Yes, this one:
Many (most?) of my friends have sent me this video over the past week, and I’ve got to be honest. I think it’s funny. As a language lover and someone who is sick to death of the original “Blurred Lines” song, I got a genuine kick out of the parody. Every. Single. Time. But after a colleague suggested that it might be my theme song (which don’t get me wrong, I also thought was funny), I thought it might be time to set the record straight about my take on word crimes (the acts, not the video).
I have a reputation as a grammar ninja, and it’s well-deserved. I make punctuation-shaped pancakes for National Grammar Day. I might never live down my infamous lab meeting rant about “comprised of”, or that time I wrote a sharply worded letter to a publisher about the shoddy copyediting of an overpriced textbook. I have strong opinions about the Oxford comma, my dictionary has a permanent thumb streak across the fore edge, and I keep more than one style guide within an arm’s reach. It drives me crazy that Tim Hortons, named after Tim Horton, doesn’t have an apostrophe. I use it to justify my Starbucks addiction. I’m not proud of that.
But it’s exceedingly rare that I’ll actually step in, uninvited, to correct someone’s grammar. I’m not one of those trolls that goes around stuffing asterisks into online message boards, and I don’t expect polished prose in your Facebook posts. Complete sentences are encouraged, of course, but I’m still your friend, aren’t I?
Every so often, I get an email from someone who points out that they spent more time proofreading their message than writing it, for fear I might go off the rails at the first misplaced comma. Relax, would you? YOU are not the publisher of my overpriced textbook! (I’m still your friend, aren’t I?)
Even when I am asked to edit something formally, it’s a process, not a prescription. There are some things that are clearly black and white, correct or incorrect, but most of the time — and this is part of the fun of being a writer — you have some choices about which rules to follow and how closely. My job as an editor is to help you decide, based on your intent, which choice is most appropriate in that situation. The context is really important here. More often than not, if you ask me a grammar question, my response is going to start with, “Well, it depends…”
I love that about grammar, and about writing and editing in general. It’s flexible. You can play with it. You can make it do things that the rules say you shouldn’t be able to do. (Take that, quantum physics!) And if it doesn’t work out the first time, you fix it. Not a big deal. The only “word crime” I truly and deeply believe in is the one that keeps people from saying what they mean to say because they’re too afraid of saying it “incorrectly.” Grammar exists to support expression, not to silence it.
Let me say that again, because this is the thing you never learned in English class: Grammar exists to support expression, not to silence it.
Honestly, go…have fun, break the rules, make mistakes, find an editor who will steer you just straight enough to help you say what you really mean. (Editors like that are gold, and are seriously worth trading your pet unicorn for.)
There’s only one caveat here, and I’m serious on this one. You have to know your audience. If you’re writing a business letter that breaks all the rules of business style, don’t be shocked if people correct you (if they pay attention to you at all). If you want to communicate — and presumably in writing you do — you need to be mindful of the reader’s expectations. Your credibility with your audience is a valuable thing; don’t undermine it with carelessness. The grammar ninjas will be watching…
I like commencement speeches. Before you roll your eyes, let me qualify that. Yes, some commencement speeches are cliched and syrupy, and some have all the lasting substance of soap bubbles in a porcupine pen. I get that. And I’ll admit, I don’t even remember the speeches at my own ceremonies, not because they were inherently bad, but because there’s a lot going through a person’s mind on convocation day, the most pressing of which (for me, anyway) is not tripping over my own feet and going splat in all my newly minted, technicolor penguin glory.
But I like the idea of commencement speeches. Most years, there are one or two that resonate with me in some way, but precious few that I’ll actually come back to and watch a second time: David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” speech (2005, Kenyon College), Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech (2012, University of the Arts, Philadelphia) — and this year, Daniel Pink’s “Sometimes you have to write to find out” speech.
