Assessing Popular Science in the Classroom

ATTW 2013 l Las Vegas, NV
Nathaniel Rivers @sophist_monster Saint Louis University

This presentation explores how the production of popular science writing using new media tools engages students in the critical assessment of popular science writing’s efficiency. Students investigate scientific research underway at their institution using primary and secondary sources, and then plan, produce, and distribute a podcast (e.g., RadioLab) and/or video shorts (e.g., How Its Made) with this research topic as its subject matter. Working from the articulation model of technical communication, the course resists treating science writing as the transmission or translating of science. Instead, this course views science writing as articulation and so, in part, the generation of scientific knowledge. The popular science writer participates in the articulation of science—the piecing together of data. Students thus develop an understanding of how rhetoric shapes science—both its practices and its public reception—by producing such publications. This presentation shares student work and student feedback gathered throughout the production process.

Articulation and Technical Communication

Articulation has proven a productive notion in technical communication. Articulation is the work of both joining things together and making them distinct. Slack, Miller, and Doak's now canonical treatment of the technical communicator as author uses articulation to demonstrate how technical communicators do more than simply transmit or translate information. By articulating information differently (or at all), the technical communicator participates in the production of knowledge.

“Any specific train is thus a specific, particular set of articulations—an identifiable object with relatively clear-cut boundaries” (Slack, Miller & Doak 1993).

Slack et al., famously use the metaphor of the train to describe articulation. "Any specific train is thus a specific, particular set of articulations-an identifiable object with relatively clear-cut boundaries" (169). You shouldn't need to set this up or explain it much with this crowd.

With a train, each unique arrangement of the cars creates a distinct entity. So too does the technical communicator. Any articulation is a function of authorship, which involves choices about arrangement, style, media, and delivery. Whoever arranges the train cars takes part in making that train--however momentary and contingent that production is.

Articulation and Scientific Communication

By extension, if this model of articulation works for technical communication, then it ought to work for science writing as well. (I acknowlege that "articulation" might be a tougher sell in the sciences/ Is this true? Is this even worth mentioning?) Piecing things together (and here we lean more than a little of Latour) is how scientific knowledge is made. In this way, the science writer is doing the work of science, of scientists. Making this case requires a jaunt through the interesting verb to articulate. It can and has meant many things, all of them productive for this work in new media science writing.


To come to terms of agreement. To express distinctly. To express or convey, esp. through non-verbal means. To modify (vocal sound, a pulmonary airstream, etc.) so as to produce a speech sound, a word, etc. To make visually distinct. To attach or unte by a joint.

Articulation is a robust concept with a complex and fully mineable etymology. This etymology points toward articulation's continued usefulness in science writing and technical communication as they come to grips with the mechanics of new media production. Articulation refers not strictly to speech but to visual, bodily, and mechanical connections as well (think articulated buses). Use this slide and this quote to connect what you have just said to the theme for the panel: how does this bear on the assessment of science writing. In brief, it bears on assessment through production.

New Media Mechanics

This mechanical side of articulation we have found equally useful in a class not only about science writing but new media science writing. Students in this course are asked to articulate in the ways described by Slack, Miller and Doak, and as a mechanical task: learning the microphones, the cameras, the cables, the data management, and the software necessary to piece together their segments.

“Rather than shrinking back or separating our work from the materiality of production means, we have the opportunity to expand our own engagements with the modes of invention and means of circulation” (Rice 2008).

Spend time with the quote and her argument in general. This is where the mechanical aspects of articulation come to a head and where new media is connected to technical communication and science writing. I would add here that technical communication is more than communication about specific kinds of contents, but that the technical communicators offer a unique attunement to the systems through which we communicate. The network. The interface. Recently, I taught from Selber and Johnson-Eiola and what struck me about the book is how the chapters portrayed the field.

New Media Science Writing

In articulation we find the one concept to unite them all. Articulation allows us to connect well-established notions of authorship in technical communication to emerging scholarship and trends in new media rhetoric and writing. In brief, articulation foregrounds the active role science writers play in the production of knowledge and it does so by highlighting the need for mechanical deftness with the means of that production to which technical communication has historically attended.

“A rhetoric of new media, rather than examining the choices that have already been made by writers, should prepare us as writers to make our own choices” (Brooke 2009).

This quote allows you to connect assessment with production as described on the previous slide. Assessment not driven be a cultural studies imperative but an inventional one instead. We here speak of counter-intervention rather than critique (Harman). Mention the Florida School of new media. There is likewise a sense in which articulation and assessment: articulation of all stripes - is an inherently rhetorical activity. The strategic and effective use of media for an audience. Audience awareness is assessment. And thinking about production foregrounds rhetoric and assessment.

Elements of the Course

We here reflect upon an upper-level undergraduate course in new media writing that focused exclusively on science writing. In small groups, students explored research underway at their home institution. Students in this class collaboratively researched, planned, and produced science writing using new media technologies. Students selected and investigated scientific research currently underway using both primary and secondary sources (interviews, observations, background research), and then planned, scripted, recorded, filmed, edited, and produced media such as a podcasts or video programs with this research topic as its subject matter. Ultimately, students themselves negotiated the focus and tone of their own publications. Acknowledge that the course draws on the strengths of technical communication and professional communication pedagogy: project based, collaborative, grounded in a specific context and intended to procude concrete ieffects. Discuss components and introduce student samples here.

The challenge is how to incorporate students examples. Will you have audio capability? You'll need to be prepared either way. 1. Opening of Sustainable and Organic Podcast: 0:00-1:24 2. A two minute clip from re-enactment of test in Stress video: 28:00-30:22 3. Twins: key moment when they make the distinction between the what and who of twins. Tell the audience about how the researchers themselves responded to this language. 25:04-27:02

Assessing Popular Science in the Classroom
Nathaniel Rivers @sophist_monster Saint Louis University

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