many locations, including the Internet. We will discuss how to evaluate sources, including online sources, as part of this unit.
When I evaluate your public article, I will be looking to see how well you have taken scientific subject matter and made it appropriate and engaging for a public audience. In particular, I will be looking at your explanation of scientific concepts, your use of adaptations (as presented in class), and the logic of your piece as a whole. As part of my evaluation, I will consider your use of narrative, as well as the smooth integration of your source material. If all you do is remove jargon and simplify explanations from an otherwise scientific piece, your public article will not be successful.
In addition, your article will need to meet general standards for good writing: a clear focus and organization, well-developed paragraphs with sufficient detail, and strong and grammatically correct sentences.
Examining the Verbs in Key Sentences
Here are the key sentences, the ones that tell us what we are supposed to be doing in this assignment:
Write a public piece on a topic of your choosing.
You may choose any aspect of this research [research done in a previous assignment] to focus on….
You may choose to write either an informative piece or an argumentative piece.
Thus, you will need to generate their interest and stimulate their understanding.
This assignment differs from the previous two in that there’s not a lot of guidance the body of the assignment. There is a bit more in the evaluation section, where students are directed to do the following:
- Explain scientific concepts, using adaptations (a concept from class) and logic to make it engaging for the audience
- Narrate at least part of the article (though this doesn’t seem to be required)
- Integrate sources
I’m cheating a bit on these last verbs because the evaluation section doesn’t have this exact phrasing, but after we modify the sentences to be more direct, we can see these elements.
Here’s a summary of the tasks explained in the assignment:
- Gather research we’ve already done on a topic we’ve already chosen, plus at least one interview.
- Write an article (either informational or argumentative) explaining that topic to a non-expert audience.
- In that article, use adaptations (a concept explained earlier in the course), logic, and possibly narrative to create that article, integrating our source material as we go.
Before jumping into the next section, take what you know about the task in the sample assignment and see which types of knowledge and which cognitive processes you believe the assignment is looking for.
After you read the rest of this chapter, decide whether or not you agree with my analysis.
Kinds of Cognitive Processes
Once again, verbs help us understand the kinds of cognitive tasks we are being asked to do.
We can mostly ignore remembering in this writing assignment, as usual. You don’t need to remember what you can look up, though we will need to keep in mind the adaptations that we have learned about in class.
We will have to understand the science enough to relay it, as well as the writing concepts (adaptation, logic, and narration) from the course. But understanding isn’t the primary emphasis in this assignment. We know this because the one place where explaining is important (the science), we are also required to use the writing concepts, and using those would not be simply understanding.
We absolutely have to apply those writing concepts, making applying a key cognitive task in the assignment. Can we successful use adaptations, logic, and narration in our article? The requirement to use concepts from the course material signals an emphasis on application.
Analyzing might happen as part of our explanations, but this assignment is not asking us to break down the writing concepts.
Similarly, we aren’t being asked to evaluate anything beyond the evaluation necessary to make choices about the focus of our article and the type of article (informational or persuasive).
Creating, however, seems as central as applying in this assignment. Notice how few directives there are in the first part of the assignment. We have a handful of parameters, but, for example, we have almost no direction about selecting source material (other than to have two research studies and an interview) and no advice about organization (other than to make it logical). The end result is largely up to us. It’s our job to figure out what this will ultimately look like.
Kinds of Knowledge
The key sentences also help us identify the kinds of knowledge we will need to include.
To write this assignment, we have to know the science behind our topic and the audience of the magazine we’ve chosen, so there is factual information. Similarly, depending on our topic, we may be explaining conceptual and/or procedural knowledge from the science.
More importantly, though, we are expected to demonstrate conceptual knowledge and procedural knowledge for writing an article such as this. While most of this knowledge isn’t spelled out in the assignment, we see references to adaptations, logic, narrative, and source integration that point to this kind of knowledge, both the concepts involved in and the procedures for writing such an article.
Think about the description of the course at the start of this section. It’s an advanced writing course. In this context, conceptual and procedural knowledge about writing are going to be more important than conceptual and procedural knowledge about the scientific topic of this article.
There’s not much in the way of metacognition in this assignment. We might end up reflecting on our own understanding of the science or writing techniques, but this is not a self-reflective assignment.
Putting It Together
This assignment asks us to use what we have learned about writing techniques to create an article written for an audience of non-experts.
We have to understand those techniques both conceptually and procedurally, so those types of knowledge are most important in this assignment.
We are applying those concepts to the topic we want to write about, and in doing so, we are supposed to create own original article.
Thus, the intellectual work of this assignment is to apply the concepts and procedures we’ve learned about in class to a piece of writing of our own creation.