There are speeches that say something meaningful about writing, and speeches that say something meaningful about life — this is one that offers something meaningful about life by way of writing. It’s well worth the 15 minutes. Go watch:
The other day, I attended a public lecture by Mark Frauenfelder, creator of Boing Boing and editor-in-chief of MAKE magazine. The talk was about the popularity of do-it-yourself technology projects and the growth of so-called “maker culture.” It’s a fascinating topic to me, not so much because I like to build things myself, but because I’ve always looked at science as a way for people to engage meaningfully with the world around them. Science is all about finding stuff out, and there’s no better way to do that than to take something apart, tinker with it, and perhaps even solve a problem with it. Today’s makers, whom Frauenfelder describes as “broad spectrum enthusiasts”, are not much different from the curious amateurs and natural philosophers who did science before we ever thought of science as a professional activity. Maker culture thrives on people sharing ideas openly and collaboratively improving one another’s designs, without the same barriers that often thwart open innovation models in professional science. And perhaps best of all, making is becoming increasingly accessible to people of all ages and all interests, in a way that professional research isn’t and perhaps never will be. It’s kind of exciting, seeing this resurgence of popular science.
Now, this will sound a little strange, but while my interest in maker culture comes from my interest in science, as a scientist, I never considered myself much of a maker. Of course there were many times in the lab when I had to come up with creative solutions to problems for which there was no ready-made, off-the-shelf protocol or apparatus; that’s just part of being a scientist. But outside the lab, at home, I don’t mind admitting that I’m somewhat less resourceful about DIY projects. I’ve tended to direct my creative energy to other pursuits — to writing, mostly. Does that count?
Going into Frauenfelder’s talk, I wouldn’t have thought so. But in the Q&A, someone asked him whether he’d found it difficult, transitioning from mechanical engineering to journalism, and his response felt immediately familiar. He described how, as an engineer, he would often work on a project for a year or more at a time before seeing a tangible outcome, while journalism allows him to keep moving, feeding his curiosity with new projects all the time, without being stuck on one thing for too long. It certainly sounded consistent with what one would expect from a broad spectrum enthusiast — a maker — as well as many writers I know, including myself.
One of the reasons I never wanted to get a PhD in science is that I didn’t want to specialize. The idea of spending 4-5 years on one project didn’t excite me at all. I enjoyed being more of a generalist. I liked being exposed to a lot of different ideas and projects and people — and the deeper I went into my own research, the more isolated I felt. With writing, I get to ask more questions about more things. I get to tinker with ideas and words — which may not be as sexy as building gadgets with a 3D printer and DIY electronics kits — but it’s all creative problem-solving. It’s all making something out of nothing, learning more about how it works as we go along. It’s the maker mindset.
If you’re not familiar with Frauenfelder’s work, I highly recommend checking him out — you might want to start with his TEDx talk, here:
One of the unexpected advantages of going on a writing holiday, I’ve discovered, is that it takes some of the urgency out of being a tourist. The pressure to see and do as much as I can has been tempered greatly by the fact that my real purpose for being here is to give myself time to write. Don’t get me wrong, the sightseeing has been fun too, but the other day I was standing in a rose garden amid a busload of bona fide tourists who seemed to be in such a hurry to see everything that I’m not sure they saw much of anything at all — and I actually felt a little sorry for them. (I mean, if ever there was a time to literally stop and smell the roses?)
I knew coming into this week that I would not be trying to see everything. I deliberately chose a destination with plenty of options, but kept my mind — and my schedule — open. Today, for example, I ventured off in the general direction of one of the local “must-see” attractions, but stumbled instead into the public library, where, after a brief delay due to a fire drill (during which, I got a terrific lunch recommendation from a random library patron), I settled into a wonderfully peaceful morning writing in the stacks.
Now, to a tourist on a sunny day, there are probably dozens of more exciting things to do than hang out at the library. Truth be told, I think I was secretly counting on it. I knew as soon as I walked in that it was going to be more satisfying than navigating herds of camera-toting tourists, Instagramming their way through the guided tour.
I think you can tell a lot about a place by its libraries. I might be biased, having spent my own formative years under the influence of a pack of librarians (which is kinda like being raised by wolves, but without all the howling at the moon). But I think libraries are just honest, down-to-earth places. Unlike most tourist traps, libraries strive to put their best foot forward to everyone, all the time, and without the underlying profit motive. Libraries are about adding value to the community, in the broadest sense of both words.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had the opportunity to roam an unfamiliar library, but the kid-in-a-candy-shop sense of wonder never really fades. It’s like grandma’s apple pie (or cookies, or pot roast, or whatever your grandma happens to be famous for). The scent of a library — somewhere between that glossy new cover smell and the musty vanilla character of well-travelled books — evokes some of the best memories of my childhood. It’s calm, but not too quiet. And though the layout is instinctively familiar and readily navigable, every library possesses its own distinctive, for lack of a better word — personality.
