Carnegie Mellon University

Interpreting and Writing in the Laboratory: A Study of Novice Biologists as Novice Rhetors

Author: Lili Velez
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 1995

While rhetoricians of science describe how professional scientists accomplish their persuasive tasks, not much is known about the processes by which beginning science students begin to acquire the confidence and skill necessary to be persuasive to themselves or others about their work. This thesis examines how an upper-level biology laboratory course shapes novice biologists into novice rhetors: these novices are placed in situations where they must learn to persuade themselves and attempt to persuade others. It also illustrates how the colliding values of those novices, the values of their instructor and my own values as a visiting rhetorician led to collaborations none of us had originally intended.

New research in the rhetoric of specific academic disciplines seems to offer great opportunities for developing connections to disciplines, especially those in the sciences, which have been reticent in the past about participating in Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) programs. However, amassing data about professional rhetorics is a mixed blessing. Such new knowledge may make writing professionals feel more comfortable and lead them to believe that they are more competent than they probably should feel in another discipline's territory. This can lead to inappropriate assumptions about what novices should be expected to accomplish and what kinds of independent critical thinking they should be practicing. I have found that the kinds of student autonomy and creativity which many writing professionals value in their students may well be off-limits, or be considered a premature hazard, to the students within other disciplines.

This ethnography combines three years of laboratory observations and case studies of seven student informants during a one semester course in molecular biology and genetics. By examining the students' activities and the environment in which they do their work, I identify and examine some of the ways novices perform two basic rhetorical tasks: how they persuade themselves, and how they try to persuade others, about their data. This provides a "take" on how such student activities are situated within a scientific culture, and how different task and role representations can help or hinder students' evolution as agents. This in turn can give writing professionals a more grounded understanding of how the goals of students, communities, and instructors will enable and constrain their efforts.