A Brief Guide to Writing 2

James Donelan

The Purpose and Content of Writing 2

Writing 2, the only course required of all undergraduates at UCSB, not only provides students with a fundamental understanding of academic writing, but also helps them with their reading and critical thinking skills. The course also recognizes the differences in reading, writing, and critical thinking among the sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. We, the instructors of Writing 2, also help students more fully integrate their work in different courses into a more general understanding of the world.

Although our main objective is to teach skills, no course can succeed without content. Recently, several Writing 2 instructors have decided to base their courses on a single theme; I have chosen "World War I and Modernism." We will investigate this theme as a turning point in scientific, political, and cultural history, when European and American society experienced a sudden loss of faith in fundamental ideas and institutions, a loss from which they never recovered. As we near the end of the twentieth century, this sense of loss, now called "Modernism," remains central to our world view; our era is only post-modern in that irony has been added to its skepticism. This class will explore how Modernism manifested itself in physics, in the conduct of World War I itself, in the psychological effect the war had on its participants, and finally, in the poetry and narrative of the era.

In addition, this particular section of Writing 2 uses an interactive writing program, Norton Connect.Net, for all assignments. The program enables you to receive an assignment, write a response, submit it, and communicate with me or any of the other students—all electronically. I have found the program to be an extremely effective teaching tool, providing faster, simpler communication with students and more opportunities for the improvement of writing. To begin using it, you need to buy the user manual in the UCen Bookstore. This manual contains an individual license for the program which will enable you to work anywhere you can find a Windows-compatible PC with access to the Internet and a copy of Microsoft Word. Everyone enrolled in the class will also receive a priority access pass for the UCSB computer labs, most of which are already equipped with the program. I will provide detailed instructions and assistance with using the program and installing it on your home computer—the program is easy to use and no special expertise with computers is necessary to do well in the course.

Taking Writing 2

Getting Started. Developing your writing requires steady work over time. You should therefore begin working as soon as possible. Go to the UCen Bookstore and Graphikart immediately and buy the book, the program, and the reader. You will need your own copy of all three. Get an access pass from Instructional Computing as soon as you can; IC representatives will be distributing them in the Phelps Courtyard. Then figure out your overall schedule, and make time in it to read and write each assignment.

The Readings. No one can write effectively without knowing the topic area well. The required readings will provide you with the basis for the topics you will explore in writing. However, each unit will require additional library research, and you will also be required to be competent readers of your colleagues’ work. Completing a reading assignment therefore entails more than a cursory glance a few minutes before class. As the course progresses, I will give you specific instructions on how to approach each reading assignment, and you will develop an awareness of how each discipline, as well as each writer, gives readers subtle instructions for understanding the material well.

The Writing Assignments. One central objective of the course is to teach writing as a process, rather than as just a product. The course contains three main, graded writing assignments, one for each discipline, along with preliminary writing materials from which you will develop the main assignment. In each unit, you will begin by responding, briefly, to specific questions about the readings which will lead you to the development of a topic for the main assignment. Then you will write a prospectus, or short proposal, a working bibliography, an outline, and a rough draft. The purpose of these assignments is to help you develop the skills and procedures used by experienced writers—none of it is meant merely to keep you busy or just to determine whether you did the reading. By completing these steps, you break the task of producing the main assignment into smaller, more manageable parts, each of which will be examined and discussed.

Class Discussion and Participation. Both electronic and face-to-face discussions are essential to this class. No one writes well in isolation, and you will improve your writing more easily if you know what others see in it and what others have done with the same assignment. The class will be divided into groups of five students each who can read each others’ essays and provide comments and assistance through the Connect program. The groups will also meet in person, so that we can see the people behind the comments. Learning how to make useful, constructive comments not only helps others in your group, but enables you to see similar areas for improvement in your own writing.

We will also discuss the readings, writing techniques, research methods, and many other topics in class. Your attendance and participation keep you informed, engaged, and involved in the progress of your writing, and enable me to answer any questions you have. It is in your interest not to miss class.

The Science Unit

The science unit introduces you to some fundamental concepts of physics developed at about the time of the Great War or shortly thereafter. The unit begins with two essays by Thomas Kuhn, a historian of science, who explains two major ideas that will help you connect the scientific material to its historical context. The first, "normal science," refers to the standard practices of a scientific community; the second, "paradigm shift," describes the process by which a major scientific revolution takes place. Not all scientists agree with Kuhn’s description of scientific revolutions, but he provides a useful starting point for understanding how scientific discoveries fit into cultural and social history. I will briefly describe the other authors of the articles in the science unit below.