Whenever I visit a new library, I like to get a feel for the collection. I start in non-fiction, usually around the 020s (because librarians pick the best books about themselves — I once stumbled upon an enchanting anthology of library love stories on just such an adventure). I mostly cruise through the 100s-400s, although I might pause on some of my favourite topics (363.31 – Censorship, 370s – Education). And then I do a thorough rooting through the 500s, the 600s, and the 800s — wrapping up, wherever possible, with a nostalgic thumb through Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (808.882). I took it out on a librarian’s dare once when I was thirteen, and dozens of borrowing periods later (and probably some long-forgiven fines), it’s still my favourite book to just sit and flip through at random. (Though oddly enough, I still don’t own a copy…)
If I ever manage to get my head out of Bartlett’s, then it’s off to fiction. It’s always interesting to see how libraries organize their fiction — sometimes alphabetically, sometimes by genre. Then reference, periodicals, local history, special collections…who says libraries are not “must see” attractions?
Today, however, I found a quiet nook in the late 700s, somewhere between stringed instruments and games of chance, sunk into some words of my own making, and didn’t look up until lunch time, when I saw this quote painted above the library’s main entrance:
You see, I don’t believe that libraries should be drab places where people sit in silence, and that has been the main reason for our policy of employing wild animals as librarians. ~Monty Python
Yup, that’s my pack. Wherever I go, there they are.
In all of my time in and around academia, there’s one thing that I’ve never quite been able to understand about how it works:
Writing is perhaps THE most important thing we do in academia. We supposedly write our way through our undergrad degrees, we write our theses & dissertations, we write research proposals, we write journal articles and book chapters and textbooks. Writing is both the intellectual and the career advancement currency of the academic enterprise.
Yet, one of the most common complaints I hear from academics — regardless of the discipline or year that they teach — is that students are lacking the basic writing skills necessary for them to succeed.
In my experience (at least in the natural sciences), such questions inevitably devolve into an argument about whose fault it is, whose job it should be to fix, and whether there is actually room in the discipline-specific curriculum to accommodate remedial writing instruction. One is left with the impression that developing students’ writing skills is a hot-potato that nobody really wants to take ownership of, even though we all recognize the value of good writing, both in and out of the classroom.
This troubles me, because I don’t think the debate is benign to students. I worry that the way we think about and respond to students’ writing has a profound effect on their perceptions and anxieties about writing as part of the learning process. When we start from a premise that students are bad at writing, and that it should be someone else’s job to fix the problem (assuming we can even agree on what that “problem” is), I think we send a counterproductive message to our students about their own abilities and expectations of themselves as developing writers.
I think we’ve gotten off track in education (at all levels), valuing writing as a product, rather than a process. The messages around writing instruction need to change. For starters, here’s a few ideas I think we need to scrap:
We’ve got to get it out of our heads — and out of students’ heads — that writing is something you learn in a specific course. Writing is not like learning to ride a bike. We have to let go of the idea that students should be able to take an intro English class and leave with all the tools they need to become competent (and confident) writers. Writing education has to be continuous — students need ongoing feedback, from a variety of perspectives, including (ideally), their own self-reflection.
2. The rules of writing are rigid — there is a right way and a wrong way to write.
As important as grammar rules and stylistic conventions are to our common understanding of language, and to our students’ ability to communicate clearly and effectively, they should never be considered the final word on how to write. Language is dynamic — how we use it changes depending on our audience and our intent.
Are the rules important to know and to follow? Yes.
Can the rules be broken? Absolutely.
Is it more important for students to know the rules and follow them blindly, or to understand them well enough to know when to break them for rhetorical effect?
I am a self-identified grammar ninja, but my philosophy on “the rules” is that they exist to empower writers, never to constrain them. Writing is about using language intentionally, and developing your own sense of judgement and style.
