Writing About Global Science for the International Media, with Claudia Dreifus

MS in Sustainability Management Faculty Claudia Dreifus

Claudia Dreifus, a New York Times columnist and MS in Sustainability Management faculty member, is known internationally for her unusual interviews with scientists, policymakers, and international figures.

Professor Dreifus answered our questions about her course, Writing About Global Science for the International Media, which will take place on Monday and Wednesday evenings from 6:10 PM to 8:00 PM starting on Monday, July 2nd. In her course, she will emphasize developing practical skills with real world applications. Using the diverse possibilities of New York City as a base, students are encouraged to develop the skills they will need to produce magazine articles from international locales.

“Writing About Global Science for the International Media” is an unusual course for the Master’s in Sustainability Management Program to be offering. How did the course come to be?

For the last 19 years, I’ve worked as the interviewer of the Tuesday Science Section of the New York Times—talking to scientists and policy makers about what they do and how they do it.

I came to science journalism from the world of political and cultural reporting and one of the first things I noticed about scientists was that they did really interesting things, but were often terrible at telling the world their marvelous stories. It struck me that one of the reasons for the widespread hostility to science in our culture was due to this type of mal-communication. And I thought I could help.

My idea was: teach science and sustainability students how to do science journalism and perhaps they could get to tell their own stories in their own voices.

As internet use advanced in the early 2000s, it was clear that people would be able to publish their stories without the intermediaries of editors and print publishers. Blogging and opinion websites like Medium, the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast, were growing ever more popular. Newspapers and magazines were soliciting outside opinion writers like never in history.

So given these new opportunities, the question was—could science and sustainability practitioners get skills that would win audiences? Academic writing is really different than popular writing. I thought it might be a great thing if I could show folks how to do the latter.

Well, I took the idea to Steve Cohen, then executive director of the Earth Institute, who was enthusiastic. Steve is a stunningly creative educator and I think he likes to do surprising things in his programs. He said, “I always wanted to offer a course like this.”

“Could science and sustainability practitioners get skills that would win audiences? Academic writing is really different than popular writing. I thought it might be a great thing if I could show folks how to do the latter.”

So in the Spring of 2008, we offered the class for the first time. That year, it was based in the EEEB [Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology] program and a lot of conservation biology students enrolled. Two years later, when Steve and Louise Rosen founded the Masters in Sustainability Management program, we were among the initial offerings. I ended up giving two versions of the class every year. There’s the long-form edition in the Spring and then there’s a short souped-up version that we give as part of “Q” session in July and early August. It’s really the same class as the Spring semester, but on steroids!

What do you do in the course?

Journalism. Science journalism. We talk about what makes it different from business writing or academic writing and then the students go out and do it. Over a semester, they’ll do real op-eds, profiles, investigative stories. They’ll cover events and do interviews with scientists, often Earth Institute scientists. And because the course is designed to be practical, I show folks how they can get their work published, and that can (and does) happen.

Alums have been published in the New York Times, in Science Times, Science, Consilience, BuzzFeed, and … ta-rah, State of the Planet.

A couple of years ago, one student, Wendy Hapgood, did an investigative piece on illegal ivory sales in New York City antique stores. Her work, apparently, ended up as part of a legal action. As part of an eventual settlement with one ivory dealer, a New York judge ordered the dealer to make a six-figure donation to Wendy’s NGO, the Wild Tomorrow Fund. So … that wasn’t exactly “publication,” but it was an interesting end-result for a class project.

If one isn’t going to become a science journalist, why should I take your course?

Because these are skills that will be useful to scientists and sustainability professionals for the rest of their lives.

Steve Cohen likes to say that the SUMA [Sustainability Management] program is built for “practical idealists.” Well, if you want to impact your world with your science, then it’s useful to know how to do an op-ed that is likely to get published. Or write a blog post that strangers will want to read. Or, even an attention-getting press release. Today’s scientist often has to be a bit of an advocate. Writing communicative prose can be a big help in that.

Several of my sustainability students have told me that they were able to get jobs because they could show press clippings of their classwork. Their employers wanted people who’d proved they could do successful science communication. Now, another reason to take the class is that we have a lot of fun.

Do you have to write well to take this class?

You have to want to write well. But writing is a skill like anything else and it takes practice. I’ve been amazed though how much better most students get over a short period of time, especially if they’re enthusiastic.

For SUMA alumni and for current students in several of the Earth Institute master’s degree programs, there’s a special adjunctive service to the course where I’ll look at a piece of already written work and offer one or two coaching sessions. In the fall semester, I’ll also give an all-day science journalism workshop, which will be about the basics. We did one last spring which was just as well-subscribed and I think, successful. Both services are free, through the SUMA program. If they interest any of the readers here, the EI contact to make arrangements is Natalie Unwin-Kuruneri. She’s at natalie@ei.columbia.edu.

Tell us, a little about yourself. How did you become a science journalist?

I spent most of my career as a political and cultural reporter, but in 1999, I joined Science Times as their interviewer. I think the editor, Cory Dean, hired me because I knew little science and she thought I could approach my interviews without insider’s jargon and bias.

In a way, she wanted someone who would tackle these fascinating subjects with the same kind of amateur’s curiosity that our readers have. Of course, I fell in love with the beat. Over the years, I’ve published Conversations with … Stephen Hawking, E.O. Wilson, Naomi Oreskes, Rita Colwell, Brenda Milner, Paul Greengard, many, many others—Elizabeth Colbert. Betsy Colbert was kind enough once to come to class and meet the students.

My first Science Times interview was in 1999 with then Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royale of Great Britain. These days, he’s Lord Martin Rees of Ludlow. He’s got a book coming out in the fall. On the Future: Prospects for Humanity. I’ll be interviewing him live on-stage at the 92nd Street Y in late October. That’s one of my current gigs. I produce and moderate a series of live interviews with scientists, “Science Talks,” for the Y. In addition to my Science Times chores, I’ve just started doing a monthly interview feature for the New York Review of Books’ The Daily. So yeah, I keep busy.

Actor Alan Alda, MS in Sustainability Management faculty Claudia Dreifus and PBS host Neil Shubin during the “How Science Can Save Us; How We Can Save Science” event at the 92Y.

Do you ever not work?

Hmnn…I do have a private life. I’m married to the political scientist, Andrew Hacker. We have a dog, a rather elegant Cairn terrier named Elvis we are both obsessed with. But mostly, I write and I teach and I teach and I write. Teaching the practical idealists of the Sustainability Management program is a great joy. It’s marvelous to be able to transfer skills and to help smart people gain more of a voice for their ideas. There’s nothing I’d rather do.

Claudia Dreifus will be offering Writing About Global Science for the International Media this summer, beginning on July 2nd.

The call number for the course in the Columbia Directory of Classes is 27196. If you have any specific questions about the contents of the course, please reach out to Professor Dreifus at cd2106@columbia.edu.

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. Visit our website to learn more.

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One thought on “Writing About Global Science for the International Media, with Claudia Dreifus

  1. homeia says:

    “Could science and sustainability practitioners get skills that would win audiences? Academic writing is really different than popular writing. I thought it might be a great thing if I could show folks how to do the latter.” ..I do agree with you! thanks for informative share !

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