MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXII No. 1
September / October 2009
Altering the Culture of MIT
Turmoil at Student Support Services
Communicating Across the Curriculum
Testing our Capacity to Govern, Change,
and Be True to our Values
Student Support Services: The Way Forward
MISTI Matches Students with International Work and Research Opportunities
iHouse: An International
Living-Learning Community
OpenCourseWare: Working Through
Financial Challenges
Balancing the Equities
MIT Fourth in Latest U.S. News Poll
New CUP Subcommittee to Implement
HASS Distribution Reform
New Course Catalog for 2009-2010
A Realistic Way to Deal with Global Warming
What Goes Around Comes Around: H1N1 and Extended Outage Planning Viewed Through the Lens of the Blizzard of ’78
Death of UCLA Researcher
Heightens Lab Safety Awareness
Tech Talk Ceases Publication: MIT News Office Launches New Website
UPOP Positions Students
for Professional Success
Teachng this fall? You should know . . .
Undergraduate College Rankings
Printable Version

Teach Talk

Communicating Across the Curriculum

Les Perelman

MIT has a long history of integrating writing instruction throughout its undergraduate curriculum. However, strangely in keeping with MIT’s long tradition in acoustics and electronics, the history of integrating writing and speaking into the academic curriculum for the first half of the twentieth century resembled not so much a straight line but a sine wave. The pattern has been that efforts to make writing an integral part of education in science and technology were followed by periods in which writing was the sole concern of the humanities, particularly literature, and then a new communication-intensive (CI) initiative would arise.

Robert Grosvenor Valentine, who came to MIT in 1896, not only taught students to write reflective essays on trout fishing and baseball, but also taught them to write effective peer-review comments on topics such as “The Recovery of By-Products of the Blast Furnace.” Between the two World Wars, writing instruction became focused in the Humanities. In the early 1950s, however, Prof. Robert R. Rathbone began collaborating with engineering faculty, including Prof. Jay W. Forrester, director of the newly created Digital Computer Laboratory, and faculty in Mechanical Engineering, to offer both lectures on technical communication and feedback on student technical reports. These informal arrangements soon evolved into the Undergraduate Technical Writing Cooperative (the Writing Coop), which, for the next 40 years, integrated writing and speaking into science and engineering classes. After Rathbone’s retirement, Prof. James G. Paradis, currently Head of the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies, led the Coop, followed by Prof. Rosalind H. Williams, who later became Dean for Undergraduate Education, and finally by Dr. Edward C. Barrett.

In the 1990s, the Institute came to realize that its graduates needed more instruction and practice in writing and speaking if they were going to be successful as scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs in the twenty-first century. Following pilot projects developed by the Communication Initiative and a grant from the National Science Foundation, the MIT faculty established the Communication Requirement to meet this need.

The Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) Group in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies assists faculty in incorporating instruction and practice in writing, speaking, and visual communication throughout the undergraduate curriculum. (Although our title is “Writing Across the Curriculum” the WAC group teaches various forms of communication, including oral and digital communication. To avoid confusion, I am going to refer to the instructors not as WAC Lecturers but as Communication-Intensive (CI) Lecturers. Lecturers in CI-H classes, however, are called Writing Advisors.)

The way writing and speaking are taught differs considerably among successful classes. The examples here are representative of some basic principles and strategies that are shared by many of the successful collaborations at MIT, and evolved out of the 50-year-old Writing Coop:

  • The communication activities, whether writing or speaking, are integral to the purpose of the class rather than being just add-on exercises. Except for some creative writing and other creative media, communication in the world is always doing something. The most effective way to teach writing and speaking is by teaching these skills as components in activities that students value.
  • Writing and speaking activities in themselves are modes of learning. We all have experienced that we understand something better when we have to explain it or communicate it to someone else. Developing a well-organized, effective written or oral argument in any field, be it literary analysis or nuclear engineering, provides the student with a deeper, or at least different, understanding of the subject matter.
  • Writing or speaking activities or both are sequential and should occur in more than one place in the term. Effective writing and speaking are skills that are developed through multiple experiences, each one building upon earlier ones.
  • The feedback given by the technical and writing staff complement each other and will help students improve and succeed in the class. Confusing or disorganized writing is often connected to confusing or disorganized thinking. Improving one often leads to quick improvement of the other. There are many cases in which garbled syntax unravels into clear, effective sentences once a student understands completely what he or she is trying to communicate.
  • Effective communication is judged by the specific context, course goals, and conventions of the discipline. The Writing Coop taught us long ago that one size or approach does not fit all. CI lecturers evaluate writing and speaking, from sentence level issues to slide design, as communication within a specific community that has its own norms for effective discourse.
  • CI lecturers and the disciplinary faculty collaborate closely. The collaborative roles, however, are quite different. The faculty determine the class goals and the overall metrics for successful writing and speaking. The CI lecturers are enablers in the positive sense of the term. Our job is to help students meet these class goals and succeed.

