What We Talk About When We Talk About Seaweed


Rebecca Lorimer

By Rebecca Lorimer. A course coordinator in Biology was explaining to me that her students were having trouble in their discussion sections. I nodded as I mentally sifted through my grab bag of discussion-leading strategies. When she asked, “do you have any ideas for our TAs?” I was ready.

“Yes! Well, there are lots of things you can do to make discussion sections more active.” I smiled enthusiastically. “You could have students discuss questions in small groups and report out to the class. You could have students brainstorm questions and ask them in new groups. You could…” The course coordinator sat quietly, blinking. “I mean discussion sections,” she said, “as in the end of their lab reports?”

I shook my head and turned pink, as I tend to do. She laughed with me, and then I offered up an entirely different set of strategies for teaching students to write more analytic discussion sections in their lab reports. I had, of course, assumed she meant the discussion sections many in the English department lead as their teaching assignments. I was coming at the question from class format but she from genre structure. Such are the moments of disciplinary miscommunication I find myself enjoying as I travel beyond the English department to teach.

It’s easy to make too much of interlocutors missing each other’s meaning (generative! productive conflict!), when in fact we mostly just misunderstand and then continue to push forward. But when academics from dissimilar epistemologies or methodological paradigms pause to delight in each other’s misunderstandings, these moments, I think, can open up the very enterprise of a liberal education.

In “‘Only Connect’: The Goals of a Liberal Education,” William  Cronon lists what he believes defines a “liberally educated person.” The third quality of this person is that “they can talk with anyone”*: Educated people know how to talk. …They can hold a conversation with a high school dropout or a Nobel laureate, a child or a nursing-home resident, a factory worker or a corporate president. Moreover, they participate in such conversations not because they like to talk about themselves but because they are genuinely interested in others. A friend of mine says one of the most important things his father ever told him was that whenever he had a conversation, his job was “to figure out what’s so neat about what the other person does.”

I don’t include Cronon’s thought to toot my own liberally-educated horn, or to suggest that our writing across the curriculum program (of which I am the assistant director) is the only place where these conversations occur. Certainly we converse across difference constantly in the writing center and certainly our outreach instructors experience these moments as frequently as I do.

Instead I wonder something a bit different. I wonder if our ability to cultivate genuine curiosity during moments of misunderstanding, to find out “what’s so neat” about what other disciplines do, is heightened when we physically walk away from the English department and enter the rooms of other areas of study.

As WAC assistant director I am often on the move, and while I ride the bus out to Plant Pathology or march my way up Bascom hill to Political Science, I muse: How is our exposure to other disciplines in the writing center conditioned by letting them come to us? Is this understanding qualitatively different than the one I experience as I sit among (and smell) seaweed samples in a lab? How far can we travel in our understanding of other areas of study without actually moving?

I’m not sure yet. These are genuine questions. But when, as I’m discussing global vs. local writing concerns with biology TAs, my eye is drawn to a large map of the Galapagos scrawled on the wall in black marker, I’m reminded what delightful misunderstandings of the words “global” and “local” I could explore in this particular room.

–Rebecca Lorimer, Assistant Director, Writing Across the Curriculum, UW-Madison

*Cronon, William. “Only Connect…: The Goals of a Liberal Education.” The American Scholar 67.4 (1998): 73-80. Print.

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