3. The purpose of writing is to satisfy the instructor.
The challenge with academic writing is that it’s often inseparable from student assessment. Students are writing for grades, and although there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, I think this sometimes (often?) reduces the practise to a hoop-jumping exercise. Students write to fill the designated word count, or to address the specific prompt for an assignment, without really claiming the process for themselves. Which means they’re always dependent on knowing (or guessing) what an instructor wants. No wonder they’re anxious!
Students need to learn that as writers, they are the ones in control. There’s no reason for it to be an intimidating or overwhelming process. They are entirely in the driver’s seat. Again, it’s about empowering students to be confident in their own judgement as thinkers and writers. Audience awareness is important, but if the goal is to have students learn to communicate effectively to a wide range of audiences outside of the classroom, their perception of “audience” has to extend beyond individual instructors.
The topical (5 paragraph) academic essay that everyone has been taught since high school is the scourge of academic writing. I hate it. Passionately.
I’ve hated topical essays since I was first learning them myself. They’re 90% of the reason why I hated English class so much, even though I loved writing. (The other 10% had to do with long-winded discussions about the symbolism of some literary character’s leftover toast). But I didn’t understand why I hated them until a couple of years ago, when I finally learned about functional structures.
Here’s the difference: In a topical essay, nothing about the structure inherently suggests an avenue for discovering or developing new ideas. You write an introduction, three paragraphs about the thesis, and a conclusion. It’s pretty flat, pretty boring, and pretty easy to grade by rubric.
Functional outlines, on the other hand, foster students’ discovery of their own ideas. Each structure (and sub-structure) supports a specific purpose — to amplify, to persuade, to criticize, to praise — and it’s in developing that structure that students uncover new ideas and learn to make choices about the best arrangement of those ideas to achieve their intended purpose.
I’d been writing most of my life, through two post-secondary degrees, and dozens of peer-reviewed papers — and this was a whole new way of thinking about it. It made sense in a way topical outlines never did, and could be applied or adapted to a much broader range of rhetorical situations.
A close cousin of the topical academic essay is the notion that you can develop ideas and write a well-crafted essay in a single draft (more or less) in a two-hour exam. (Or less — I was mortified when I saw that the analytical writing component of the GRE exam is only 30 minutes long!)
Granted, we often have to write under pressure. As I’ve noted elsewhere, I sometimes even find it fun to set a timer, and force myself to write freely. But I don’t expect it to be my best writing, and I’d never want to have it graded. It’s always a draft.
Writing is a valuable form of assessment, but a two-hour essay is a very artificial exercise, in terms of developing a writing process. I think we need to be really careful when we’re teaching to standardized exams to separate writing under exam conditions from what “real” writing can and should be.
6. Writing in an “academic” voice.
I once had a student approach me with a great idea, but a crippling fear about not being able to express it in academic language. I had her explain her idea to me verbally, and then encouraged her to write it first in her own words, without regard to academic convention. Only after she’d found her own words to express her ideas clearly, did we begin to refine her use of language to conform to an academic standard.
I understand that academic writing has its own style, and that communicating effectively in academia requires that students conform. But I think we also have to remember that students are working through a lot of new ideas for the first time. In essence, they’re learning how to think, as well as how to write. While it’s important that they learn how to express their ideas to us, our conventions should not overshadow their own thinking process.
Put another way, if they can’t express their ideas clearly in their own terms first, what hope do we have of expecting them to be able to express their idea clearly in our terms?
7. Teaching writing the way we were taught to write
How many academics, I wonder, never truly outgrow their own anxiety or distaste for the writing process? I know a few who enjoy writing, but I also know many who would rather be in the lab filling tip boxes all day than slave away at a manuscript. For some, it’s like the academic equivalent of eating their vegetables.
I’ve argued elsewhere that a lot of academic writing, even by advanced scholars, is not very effective. We are ourselves products of the way we were taught — but we’re not obligated to teach our own students the same way. Why not break the cycle?
April is National Poetry Month. As many of you know, I’m not much of a poet, and not much more a reader of poetry. It seems I struggle with everything that makes poetry, well, poetic. There’s either too much freedom in form or not enough, counting syllables one minute, dropping capitals and punctuation the next. As in art, there is a fine line in poetry between what counts as a masterpiece and what looks like someone kicked over a paint can. I’ve never really gotten it.
