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UCLA should diversify Writing II topics to engage with STEM students

(Claire Sun/Daily Bruin)

By Leslie Landis

Jan. 10, 2019 10:32 p.m.

Despite popular belief, students don’t just write in Haines and Bunche halls.

All UCLA students are required to take one Writing II class. These classes are designed to improve the proficiency of students’ writing skills for use throughout their academic careers.

While most students only take one, students looking to pursue higher education in the health and medical fields must take a whole year of college-level literature and composition, which can include multiple Writing II classes. Graduate schools don’t want to teach their students how to write; they are expected to come in already having the necessary skills.

No matter a student’s major or career aspirations, writing is crucial to cultivate at the college level so students are prepared for the future. Those with strong writing and verbal skills are the most successful in their jobs. Without a solid writing base, students will have a hard time transitioning into the workforce or presenting their research.

The current master list of Writing II classes boasts dozens of courses in a wide array of diverse topics, ranging from critical reading and writing to an analysis of Asian-American women. But almost none of the classes are on STEM topics. The ones offered are often incorporated into clusters, which students don’t really take to fulfill their Writing II requirements. Despite the benefits of Writing II courses, many STEM students end up seeing them as a burden due to the lack of variety.

The lack of diverse classes is something that needs to be fixed to keep STEM students engaged in a class essential to their career goals. It’s unfair that humanities students have dozens of different options pertaining to their individual aspirations, while STEM students have almost none.

Akilah Ali, a graduate student and college mentor for the UCLA Program for Excellence in Education and Research in the Sciences, said she has heard complaints from her STEM students about Writing II classes.

“Writing is not their strong point, and they are not necessarily interested in their writing classes,” Ali said. “Personally, as a former undergraduate, I felt the same way.”

STEM students need to learn how to write grants, research proposals and papers in their fields of expertise, as well as create presentations to show their work. But first, they need to know the basic writing skills. STEM students will utilize writing skills throughout their lives – so they should be able to have an interest in their writing requirements and get the most of them.

Dana Cairns Watson, a lecturer in the writing department, has found firsthand that her STEM students are some of the most imaginative thinkers when it comes to topics focused on their pursuits.

“When we’re studying how science gets written, they come to life. I’ve had students read poems on global warming and they were so happy,” Watson said. “They got really into the creative aspects of science.”

With the current selection of Writing II classes, STEM students aren’t being fully engaged. They are taking these classes because they have to, not because they want to.

Typically, Writing II classes are proposed by departments that prepare a course syllabus and cover letter to be presented to the Writing II Committee. STEM departments should be creating and implementing Writing II classes geared to the interests and writing skills these students need for their careers. This would benefit the students who take these classes, as well as the overall success of UCLA’s graduates.

The kinds of courses that would be added should still take on the typical format of a Writing II class, but with a STEM twist. Possible courses could address hacking and internet privacy concerns – for those interested in technology – or solutions to global warming – for those interested in the environment. In addition, courses dedicated to writing scientific articles aimed at nonscience students will be beneficial for those looking to improve their writing and communication skills.

Of course, some may say adding new Writing II courses would cost too much money. However, adding STEM-oriented Writing II courses would not be a financial burden on the departments.

Reem Hanna-Harwell, assistant dean of UCLA’s humanities division, explained that funding for new Writing II courses depends on who will be teaching them. If the classes are being taught by faculty or tenured professors, their salaries are already budgeted and there is no added expense. An expense only comes if there is a teaching assistant who will be leading the discussions. However, the departments can submit teaching plans and request a TA budget. Hanna-Harwell added that, under Pat Turner, the senior dean of the College of Letters and Science, there is a small budget dedicated to support Writing II TAs and any department can request funding from it.

Every class’ goal should be to engage its students’ passions and have them benefit from the course. Without STEM-focused topics, a big part of the UCLA population is not experiencing these benefits – and will continue to grumble their way to Haines and Bunche halls.

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Leslie Landis | Opinion columnist
Landis is an Opinion columnist.
Landis is an Opinion columnist.
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