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English for Specific Pu~poses, Vol.12, pp. 51~7, 1993 0889-4906/93 $6.00 + .

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The R o l e o f Writing in G r a d u a t e
E n g i n e e r i n g Education: A Survey o f
Faculty B e l i e f s a n d P r a c t i c e s
S u s a n J e n k i n s , Mary Kaye Jordan, a n d
Patricia O. Weiland

A b s t r a c t - - The increasing number of science and technology graduate students

in ESP writing courses has encouraged debate about the timing, content, and
proper locus of such courses. This article analyzes questionnaire data from
faculty at six engineering schools to determine the role of writing in graduate
engineering programs and its implications for the design of writing courses.
Attitudes and beliefs of the faculty about the importance of writing skills, and
their practices to ensure that graduate students become proficient writers were
compared, and pedagogical implications discussed.

The increasing number of foreign graduate students in departments of en-
gineering in North American universities has far-reaching implications. Foreign
nationals, who now outnumber American students in graduate colleges of en-
gineering, the sciences, and mathematics, received 37.9% of the science and
engineering doctoral degrees awarded in 1991 (Leatherman 1992). Students
from South and East Asia constitute 54% of the total enrollment, with China as
the leading country of origin (Zikopoulous 1991). The American Association of
Engineering Societies reports that the national averages are 50.1% and 39.6%
for foreign nationals enrolled in PhD and master's degree programs, respec-
tively (Engineering Manpower Commission 1991). It is likely that these num-
bers will continue to increase, and that many will not return home. The Chi-
nese government, for example, has stated its concern about the very low
return rate - - often as low as 10% - - of students from major Chinese univer-
sities who are studying abroad ("Chinese Student Flow" 1990). Rather than
returning to their country of origin, these students are likely to become the
faculty members of the future in North American universities.
The engineering profession is, of course, well aware of the importance of
communication skills to professional engineers. A 1965 study revealed that
engineering graduates believed the most important skills for success in pro-
fessional careers in industry were related to communication: six out of the top
10 needs were communication skills, with the second highest rated skill (after
management practices) being technical writing (Middendorf 1980; also cited in
Huckin & Olsen 1984). The Writing Across the Curriculum movement has
been influential in encouraging engineering colleges to develop their own un-
dergraduate writing courses, often through cooperative efforts of both engi-

Address correspondence to: Susan Jenkins, 7916 Kimbee Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45244.

52 S. Jenkins et al.

neering and English department faculty (Brillhart & Debs 1983; Covington,
Brown, & Blank 1984; Dorman & Pruett 1985; O'Donoghue 1984; Selfe &
Arhabi 1983).
Perusal of the last several years of the American Society for Engineering
Education journals Prism and Engineering Education verifies that the major
thrust of the profession has been at the undergraduate level, while little em-
phasis has been placed on improving the communication skills of graduate
students. There is, however, some evidence that engineering faculty are un-
happy with the literacy skills of their graduate students. Bridgeman and Carl-
son (1983) studied the writing needs of entering graduate students in several
disciplines, including engineering. They reported the opinions of some engi-
neering faculty that "the thesis presents a major hurdle even though students
can successfully complete their first year doing little or no writing" and that
"many foreign students (and some native-speaking students) essentially have
their dissertations written for them; although the students provide the con-
ceptual framework, the actual writing is done by someone else" (p. 24). Their
study found that engineering faculty members believed that although writing
skills were not important to success in graduate school, they were very im-
portant for professional success after graduation.
All too often, the first contact ESP professionals have with engineering
students in writing classes occurs after they have begun to write their thesis
or dissertation. 1 If courses appropriate for writing and self-help skills are to be
developed, it is important to determine the attitudes of engineering faculty
members to the role of writing in the graduate program. Are graduate students
sent to writing courses for "a quick fix" of editorial and proofreading assistance,
or does the faculty support and emphasize the importance of writing opportu-
nities in all engineering courses for practice and long-term development of
technical writing skills? Just as undergraduate engineers need more than one
required freshman English composition class to become effective writers, so
do graduate students need more than the help of the ESP specialist who has
studied the genre of the discipline in order to consciously structure the writing
(Halpern 1984).
The study reported here has attempted to probe current practices in writing
in graduate engineering programs, and to elicit faculty attitudes about writing
needs in the field. Our goal was to explore the attitudes of engineering faculty
members about the importance of writing skills in the graduate program and
beyond. We consider this information to be vital to the development of appro-
priate graduate level technical writing courses.

