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Pat Logan's Web Log

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who is able to discern knowledge from propaganda,
is competent to choose among conflicting claims and programs,
and is capable of actively participating in the affairs of the polity."—Aronowitz

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Oct. 16, 2013

You Do Not Speak Our Language

Changes: In September, I learned that for reasons unknown, I had been working without a formal academic appointment for the past two years (in addition to working without a faculty contract for well over two years, but that is another matter). It was decided to correct this oversight.

In 2005, I moved academic homes after 28 years in the Department of Plant Sciences (including 8 years as an administrator—Associate Dean, Director of the Agricultural Experiment Station, Director of Cooperative Extension). Seeing nothing but hostility and chaos in Jeffrey Seemann's College of The Environment and Life Sciences (I was part of the administrative team that saw the renaming of that College from its former label of College or Resource Development), I seized upon an opportunity presented to me by Arts & Sciences Dean Winnie Brownell to return to areas of academic engagement that had drawn me into University life in the first place. I was given a split appointment—1/3rd in the College Writing Program (now The Department of Writing and Rhetoric) and 2/3rds in Communication Studies. I was a stranger in a strange land, and my new colleagues viewed me with appropriate initial suspicion. It was thus held that I would only be accepted for a 1 year "trial," with the possibility for a 2 year extension. It was also agreed that I would not be regarded as a member of the tenured faculty for purposes of peer review or matters requiring a vote of the tenured faculty for this three years. The total of three years, I was told, is required for all split appointments, which must be renewed to continue. Working diligently to create a full teaching workload, and without offending anyone in the process, I was rewarded with reappointment for an additional three years in 2008, although still without voting rights (when departmental meetings for all faculty adjourned and only the tenured faculty remained to conduct further business, I left the room with the adjuncts, lecturers, and assistant professors). Continuing to work diligently without offending anyone, reappointment to another 3 years was overlooked in 2011. I didn't know the rules, and it didn't seem to matter at the time.

When discovered, this oversight created a minor administrative moment, and it was decided to get the paperwork in order post-haste. In a meeting with the Dean, Associate Dean, and the two department chairs, it was agreed that we would clear up the paperwork by working through standard protocols, getting a vote of the tenured faculty for renewal at the next meeting, in October. Then, by November, we would present a fleshed out strategic plan to expand science communication within the department, and that initially this would include my existing senior level course (COM455: Science and Communication for a Century of Limits, also taught, with appropriate modifications, as a freshman grand challenges course under GCH104) and a new course (COM3xx or COM4xx, based on more traditional literature of science communication and the rhetoric of science, in which I am well read). With that approval (all curricular matters are the province of the faculty, under the University Manual), my appointment would change and I would begin teaching the new course in Fall 2014. I would end my appointment with Writing and Rhetoric after teaching my Graduate Seminar in Writing in the Life Sciences (WRT533) for the last time in spring 2014.

Crisis: The October department meeting was scheduled for last Friday. On Monday of that week, however, I was informed that the Writing and Rhetoric department had written to insist that the change in my appointment be made immediately. The only explanation for this was given after the September meeting with the deans when it was said that Writing and Rhetoric faculty felt that my 1/3rd appointment was preventing them from getting a new, full-time position. At the time, it seemed clear that if such an obstacle had in fact been posed by the Dean (only Deans, with the approval of the Provost, have the authority to allocated new positions), it would be cleared by the beginning of next July. I have not heard from the Dean that such an offer was made or that such a condition was imposed: I cannot say where this thinking originated. As a former administrator, I never heard of such terms. Nevertheless, Writing and Rhetoric insisted that the change in appointment be made now.

Normally, things don't go this fast. With no time, I spent Monday and Tuesday (when I wasn't in any of my three classes) finishing a large stack of papers I had promised to return to my students, and on Wednesday I began crafting a syllabus for the new course. By Friday, I was able to submit a 4-page preliminary syllabus and schedule, including texts and reading assignments from the text (but not the several supporting papers that would normally be part of my syllabus / reading schedule), and a COM410 topics course was posted for the normal 48 hour period of review and comment. The initial draft of the syllabus is here, if you are interested. The course should be posted and open for enrollment by the time this is posted.

Communication Studies faculty approved the concept of developing a science communication cluster on Friday, and accepted my change in appointment unanimously, with full tenured-faculty rights.

Lessons Learned: The acceleration of a previously agreed upon change, creating a situation in which my Department was expected to agree to a major change without adequate time to build a case to do so, is at a minimum puzzling, as was the reason given. The only other reason shared with me was a suggestion that I "did not speak the language [of the Writing and Rhetoric Department]." I must confess that at least as far as that assertion goes, it must be true because I can not make sense of those words. To know whether someone speaks your language, you must have a conversation, and that has not happened. I have never heard a complaint or suggestion about my teaching. Indeed, a reported decision to change the WRT333 Science and Technology writing course that I have taught for the Department many times since 2005 (including filling in for two WRT333 faculty who were out for an entire semester will illness), was made without informing me that such meetings were conducted or that in the future there would be two courses, one for science students (WRT334) and one for other students. That is a good idea, and something I could have contributed to had I known there were discussions underway. All of this, it seems to me, represents a dismal failure of normal collegiality.

But what of the languages I do speak? One is the language of science.

