Posts Tagged ‘WAC’

Surprisingly Similar: Writing in the Sciences and in the Humanities

By Gretchen Panzer - Monday, November 7, 2011, 2:47pm

Thanks to SNC’s gen ed program, I’ve taken courses in both the natural and social sciences. Yet somehow, I still had the misperception that writing in the sciences was vastly different from writing in the humanities when we started our unit on writing in other disciplines. After listening to Dr. Bailey’s presentation and reading Soliday’s article on anthropological writing, however, I see more similarities than differences between writing in the sciences and writing in the humanities.

As Dr. Bailey explained each section of a lab report, I did take many notes on the specific attributes of this form of writing. However, I also drew many parallels between lab reports and the typical English essay. For example, Dr. Bailey uses the same visual as I do to explain the structure of the introduction and conclusion: the intro is an upside-down triangle, since its content moves from broader context to a specific claim, while the conclusion is a right-side-up triangle, since it begins with a re-statement of the main claim and moves into broader conclusions and context.

Even the relatively minor details of scientific writing are similar to the way we do things in the humanities. Scientists value the same qualities as writers in the humanities when it comes to titling their papers, for example. Dr. Bailey instructs his students to make their titles “short and descriptive,” but as specific as possible. The titles of English papers are usually as short as their authors can make them while still including all the necessary details—the author and title of the work(s) being analyzed, the themes or concepts the writer is focusing on, and any other details that are important for a reader to know immediately. Therefore, the titles of English and scientific papers are virtually the same.

As was the case with Dr. Bailey’s presentation on writing in the natural sciences, I was surprised by how many similarities I found between writing in the humanities and writing in the social sciences. Soliday notes that Ph.D. candidates in anthropology who evaluated undergraduate papers for an anthropology course offered what seemed to be contradictory advice: they rewarded writers who expressed personal opinions that revealed a generous understanding of other cultures, but gave low scores to writers whose personal judgments were deemed “undesirable” (72).

This problem of “undesirable” vs. “good” personal judgments is not unique to the social sciences, but rather appears in the humanities as well. If a student submits a literary analysis that reveals, for example, a racist bias against one of the characters in the text, he or she is likely to be downgraded, while another student who incorporates personal experience into his or her literary analysis might be praised for connecting the text to his or her life. The issue of student judgment is, I think, absolutely interdisciplinary.

While I’ve been noticing many similarities between writing in the sciences and writing in the humanities lately, I wonder if I may be exaggerating their similarities because I was expecting a greater number of differences. Do you think there are more similarities or differences between writing in the sciences and writing in the humanities? Would it be helpful for us—as tutors and as students—to think of these disciplines as related, or is it better to keep them mentally separated to avoid confusing the specific rules for each? Also, what is our role as Writing Center tutors when it comes to student judgment (especially when judgment is informed by bias)?

Works Cited

Bailey, David. Dept. of Biology, St. Norbert College, De Pere, WI. 25 Oct. 2011. Lecture.

Soliday, Mary. “Reading Student Writing with Anthropologists: Stance and Judgment in College Writing.” CCC 56.1 (2004): 72-93. Moodle. Web. 7 Nov. 2011.