A supervisor’s lament

5 09 2011

© hradcanska http://ow.ly/6lCAO

Time for a little supervisory whinge. I’ve lamented these very issues over many a beer at many a conference, so I thought I’d solidify those hazy arguments into a blog post.

I’m by no means the most burdened academic when it comes to student load. We tend to be very picky in our lab when engaging post-graduate student prospects, and even pickier when hiring post-doctoral fellows (because the latter require little things like salaries that unfortunately, do not grow on trees). We also endeavour to share the load – most of our post-docs have at least one primary PhD student responsibility which reduces some of my burden and gives the post-doc in question the requisite experience in supervising. In my opinion, it’s a good way to run a lab, and allows for a high number of productive students, yet is not overly onerous for any one person.

That said, I make sure I read EVERYTHING my students produce, and I take a certain amount of pride in providing as much of my intellectual input as possible: from study design right through to proof correction. If my name is going to be on a paper, I had better bloody well earn my co-authorship.

Now, something that seems to have been getting worse and worse over the years is our students’ capacity to write good English (or as the comment below suggests, ‘write English well’). I’ll fully admit that I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to good grammar, and I’ve been called a pedant for it (and as much as I enjoy people like Stephen Fry and their playful laissez-faire approaches to language - mate, you’re not a scientist). I’ve even written a few blog posts (Torture I and II) about particular grammatical bugbears of mine. But to me, without good, precise English, the incontrovertible communication of one’s hard-won results is often lost in the lazy mists of incomprehension and misinterpretation.

So to me, before the grounding in evolutionary theory, before the nuances of cell division, and even before the knowledge that ecosystems are fragile assemblages of millions of interconnected species, English writing prowess is an absolute priority in scientific training. And unfortunately, this skill has been slowly putrefying in the bowels of our educational systems for decades.

I maintain that I can teach nearly anyone the basics of ecology, and even get across the most complex theoretical underpinnings of population dynamics to the uninitiated. But to teach someone to write! Are there enough hours in the day or days in the year? One could also question whether this is indeed my job – am I now responsible for the instruction of basic grammar?

As a case in point, ask almost any Australian under the age of 30 if he or she can identify a noun, adjective or adverb (let alone a dangling participle, indefinite article or split infinitive) in any given sentence. I’ll bet a large quantity of alcohol that most cannot. Ah, but how important is it to be able to identify by name the constituents of language? Who should care, as long as one can write well? The simple fact is that none of those ignorant in the ways of grammatical nomenclature can write any better. This is because in places such as Australia, grammar hasn’t been taught in most schools since the late 1960s or early 1970s; how can one have a functioning and enduring society if no one can get across any clear ideas? I liken it to the example of an architect versus a carpenter. Ask the former to build you a house – it might look good on paper, but the first strong breeze would blow it down. Ask the latter, and he might not win the Pritzker Architecture Prize, but the toilet will work and the floor will support the weight of more than one human being.

Now, if you are a student reading this, do not despair; but for the love of all things beautiful in language and for the sake of unambiguous scientific interpretation, do something! If you know you are not strong in English, the onus is on you to fix the problem. Take courses, read more books on the basics of language, practise writing both prose and poetry, and take a second language (for knowledge of another language’s grammar tends to force you to learn your own better) – for these skills will continue to become more and more relevant as your careers progress, and you will require better and better flourish of your virtual pen (a.k.a. keyboard) as you mature into fully fledged scientists.

I fully contend that English, even before mathematics, is the cornerstone of all good science. Without it, you will be mediocre at best, unintelligible at worst.

I hope I didn’t make any mistakes in the above diatribe – that would be embarrassing.

CJA Bradshaw



6 responses

6 09 2011

Maybe not a “mistake”, but in the 1st sentence of the 4th paragraph I’d prefer “students’ capacity to write English well”. My reasoning is if one leaves out the specific language, you would still prefer that students’ develop their capacity to write well, not to write good.

But quibbles aside, I do sympathize with most of your thesis here. The only point I would argue is your role with your students. Being the grammar instructor of last resort may not be your assignment in life. But I would suggest that you have a role as a gatekeeper of sorts. If a student should survive all the way through the education system as it stands today and arrives at your door with a weakness you can identify, then I think you might well prescribe how and where said student might seek to repair the weakness.

And though it does seem an aggravating burden to have ill prepared students arrive at such an advanced level, it has happened and must be dealt with. Sharing your thoughts here seems appropriate, but until conditions improve you’ll want to find a way to carry on in your lab.

