I read three new essays last night and as I did so, I thought a bit about what I look for in essays for class. My curriculum focuses on bringing stories of scientific discovery and policy to life–by way of character development, scene setting, and narrative structures designed to engage first and inform second. Since many of my students are hoping to write long form “journalism” about their subjects, or entertaining/educational personal narratives.
This leaves a lot out, and if I had a whole semester, I’d include modules on experimental science and nature nonfiction, on memoirs with heavy nature/science angles (like Lab Girl, H is for Hawk, Desert Solitaire, some of Oliver Sacks work, The Home Place), and a short module on science blogs–which have their own structure and tend to be the easiest way to get one’s foot in the door. As it is, I have five weeks to cover what I think will help writers find and research ideas, organize their essay, and then pitch it. This isn’t the only way to think about or create science writing–but it is the way that many adult writers are looking at it already.
Of the essays I read last night, Zeeya Merali‘s has the most potential. There are actual (albeit brief) scenes and an attempt to explain a complex topic using metaphor and simile so that non-specialists can more than just follow along, but get excited about the ideas in the piece.
I also spent more time today than I should have writing an email to a colleague at my day job in an attempt to transfer some understanding of a couple of technical writing concepts. After writing a very long email, I sat back and tried to guess how much “learning” my colleague could tolerate/was interested in, and then I cut out about 30%. He wanted me to just do some work for him, but that is not part of my role. I had to look at my email sentence by sentence and ask myself: are you giving a lecture on how to compose a document, or are you helping someone get their job done faster next time? Those are not mutually exclusive, and it is hard to teach for part of my day and not have my professorial tone and proclivity to red pen documents take over when doing my regulatory job. They aren’t all that different.
If you are reading this and have a favorite science essay, drop me a comment. Or if you have any tips/tricks/warnings for code-switching from teacher to non-academic coworker, I’m all ears.