Building a Bridge: Writing in Science and Mathematics Classes at Kenyon College

An Introductory Message from Howard Gardner

For the last year, I’ve been writing blogs regularly. Their foci have varied: books that I value, autobiographical notes, stimulating museum exhibitions, academic programs and approaches that I admire, and thoughts about higher education—past, present, and future. I’ve focused on educational experiences that are transformative—sometimes for me, often for others.

Occasionally, I’ll continue to blog in this personal and sometimes idiosyncratic way. But as some readers know, for the past six years, my colleagues and I have been involved in a major, perhaps unprecedented study of higher education in the United States today (please click here). We’ve carried out approximately 2000 interviews on a variety of campuses across the country. Using a semi-structured interview format, we’ve spoken for about an hour each to incoming students, graduating students, faculty, senior administrators, trustees, alumni/ae, parents, and job recruiters.

We are now deeply involved in analyzing this unique treasure trove of information about how various constituencies conceive of higher education that is not purely vocational. During the period ahead, we will report on trends, preliminary findings, and, ultimately, conclusions and recommendations. We proceed in this manner both to share our current thinking about our study and in the hope of eliciting critical and constructive feedback from readers. In the comments section on this blog, or in e-notes to the authors, please share your thoughts and questions with us!

A Word about Alignment

One of the key animating concepts in our study has been the notion of alignment. Inasmuch as we have been speaking to eight different constituencies across ten deliberately diverse campuses, it’s been important for us to ascertain to what extent these groups think similarly (in which case we call them “aligned”), or have quite disparate views of a topic or an approach (in which case we describe them as “misaligned”). In instances where misalignment is evident, we search for programs, courses, approaches, and ideas which strive toward alignment.

As an example, I’ll mention a previous blog, which we wrote in memory of Amherst College professor Jeffrey Ferguson (please click here). In that bog, Kirsten McHugh and I described a misalignment between students and faculty with respect to expectations of college readiness. At a selective college like Amherst, there are faculty who assume that students have certain skills and interests, and simply want to go on from there (e.g. students who went to Andover or Scarsdale High). On the other hand, there are students who, however highly motivated they may be, lack these foundational skills (the so-called “doubly disadvantaged,” in Anthony Jack’s evocative phrase). They are unable to take advantage of what the well-motivated faculty seek to convey. The solution: “Explicit Courses” that provide students with foundational skills like critical reading and analysis.

For the first tranche of blogs in the coming weeks, we report on cases of misalignment on various campuses and the ingenious solutions that have been developed. This initial blog focuses on an innovative, grassroots effort to integrate writing into science and mathematics courses at Kenyon College.

-Howard Gardner

Building a Bridge: Writing in Science and Mathematics classes at Kenyon College

Wendy Fischman

Today’s college students face enormous pressure to pick an area of study early and then specialize. In fact, even high school students applying to college are often encouraged to “find a passion” that they will be able to pursue in college. With increased pressure from parents—and, indeed, from wider society—on the “return on investment” (ROI) of college tuition, students are becoming drawn to undergraduate schools or programs focused on business, science and engineering, and media studies—those courses of study that seemingly lead directly to careers. Choosing to study a field in the arts or humanities is increasingly seen as a risky decision, as many parents and students ask, “What can you do with a degree in poetry or philosophy or art history?”

Faculty, administrators, and trustees also express a range of views. While some believe that students need to focus on technical and computing skills, others contend that focusing on STEM and other specialized disciplines (like media studies or social work) will shortchange a student’s education. Without humanities courses, students may graduate with a lack of oral and written communication skills, as well as the inability to examine issues from multiple perspectives, including ones drawn from various disciplines. Nearly sixty years ago, C.P. Snow, an English physicist and novelist, diagnosed this problem. He lamented the polarization of two groups of scholars—scientists and humanists. According to Snow’s lecture and later publication “Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” neither group could converse about both Shakespeare and thermodynamics.

Kenyon College, a small, residential liberal arts college founded in Gambier, Ohio, in 1824, is “home” to approximately 1640 students and nearly 200 faculty members. To the wider world, Kenyon has been known over the decades for its literary output and scholarship, as exemplified by its notable publication The Kenyon Review.

As one response to the aforementioned “misalignment” between scientific and humanistic approaches, professors at Kenyon College have sought to bring about better alignment—to bridge the divide between Snow’s two cultures. These instructors underscore the importance of being able to communicate coherently in their respective fields. When provided adequate attention, appropriate experiences, and skilled instruction, students of the sciences and mathematics should be able to gain both computational and compositional expertise.