And yet, the most memorable book of my childhood — not my first book, but the book I can still largely recite from memory — was a book of poetry. My first grade teacher used to read every day from Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. I still have my copy, faded and worn and much loved, with my name etched in practised elementary school scrawl on the inside front cover. The book is home to some of my most beloved literary characters: Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout (who would NOT take the garbage out!), Ickle Me, Pickle Me, and Tickle Me (who went for a ride in a flying shoe), and dear old Reginald Clark, who was afraid of the dark, and begged each day, “Please do not close this book on me.” (which of course we did, every day before lunch time…and I still do, as a rule, anytime I feel the need to look up a Recipe for a Hippopotamus Sandwich.)
It’s a book that’s lost little of its charm over the years. Indeed, it was only a few years ago that I discovered the book’s dedication, “For Ursula” referred to the legendary Harper & Row editor, Ursula Nordstrom, the woman who, over the span of a fifty-year career, revolutionized children’s publishing. Ursula Nordstrom not only nurtured some of the greatest creative talents in 20th century children’s literature (e.g. Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, Margaret Wise Brown – to name just a few!), but she also dared to publish what she called “good books for bad children,” shattering the strict moralistic standard of children’s books in favour of books that catered to the real emotions and imaginations of children.
Nordstrom began her career at Harper & Brothers in 1931, when she accepted a position as a clerk in the College Textbooks Department. Although Nordstrom expressed an early interest in writing, she did not join Harper with any immediate ambition to become an editor. Instead, she climbed the ranks as an assistant to her friend, Ida Louise Raymond, who headed Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls. When Raymond retired from the post, Nordstrom was named her successor, and would remain in a leadership role within Harper for the next forty years, amassing a long list of notable firsts: she published one of the first juvenile books handling the subject of menstruation (The Long Secret, by Louise Fitzhugh) and the first novel for young readers that explored homosexuality (John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip). And when Maurice Sendak’s picture book, In the Night Kitchen, was censored and burned because it depicted a nude boy, Nordstrom publicly decried the “mutilation” of the book and maintained that “it is only adults who ever feel threatened by Sendak’s work.”
Though widely revered by authors, artists, and librarians, she sometimes faced staunch criticism from self-proclaimed authorities on children’s literature. One such critic, Anne Carroll Moore, famously asked Nordstrom what qualified her to be a children’s editor, given that she had no formal education, no children, and was not a teacher or librarian. Nordstrom was undaunted, replying matter-of-factly: “I am a former child, and I haven’t forgotten a thing.”
Her letters — many of which have now been published as a collection — are an absolute delight to read. Most are letters between her and her authors and artists, which capture the special bond she had with them. But there are also letters to her readers — mainly children, but also some critics — which are as heartfelt and honest as many of the books we grew up with, thanks to her.
It’s difficult to imagine that Shel Silverstein — who began his career as a songwriter (most famous for Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue“), and whose poems were originally published in Playboy — would have gotten a second look from any other children’s editor of the time. But Nordstrom actually helped convince a reluctant Silverstein that he should try his hand at children’s poetry — and I love her for it.
Happy Poetry Month!
Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you’ve no doubt heard that scientists have recently uncovered a major piece of evidence supporting the Big Bang Theory. Maybe that matters to you. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you understand what it means. Or not. Maybe the headline only reminds you of that geeky sitcom by the same name.
But whatever your reaction to the science, there’s another piece to this story that went viral this week, and you don’t have to be a physicist to appreciate what it means:
I think it’s beautiful. This video documents a side of science (and scientists) that the public rarely gets to see. Passion, excitement, validation, discovery, connection — suddenly it’s not just a story about physics, but a story about the pursuit of knowledge — about what physics means to people.
One of the things I’ve always disliked about academic communication is how we intentionally strip our own voices out it. We’re afraid to get personal, to tell a story, to reveal how invested we are in our work. We think that a flick of a pen will make our words “objective,” but this is, and always has been, an unrealistic expectation. The emotional and intellectual investment, the tension of not knowing, doesn’t go away — indeed, it’s often what drives us to research in the first place. There’s an inherent disconnect between what we value and how we talk about it. We claim to be seeking “truth,” but we routinely leave out the most inescapably honest part — that there is a human voice and a human story behind every advance.