Richard Feyman (1918-1988)

Dr. Feynman, a Nobel laureate in physics, acquired his fame as much for his sense of humor and engaging teaching style as for his contributions to physics, which were considerable. Educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Princeton University, Feynman worked on the Manhattan Project and created a set of equations for describing the paths of quantum particles as well as a method for diagramming them which now bears his name. While teaching at the California Institute of Technology, Feynman delivered a series of lectures for first-year students, from which the excerpts in the reader are taken. The first excerpt, "Basic Physics," outlines the field of physics and describes the principles and values associated with scientific investigation. Read it carefully as an illustration of what a scientist thinks of his work and how it should be conducted. The next selection by Feyman, "Quantum Behavior," will give you an overview of how scientists approached the challenge of understanding the behavior of subatomic particles. Toward the end of the science unit, you will read "The Relation of Physics to the Other Sciences," an interesting, yet somewhat biased evaluation of other scientific fields from a physicist’s perspective.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Stephen Hawking gives the main outlines of Einstein’s extraordinary life in your reader; here, I will emphasize the context in which he wrote the selections that appear in the reader. Einstein, perhaps the most famous scientist of the last two centuries, began his career in obscurity, as a postal clerk in defeated Germany. The distrust of institutions and previously stable principles characteristic of Modernism became part of Einstein’s psyche early in his life, as he witnessed the mindless destruction of the Great War, the no less devastating economic problems of Weimar (post-WW I) Germany, and the rise of Nazism. The excerpts from Relativity represent his attempt to explain his discoveries "to those readers who, from a general scientific and philosophical point of view, are interested in the theory, but who are not conversant with the mathematical apparatus of theoretical physics." The essay entitled "E=mc2" has a more serious purpose: to covey to lay readers the scientific theory behind the atomic bomb, which releases so much energy that "it brings with it a great threat of evil." Einstein, a life-long pacifist, had nevertheless been so concerned about reports of a Nazi nuclear weapons program that he wrote a letter to President Roosevelt encouraging him to begin the US program. Ironically, the Germans were nowhere near success, and the US did not complete its bomb until after the Germans had surrendered. Einstein worked steadfastly until the end of his life to prevent the atomic bomb from ever being used again.

Stephen Hawking (1942-)

Professor Hawking is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics (actually a physics professorship) at Cambridge University, occupying the same position that Sir Isaac Newton did in seventeenth century. Other physicists hold Professor Hawking in nearly as high regard as his predecessor for his work on cosmology (the study of the cosmos, that is, the entire universe), black holes, and the relationship between large-scale phenomena, such as planets, stars, and galaxies, and extremely small-scale quantum phenomena, such as quarks and neutrinos. While making his remarkable discoveries, Professor Hawking decided to write a book for lay readers in order to make enough money to send his children to private school. The result, A Brief History of Time, became an international best-seller, explaining the fundamental principles of modern physics and cosmology in sharp, clear prose. We will read excerpts from this book, and also see the film based on it. The film contains biographical material as well, showing Professor Hawking’s remarkable ability to adapt to the limitations imposed on him by advanced ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

General Reading Strategies

Keep in mind as you read that you have two goals: to understand the content, and to assimilate the principles of scientific writing. The following suggestions will help you achieve these goals:

  1. Read around the text, as well as in the text. A brief look at the major divisions, parts, and overall structure of a text will help you understand and remember difficult material more easily. Scientists generally follow very clear patterns in their writing, telling their readers exactly where and when they define terms, explain general principles, and give examples. Headings, paragraph breaks, lists, and transitional sentences often indicate what function each statement or paragraph has in the overall argument.
  2. Stop, re-read, and consider important statements. Often the most important statement in a text will be deceptively brief; Einstein’s famous equation, for instance, is only a few letters long. Scientific texts are generally very concise, and key terms can go by quickly. Follow each step carefully.
  3. Take notes as you read, listing main ideas, questions, problems, and unknown terms. The act of taking notes in itself will make you a more engaged reader, and these notes will help you assimilate ideas and overcome difficulties more easily later on.
  4. Look at diagrams carefully, examining each element and what it represents. Physicists often say that drawing the diagram is 90% of the work in solving a physics problem. Stephen Hawking has also remarked that he tends to solve the most complex problems by looking at their geometry. Even simple diagrams can contain a lot of information and illuminate difficult passages in the text. Take your time with them.
  5. Think about what you have read, and think of examples of how each idea works. Make the ideas you have read your own by imagining them in practice.
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