R e v i e w of the Literature
The writing needs of advanced graduate students in science and technology
have received little attention, compared to those of undergraduates. Studies
providing us with detailed information about the type of writing required of

For brevity, the term thes/s will be used to refer to either a thesis or dissertation.
Writing in Engineering: Faculty Beliefs 53

science and technology students have, for the most part, focused on under-
graduate students (Braine 1989, 1990; Herrington 1985; Horowitz 1986; Johns
1981; KroU 1979; Ostler 1980). However, a few studies have examined the
writing requirements in professional engineering (postgraduate contexts) or in
graduate departments of science and engineering.
Winsor (1990) conducted a case study of one professional engineer's writing
of a paper in order to examine how engineers construct knowledge. She noted
that her subject worked mostly from written sources, such as progress and
technical reports several times removed from the original design experiment.
Much of the writing followed a fairly "typical" research paper format, suggest-
ing that engineers who go to work in Research and Development Divisions
must be prepared to write in this genre. She concluded that "writing is what
engineers do" and that the only difference between engineers and "the rest of
us" (humanities' faculty) is that engineers show "greater resistance to knowing
that language mediates experience" (p. 68).
West and Byrd (1982) examined writing assignments in graduate depart-
ments of engineering and found that the most common writing assignments
were examinations, problem solving, and technical research reports, with little
attention paid to proposals and progress reports. Bfidgeman and Carlson,
whose 1983 study included first-year graduate students in 190 academic de-
partments, determined that the most frequent writing assignments in engi-
neering departments were descriptions of laboratory experiments and techni-
cal reports, although civil engineering seemed to require longer papers than
other engineering departments.
Buell's (1991) interviews of engineering faculty at one university to deter-
mine the writing required of foreign engineering students in graduate programs
confirm the findings of Bridgeman and Carlson (1983). For example, in chem-
ical engineering "writing is not stressed in the coursework, and it is possible to
survive with almost no writing skills"; thus, "writing skills remain poor
throughout the entire two years of study" (p. 118). Consequently, the thesis
becomes a daunting task for the non-native-speaking (NNS) student. The same
professor claimed that after graduation there was a "tremendous demand" for
a variety of technical writing genres not previously encountered, often targeted
at a different, nontechnical audience (p. 119). However, little or no preparation
for postgraduate writing was provided.
Buell (1991) presents a definition of technical writing which may not have
been considered by ESP instructors. A typical technical writing assignment
involves problem solving by working through pages of equations in the process
of which students are required to explain their equations in sentences in order
to demonstrate their reasoning. The faculty informant defined this process as
"not composition, but rather technical writing, explaining equations on a sen-
tence to sentence basis" (p. 116). Writing was considered to be "the 'glue' that
holds the equations together" (p. 117). Braine (1989, 1990) cautions about the
danger of obtaining inaccurate data by imposing predetermined definitions of
writing tasks on other disciplines. Do ESP writing instructors consider such
"glue" as technical writing, or do they skim over it as mere mathematics?
54 s. Jenkins et al.

Interestingly, Casanave and Hubbard (1992) corroborate these findings with

comments from science and engineering faculty that longer graduate research
papers typically include many "charts, graphs, and computer printouts between
which bits of prose are sandwiched" (p. 37).
Casanave and Hubbard (1992) investigated the writing needs and problems
of doctoral students at Stanford University, including science and technology
students. Adapting the Bridgeman and Carlson (1983) questionnaire to focus
on the importance ascribed to writing as students advance through a doctoral
program, their findings indicated that writing does become important for sci-
ence and technology students towards the end of their program and that the
genre changes over time. At the beginning, definition and description are called
for, and it is only at the end of the program that a student needs to incorporate
existing sources into the writing. Even then, summarization rather than critical
analysis is demanded.
Just as the writing needs of graduate students in technological disciplines
have been scantily researched, there is an equal deficiency in proposed ap-
proaches to technical writing courses which are grounded in research. The
continuing debate about whether ESL faculty should teach discipline-specific
writing originates, in part, from lack of data about requirements of the disci-
plines (for differing perspectives on the debate, see Braine 1988; Huckin &
Olsen 1984; Johns 1988; Shih 1986; Spack 1988; Swales 1987).
The attitudes of science and technology faculty have frequently dictated the
direction of writing instruction. Elliot and Kilduff (1991) surveyed department
chairs and determined that colleges of engineering recognize the importance of
technical writing, particularly for employment after graduation, but still regard
the English department as the proper locus of writing courses. The department
chairs held very traditional views. Grammatical correctness was rated as being
as important as organization. It was felt that instructional methods should
emphasize lecture and discussion rather than peer review or collaborative
writing, and team teaching by humanities and technical faculty was considered
undesirable. Finally, there was a mismatch between the writing done in college
and after graduation. While the study targeted undergraduate writing require-
ments, it seems reasonable to believe that these attitudes are unlikely to differ
when the focus is graduate students. If ESP faculty hope to impact the quality
of writing of graduate students in engineering, then it is essential that we
understand perfectly the context in which the students work, and the attitudes
of their advisors and professors to their writing skills. This study is an attempt
to contribute to that knowledge.
The Questionnaire 2
The questionnaire used in the study was tested in a pilot study of engineer-
hag faculty at three midwestern universities (Weiland, Jenkins, Jordan, & Mc-