I don’t mean to suggest that academic writing should read as personal narrative, or that we should place ourselves in the spotlight that rightfully belongs to the knowledge we generate. But I do think there’s a part of the story we’re not telling, and the omission isn’t benign. It represents a real gap in our cultural perception of what it means to do science, and of what science means to people.
Too often when we talk about making science accessible to the public, the focus is on simplifying the technical concepts, what many call “dumbing it down.” I hate that expression — not only for what it implies about the audience, but also for what it implies about science itself. Science doesn’t operate apart from the rest of the world; it’s not something we have to bring down to the masses.
I think we just have to be more human about the stories we choose to tell. We have to learn to recognize when it’s important for our audience to understand what “five sigma” means (or not), and when it’s important just to let them see what excites us about our work, and about the world we share.
Tuesday, March 4th (March forth, get it?) is National Grammar Day. This year, it also happens to be Pancake Tuesday, the day when we’re all supposed to confess our sins and stuff ourselves with pancakes before Lent.
I’m not so crazy about Lent, but grammar and pancakes? On the same day? You mean I can make pancakes in the shape of punctuation marks for…um…educational purposes?
So, here we go — five grammatical sins explained with pancakes:
1. Using “comprised of” when you mean “composed of”
This is my all-time biggest grammar peeve. Frequent readers and former lab-mates will have no doubt heard me rant on this before. When you are describing the parts that make up a whole, for instance, the ingredients in a pancake, you might say, “Pancakes are composed of eggs, milk, and (because it’s a Monday night and I’m lazy), pancake mix.” Or, you might say, “Pancakes comprise eggs, milk, and pancake mix.” Either of these would be correct.
You would not say, “Pancakes are comprised of eggs, milk, and pancake mix.”
The word comprise means “to include,” so when you say “comprised of,” it’s like saying “included of.” It’s gibberish. It’s painful. And I’m pretty sure a unicorn accidentally steps on a kitten somewhere on the internet every time you use it. You wouldn’t want any murderous unicorns on your conscience, would you? Good. So please stop the madness.
Just remember, the whole always comprises its parts:
2. Plural-possessive confusion
The other day I saw a sign that said, “WANTED: Auto’s dead or alive.” Of course, we all know they really meant “autos,” as in more than one automobile. So why the wayward apostrophe?
Here’s the rule:
- If you are making a plural (i.e. more than one of a thing), you don’t use the apostrophe. (e.g. three pancakes)
- If you are making a possessive (i.e. signifying that a thing belongs to someone), then you use the apostrophe. You do not use the apostrophe to signify a plural, unless you want to be stabbed with a fork, like this:
- Exception to the possessive rule: “its” — see #3 below for clarification.
3. Confusing “its” and “it’s”
“It’s” is a contraction of two words: “it is.” As in: “Look, it’s a pancake!”
“Its” is a possessive signifying that something belongs to “it.” As in: “You spread butter on its surface.”
4. Fewer vs. Less
We’ve all seen the express checkout line at the supermarket that reads “15 items or less.” Now, I’m with Stephen Fry on this one — for the sake of keeping the express line moving, I can let this one go. But if you aren’t sure when to use “fewer” or “less,” here’s the rule:
- If you can count the thing, and you can reduce its quantity by countable amounts, then you use “fewer.” For example: “Two pancakes are fewer than three.”
- If you can’t count the thing, you use “less.” For example: “I have less pancake batter than I had before.”
5. Where punctuation goes relative to quotation marks
OK, I’ll admit, this one can be tricky, because the rules are sometimes different depending on where you are and what style you’re using. In the US and Canada, the following rules are most commonly used:
- Periods always go inside quotation marks.
- Commas always go inside quotation marks. (Revision 3/4/14: my original pancake comma was backwards! Eeep! All fixed!)
- Semicolons and colons always go outside quotation marks.
- Question marks & exclamation marks go inside quotation marks if they form part of the direct quote; otherwise, they go outside.
