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Practica Use Science Classes to Teach Writing Skills

By Naveen Sunkavally
associate opinion editor

Nearly a year ago, in an attempt to improve the writing skills of MIT students, the Committee on the Writing Requirement proposed to expand the number of departmental writing practica, six-unit satellite classes attached to certain research and design subjects.

Today, after two semesters of drastic practica expansion, administrators seem to agree that practica might be effective in improving writing but also acknowledge that practica are only a small part of the larger solution towards improving writing skills at MIT.

The writing practica were an extension of the technical writing cooperative and were designed to be more adaptable and focus on communication skills, said Leslie C. Perelman, associate dean of undergraduate affairs and director of the writing practica program.

"Classes meet once a week for two hours, and assignments are closely allied with assignments in the engineering class," he said.

Like the technical writing cooperative, which offers instruction through lectures in an engineering context, the writing practica can also be used to fulfill phase two of the writing requirement.

Students motivated in practica

"What makes it a powerful tool is that [students] already know a great deal about what they're writing about," Perelman said. Writing practica enable instructors to act like coaches in improving students' writing abilities rather than acting solely as gatekeepers responsible for administering essay examinations and checking off student papers.

Students have additional impetus to improve their writing skills since the quality of the papers they write will affect the grade in their major,Perelman said.

"Its main advantages are its flexibility and its focus," said James Paradis, professor of writing and head of the program in writing. "It's just another strategy. Given that writing works in different ways, it should be approached in different ways."

Paradis said that a lack of time was a major cause of writing problems among MIT students. He said that writing practica could be useful in integrating communication skills with technical courses in the more time-consuming majors.

Perceptions of improved writing

Saleem G. Ali G, a teaching assistant of the second section of Practicum in Engineering and Science Writing (21W.781), which is affiliated with Chemical Engineering Projects Laboratory (10.26), felt students did improve their skills in writing practica.

"Most are seniors, and their mindsets are very inertial but I have been quite impressed," Ali said, "We usually try to make the classes as interactive as possible with reading, writing, and critique exercises and one-on-one conferences."

Perelman, who teaches the 6.033 (Computer System Engineering) affiliated practicum, said that students showed improvement throughout the semester. "To quote an engineering faculty [member], MIT students are very good at optimizing their functions, and if a student learns to write through an engineering course, there's value in that kind of motivation, " he said.

Perelman said that one the best assignments he ever gave involved asking students to rewrite their design projects as two-page memoranda to their managers recommending the projects, an important exercise in the workplace.

Practica only one part of whole

Despite the increased role of writing practica, Paradis emphasized that they are only a small part of the solution: "I wouldn't say that's the main way to teach writing. I would resist focusing on one activity." Paradis felt that students don't take as many writing classes as they should, and that humanities are largely underutilized at MIT.

"I think the humanities and sciences both have roles straight out of faculty vote," Perelman said. Students' writing "needs to be a shared responsibility of all departments," he added. Perelman felt that writing practica did not detract from humanities courses, since they do not offer any humanities, arts, and social sciences credit.

Perelman said that practica will continue into the future. "They will play some role in the larger role in the next three years," he said.

This spring several writing practica classes will be offered, including ones attached to 10.26, 6.033, 1.05 (Fluid Mechanics), 16.621 (Experimental Projects I).