2 The questionnaire is available from the first author at College of Education, The University of Cincinnati,
Cincinnati, Ohio 45221-0002.
Writing in Engineering: Faculty Beliefs 55

Shane 1990). The revised version built upon and extended the survey devel-
oped by Bridgeman and Carlson (1983). 3 Because the main goal of our study
was to determine the kinds of writing experiences and skills graduate students
had acquired at the end of their programs (i.e., when they were ready to
graduate and enter the job market), the questionnaire included many more
items addressing the skills needed for thesis and dissertation writing, and the
publication of articles. The four sections of the questionnaire covered (a) fac-
ulty perceptions of features important to completion of a graduate program,
and subsequent career success, covering both content and writing skills; (b)
the frequency of various writing assignments and the weighting given to good
writing; (c) the amount of time invested by faculty advisors in bringing a thesis
to completion; and (d) the experiences of faculty in coauthoring and publishing
papers with their graduate students.

The Sample
The questionnaire was sent to engineering faculty at Cornell, Drexel, Ohio
University, Ohio State, Stanford University, and the University of Cincinnati.
These schools were chosen because they had large numbers of NNS graduate
students, and at each there was a contact person willing to assist in the
distribution and collection of the questionnaires. The percentage of foreign
graduate students in engineering at each school in the survey ranged from 50
to 88%. In total, 600 quite complex questionnaires were mailed, and 188, or
31%, were returned. Individual response rates for each university ranged from
21% to 50%. The final pool of usable questionnaires (some new assistant
professors returned blank forms claiming they had not yet had sufficient ex-
perience with graduate students) totaled 176.
Seventy percent of the respondents were tenured faculty. Forty-six percent
were full professors, 27% were associate (not all of them had achieved tenure),
and 27% were assistant professors. The majority (98%) had received their
PhDs at English-speaking universities, although only 75% were native speak-
ers of English. The majority of the respondents were senior faculty members.
Forty-three percent had been teaching for over 16 years, 31% from six to 15
years, and 26% from one to five years. They were obviously professors with
extensive experience in graduate engineering education.

Section I of the survey asked faculty members to judge how important, on
a scale of 1 (low importance) to 5 (high importance) they considered certain
features to be for graduation and subsequent career success in industry, busi-
ness, or academia. The list of features included general skills of graduate
technical education (features 1 through 6) and features specific to writing (9

3 Adapted and used by permission of Educational Testing Service, the copyright owner.
56 S. Jenkins et al.

through 27). Feature 22 was omitted from the analysis because a typographical
error made interpretation incomprehensible. Features 7, 8, and 25, which
asked respondents to write in their own suggestions, were also omitted be-
cause very few suggestions were offered.
The distribution of responses for all features was negatively skewed with
only a few responses rating the features as having low importance, or 1 and 2
on the scale. Table 1 reports the frequencies as a percentage of responses.
It is immediately obvious that virtually every feature was rated as having a
high degree of importance for graduate students at the end of their programs.
While the means for all features were on the high side of 3, the "of moderate
importance" evaluation, the engineering faculty still believed that writing was
more important to success after graduation than to success in the graduate
program (features 26 and 27). The difference in means was statistically signif-
icant: t(166) = 7.08, p < .0001. Bridgeman and Carlson (1983) had also

Ratings of Importance for Features of Graduate Study and Writing Skills (N = 173)

Importance (%)

Low Moderate High

Features (1-2) (3) (4-5)

General Features
1. Reading/un&rstanding relevant research
literature 0 1.7 98.3
2. Designing equipment 18.6 43.6 37.8
3. Running experiments 7.6 24.0 68.4
4. Recording data 10.5 25.1 64.3
5. Analyzing data 2.4 6.5 91.2
6. Developing models 2.3 12.8 84.9
Writing Skill Features (papers, reports, thesis, etc.)
9. Presenting ideas in a logical, organized manner 0 2.3 97.7
10. Logical connections between sentences,
paragraphs, and/or chapters 1.2 11.7 87.1
11. Stating the problem clearly 0.6 2.3 97.1
12. Making valid generalizations 1.2 10.7 88.2
13. Supporting ideas and claims with evidence from
research and/or the literature 0 5.3 94.7
14. Drawing valid conclusions based on the
student's own research 0 4.1 95.9
15. Overall writing ability 0.6 14.5 84.9
16. Quality of content 0 5.3 94.7
17. Quality of grammar and sentence structure 1.2 19.1 79.8
18. Appropriateness of vocabulary usage 2.9 22.2 74.9
19. Correctness of punctuation and spelling 9.3 24.9 65.9
20. Ability and willingness to correct and edit
own writing 0.6 11.7 87.8
21. Using original language (avoiding plagiarism) 3.0 14.9 82.1
23. Documenting sources accurately and completely 1.8 13.5 84.8
24. Using the library 3.4 15.5 82.2
26. How important is writing skill to success in your
department ? 7.0 20.5 72.5
27. How important is writing skill to success in your
field after graduation? 1.2 10.6 88.2
Writing in Engineering: Faculty Beliefs 57

reported a noticeable difference in responses to these questions from the

engineering faculty in their survey. This suggests that there may be a differ-
ence between beliefs about the importance of writing, and educational practices
in ensuring that competent writing skills are developed during the course of a
graduate program so that a master's or doctoral graduate can write well after
A final question in Section I of the questionnaire asked the respondents
whether they evaluated the writing of native- and non-native-English-speaking
graduate students by the same standards. Sixty-four percent indicated that
they used the same standards, compared to Bridgeman and Carlson's figure of
69%. Thirty-six percent of the faculty said that they used different standards,
and although there was no provision at this point in the survey for open-ended
comments, several wrote comments such as "I try to, but it's impossible." In
fact, the only feature not chosen as an area for different evaluation was number
6 (developing models). Table 2 displays the major features singled out by the
respondents to receive more lenient evaluation standards.
Clearly, when different standards are used, it is most often the sentence
level features that are evaluated more leniently; namely, grammar, vocabulary
use, punctuation, and spelling. Approximately one quarter of the faculty sur-
veyed made allowances in these areas. However, 21% do not use the same
standards for the overall writing ability of non-native English speakers, and this
category includes discourse level features, where too many violations could
reasonably be expected to interfere with meaning. Thirteen percent of re-
sponses indicated that faculty do not expect non-native speakers of English to
be able to correct their own work, which has implications for the amount and
type of rewriting that faculty and students engage in.
Sections II and III of the questionnaire addressed the frequency and type of
writing assignments in engineering graduate programs, the time spent by fac-
ulty on theses, and indications given to students by the college and faculty that
writing skills are important.
The most frequently assigned writing tasks were "reports that require tech-

Writing Standards Evaluated Differently for Non-Native Speakers of English as
Percentages of Total Faculty Sample
Writing skills feature evaluated differently %

9. Presenting ideas in organized way 7

10. Logical connections 13
11. Stating problem clearly 7
15. Overall writing ability 21
16. Quality of content 5
17. Grammar/sentence structure 25
18. Appropriate vocabulary 24
19. Punctuation and spelling 22
20. Ability to self-correct own work 13
21. Avoiding plagiarism 7
26. Importance of writing for department 11
58 S. Jenkins et al.

nical writing skills," "laboratory reports or descriptions of experiments," and

"term projects," assigned once or twice per quarter or semester. Essay ques-
tions on exams, or proposals, were generally not assigned. Horowitz (1986)
and Braine (1989, 1990) cautioned that questionnaire studies may be imprecise
in determining the nature of writing tasks in certain disciplines because the
writers of the questionnaires (ESL faculty) tend to impose their own schemata
on genres with which they have only a superficial familiarity. There is some
indication that this was still a problem even after the pilot study, and it is
possible that the descriptors are too general. For example, two respondents
wrote comments to the effect that the writing of proposals was exclusively a
faculty task, alluding to procuring funding for research, whereas we had as-
sumed that graduate students would be engaged in writing their thesis pro-
posals in small increments over time.
Space was provided in the questionnaire for faculty to describe their own
writing tasks if the categories provided did not reflect their practices. Only 16
chose to do so. The descriptions ranged from the very broad and general - -
"papers," "thesis" - - to refinements of the given categories - - "research
project progress reports" - - to genres that had not been included in the
questionnaire. The latter provided the most interesting data, supporting
Braine's (1989, 1990) and Buell's (1991) evidence that genres in science and
technology must be carefully investigated before labels are assigned since they
differ even within the field itself. Write-in descriptions of tasks included several
examples of the "glue" function of writing. This genre was noted in two specific
examples: first, mathematical solutions to complex problems extending over
several pages in which every step had to be explained, and all assumptions
stated; and second, written conclusions associated with a computer program-
ming project. These genres are probably unfamiliar to the majority of ESP
faculty, but if they are indeed typical, must be considered in dialogue with
engineering faculty to develop graduate writing courses that meet student
When written work was submitted for evaluation, the faculty indicated that
they did take the quality of writing into consideration. Table 3 summarizes
responses to the questions probing the actions of the college and faculty that
send clear messages to the students that "writing matters."
Responding faculty indicated that they penalize poor writing by reducing

Indications From College/Faculty That Writing Is Important
% of Responses
College/facultyrequirement Yes No
Student must demonstrate proficiencyin writing before graduation 19 81
Technicalwriting course is offeredby college 33 67
Advisor refuses to sign-offon thesis if writing is poor 89 11
Grade for a poorlywritten paper is reduced 81a 19
Final course grade is reduced when written assignments are of poor quality 69b 31
a Average reductionfor a paper = 10.5%. bAveragereductionfor a course grade = 9%.
Writing in Engineering: Faculty Beliefs 59

grades, or by refusing to sign a technically competent thesis in which the

quality of writing is below standard. However, very few reported requiring
students to demonstrate their proficiency in writing through a specific writing
test or course. In fact, those who checked "yes" went on to explain that the
thesis itself was the required demonstration. Furthermore, most writing
courses are offered by the English or ESL Department. It seems, therefore,
that although the faculty will not accept poor writing, very little effort is made
by the faculty to require students to write regularly.
Part III of the questionnaire attempted to explore the question of how much
writing the faculty actually do themselves for a student's thesis. Table 4 sum-
marizes the data.
Table 4 clearly demonstrates that, as might be expected, a much greater
investment of time and energy is expended by faculty on a NNS student's
thesis. The PhD degree obviously is regarded as requiring more faculty time,
as revealed in the number of hours faculty spend on the drafts. It must be noted
that these figures supposedly reflect only the time spent correcting the drafts,
not time spent in discussing the research in the initial stages, or any other
activities typical of the student-advisor relationship prior to writing. Responses
varied considerably in the amount of time devoted to the drafts, as indicated in
the standard deviations for the number of hours and percentage of writing
contributed by the advisors. We can only speculate on the reasons for such a
high variability, but it seems highly likely that individual faculty tolerance and
willingness to commit time to both NS and NNS students would be quite
idiosyncratic. Also, these data reflect what the faculty believe they do. Perhaps
there is exaggeration here in both the minimum and maximum times reported.
With both native speakers (NSs) of English and NNS students, faculty mem-
bers committed more than twice the number of hours to doctoral level writing,
although there was only a slight difference in the number of drafts required for
each degree. For NS students, there was no significant difference in the per-
centage of writing done by the advisor for either a master's or PhD document.
For both degrees, advisors wrote just over 10% of the thesis.

Average Investment in Thesis in Number of Drafts Required, Time Spent in Hours,
and Percentage of Writing Done by Advisor
MS Degree PhD Degree

Investment in thesis M SD n M SD n

Native Speakers of English

Number of drafts required 2.5 0.9 130 2.7 1.0 106
Hours spent on drafts 12.7 12.0 126 27.7 30.0 101
% of writing by advisor 12.2 11.0 127 11.0 11.0 103
Non-Native Speakers of English
Number of drafts required 3.7 1.4 133 4.0 2.0 108
Hours spent on drafts 21.0 20.0 127 42.2 49.0 104
% of writir.g by advisor 27.5 22.0 131 24.2 20.0 106

Note. M = average number of hours spent.

60 S. Jenkins et al.

On the other hand, the work expended by advisors for the theses of NNS
students was substantially greater. More drafts were required from the non-
native speaker. Most significant, however, was the percentage of writing - -
over 25% - - that the faculty did themselves. In addition, the mean number of
hours spent on a NNS MS thesis is only slightly less than the time spent on a
NS PhD. As one faculty member wrote, "supervising non-native speakers of
English on an MS thesis is not worth the effort required," which substantiates
the claim reported by Bridgeman and Carlson (1983: 24) that many foreign
students have their thesis, or at least a substantial portion of it, written for
Since thesis research in engineering is usually grant supported and is often
published as a jointly authored paper in a refereed journal, the final section of
the questionnaire, in addition to collecting demographic information about the
respondents, asked about their practices in coauthoring and publishing papers
with graduate students. The mean number of papers coauthored with graduate
students was between five and six. The most prevalent practice in coauthoring
was that the student wrote the initial draft and the faculty member then edited
and rewrote as necessary. Fifty-four percent operated in this mode. Thirty
percent of the respondents used a combination of methods. They either wrote
the paper themselves or had the student write the initial draft. When asked to
explain their usual format for coauthoring, these respondents usually replied
that their decision was based entirely on the writing proficiency of the student.
If the student was judged to be competent, then he or she wrote the initial
paper; otherwise, the faculty member wrote the paper. Since only 16% re-
ported having written the paper themselves, the overall burden of the writing
and editing was on the student, even though the student would have had little
prior instruction or experience in writing in this genre.
Estimates of the amount of rewriting on coauthored papers revealed signif-
icant differences between rewriting practices for NS and NNS students. For
NS students, the faculty responded that they rewrote between 11 and 30% of
the paper, whereas for NNS students the mean was 31 to 50%. This is a
statistically significant difference: t(l13) 10.8, p < .0001. It is evident that,
once again, considerably more writing of student research is done by the
faculty advisor when publishing with NNS students.
Some studies have shown that new assistant professors tend to respond
more critically to the work of non-native speakers of English than older, more
experienced and tenured faculty (Santos 1988; Vann, Meyer, & Lorenz 1984).
In order to determine whether our findings varied according to faculty rank and
tenure, analyses of variance (ANOVAs) were computed for several measures
where there was a possibility that responses might be influenced by experience
or the pressures of tenure and promotion.
So far as frequency of writing assignments was concerned, all analyses of
differences due to academic rank were nonsignificant. Similarly, there were no
significant differences among the professional ranks on the number of hours
spent working on drafts of the thesis. ANOVA of differences among ranks in
the percentage of rewriting of a thesis, however, revealed that there were
Writing in Engineering: Faculty Beliefs 61

some significant differences involving contrasts between assistant professors

and full professors: assistant professors tended to rewrite more than full pro-
fessors: F(2, 99) = 3.1, p < .05. The difference in this very small F is that
assistant professors do 16% of the rewriting, whereas full professors do only
9%. There was also a trend, although not statistically significant, for assistant
professors to do more rewriting for NNS students in MS programs (p < .06).
Assistant professors rewrote 36% of the thesis, compared with 24% for full
professors. For PhD NNS students, assistant professors rewrote 37% com-
pared with associate professors, who rewrote 23% of the thesis: F(2, 102) =
2.9, p < .05. It seems, therefore, that younger faculty are somewhat less
tolerant of poor communication than older, tenured faculty. However, an
equally plausible reason for the difference might be attributed to the pressure
on untenured faculty to have students graduate and to publish the research. 4
One associate professor actually seemed to acknowledge that the faculty drive
to publish was the major reason for improving graduate student writing skills:
"A technical writing course would be extremely valuable. It would greatly
enhance my publication productivity as well as help the student."

It is our belief that this study has contributed important information to the
understanding of the role of writing in graduate engineering education. Al-
though we hesitate to generalize because only six schools were surveyed, the
attitudes and practices of engineering faculty with regard to writing skills con-
firm the findings of previous studies, and point the way to further needed
research as a basis for designing appropriate writing courses.
In the first place, the fact that there is some discrepancy between the high
standards for acceptable writing reported by engineering faculty and their
practices to ensure that their students can produce the same high quality is
telling. In general, students did not have to demonstrate that their written
English was competent either by test, writing course, or other means, and
written assignments were given only once or twice each term. The fact that a
few respondents offered "thesis" or "dissertation" as additional, alternative
choices for required departmental writing tasks suggests that for many, the
thesis is indeed the only extended piece of writing ever required. It appears
that for the engineering programs surveyed in this study, writing experiences
were not an integral part of the graduate program, with the result that students
are expected to learn to write by themselves or after graduation. As in related
studies (Bridgeman & Carlson 1983; Buell 1991; Elliot & Kilduff 1991), the
data here suggest that there is a wide gap between writing demands before and
after graduation.

4 A reviewer of this paper has pointed out that the questionnaire data show only what professors report doing.
It may be that assistant professors are so overwhelmed by this new aspect of their roles that they think they are
doing much more rewriting than they actually are.
62 S. Jenkins et al.

The data revealed that 21% of the faculty surveyed expected less in terms
of overall writing ability from NNS students (see Table 2). This figure is slightly
higher than that reported by Chase and Wakefield (1984), who found, in a
survey of the grading practices and standards of faculty at one institution, that
14% reported using more lenient standards in their evaluation of foreign stu-
dents. It may be that such responses stem from a belief that the NNS students
will return home and will have no need for English writing skills. The reality,
however, as indicated earlier, is that many foreign nationals (e.g., Chinese
students) remain to live and work in the U.S. ("Chinese Student Flow" 1990).
Furthermore, English is the universal language of international science and
technology journals (Swales 1987). Considering that the faculty sample for this
survey consisted of 25% non-native speakers of English, but that 98% of them
had earned their degrees at English-speaking universities, and assuming the
continuing trend for American undergraduates not to continue to graduate
school in engineering, then the faculty of the future for North American uni-
versities will increasingly consist of NNSs. Colleges of engineering need to
recognize this fact by addressing the importance of writing skills in the grad-
uate curriculum in order to provide equal employment opportunities and quality
education to all.
A further discrepancy between claims of high standards and the reality of
practice was revealed by the willingness of engineering faculty to rewrite major
portions of the theses themselves: about 11% for native speakers of English,
and 25% for non-native speakers. Responses suggest that the faculty were
unhappy at the enormous demands on their time and resources. The following
quotation best summarizes the frustrations expressed in several comments:

I havehad both MSc and PhD studentsin the past that havebeen so Is/c]poor
writers that in the end, after numerousrevisions, I have had to give up and
essentiallywritethe thesismyself.I couldnot affordto pay the studentsmonth
after monthon research contractsand get nothingback.

The drive for tenure and promotion may explain the tendency for younger
assistant professors to do more rewriting for the student; in many cases, as the
quotation above indicates, it is easier to do the writing for the student.
The complexity of the problem can also be recognized in other comments
concerning the lifestyle of some foreign students: "Of my foreign students,
those who lived and associated with native speakers of English benefited the
most from writing courses. Writing courses by themselves are not enough."
The lack of interaction with English speakers has become a problem for many
Asian students in engineering departments. Since they are often in the major-
ity, they rarely need to use English in everyday communication (Shaw 1991).
This study has also indicated that the reservations of Horowitz (1986) and
Braine (1989, 1990) about questionnaire data may be valid. Assignments de-
scribed by the faculty in this study certainly included genres that were not
considered in the questionnaire design. But sometimes the writing tasks de-
scribed by the engineering faculty were often unhelpfully vague (papers, the-
Writing in Engineering: Faculty Beliefs 63

sis), indicating that we cannot comfortably rely on them to describe their

genres as accurately as we would wish. However, data from the pilot study in
which the questionnaire was tested indicated that the engineering faculty un-
derstood and felt comfortable with the categories provided; thus, we believe
the data to be reliable.
Written comments supplied by the respondents indicate that terminology
may be problematic in a dialogue between ESP and engineering faculty, the
former having no expertise in technical fields and the latter no expertise in
discourse analysis. Those who offered comments tended to use words such as
clarity and thinking to describe writing patterns. One argued that the feature
"making valid generalizations" concerned logic rather than English; another
wrote, "the problem isn't writing per se, it is thinking. I find the same muddle
in written and oral presentations. The core of research is drawing clarity from
chaos." Yet another said,

Correcting syntax mistakes is not the problem - - this can be done rapidly by
relatively untrained people in the specialty. The real concern is in making valid
choices about what goes into a paper, how it is organized, what the conclusions
are, and which ones are valid and which should be qualified. I find that all of these
aspects are much worse for non-native speakers and are generally worst for

These statements simply underscore the fact that a person may have ex-
cellent knowledge of a language but be unable to identify objectively the lan-
guage functions that mark logical relationships for "clarity." There is obviously
a need both to explore exactly what engineering faculty mean when they use
seemingly vague and nontechnical terms about writing, and to be sensitive to
the obtuseness of our own "jargon" in dialogue with engineering faculty.

