The Marine Biology Quarter at Friday Harbor Laboratories (FHL) offers a course where students get a chance to write about topics they know matter, but it also helps them to understand the science they are immersed in at FHL in new ways. I’ve lost count of the number of times over the years that a student has come to me in office hours or during a one-on-one conference and, quite sheepishly, said something to the effect of “I just don’t like writing about topics/books/prompts that I don’t care about.” “Of course!” I reply, “nobody does!” But this is the bane of many mandatory composition classes, where students walk into a topic they most likely did not select.
One approach to this problem is to pick a salient topic or theme for a writing class. Opportunities to write about popular culture or current events are helpful, though it’s surprisingly difficult to find anything students will find equally scintillating—especially with increasingly diverse classrooms where students come in with a wide variety of cultural reference points. Luckily, it’s a safe assumption that students who come to spend an academic quarter at Friday Harbor are interested in the ocean. So, this spring—as in prior spring terms when the course was offered—the class worked with science writing of various kinds that dealt with ocean acidification.
But even an engaging and salient topic can fizzle because interest in a topic does not guarantee interest in writing about the topic. Writing is a particular kind of work that turns out to be something other than merely transcribing thoughts; effective writing requires making choices. And to make those choices, it is beneficial to understand their context. In the writing programs administered through the Department of English at the University of Washington, we often refer to that context as the “stakes” of a written piece. That is, topics themselves come pre-loaded with stakes that are mostly intuitive, but the point is also that pieces of writing themselves (the forms that the writing can take) have stakes. In the typical classroom, the stakes of an assignment can be very simple: the success of the writing impacts a student’s grade. Remembering that writing has a wider range of purposes than mere grading, though, allows for considering how particular choices achieve those purposes.
One of the great benefits of studying science writing at FHL is the way stakes are reinforced by the location itself. On several sunny days, I took my students out to a platform near the water, and what I liked about this platform—and indeed about sundry seats on the rocky points of the campus shoreline—was the visibility of the town across the harbor. Especially as the course shifted its attention to writing about science for non-experts, this relationship between the foreground and background of the FHL setting made posing such questions clear rather than abstract. We had discussions on the platform about how different writers including Elizabeth Kolbert, Alanna Mitchell, and Callum Roberts each made choices to convey the same information about ocean acidification differently. For students who take a science-writing class at this field station, it is visually apparent that how we write matters for how we reach across the UW property line.
This finally contributes to a way of seeing science itself differently. There are different circulating versions of the truism that science isn’t finished until it’s published, and as a result of taking “Science Writing for Diverse Audiences,” students are further pushed to ask, “published to or for whom?” At FHL and throughout the variety of classes they take there, students are surrounded by (are themselves!) researchers—people engaged in asking salient questions and who use intriguing tools to explore those questions. Some of our earliest conversations in the course were about how sharing inquiry is baked into the very idea of science. What are measurements, after all, but a way for two people to agree on descriptions of what they measure? Acquisition of knowledge is part of science, but it’s not the only part.
Naturalist and inventor—but also writer and filmmaker—Jacques Cousteau knew this. When I got the sense that most of the students were unfamiliar with this popularizer of ocean sciences, I brought in profiles written about him as the entry point into one of their last assignments, where they were tasked with writing profiles of researchers from around FHL. Writing these profiles had students take on the task of communicating complex work to non-experts blended with a sense of the people doing the science. Figures like Cousteau, and also Rachel Carson, infused science with their charisma in ways that offered audiences a share in the subject matter. In having the chance to practice doing similar work on-site where so much exciting marine science is taking place, FHL students prepare themselves to advance a history of doing needed communicative work.
Eric Morel is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University of Washington, as well as a pre-doctoral instructor in the Program on the Environment. His dissertation studies nineteenth-century American works to ask how expectations about reading inform readers’ sense of literature’s relevance to environmental problems. In addition to this project, he is co-editor of a collection titled Environment and Narrative (with Dr. Erin James, forthcoming from the Ohio State University Press) that explores combinations between the literary subfields of ecocriticism and narrative theory. During the spring of 2018, he had the opportunity to teach the “Science Writing for Diverse Audiences” course at Friday Harbor Laboratories.