Every year, disciplinary faculty and CI lecturers develop innovative ways to integrate writing and speaking into classes in engineering, science, business, the arts, the social sciences, and the humanities. Sometimes the technology enables the innovation. Over one hundred years ago, Valentine had students write comments on the margins of each other’s technical reports. Now we are able to have instructors and fellow students insert voice-overs and written comments into videos. But the most substantive innovations usually come from the faculty in the discipline. They extend their enthusiasm in teaching their subjects to making the communication activities in them more authentic in terms of the disciplinary activity or culture. Each year some faculty make the writing and speaking activities in their class more real science, more real engineering, more real scholarship.

Following are some examples of that work.

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21L.004 “Reading Poetry”
Professor Mary Fuller & Ms. Nora Jackson

[Note: There are several sections of 21L.004 and the specific details of this description apply only to Prof. Fuller’s section, although all of the sections effectively integrate writing and speaking.]

This subject aims to help students make writing an efficient medium for developing and conveying ideas. The class therefore guides students through the individual stages of the writing process (reading and analyzing, discussing ideas, drafting, receiving feedback, revising). The students begin this process by choosing poems to present in groups and they attend an oral presentation workshop with the writing advisor to discuss the analysis of the poems and practice rhetorical skills (voice projection, debate skills, inciting audience participation with thought-provoking questions, and communicating the pleasure of reading poetry). The professor and classmates provide extensive written feedback on the presentation.

The presenters are subsequently invited to write an essay on the subject of their presentation, and benefit from their preliminary work and the feedback received. Students submit drafts to the advisor before the writing tutorial, which is devoted to refining argument, testing the validity of evidence, and fine-tuning style. The advisor raises counter-arguments and annotates paragraphs to strengthen the student’s propositions and prose.

The professor provides commentary on each essay, and organizes a writing workshop in which she offers a sample essay that illustrates the various stages of revision. The students can then once again discuss their revisions with the professor or advisor.

This trajectory mimics an ideal sequence for the composition of effective writing. While the various stages of writing are initially neatly separated, the class evolves toward giving the students the responsibility for incorporating these phases into their own writing routine.

2.009 “Product Engineering Processes”
Professor David Wallace, Ms. Jane Abbot Connor,
and Ms. Jane Jane Kokernak

As its name suggests, this subject guides MechE seniors through the design and engineering of an innovative product. From idea generation to modeling, research, testing and prototyping, teams of 15 to 19 students work on original products in a process including lectures, labs, industry mentoring, extensive fabrication, and intense collaboration.

Informal communication among team members, an elected system integrator, instructors, and course staff is vital to the process, as are five formal presentations given during the semester in sync with the design cycle. CI lecturers, who attend weekly labs as fully integrated team advisors, coach interpersonal communications, guide meetings, and help students draft, revise, visualize, rehearse, video, and review each presentation.

Two very different events bookend the semester. For the first, called “Three Ideas,” each team divides in half, brainstorms potential products, develops three ideas, and pitches them concisely to their peers, mentors, and instructors. Each idea is illustrated by a poster with a simple sketch and key features. The event generates substantial oral and written feedback from CI and course staff, prompting teams to select ideas and focus wisely.

Ten productive weeks later, at their Final Presentations, teams introduce their high-quality, functioning alpha prototypes to the 2.009 core audience and 100 to 150 industry guests. Working intimately with their CI lecturers and technical staff, teams devise staging, props, even video and team-colored costumes. The stakes are high: teams invest these presentations with as much wit, commitment, and polish as they brought to their product’s design and engineering.