If I might append a gripe of my own it would be the current state of penmanship among our younger folk. I realize technology is rapidly making pen and paper less important. But until both are completely buried I’d like to think that penmanship skills could retain a place at the school table. Until they do however, new hires in my lab will have to suffer through the remedial study of writing numbers so someone else might correctly read them.

13 09 2011
Peter Frost

In courses on scientific writing that I run (when someone will employ me to do this:-), I use three quotations to express why we need to use words precisely. They may be worth sharing.

“Words, words, words…They can, when handled promiscuously, gradually begin to take the place of reality. They can, in the course of time, become a complete substitute for it.” (Shiva Naipaul, 1980. North of South, An African Journey. Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, England: 284)

Tony Proscio, in Bad Words for Good: How Foundations Garble Their Message and Lose Their Audience (The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, New York, 2001: 14; available free at http://www.emcf.org/fileadmin/user/PDF/Other_Resources/jargon_badwordsforgood.pdf), expresses essentially the same idea: “In time, through overuse, the popular words come not to express serious thinking, but to replace it. Using the terms becomes an acceptable substitute for thinking the thoughts, and eventually the terms line up like the facades of a Potemkin village, grandly adorning intellectual empty space, to the unwitting delight of gullible passers-by.”

Richard Lanham goes further, pointing out that both the writer and the readers bear the cost: “If you write nonsense and don’t know it, and people read it and don’t see that it is nonsense…then you’ve tacitly agreed to share a muddled illusion. If real action is needed, the muddle can become expensive…The buzzwords that lard such shared illusions—facility, area, factor, model, strategy, input—shift the cost of communication, and thus of thinking, from the writer to the reader. And the cost is high because a single writer’s ineptitude is paid for by many readers. These buzzwords create a tacit agreement on both sides to stop thinking, settle for a vague, high level of generality. They translate specific information into its nearest bureaucratic generalized equivalent. A word like “facility” drains the immediacy out of life: a “plant”, a “warehouse”, a “store”, a “prison”, all bleach into a colorless generalized “facility.” Then, of course, you need an adjective to specify what you have just generalized: manufacturing facility, storage facility, incarceration facility. You have renounced the language’s rich store of words, thrown away a priceless asset, and then tried to control the damage.” (Lanham, R.A. 2006. The Longman Guide to Revising Prose. Pearson Longman, New York: 33)

13 09 2011

Since we’re being pedantic, I’ll address Clem’s comment. “Good” is an adjective (in this case), modifying English. Thus, it makes no sense to leave the word “English” out of the sentence. “Well” is an adverb, modifying “write”, so it would make equally little sense to leave “write” out of CJB’s sentence. A sentence using either “good English” or “write well” is equally correct.

21 10 2011

From a visitor:

“If you want people to improve the English writing skills of young scientists, they need to practise (v), not practice (n). [CJAB's note: duly noted and corrected - thanks]

(Like you, I went to school when English and grammar were on the curriculum, and I too am a stickler – but I’m also the Go To [CJAB's note: in this case, 'Go-To' must be hyphenated because it is a compound adjective] person in my area if someone needs advice).

In my opinion, there are two skills – writing and communication. If you are writing to communicate, then you need to think about how what you’ve written is likely to affect the reader. If you just want to organise your thoughts for your own further consideration, structures and grammar are less important. Perhaps the best way to learn is to write something for personal use, then look at it from a communication perspective and think how it could be changed to ensure readers understand the message you want to convey.”

7 01 2013
Anna Sharman

I am a scientific editor and publishing consultant, and I therefore read a lot of papers. I agree that clarity is crucial. However, this is not the same as keeping to all the perceived rules of grammar, some of which are spurious rules (such as splitting infinitives), some regional variations (such as practise vs practice) and some variations that are a matter of personal or house style (such as whether it is OK to start a sentence with a digit).
Scientists are not professional writers, so there is no reason why they should be expected to write perfectly. Publishers have editors whose job it is to get the writing grammatical and clear, and there are editing services available as well (disclosure: I offer this service). In my experience every scientist’s writing needs editing, whatever level of seniority or whether they are native speaker or not.
Does your university not have any language or communication courses for PhD students? Many do, and this would reduce the burden on you as a supervisor.
When checking your student’s work, I would suggest concentrating on getting the meaning clear and not worrying about grammar too much beyond that, unless the writing will not be edited professionally before it is published.

7 01 2013
Y si dominar los números era importante, el idioma más « Mario Quevedo : web personal

[...] esa línea va la entrada titulada “A supervisor’s lament” en el blog ConservationBytes.com, mantenido por Corey Bradshaw, ecólogo y biólogo de la conservación Down Under. Extraigo algunas [...]

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