Patrick Bahls: Promoting Student Writing in the Quantitative Disciplines

by Sarah Paterson


In Dr. Patrick Bahls’s introductory calculus courses at UNC-Asheville, it is not unusual to see his students on trial. In addition to filling out pages of problem sets, Bahls’s students have the opportunity to live and write mathematics history as they perform a mock trial of the co-creators of calculus, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz.


While this is far from an ordinary mathematics assignment, Bahls says, “the students get into that kind of assignment because it’s fun. They get to use aspects of their creative side that they wouldn’t ordinarily access in a math class, an alternative form of expression. Getting them to write in a more conversational style can get them to really understand the ideas.”


Though Bahls teaches a range of mathematics courses at UNC-A, from precalculus to senior mathematics seminars, much of his class curriculum centers on teaching writing. Writing assignments, even in math, can help students to understand course content while giving them necessary skills they will need in their future careers. “No matter what a student’s major is, they’ll have to do some sort of written communication,” Bahls says, “whether it’s consulting work or lab work or academic study. They’ll have to communicate their ideas.”


Stereotypically, mathematics and other STEM students reject the idea that they need to learn to write in addition to learning about the specifics of their disciplines. However, Bahls has found ways around this resistance.  “I am able to counter the resistance if I’m able to show students that writing really is helpful,” Bahls says. “Writing needs to be integral, not an add-on. If it’s pitched as an add-on, it’s definitely not something that gets internalized and valued. When you use writing in authentic situations, students will buy it, in that case.” He does this primarily by assigning “low-stakes” writing assignments that allow students to work through difficult ideas in conversational ways, making the concepts accessible and encouraging students to ask questions when they have them.


Faculty, Bahls says, are just as resistant to give writing assignments as mathematics students are to do them. Professors in the STEM fields often reject the idea of incorporating more writing into their curricula because they believe that they do not have the time to craft and grade writing assignments, or because they believe they are unqualified to teach it.  “Not only are they not unprepared to teach writing,” Bahls says, “but they are the ideal person to teach writing in their discipline. Nobody knows better about writing in [mathematics] than a mathematician.”


Student Writing in the Quantitative Disciplines by Patrick BahlsBahls recently published Student Writing in the Quantitative Disciplines, which he describes as a resource manual for faculty who want to teach writing in the STEM fields.  His book responds to what he saw as a gap in educational literature. Typically, books about writing for STEM at the college level take one of two approaches: a disciplinary approach, which narrowly focuses on the products of writing in any given field, or a rhetorical/technical writing approach, which teaches writing but often ignores or only barely touches on the more specific needs of STEM. Bahls wanted his book to do both: teach necessary writing skills to college students, but acknowledge the real-world work of STEM disciplines. The book and his seminars on the subject have been well received at universities nationwide.


Bridging the gap between the STEM fields and the humanities, Bahls says, is important not only for preparing students for the workforce, but also for the world. “I think we do a disservice to our students and our society when we neglect the humanities,” he says. “Look at hiring practices, look at employers – they’re not just looking for technical skills. They’re looking for people with creativity and problem solving skills. Folks who eschew things like writing in their disciplines are doing everyone a disservice.”


Sarah Paterson is an English major at Elon University with a concentration in Professional Writing and Rhetoric. She is completing an undergraduate thesis about multicultural rhetoric in adolescent slam poetry.