At a recent faculty meeting, my colleagues and I debated the eternal question of how to teach our graduate and undergraduate Science students to write. We went over all the usual ground, everyone had their say (at length), and nothing was resolved. It was a typical faculty meeting, in my experience.
The usual approaches were mentioned:
Should we encourage our grad students to take additional writing courses in the English department? No, this doesn't typically tend to help with science writing, although it may help with some of the most appalling problems with grammar.
Should we assign a lot of writing in our undergrad and grad science classes? We already do this in some classes, but other classes can't reasonably incorporate a writing component.
Should we, as grad advisers, continue to work on writing issues with our advisees? Yes, of course we should, but this is likely to continue to be a major effort without dramatic positive effect for some students.
At about the same time that my faculty colleagues and I were having this most recent discussion of the writing issue, a visiting lawyer-relative bemoaned the lack of writing skills in many of her lawyer colleagues, young and old. She wondered: How did they get through law school without learning some basic writing skills?
How does anyone get through any high school or college without learning basic writing skills? Clearly some people do just that.
In our graduate students, my colleagues and I see no difference in the writing skills of graduates of elite liberal arts colleges vs. large universities, public or private. We encounter excellent writers from small colleges and from large state universities, and we encounter abysmal writers from small colleges and from large state universities.
From what I've seen over the years, the problem of writing-challenged students is not confined to science vs. non-science majors or to university vs. small college students.
This is not a rant about lousy writers. This is a blog post that wonders what to do about lousy writers. Who can help them? And how?
The answer to the question about how people with > 16 years of education can have such a problem writing is surely because writing is so difficult for some people, even when they have been given much advice and have had years of opportunities for practice and improvement.
Note: I am not talking about writer's block or other emotional issues about writing, although such problems may be connected in some way to writing ability. I am speaking here of the ability to construct a clear and logical document.
Some people, with practice and advice, learn to improve their writing skills, but is it possible that some cannot? And if so, what can we do for them?
For a couple of my graduating graduate students with particularly severe problems writing, after years of efforts by all concerned, I have had no further advice for them on the topic of how they can improve their writing skills. Instead, my departing advice to them was that they collaborate with people who can write well. In a research team, each person can bring a strength to the group effort; those who can write can help those who can't write (but who can add something else that is important to the research project).
I am certainly not saying that if my students haven't learned to write with my help, they'll never learn, but of course I am not the only source of writing advice for my students. They have numerous opportunities for writing documents of various length and purpose (term papers, exams, conference abstracts, proposals, thesis chapters) before and during their grad school experience, and they get feedback from many people (fellow students, writing tutors, advisers, other professors) during revisions of drafts. Nevertheless, despite all this input, improvements for some are minor to non-existent.
Of course it would be best if every science PhD could write well on their own, but if someone hasn't been able to do this by the time they get to their dissertation, and only get through the dissertation writing with great pain and a lot of help, what are the chances they will ever write well?
Can we conclude that further improvements in these cases are unlikely, or am I being too pessimistic and not realizing that perhaps all the writing advice over the years may have been insufficient and/or of the wrong sort?
If we can give up on a writing-challenged person's potential for improvement, the options are for them to seek a non-writing kind of career or to find alternative ways of succeeding in an academic career in science despite this handicap (e.g., seeking collaborators with writing skills). I don't know how often the latter arrangement works, but I do know that such situations exist.
5 weeks ago