Kenyon professors have created courses that integrate the development of oral and written communication skills while students are also mastering key scientific and mathematical concepts. For example, in Professor Carol Schumacher’s “Narrative Proofs in Calculus 1,” students supplement conventional calculation-based proofs with oral and narrative reports. Instead of merely discussing the content of the individual proof itself, the class talks about broader writing issues: how to make the writing crystal clear for the reader, a process that may include inserting exclamation points, underlining words and phrases, and breaking up the text in smaller pieces. Schumacher says, “I like to talk to students about not just correct writing, but writing that helps the reader focus on the things that the writer is focused on, or that the writer thinks the reader should be focused on… This is not a mathematical requirement, but it is a requirement of good communication.” She goes on to explain that the goal is for “perfect precision and clarity in such a way that any two people who speak the language… will interpret the same sentence in exactly the same way…”

With a different approach, Professor Judy Holdener teaches students that math is not just using computation and mathematical symbols to solve problems; one can also use language to convey and vivify dilemmas. Consider the optimization problem of the “dog on beach”: a dog has to fetch a ball tossed near a lake as he travels from Point A (on the beach, where the ball was thrown) to Point B (in the water, where the ball landed). Students are asked to write justifications of the optimal path for a dog to pursue (when to run on land versus when to swim)—thereby exercising their understanding of the relevant calculus notions. In a different project, students consider the notions of “present value” and “geometric sums” with respect to a real-life case (as reported in The Boston Globe): a 94-year-old woman wins a lottery advertised as a $5.6 million prize, and students have to compare the relative financial merits of getting a payment in one lump sum as compared to receiving the lottery winnings over a 20 year period. They then learn what actually happened when this case was adjudicated in court.

In Animal Physiology taught by Professor Chris Gillen, students learn how to read and write about biology through critiquing and dissecting scientific papers. The overarching goal of the course is to develop students’ ability to overcome roadblocks to understanding “rhetorically complicated scientific papers.” Students are asked to write two pieces about a topic of their own choice: an article which should be written for an intelligent member of the general public (news), and an essay of critical analysis written for other scientists (views). One student who chose to write about mitochondria organelles explains that after reviewing primary research articles, she first wrote a review of it in a “more approachable way” (which she tested by sending it on her mother); the second article focused on explaining the biochemical process of producing energy, for her scientific peers. Students reflect on Gillen’s useful advice for writing: start with a biological concept rather than with the phrase “the data suggest”; make writing engaging through action-oriented voice; and, “if a sentence doesn’t contribute to moving the message across, delete it.”

Though this Kenyon College initiative can best be described as a “grassroots effort” by individual faculty members (rather than a top-down directive on the part of administrators), it still requires a great deal of faculty time—meeting regularly with students, providing feedback on writing, and designing courses that move into “uncharted territory.” Interestingly, in an acknowledgement of faculty’s limited time, some students (who have already taken one of the courses described above) on their own initiative have started to provide writing and communication support for their peers. They accomplish this support through the Writing Center and a specialized Math Science Study Center, which has emerged as a peer-editing community for written and oral work. These student tutors work closely with professors to provide appropriate support to fellow students.

In addition to improving technical writing, these Kenyon courses have several other benefits. Students report becoming more confident public speakers and writers, skills that help them in both non-STEM courses and in experiences outside of the classroom, such as internships. One student discusses how learning to write more clearly has helped her to become employable: “My writing skills helped me as an intern at J.P. Morgan last summer doing data analysis. The fact that I could explain metrics and also have a big picture understanding was appreciated. I wasn’t just doing problem sets, I was able to write and present about the data. That helped me so much then, and I know it will help towards my job.” Schumacher echoes this student’s sentiment: “Most [students] are not going to go on to become professional mathematicians. They may go on, however, to do mathematically-related things, or not… If you’re [going to] run for Congress, you’re [going to] have to be able to talk to other people… And so maybe they aren’t going to be proving theorems, but I’m teaching them to think clearly, I’m teaching them to think about how to communicate the clarity of that thought… and I think that that’s a really transferable skill.”

Perhaps, inspired by this example, faculty at other schools can devise comparable ways to bridge the gap between the two cultures.

I am deeply grateful to Noemi Schor for collaborating on the research of this initiative, which included trips to Kenyon College and many conversations with faculty, administrators, and students. I also appreciate the support of Howard Gardner and Kirsten McHugh. This research was generously funded by The Teagle Foundation.

© 2018 Wendy Fischman and Howard Gardner

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3 Comments on “Building a Bridge: Writing in Science and Mathematics Classes at Kenyon College”

  1. Donald A Fischman June 27, 2018 at 5:19 pm #

    Absolutely terrific. Congratulations Kenyon.”

  2. Georgia Nugent June 28, 2018 at 1:57 pm #

    A wonderful shout out for what Kenyon does SO well. “Writing across the curriculum” isn’t a program there; it’s a philosophy.

    • Howard Gardner June 28, 2018 at 3:13 pm #

      very thoughtful of you to write, Georgia, and the distinction between ‘program’ and ‘philosophy’ is apt and noteworthy. I just read your insghtful essay in the Trachternberg et al book and shared it with our Development office at the Graduate School of Education, Best wishes, Howard

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