The MechE faculty and CI team have collaborated on the communication focus, going beyond public speaking to train students in intra-group interaction as well. Over the semester, while presentation skills go from earnest to professional, team communications – in meetings, among individuals, via e-mail – shift from chaotic towards disciplined, deft, and effective.

7.18 “Topics in Experimental Biology”
Professor Mary-Lou Pardue and Dr. Karen Pepper

This subject teaches scientific communication to students doing biological research in various laboratories at MIT, usually as UROPs. Students meet as a group twice weekly with a biology professor and a CI lecturer. Each section of 7.18 includes students from diverse research laboratories so that students learn to communicate with scientists in many subfields. Before taking 7.18, students spend one semester or a summer working on their projects and continue to do their research during the semester of the course. Communications exercises, capped by a scientific paper (consisting of Abstract, Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, Discussion), build around their laboratory projects.

Students first write a mini-review and annotated bibliography, putting their research project into the context of the field. As the semester continues, they submit drafts of sections of a research paper. Instruction is given for each section before the draft is due, and then drafts are critiqued by both instructors. Students revise for clarity, precision, and style. Students give oral presentations about their research. Receiving comments from the instructors and fellow students helps them to improve as the semester goes along. Journal articles are critiqued both in writing and in class discussion, for scientific content, illustrations, and effectiveness. Aspects of publishing, writing for a non-scientific audience, and the ethics of laboratory practice are also discussed. Finally, students serve as editors of each other's papers, learning how peer review works in scientific publishing.

8.13 “Experimental Physics”
Prof. Joseph Formaggio and Ms. Atissa Banuazizi

8.13, the first semester of Junior Lab, is perhaps the most challenging course in the MIT Physics suite. At the core of Junior Lab is a set of experiments that replicate the major laboratory breakthroughs of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Through these, students develop their ability to pose questions within proper theoretical frameworks, and to collect, analyze, and interpret data.

Equally important, however, is learning to communicate these ideas in ways appropriate to the discipline. For each experiment, students produce a four-page paper in the format of – and meeting publication standards for – Physical Review Letters. They also prepare 12-minute oral presentations in the style of an American Physics Society talk, which they deliver to their laboratory instructor and TA.

After the first (ungraded) set of orals, each student meets one-on-one with the CI lecturer to analyze a video of his or her presentation. Together, the student and the lecturer also dissect the organization and design of the slides for the talk. The orals for the remaining four experiments are likewise videotaped, allowing students to track their own progress as they hone their skills.

The semester culminates with the public oral. Students each choose one experiment to present for a second time – this time in a celebratory end-of semester symposium, whose audience comprises faculty, fellow students, and assorted guests (from Junior Lab alumni to parents!). In preparation, the student and CI lecturer meet again to examine that presentation’s video and slides, with an eye towards revising the talk for a larger audience.

The ability to share one’s discoveries with the broader scientific community is a critical skill, but one that often eludes even the most experienced scholars. Students emerge from this class confident in their ability to participate in professional discourse settings. The intensive practice MIT Physics students receive in writing and speaking is truly exceptional, and often the envy of our peer institutions.

8.287J-12.410J "Observational Techniques of
Optical Astronomy,"

Professor Jim Elliot and Ms. Jane Abbot Connor

This subject, focused on independent student projects, presents the communication skills necessary for successful astronomical research. Astronomers compete for resources; peer-judged proposals for grants and telescope time have a 20 - 35% success rate. Furthermore, securing a desirable job presupposes the ability to present interesting seminars. Thus, effective communication can be as important to professional success as are technical abilities.

The course’s first assignment is a brief proposal requesting telescope time; it states a project’s goal, data required, and a plan for data acquisition and analysis. The CI lecturer gives significant feedback on the writing; course staff provide content feedback on the project’s feasibility. The proposal is then revised accordingly. Next, an oral presentation of the proposal is delivered to the class, TAs and faculty; it receives extensive CI feedback, and requires students to sharpen and develop their ideas. These assignments, graded entirely as communications efforts, provide a baseline for each student’s work.
Using the proposal revisions, the CI lecturer assesses each student’s challenges.

