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The Idea of a Writing Laboratory

Neal Lerner

Publication Year: 2009

The Idea of a Writing Laboratory explores the history of teaching writing in classrooms, writing centers and science laboratories and how these histories are intertwined via notions of “laboratory methods” of instruction, an idea as promising for reform today as it was in the 1890s.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press

Book Title

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pp. i-iii


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pp. iv-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

The completion of this book would not have been possible without the support and encouragement of a whole bunch of folks. For their conversation, reading, and feedback, I thank Anne Ellen Geller, Beth Boquet, Michele Eodice, Kami Day, Rebecca Nowacek, Rich Haswell, David Russell, Christina Haas, Charles Bazerman, and Brad Hughes and the staff of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Writing Center. Southern Il-...

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Introduction: In Search of Experimentation in the Teaching of Writing

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pp. 1-14

This is a book about possibilities, about teaching and learning to write in ways that can be transformative for both teacher and learner. To find these possibilities, my outlook is not necessarily toward a utopian future or what has not yet occurred, but instead toward what the past can offer. The rich history of writing instruction in higher education—whether the setting has been first-year composition classrooms, writing centers, or ...

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1. The Secret Origins of Writing Centers

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pp. 15-33

In graduate school, a sociology professor gave me some sound advice: When trying to understand an educational reform, go to its origins, for it is there that you’ll find the originators’ intent, the pure soul of the experiment before it became tainted by compromise, subterfuge, or just plain neglect. Writing center work offers a reform of the usual way of doing business in the teaching of writing. Rather than a classroom teacher ...

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2. Writing in the Science Laboratory: Opportunities Lost

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pp. 34-51

In the last chapter, I offered a quote from Fred Newton Scott that I will repeat here. In an article in The Dial, Scott asserted that “teaching of composition is properly laboratory work” (122), and then went on to make a comparison to another familiar laboratory, that used to teach undergraduate science: Why should [composition] not be placed on the same footing as other laboratory work as regards manning...

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3. The Writing of School Science

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pp. 52-75

As I described in the previous chapter, the experimental nature of science teaching in the late nineteenth century was often driven by ideas of students as novice scientists learning inductively about the natural world; however, student writing about science in this era seems largely impoverished. In David Russell’s words, “writing came to be used as a means of exclusion, a means of setting and enforcing disciplinary standards, ...

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4. The Two Poles of Writing Lab History: Minnesota and Dartmouth

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pp. 76-106

As I described in chapters 1 and 2, an experimental approach to educational reform took place in both writing and science starting in the 1890s and has held grips of varying strength until now. That grip has been weakened at times by an easy retreat to the status quo, by pressures of rising enrollments and underprepared students, by an obsession with testing and efficiency, and by a lack of vision. As I show in the case studies ...

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5. Project English and the Quest for Federal Funding

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pp. 107-125

While I was working on this book, a new chancellor of one of the University of Massachusetts campuses was announced. He gave up his position representing Massachusetts in the U.S. House of Representatives to take the job; he has no real educational administrative experience but was chosen because of his promise as a fund-raiser. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “So it goes.” This never-ending search for scarce resources often seems to define higher ...

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6. Drawing to Learn Science: Lessons from Agassiz

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pp. 126-145

In a sophomore molecular biology laboratory class at MIT, students study the development of zebra fish embryos with and without mutations. A key pedagogical technique is to have students draw pictures of the developing embryo at several time points. Invariably, some students complain about this seemingly low-tech and elementary technique. Why can’t they instead take digital photos, they ask, and assemble a slide show? ...

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7. The Laboratory in Theory: From Mental Discipline to Situated Learning

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pp. 146-163

In his article “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class,” James Berlin writes that “a way of teaching is never innocent. Every pedagogy is imbricated in ideology, in a set of tacit assumptions about what is real, what is good, what is possible, and how power ought to be distributed” (492). Certainly, the historical examples of laboratory methods to teach writing and science that I have described in previous chapters were all ...

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8. The Laboratory in Practice: A Study of a Biological Engineering Class

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pp. 164-193

Moving from the idea of a writing laboratory to enacting that idea—whether in a classroom, laboratory, or writing center—is by no means a simple task as demonstrated by the histories that I have presented in the previous chapters. Many reform efforts have failed for a variety of reasons, whether insufficient resources or a lack of grassroots/teacher support or a fear of change from the entrenched status quo. However, ...

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pp. 194-200

When my daughter was in third grade, she learned to play piano in her after-school program. While that simple sentence likely captures the musical activities of many eight-year olds nationwide, what seemed particularly fascinating to me—and timely given my interest in writing as a laboratory subject—is that her learning occurred in a context that was largely removed from formal instruction. Rather than the weekly lessons ...


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pp. 201-204

Works Cited

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pp. 205-224


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pp. 225-232

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Author Bio

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pp. 233-233

Neal Lerner is the Director of Training in Communication Instruction at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he teaches scientific and technical communication and supports instruction in communications-intensive classes. His research focuses on the history of educational reform and its echoes in current practice, as well as qualitative stud-...

Back Cover

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pp. 234-234

E-ISBN-13: 9780809386628
E-ISBN-10: 0809386623
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809329144
Print-ISBN-10: 080932914X

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 8 b/w halftones
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 459794446
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Idea of a Writing Laboratory

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Subject Headings

  • English language -- Rhetoric -- Study and teaching.
  • Writing centers.
  • Report writing -- Study and teaching.
  • Tutors and tutoring.
  • Technical writing -- Study and teaching.
  • Interdisciplinary approach in education.
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