I’ve got writing on my mind. Not least because of this blog, but also due to fact I have been grading writing.

Oddly, compared to most of my colleagues, I love writing. Most of them see it as a necessary evil, but I positively enjoy the process. I enjoy playing with words. The wording of sentences can be turned around, inside out and upside down. Moving words can totally change the emphasis of the sentence. The emphasis of a sentence is totally changed by moving words.

Being able to communicate is the most important skill that my students can gain during their time in my classes. Yeah, I can teach them information; I can show them how to search for further information; they can learn how to collect and analyze information (data); but if they can’t present it, what use is this information? Even if they don’t become scientists, which is probably true for many in my freshman class, they still need communicate ideas and information.

So I put a lot of emphasis on writing in my courses. Not just correct grammar and spelling; as well as being bad about detail, I find spelling and grammar challenging. I’m mildly dyslexic (I never understood why such a hard word to spell was used to describe a condition that refers to not being able to spell well) and at my state schools grammar was hardly covered. I have apostrophes down, but that’s about it. There is also the issue of different spelling and grammar rules between American-English and English-English.

So my first homework assignment in my Freshman Food Science class is to write an essay on how your cultural background has influenced your personal food choices. It is great homework as I discover more about my students, I get to see how well they follow instructions, and find out how they write. The assignment, in the syllabus, is here:

People Are Different Writing Exercise (20 points)

Exercise: Write a one page essay discussing the statement “people are different” in relation to your food habits as if you are writing to some one your age from a different culture who reads English. The topics and questions below are listed to help you. Discuss one or two of the most relevant to you. DO NOT discuss all of them.

Deadline: Email attachment submissions only by noon (12:00 PM) September 15 2006. Please subject your email as FOSC102 PAD Homework and title your essay PADXXX where XXX is your initials.

Objective: To practice writing. Discuss your food background with your group, and with the class as a whole.

Purpose: People are different when it comes to food preferences, consumption patterns, and, therefore, sources of nutrients. This exercise should help you discuss these differences with your group.

Gateway: The following requirements must be met or the essay will be returned without a grade:

Essays should be typed, single spaced, no longer than 1 page, and font no smaller than 12 point, with 1 inch margins all round. There must be an original title and your name. Only one or two topics should be addressed from a personal perspective.

  • Age – Compare what you eat now with what you ate 1, 5 and 10 years ago.
  • Body weight – Are you the same body weight you were two years ago? Are you on a weight-loss diet? Or perhaps you need to eat to increase your muscle mass?
  • Celebrations – Is food an important part of your celebrations, holidays, and vacations? What different or unfamiliar foods are eaten at these events?
  • Ethnic origin or race – Is food an important part of your cultural or ethnic identity?
  • Familiarity – Are you cautious about new unfamiliar foods? Do you want the foods you like and know regardless of where you are?
  • Food characteristics – Do you like spicy foods? Perhaps you also like soft or “squishy” foods.
  • Gender – Do you eat the same foods as your friends of the opposite gender?
  • Health – Do your or members of your family or your friends consume a special diet for health reasons? Changes in diet are recommended for diseases such as diabetes, coronary heart disease, and high blood pressure.
  • Nutrition knowledge – How do you rate your nutrition knowledge? Food choices can be made with either good or poor nutritional knowledge.
  • Parental attitudes – Were you influenced to eat certain foods in childhood? Foods that are introduced during the first few years of life may influence food choices later in life.
  • Peer pressure – Have you felt pressured to eat or not to eat certain foods?
  • Self-concept – Do you depend on certain foods to improve your status and image?
  • Socioeconomic status – Are your food choices influenced by what you can spend?
  • Television viewing – Are some of your food choices influenced by advertising? Certain foods and drinks are advertised during sporting events, for example.
  • Values – Are your food choices influenced by social values – respect for the environment, animal rights, or religious beliefs?

When it comes to grading, I have three peer TAs – who are food science juniors or seniors who took this class in their Freshman year, and one graduate TA. I also work with a couple of colleagues in university writing.

Since I’ve worked with the writing center my ability to design, present, and grade effective homework assignments has improved immensely. It was on their suggestion that I put in the “Gateway”. The reasoning is that if the students do not bother to follow instructions properly then why should I bother to give them a grade.

We grade on the harsh side and then return the essays along with written comments from myself and one TA. One of my writing center colleagues presents about writing in the class on the day the essay are returned. The students (all of them) are told that they can rewrite their essays and resubmit them in a week. All students have the possibility of improving their grade to an A.

Each year I get better and better essays submitted. This year most of them were of “B” standard (I have not got the rewritten essays yet) but about quarter of the class failed the Gateway. My instructions are getting more and more precise. Some people got confused with the idea of writing to some one. They almost wrote a letter. Next time I’ll change that statement to “audience”. Another problem was the directions for submitting the essay. I’m not sure how to improve these; I’ll have to ask some of the students who found it hard to follow, why they found it hard.

In both years, there were some grumbles about it being a science class and that you shouldn’t have to learn about writing in a science class. Last year, when I involved the writing center for the first time, I noticed that the writing for the rest of the semester improved. Also, one of my seniors worked for a food company over the summer and had to write many reports. He said that after taking one of my classes the reports were not a problem.

After all, they might not all become scientists, but we all have to communicate.

This was the point I was going to be very clever and bring in some of the wonderful lyrics that Mike Merenda has written for the Mammals. For the life of me, I cannot remember how this segue went. Something about becoming a clever poet and to show that there are different ways to communicate. Any excuse to give a shout-out for the Mammals 😉


In the middle of the night last night, I remembered that I should give credit to the book where I got the idea from.


Hegarty, V.  Nutrition, Food, and the Environment, Eagan Press, St Paul MN


5 thoughts on “Writing

  1. Pingback: The Food Chemistry Group Project Dilemma « Lab Cat

  2. Pingback: Grading « Lab Cat

  3. This is great. I wish my science classes as an undergrad had more focus on writing. I guess most professors assume you learn writing in your freshmen writing class but I’ve found science writing is very different, and more difficult, than other forms of writing.

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