Beyond technical communication

The CI requirement should further stress communication to the general public

For many MIT students, the communication requirement is like a trip to the dentist’s office. We know it’s good for us, and after it’s over we are glad we did it, but no one looks forward to it and it’s painful to endure.

Everyone who has taken a CI (communication intensive) class has heard the story of how the CI requirement was created in response to feedback from alumni, who wish that they had received more practice during their time at the Institute. Indeed, the CI requirement does an excellent job preparing students for all kinds of technical communication they might encounter in their careers beyond MIT.

However, despite its successes, the CI requirement is missing a strong component of communication for the general public and other non-technical audiences.

For example, my CI classes within the Materials Science and Engineering Department have exclusively focused on formal communication for an audience of my peers. I’ve practiced writing technical reports, memos, journal articles, along with poster sessions and presentations. I really feel comfortable with these forms of communication, and I am confident in my ability to effectively communicate my work to academic audiences. In that sense, the CI requirement has been very valuable to me.

But when my fifth-grade cousin asked me about my research, I realized that the CI requirement could do more.

In a time when science is facing greater scrutiny than ever before, effective communication to a non-scientific audience is more important than ever. Every scientist and engineer needs to be able to explain his or her work to the public — whether it’s a middle school class, readers of the New York Times, or members of Congress. The communication requirement needs to change to reflect this new imperative.

MIT already has classes in the writing department that teach science writing for a general audience. These classes are a valuable resource, but only a small fraction of students will take them. This skill is too important to be optional — science writing for the general public ought to be part of the foundation of the communication requirement. But CI classes need to focus on more than writing papers — blog posts, newspaper articles, visual aids, and videos can also be effective.

As the face of science in America, MIT owes it to the scientific community to ensure that all its graduates can communicate the importance of science and engineering to all stakeholders. MIT does an excellent job teaching its students to communicate to an audience of their peers. But when the work of many scientists is portrayed as esoteric or even unnecessary, it is essential that we arm our graduates with the tools to defend the value of their work.

1 Comment
Don Unger about 10 years ago

Mr. Shames makes a number of important points. Having worked as a dentist in the Writing Across the Curriculum Program, teaching on the communications side of CI-M classes for the past seven and a half years, Ill offer a response (wholly my own and in no way the official position of the WAC Program).

Whatever gets added, to an individual class or to curricular requirements as a whole, requires that something else get trimmed (if not cut).

As a member of the Writing Industrial Complex, I would love to see a communicating science to non-technical audiences strand. Where would it fit? I dont ask this in adversarial fashion, but to pose a functional, neutral question.

It could be a freestanding class, required during the first two years; it could be a required component of CI-M classes (every CI-M class shall require one assignment in which the subject matter under study shall be written up in a genre pitched at an educated but non-technical audience).

Those classes already exist in the First Year Writing Program: Science Writing and New Media: Elements of Science Writing for the Public and Science Writing and New Media: Explorations in Communicating about Science and Technology, taught by my colleagues Karen Boiko and Janis Melvold, respectively.

If students swamp those classes with applicants and demand that more sections be created, I suspect that, over time, this option would expand to meet the demonstrated need. Im not sure that all students would want a mandate that they take such a class, however.

On the CI-M side, I dont think that most technical faculty members would respond well to having their course content dictated to them. As it stands, the CI side is pitched to serve the professional needs of students; while I think most faculty members share Mr. Shames conviction that communicating with the lay public is important, I suspect that reducing the amount of time spent on academic/professional writing would be looked at somewhat askance.

To be clear, I fully support the ideas in Mr. Shames column. But my best guess is that students have the power here (as did the alumni in the founding lore of the WAC Program). This kind of programming will expand if students demand it.

Don Unger, Lecturer, Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing