Award-Winning Instructor Teaches Writing with Bugs

Instructor Sarah Parsons leads group of students walking down path
Sarah Parsons, an entomologist and lecturing fellow of the Thompson Writing Program, leads a Writing 101 class, "It's a Bug's World," on a field trip to forage for insects in an old Durham baseball field near central campus. Photos by Jared Lazarus, Duke University Communications

Earlier this fall, lecturing fellow Sarah Parsons took her writing students for a field trip with an interesting goal: studying insects. As the undergraduates set off searching for bugs in the woods and fields around Duke, they were tasked with working on their identification and research skills.

This might not sound like a typical Writing 101 course, but Parsons believes exercises like this enable her students to understand more about their writing topics and assignments.

“I think stuff sticks better with students when they actually have a little bit of an experiential learning component,” Parsons says.

Combining literal fieldwork with more traditional classroom learning is one way that Parsons aims to create an engaging learning experience for her students. And that work is being recognized by her peers.

A trained entomologist in addition to her role with the Thompson Writing Program, Parsons received the 2021 Excellence in Teaching Writing Award, given each year by the Thompson Writing Program to recognize exceptionally strong teachers of academic writing.

Parsons received her Ph.D. from North Carolina State University and her M.A. from the Duke Nicholas School of the Environment before joining the Thompson Writing Program in 2020. When not teaching, she researches the effects of urban land use on insect biodiversity.

Her Writing 101 course, “It’s a Bug’s World,” teaches students how to write more effectively within the sciences, using insects as a way to teach students about science and policy writing. Her focus on entomology draws students from across STEM subjects, and she uses policy memo writing assignments and guest speakers — including an N.C. state senator — to highlight real-world uses for those skills.

groups of students in the high grass catching bugs with nets

“My goal with the course,” Parsons says, “is really to get students not only comfortable with reading and dissecting scientific journal articles and learning some science writing basics, but also learning how to translate science to lots of different audiences.”

In past courses where she taught introductory biology and environmental science courses, Parsons felt a desire to teach her students the writing skills they would need to become skilled science communicators. But she didn’t always have the time to include those components in the time provided for a broad science survey course.

“I was thrilled to have the space when I came to here to actually spend time on teaching students science writing and helping them build those skills,” Parsons says.

That goal is exactly what the Thompson Writing Program’s 101 courses are meant to do: equip undergraduates with the writing skills they need to succeed in any academic program, as well as promote the critical inquiry necessary for their respective fields. Through first-year writing courses, instructors like Parsons are able to merge their enjoyment of specific disciplines and writing to show students the value of both.

Writing and research are the cornerstones of the Duke curriculum and vital for twenty-first century communication across media and contexts,” Director of the Thompson Writing Program Denise Comer notes. “While specific reading and writing projects vary by Writing 101 professor, all sections of Writing 101 share the same course goals,” which include not only the writing process but also learning how to situate writing within specific contexts and how to transfer writing knowledge beyond Writing 101.

“I’m a writer at heart,” Parsons says, describing her course as a melding of her two passions. “Most of my students don’t come into the class liking bugs. If you hopefully appreciate them a little more by the end of the course, then I’ve done my job.”