Teaching graduate students to write, Memphis style

Isn’t it a shame that some people think writing is a born talent, not a learned trade? We writers know that is not true, so we all have our methods for helping others also become writers. There is a lot of debate about how to do it. Should you give extensive comments or just a summary at the end? Should you require rewriting, or just hope students learn from comments on one thing for their next project? Should you team them together to comment on each other’s work? How much should they be writing?

One thing that is clear for graduate students is that they should be writing a lot. They should not wait until they have something to say to write. By this I mean they should not wait until their experiments are done, or their review paper fully researched. They should be writing all the time. They should talk about writing. They should read books about effective writing and grammar. They should love to write. My current plan requires that all undergrads in the lab group give me 500 words a month and everyone else in the lab, grad students, post-docs, and technicians, should give me 1000 words a month, on the 15th. I have a stack of papers right now, awaiting comments. (No, not real papers, of course, Word documents).IMG_5257

My daughter, Anna Mueller, sociology professor at University of Memphis, has a different plan. She recently ran a two-hour workshop for graduate students in her department that sounded brilliant to me. She focused on the introductory material of a sociology paper, taught them what to do, had them do it, and then comment on each other’s work.

One effective way of structuring an introduction is with three paragraphs. The first paragraph is the hook. Why should we care about this topic? What larger question does it address? What is important and exciting about it? The second paragraph is the gap. What is missing in our understanding of this topic? What is known (very briefly) needs to be mentioned to show the limits of our knowledge. Then the third paragraph is the resolution that tells how this paper will fill the gap and provide the missing information of the problem you have convinced people is important in the first paragraph. This structure would work well for papers in my field.

Anna then introduced the students to a topic they would all know something about from her field for the writing exercise. She actually chose two topics and had them think about the intersection. She put some fictitious data results on the board to help with their thinking. I particularly liked the idea of putting two related topics up and asking for links, for I have read studies that indicate this is a good way of stimulating creative thinking. Then she gave them about 20 minutes to write the three paragraphs on the topic. I bet some of them were very uneasy about this.

After the 20 minutes were up, Anna had them exchange papers. Their instructions were to read their fellow student’s paper and to write down one good thing about it and one area that could be improved. This is also a great idea because they will all get a positive and a negative comment, so it shouldn’t hurt to much.

Anna conducted this workshop for all the graduate students in the department, not just her own students. Several of them let her know how helpful it was. What do you do to teach your graduate students to write?


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in The joy of teaching, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Teaching graduate students to write, Memphis style

  1. Nancy Solomon says:

    Joan – These sound like excellent ideas and I plan to try your daughter’s idea out with my students.

  2. Nancy Dudek says:

    It is helpful to distribute both good and bad examples of writing and discuss specific elements that make them good or bad.

  3. Joan, I came across this from Patrick Nels blog – he advocated keeping a time log to see how much time was spent on each activity. This model of lab productivity is great – I am going to implement it with my 490 students! Thanks for the inspiration – I can’t wait to read the rest of the blog.

  4. I’ve kept a time log before. It is often depressing how much time goes to, well, this. But I also keep tabs on what is fun, allowing time for it. My most useful time log helped me through a bad loss of confidence in writing period. The time log made me see that with that little time put into writing it was no wonder it wasn’t getting done. I heard recently about setting a timer and working 25 minutes then taking a 5 minute break. Only thing is my interruptions are often about other people and I wouldn’t want to put them off that long. It is a tricky business, this amazing career we have.

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