Individual CI consultations cover grammar or ESL issues (with encouragement to use the Writing Center); organization and argumentation; coherence within and between paragraphs; graphics; conventions of formatting; and clarity of the required content. Students learn to think about their intended audience, and to craft their document to convey their ideas to that audience, accurately and efficiently. Questions that guide the consultation include: Will this piece of writing persuade your readers to entrust you with the scarce resource of telescope time that you seek? Will they understand your needs quickly and effortlessly? Is the care taken in your writing predictive of that in your research? Does your writing demonstrate that you are competent and prepared? Are you –through content, language, and format – presenting yourself as a professional, establishing your credibility as a scientist, so that your audience can sense you would use the telescope time well?

The final assignment for 12.410, given both astronomy and communication grades, is a 15- to 20-page Project Report with a required revision. This report is built in stages beginning with anticipated Figures, Tables, and Outline. Graphics – clear, effective figures and tables – are emphasized. Students revise based on feedback from technical and CI staff, and may choose to give a final presentation. The final revision is judged on writing criteria established in the rounds of proposal writing, and on the quality and depth of scientific and technical thinking.


16.621 and 16. 622 “Experimental Projects I & II”
Professor Edward Greitzer and Ms. Jennifer Craig

In these two classes, or as it is commonly known, “.62x,” teams of two students select their own projects from a broad list of projects proposed by faculty and work with a faculty or staff advisor. They refine an hypothesis and then design, construct, and carry out an experiment. The small team size offers opportunity for close contact among students, faculty, and staff. The aim is to ensure that students are engaged with an advisor and a project about which they are enthusiastic.

Excellence in written and oral communication is an overarching theme. The communication-intensive curriculum is an Institute-wide mandate, and 16.621 and 16.622 are two of Course 16’s communication-intensive subjects. Working with a CI lecturer, student teams report their progress through the two semesters in a sequence of written documents and oral presentations that are less like conventional homework and more the kinds of communication in which professional engineers engage. Thus, students learn about audience and persuasion, information organization, informational graphics and data presentation, and how to describe complex engineering decisions.

Written and oral communication are approached in similar ways. First, with the consultation of engineering faculty, assignments are designed around authentic activities taking place in the course. Students receive instruction just as they are about to write or to prepare a presentation. Written communication requires a draft and usually a conference with the communication instructor after which the final draft is turned in for a grade. Oral presentations require a rehearsal with the CI lecturer before the student team presents to the engineering faculty and their peers. Engineering faculty work with the CI lecturer to compose the rubric with which written and oral communication is assessed. Moreover, students receive not only a grade but also written and oral feedback from their engineering faculty as well as from the CI lecturer. The combination of mentoring from their engineering faculty and support and instruction from the communication instructor usually results in a sharp increase in skill level. Students also receive several opportunities to practice during the semester – a key factor in communication excellence.

Teams from 16.62x often present at student divisions at conferences, and their success rate is high. Over the past six years, our students at the AIAA and ASEE regional student conferences have won first-place undergraduate awards in 2005, 2003, 2002, and 2001 as well as second or third place in 2002 and 2000.

24.06 “Bioethics”
Professor Caspar Hare, Professor David Jones,
and Mr. Thomas Delaney

Bioethics (24.06) is a subject that provides students with a platform for improving their writing, no matter on what level their current skills may lie. Team taught by a historian and a philosopher, the class requires students to make and critique historical and philosophical arguments. Students often need to shed old writing habits, such as padding an argument with superfluous material. Instead, they need to learn how to reconstruct an argument in a succinct fashion by focusing on its essential elements. Their task then is to identify one or more of those elements as weak or strong, providing evidence to make their case.

The writing advisor works from drafts to help individuals make their words and syntax map the argument as closely as possible, applying philosophical concepts such as validity, soundness, and persuasiveness. In historical argument, a student must use the historical and cultural evolution of a bioethical issue to shed light on present stances. One technique that helps students is an initial conversation that focuses on understanding of the material and the nature of argument. The writing advisor then aids the writer in producing a conceptual outline, each point of which can be developed into a paragraph that makes an assertion or provides supporting evidence.

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