Okay, now here’s my confession: This post was supposed to be about seven deadly grammatical sins. But all these pancakes made me hungry. So I ate them. :-)
Today, a friend posted a link to this article in the New York Times describing new software designed to automate essay grading in large university classes. It’s not the first I’ve heard of this technology, and the article in the Times is a year old — hardly breaking news, but I remain disturbed nonetheless by the notion of machine-based assessments of students’ writing.
Proponents of the technology claim that the software produces results similar to human graders, and even, as one researcher claims in the Times piece, exceeds the capacity of human graders to provide feedback to large classes. I’m skeptical, but not for all the reasons you might expect. When it comes to speed, reliability, and the ability to analyze writing for common structural and grammatical issues, I’ll admit that the software has the potential. Not long ago, I spent some time playing around with a piece of software called Swan (an acronym for Scientific Writing Assistant), and I was rather surprised and impressed with how advanced the analysis was, even with difficult scientific text. While I wouldn’t recommend it as a substitute for human feedback, it does a thorough enough job that I could see it being a useful editorial tool, particularly for those writing in English as a second language.
But as an assessment tool for student writers? I have a big problem with that.
First — and foremost — I think teaching and learning is fundamentally a human interaction, and nowhere is this more true than in writing and communication. Writing is about human connection, whether it’s between a writer and a reader, a viewer and an audience, or a student and a teacher. A machine might be able to provide reliable feedback about the structure and content of a piece of writing, but there’s no connection. A machine can’t judge whether a piece resonates with its audience. Do we really want to be teaching a generation of writers how to communicate effectively with empty boxes?
Second, the demand for automated grading stems from ever-increasing time pressure on instructors. As someone who has spent many hours reading, grading, and providing feedback on student writing, I understand that pressure all too well. But at the same time, I’m troubled by the implication that this isn’t a valuable investment of an instructor’s time. The idea that an instructor’s time is better spent elsewhere begs the question: what’s more important than providing students with thoughtful, meaningful, and constructive feedback?
Deep down, I have the same complaint about automated essay grading as I do about the use of machine-gradable multiple choice exams for assessing higher-order learning outcomes. It places so much of the emphasis on the assessment and the assessment tool, but assessment is not the point of education. Learning is. When we reduce the process to inputs and outputs from a machine, I wonder if we aren’t missing the point.
Can a machine recognize a “teachable moment”?
There’s so much more to becoming a writer than mastering the black and white (and sometimes grey) issues of how words work. The development of one’s own style, judgement, and intuitive grasp of the language — our ability to discern for ourselves the difference between the “right word” and the “almost right word” — requires much more thoughtful feedback than even a sophisticated machine can provide.
When I decided to go back to school to study professional writing, I already had a firm grasp of the language. I’d have passed any machine’s assessment with flying colours. If I knew I was going into a program where my work was going to be assessed by a machine, I wouldn’t have bothered. Even with real instructors grading my work, most of the courses posed little challenge.
What made the entire program worth my time — what made a real difference to my writing — were the one or two instructors who looked beyond my basic mastery of the language and asked, not “Is this an A?” but “Is this the best you’re capable of?” I never worried about getting good grades — what kept me up at night was the spectre of a handwritten margin note: “Not good enough for you.”
There’s a world of difference between the ability to assign a student a grade based on some arbitrary standard, and the ability to judge a student as an individual and dare them to do better, not for a grade, but for themselves. That’s where real teaching and learning happens.
Technology has a place in the classroom, but this isn’t it.
Of all the adjectives that come to mind when you think of academic or scientific writing, there’s one I’d bet sinks to the bottom of the list regardless of the audience. You might think a paper is unintelligible, incomprehensible, jargon-filled, complicated, detailed, sometimes exciting, often boring, but certainly not funny. I mean, science is serious business, and no researcher in his or her right mind would dare compromise citations for laughs.
Or would they?
Every year the scientific community waits on the edge of its collective seat for the announcement of the IgNobel Prizes, celebrating real research that “makes people laugh, and then think.” The lucky winners become the laughing stock for awhile, but the giggling is often followed by a sober realization: “Someone actually studied that? Seriously?”
