Writ Large: A Reflection on April Lightning Talks

In his introduction to the CTL-DLI April Lightning Talks “Writ Large: The Place of Writing in University Learning,” the session moderator, Dr. David Shawn said this: “Students learn, communicate, and transform themselves through writing.” In the presentations that five faculty contributed, we appreciated just how much those processes of learning, communication and transformation are happening in classes across Boston University, from Engineering, Neuroscience and Medicine, to working with multilingual students and considering the implications of generative AI.

Dr. Megan Young gave a moving tribute to the power of narrative in medical training, describing the “My Life, My Story” assignment that asks 4th year students to interview their patients about their lives and then write up the information as a first-person narrative to share back. Not only does the experience transform learning and empathy for doctors, it also strengthens relationships with patients and their families.

A different glimpse into writing and professional training was provided by Dr. Kyle Gobrogge, who gave an overview of disciplinary writing in STEM, particularly within the Undergraduate Program in Neuroscience. In explaining how students were provided with frameworks to understand the ethics and rigor of scientific writing, Dr. Gobrogge also reinforced the importance of “practice, practice, practice” as students work on writing assignments that connect their education and professional skills.

Strengthening professional skills was also a part of Dr. Darren Roblyer’s presentation on writing in senior Engineering classes. In describing how students work in teams to develop and document their year-long design projects, Dr. Robyler connected STEM with Humanities approaches: he emphasized the power of storytelling to help students understand how to translate their technical work into accessible and appealing language for their audiences. The teamwork involved in the projects, including peer feedback, gives students opportunities in skill-building across multiple dimensions, including writing, to enhance their professional readiness.

In her presentation, Master Lecturer Kim Shuckra illuminated inclusive practices in writing classes with multilingual students, emphasizing that these small, easily-implementable changes strengthen student success for all students while creating welcoming learning environments that ease the strain on international students. She noted, too, that these strategies were applicable across the curriculum, not only in writing classes. Ms. Shuckra encouraged faculty to try just one or two strategies, such as learning students’ names and working on integrating international students into groups for teamwork, as a way to build community in the classroom.

Dr. Matt Parfitt’s presentation on generative AI stressed that technology is moving too quickly for faculty to rely on AI detectors in written assignments. Instead, he encouraged instructors to think about creating “localized assignments”: ones that draw on specific lecture and discussion examples, on current events and local places, as well as students’ personal experiences. In the Q&A that followed, Dr. Parfitt brought us full-circle to re-consider Dr. Young’s narrative medicine assignment in this light. Writing in the age of ChatGPT should focus on the relevance of the task to skill-development whether professional or personal, as well as demonstrating knowledge and connecting writing to the lives of students.

For deeper insights into each of these presentations and the stimulating conversation that followed, please see the recording in the DL&I Lightning Talks video library. Thanks to all our presenters for sharing their projects and knowledge with us!

Deborah BreenAbout the Author: Dr. Deborah Breen is the director of Boston University’s Center for Teaching & Learning. Deb is focused on developing and expanding partnerships at BU that highlight and strengthen significant learning experiences for all students. She encourages research into learning experiences, collaborations with faculty and staff in initiatives that support teaching and learning, and opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to contribute to an understanding of BU’s learning environment.

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