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ILP Institute Insider

May 25, 2015

Revising Ideas about Writing

Kim Vaeth helps bridge the gap between presenting information and communicating ideas.

Alice McCarthy

The casual observer may believe that writing is a solitary act. But Kim Vaeth would tell you that no one should write alone – certainly not if you are one of her students. At an institution known for its leadership in engineering and science, Vaeth’s role is to teach MIT students how to communicate clearly as writers and speakers as they analyze, argue, and structure ideas.

Kim Vaeth
MIT Lecturer
Comparative Media Studies/Writing
Since 2001, all MIT undergraduates have been required to fulfill a communication requirement by completing four communication-intensive subjects across the curriculum. Vaeth, a member of the Comparative Media Studies Department since 2004, and most recently of the Writing, Rhetoric and Professional Communication Program (WRAP), believes that this Institute-wide requirement benefits students’ careers beyond MIT.

“One of the most exciting things from my perspective has been the Institute’s commitment to teaching communication across the entire curriculum,” says Vaeth. It means that students taking physics, chemical engineering, math, political science, and history courses all engage in writing practices with the same intensity. Vaeth helps students to understand the difference between simply presenting information and successfully communicating their ideas to different audiences.

“Whatever the subject — philosophy or computer science — complex ideas need to be communicated clearly to those who may not share the writer’s knowledge,” she explains.

Communication an Essential Skill
Feedback from MIT alumni finds that expertise in communication principles and practices — that is, knowing how to write and speak clearly and compellingly in both formal and informal situations — is critical in the work landscape long after they leave MIT. “They report that they wished they had dedicated more of their time and effort to learning how to argue effectively with evidence, how to write and speak more purposefully, and how to address the needs of their various audiences,” says Vaeth. “Many undergraduates had not anticipated the degree that writing with and for others would matter in their professional lives.”

Vaeth asks writers to think about two things: their purpose and their intended audience. She teaches writing as a set of concepts and processes that are transferable across disciplines and rhetorical situations. This played out in an STS (Science, Technology and Society) course called “Science Communication” where students consider how to best communicate issues of climate change or neuroscience in real-world contexts such as op-eds, written for the general public, as well as policy briefs, written for professionals in the field. Like most scientists, they worked both communally in teams as well as individually. Her teaching extends and builds on students’ understanding of writing as a process that involves critical review from their peers as a necessary component of revision.

Ongoing Dialogue
If, as Vaeth would argue, writing proceeds from thinking — from working through intellectual issues with feedback from others — then how to convey that thinking to others is always on the front burner. Vaeth’s teaching model includes several one-on-one conferences between herself and each student. The one-on-one conference is where she believes a different kind of learning happens.

“Conversations with an engaged listener can incite thinking and help to articulate that initial thinking,” she says. Over time, these collaborative conferences make it evident that writing is a process of iterative steps, not a one-off endeavor. “By the second or third conference accompanied by the kind of feedback and follow-up revision involved, students take greater ownership of the development of their ideas and see their ideas becoming part of a larger conversation in that particular field.”

Vaeth realizes that many MIT graduates go on to work in companies where they interact with various audiences on a daily basis. As a first step in effective communication, Vaeth teaches students to assess the needs of any audience. Addressing those needs can then determine both the strategy for what is said and how it is said.

“With an awareness of your audience, you have a greater opportunity to persuade,” she says. For most of us, it’s a big shift to consider what someone else needs to know before we think about what we want to say. Focusing on what matters to a group’s specific concerns or pain points can change outcomes.” For example, Vaeth worked with field managers at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) whose reports would determine what became actionable responses by the legal department. She coached the managers to think about what the EPA lawyers would need to know first in order to weigh whether legal action was warranted.

Working with ILP Members
Vaeth enjoys introducing her communications consultancy to ILP members. “They definitely see that poor communication — at every level of the organization — is costly, that it creates misunderstandings, alienates clients, lowers productivity, and impedes careers,” she says. “They see what gets lost in translation.”

Vaeth realizes that while most companies care a great deal about staying on top of new ideas, more often than not, many see the practice of communication in a unilateral way that sources it solely to their human resources or marketing/PR groups. “But I would ask: What happens when the brilliant systems engineer understands the problems his audience confronts? What happens when the software engineer can effectively frame and convey her objectives to clients and co-workers? What happens when the business analyst or strategy consultant can tell ‘stories’ about data with attention to motivation and purpose?” The answer is more likely to be superior communication and business outcomes.