Writing to Think

provost-dan-howardWhen I arrived at my undergraduate institution more than 40 years ago, choosing a major was easy for me. I was fascinated by biology, thanks in no small part to Mr. Bailey, a wonderful teacher at my small high school, and I was fairly certain that as a science major I would not be asked to do too much writing as part of my coursework. Although I had done well in my English courses in high school, I did not enjoy writing and I did not regard it as a skill that would be essential for me in my later life, especially if I was a scientist or a physician (oh, what we don’t know as teenagers).

I was correct about not being asked to write much in my science courses. All of my biology, chemistry, and physics courses were large lecture classes, typically more than 200 students, until I was a senior. Some writing took place in laboratories, but we received little feedback on our writing. If not for a class I took from Ward Watt during my senior year, I would have completed my undergraduate degree without ever having been required to write a research paper. At the time, I did not count myself lucky for having taken Dr. Watt’s course.

My attitude toward writing changed markedly during graduate school. First, it became clear to me, very early on, that writing well was critically important if one was going to be successful as a scientist. Moreover, the more papers and proposals I wrote, the more I appreciated how much writing helped me understand difficult concepts, forced me to confront logical inconsistencies in my thinking, and helped to clarify my ideas. As time went on, I became a more assured writer, in tune with the rhythm of the English language and confident in my own voice.

The irony for the teenager who went into science, in part to avoid having to do too much writing, is that I spent most of my career as a science faculty member ensconced in my office writing the next paper or grant proposal, while my technicians and undergraduate and graduate students did the field and lab work that had so captivated me when I was younger. Surprisingly, I did not envy my students. Through time, I came to enjoy the intellectual challenge of writing readable grant proposals and journal articles that could withstand peer review. I thought of myself as a writer first, and a scientist second.

I share these reflections with you because last Friday I had the privilege of giving the closing remarks to the Writing to Think Conference, organized by Dr. David Smith, Dr. Sandy Johnson, and the University Outcomes Assessment Council. This conference and our continuing efforts to incorporate more writing into the curriculum of NMSU reflects a deeply held belief, and one supported by a lot of data, that writing improves learning and thinking.

My own development as a scholar deeply affirms the transformative power of writing, and I shared my story with the hardy group that had the stamina to attend the last talk of the day. I encouraged them to continue in their efforts to incorporate more writing into every major at NMSU, and I encourage all of you to support these efforts, as well.

With all best wishes,

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