Part of what makes the IgNobels so unabashedly funny is that often, they start out with a completely serious question. Does a person’s posture affect their estimation of an object’s size? (Apparently so, especially if you lean slightly to the left). Can a doctor accidentally make your butt explode while performing a colonoscopy? (Turns out it’s rare, but I’m sure…um…relieved that they did the research).
What’s a little harder to find in the scientific literature are examples of researchers being intentionally cheeky. But such examples do exist, and they call out for a Top 10 List.
Here it goes:
10. “The unsuccessful self-treatment of a case of writer’s block.” (D. Upper. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 1974)
The reviewer’s comment on this paper sums it up best: “Clearly it is the most concise manuscript I have ever seen — yet it contains sufficient detail to allow other investigators to replicate Dr. Upper’s failure.”
Which is precisely what other investigators set out to do. That it took 33 years and a research grant of $2.50 underscores the scope of the problem. Writing, it seems, is hard.
Many papers tackling such a difficult problem are lost to researchers outside of the discipline, but the beauty of Upper’s pivotal work is that it can be readily applied to different fields. Consider its recent application to a study in molecular biology:
Only time will tell whether science will have the last…or first…word on this mystifying phenomenon.
What at first seems like just another paper full of jargon about faster-than-light particles reduces to a simple and elegant conclusion: “Probably not.”
8. “Synthesis of Anthropomorphic Molecules: the NanoPutians” (Chanteu & Tour, Journal of Organic Chemistry, 2003)
They drew stick figures. With molecules!
Ever vigilant, however, of illustrating their nano-peeps in a way that would not be representative of their equilibrium state, the authors add this caveat: “…the liberties we take with the nonequilibrium conformational drawings are only minor when representing the main structural portions; conformational license is only used, in some cases, with the NanoPutians’ head dressings.”
Science…solving bad hair days, one molecule at a time.
7. “Trajectory of a falling Batman” (Marshall et al., Journal of Physics Special Topics, 2011)
This study is exactly what it sounds like. They analyzed the path of a falling Batman to determine whether our beloved caped crusader could indeed survive on a Batwing and a prayer. Their grim conclusion? Splat.
Or, as the authors put it (albeit far less eloquently in my opinion): “Clearly gliding using a batcape is not a safe way to travel, unless a method to rapidly slow down is used, such as a parachute.” Noted.
6. “The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute” (Lim et al, British Medical Journal, 2005)
Don’t you just hate it when your co-workers steal all the teaspoons? If you’re a real scientist, you don’t get mad. You get a publication!
There are few things more satisfying in science than publishing a really important paper, and then being asked to present it at a really important conference. This is one of those truly remarkable papers that must be seen to be appreciated.
Now, you might think that a study such as “chicken chicken chicken” could have little application outside the poultry world. But you’d be wrong. Indeed, I know at least a few people who have adopted “chicken chicken” as the universal code word for a scientific talk that has gone on way too long. So here’s my public service announcement to researchers everywhere: if you’re ever speaking and the audience starts muttering “chicken chicken” to themselves, they’re not hungry — they want you to stop.
4. “Santa and the moon” (Barthell, CAPJournal, 2012)
Do you remember when you were a kid on Christmas morning, and how you carefully examined the wrapping paper for its scientific accuracy before meticulously unwrapping the toy you’d been waiting for all year?
I totally thought so.
This one belongs in the category of “You might be a scientist if…”
Parents: If your child ever exhibits signs of trauma from the inaccurate portrayal of moon phases on wrapping paper, it might be time to have a serious talk about graduate school. Might I recommend this book at bedtime?
3. “Absolute dating of deep-sea cores by the PA(232)/TH(230) method and accumulation rates: a reply” (Journal of Geology, 1963)
Sometimes, despite their best efforts, scientists make mistakes. Luckily, when this happens, there are usually other scientists happily willing to point it out. Such was the case with this paper, in which some scientists pointed out an error in the original paper, and the authors simply replied, “Oh well, nobody is perfect.” Gotta admire their honesty.
Who says romance is dead? Nothing quite says “publish or cherish” like a marriage proposal embedded in a scientific paper!
1. 20 more hilarious scientific papers in five minutes.
Thanks to Seriously, Science? (or, the artists formerly known as NCBI ROFL).