Because I am sincerely interested in science in communication and writing curricula, I conducted a survey of leading research universities (including all of the doctoral-granting departments of communication) this past summer. "Science Communication & Writing Curricula at Select Universities" is online (a report, 10 appendices, and the full database) and I encourage you to look at it. In a survey of 154 universities, I found a distinct lack of science in 2/3rds of doctoral granting departments of communication, and a general lack of science writing. For example:

Status of Science Writing in the Curricula

There are very few science writing courses (16) taught within the NCA doctoral departments; the Department of Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota sets the bar with four courses. Most (13) of these focus on writing for the public, and about half (7) focus on the environment.

Although journalism is represented in some NCA doctoral programs, most of the science writing is outside the NCA doctoral group. As within the communication departments, about half of science writing courses (14 of 31 courses listed) emphasized the environment. Virtually none focused on science per se, which seems to be relatively invisible outside of topical writing in contemporary journalism.

Nevertheless, queries for specific phrases in the 112 science writing courses led to a relatively small number of clearly identified topics. "Climate change" was included in course descriptions four times (none from an NCA doctoral department), "energy" was found twice (0 NCA), "population" (in "population growth") was mentioned once, and "sustainable" and "peak oil" were not found (Appendix VIII).

What became quite clear from this survey was that the Nation's capacity to meet a need for future faculty skilled in science communication or writing is relatively primitive and limited. Communication programs are not much better than writing programs:

Status of Science Communication in the Curricula

Two-thirds of the 79 NCA doctoral programs offer no coursework at any level specifically focused on science communication. Of the remainder (26 departments), five have more than two courses, led by Cornell and George Mason's Departments of Communication. Cornell's program, it should be noted, has its roots in the agriculture college (George Mason in Arts and Sciences). American University, UNC Chapel Hill, and U Washington-Seattle also have broader (i.e., more than two) science communication course offerings. About half (26) of the 55 science communication courses encountered focus on the environment. Only eight courses address science per se and four of these deal with social impacts of technologies derived from science. Despite strong interest in Environmental Communication within the NCA, the core departments—those that will produce the next generation of communication faculty—pay generally weak and non-uniform attention to science communication.

In non NCA doctoral departments, Environmental Communication makes up more than half (34 of 59) of the science communication courses listed.

Course titles and descriptions provide few clues into any specific content covered in the "science" part of science communication. Queries for specific phrases in the 114 science communication course descriptions found a limited number of mentions of critical terms like "climate change" (6 records total, 1 from an NCA doctoral department), "sustainable"(2 total, 1 doctoral), "energy" (3,1), "peak oil" (1,1), "population" (2,1) [28], or "natural resources" (1,1) (Appendix VII). Certainly, a more exhaustive review of individual course syllabi would reveal at least some attention to these components of 21st century environmental concern, but none rose to the level of prominence implied by mention in a course description.

When I say that I speak the language of science, I mean that I have published in refereed journals, sat on grant review panels, been part of regional planning efforts to develop new research agendas, that I have been recognized as an expert in the national agricultural research system between the federal government and the land grant universities, and I have written my share of pieces translating the language of science to a popular press to address the needs of farmers and aquaculturists. That is not common among those who teach science communication or writing, and yes, I do believe that this gives me special insight.

But being a scientist is not a qualification in itself for teaching about science writing and communication. Five years of collaboration with science and technology writing instructor Sue Vaughn helped me develop a graduate course in writing for the natural sciences. Years of reading and thinking improved that course. Translating that experience into a course more suitable for a highly diverse (and generally not science career oriented) course for undergraduates added further to my learning. I learned to speak the language of the history of scientific thinking, to see and to be able to teach the logical and structural relations between scientific method and IMRAD format. I learned to translate the national movement toward outcome funding in grants into language accessible to undergraduates, to make the content and logic of strategic planning into something of potentially great individual value to students in a class assignment, and to integrate concepts of leadership styles into thoughts about group writing. My concerns with science in the policy arena and science as the basis for social movements helps me speak more effectively about the need for and legitimacy of scientific writing for the popular press. Twenty-five years of reflection, reading, and practice gave me insight that few others can claim. These languages, in which I am fluent, uniquely qualify me to teach science writing.

For a scientist to engage actively and persistently in teaching writing to science students (both graduate students and undergraduates) runs a significant risk of professional suicide. Going back three decades, only GSO professor Ken Rahn and I have created courses dedicated to doing this (Ken taught GSO533 for a few years, focusing on issues of grammar and syntax, which he found abominable in the writing of too many Oceanography graduate students). Ken was told by incoming Dean David Farmer that it was inappropriate to continue doing so, and he retired soon after. I was told by incoming Dean Jeffrey Seemann that this was not a fit subject to be taught in his college, using that against me in a deliberate effort to make life miserable; I was able to persist only by leaving behind a three-decade career in entomology and starting a new career elsewhere.

I cannot encourage other scientists to attempt to follow Rahn or me, at least not at URI.

For me, the lessons of last week include strong disappointment and dashed hopes for future cross-department collaborations, let alone successful integration across colleges. While personally liberating (I can now focus more effectively as a scholar and teacher, and already feelers for national collaborations are paying off), my experience casts doubts on the administrative abilities of URI to overcome high-walled disciplinary silos. And that, to me, is what is most disheartening in all of this.

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