Simplify, Then Simplify Again

Glenn Matsumura

Think of it as an "elevator talk." Someone in an elevator asks you what your research is about, and you have to respond in the time it takes to go from the lobby to the fifth floor.

That's the first conceptual step 120 graduate students will be asked to take in November, as they try to write 1,000-word statements about their doctoral work in language a nonspecialist would understand. They've all volunteered for the Integrating Research into the Teaching Environment program that aims to post the statements on Stanford department websites by early April.

Last year, 35 graduate students piloted IRITE, then known as CREATE. They signed on with the Center for Teaching and Learning and the Stanford Learning Laboratory (SLL) to get help in writing concisely and compellingly about their work--skills they need to complete dissertations and write grant proposals. Trading drafts with peers in different departments, they learned how to make their own research more accessible. One medical sciences essay, for example, was originally titled "Investigating Cytoskeletal Dynamics in the Development of

Epithelial Cell Polarity," before being recast as "How Do Cells Know Up from Down?"

"I think it's wonderful that at least some graduate students are learning to write comprehensibly for an audience of people outside their own disciplines," says Tom Wasow, professor of linguistics and philosophy.

Faculty members who volunteer to read and critique research statements written by students in fields other than their own play an important role in IRITE. "We expected they would be critical of students' efforts to simplify," says Rick Reis, co-director of the program and director for academic partnerships at SLL, and a consulting professor in electrical and mechanical engineering. "But faculty have told us, across the board, that they want even more simplifying. They make comments like, 'You haven't told me what an atom is.'" The broad appeal of IRITE is evident in the campuswide funding it is receiving from the School of Humanities and Sciences, the School of Earth Sciences and the School of Engineering. But the ultimate audience will be savvy undergraduate and high-school consumers.