Pedagogical Implications
When engineering departments do not, on the whole, make writing an in-
tegral part of graduate education, what can the ESL faculty do? Most writing
courses for undergraduate engineering students are still offered by English or
ESL departments (Elliot & Kilduff 1991); thus it is highly likely that those
departments are also regarded as the proper milieu for graduate writing
courses. Such undergraduate courses offer general writing skills, but the en-
gineering faculty often seem to regard ESL faculty as "relatively untrained
people" who can correct syntax errors, but have little else to offer. A frequent
complaint is that grades in ESL writing courses do not reflect the student's
ability to write competent technical English. Some claim that content-based
writing may be more successful than general purpose English in developing
writing skills (Shih 1986; Snow & Brinton 1988), although others feel that ESL
faculty should not teach discipline-specific writing (Spack 1988).
This diversity of opinion indicates that much more groundwork has to be
done. Braine (1990) suggests that undergraduate writing courses should de-
emphasize the research paper and concentrate more on summary and para-
64 S. Jenkins et al.

phrase skills. Casanave and Hubbard (1992: 45) found that writing increases in
importance as graduate students advance through their programs, and advo-
cate delaying writing courses for some students "until they are ready to write
in their content classes". But our data indicate that graduate students never do
a great deal of writing in their content classes; thus, if these students do not
learn to write research papers as undergraduates, they may never have the
opportunity to learn to write them in graduate school. Delaying writing courses
will simply ensure that ESL faculty will inevitably fail in the task of helping
these students to become competent writers.
Before the question of who should teach discipline-specific writing can be
answered, there is a need for far more research into the different genres of
writing within engineering, as this study has attempted to do. We obviously
need to build bridges and work cooperatively with engineering faculty. In an
enlightened atmosphere of respect for the two fields of expertise, we need to
convey the message that end-of-program "quick fix" courses are inappropriate
both for the development of writing skills in the student, and for exploiting the
professional expertise of the ESP writing instructor. At the same time, we
need to admit to the engineering faculty that our knowledge of what they define
as technical writing is still vague and inaccurate, and solicit their help as we
analyze their genres. In this endeavor, while the burden will almost certainly be
on the ESL faculty to initiate and nurture the cooperation, there is an equal
burden on the engineering faculty to recognize that writing experts have far
more to offer than editing and proofreading skills, and that one does not have
to be an expert in a certain specialization to recognize faulty reasoning.
The potential for cooperative ventures is enormous in scope. Although Elliot
and Kilduff (1991) found little enthusiasm for team-taught writing courses for
undergraduates, some engineering faculty might be convinced that such a
venture would drastically reduce the enormous rewriting time on theses. Oth-
ers might not feel competent to teach, but would be willing to read drafts of
papers in order to comment on the content of writing, taking responsibility for
such questions as whether the student had included all important sources, or
whether the conclusions were reasonable in light of the data. Once such liai-
sons, and mutual respect, have been established, it should be possible to
convince engineering faculty that everyone benefits if writing is made an inte-
gral part of graduate engineering programs.

(Received September 1992)

Acknowledgments - - We are grateful to Greg Barnes, Debra Campbell, Phil
Hubbard, and Zita McShane for their willingness to distribute questionnaires.
Thanks also to two anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments.


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Susan Jenkins is an Assistant Professor and Director of the ESL Program

at the University of Cincinnati. She has presented and published articles on
Writing in Engineering: Faculty Beliefs 67

literacy in higher education and the professions, and ITA training. She teaches
graduate courses in TESL and ESL.

Mary Kaye Jordan is a lecturer in the Ohio Program of Intensive English

at Ohio University. She has presented on many aspects of ESL writing and is
developing technical writing courses at Ohio University.

Patrieia O. Weiland has an MS in Foreign Language Education from Ohio

State University. As an Academic Program Specialist in ESL at Ohio State, she
works with postadmissions students in composition and TA training. She has
taught in Western Europe, the Mediterranean, and Japan.