Tuesday 12 December 2017

Learning academic writing

Each year at The Institute - ir's coming up to five years in January - I've been supervising final year research projects: sometimes a handful, sometimes a dozen, one year 16! The kids have a choice of doing this task in the lab "all wet" or with me using computers "dry" to reveal the pattern and process of evolution. The 'Binfos' are a mixed bunch - some, like me, known to be inept at the lab bench; some slackers looking for an untaxing option; and every year tuthree who are really the best students we have - curious, motivated, self-starting and independent. I love 'em all! Not least because of the mix - getting our least academic students to fulfill their potential and a little bit more is just as rewarding as having an adult discussion about the evolution of 'flu viruses or the epidemiology of  Huntington's Disease. Whatever the level, these are all original research projects - finding out something about the world that nobody else on the planet knows. That's a pretty rewarding challenge for someone who has just got the vote.  How do we know that nobody has been there before? Each student is requested and required to carry out a review of the scientific literature on some part of the natural world. Sometimes, especially with our rocket scientists, I will be bullied into 'supervising' a project which is driving the student. Otherwise, I'm allowed to let my butterfly mind flit over the meadows of knowledge looking for a pretty flower to investigate. It must also be admitted that I'm not above whoring out my Effectives to answer questions posed by colleagues and collaborators. That can work out really well, and at least one student has parlayed that relationship into a Master's degree elsewhere.

It's nearly the end of term and by 1700hrs Friday 8th, all our students, wet and dry, had to submit a first draft of their Lit Review. I then had a really interesting half-week's work reading, critiquing and returning them. This year the reviews were all serious pieces of scientific research, neatly capturing a variety of different topics. Even the essays submitted with a "this is crap, but I'm drawing a line under it here" warning were on-message, coherent, unwaffly and full of interesting stuff. So I've learned a lot, and we should all be collectively proud. In a number of cases, the LR has thrown up potential avenues for research that I had not thought of.

I won't pretend that all the work was written in perfect grammatical English: we have two Polirish this year and they are quite mean with their definite and indefinite articles. And don't get me started on the apostrophes scattered like confetti at a wedding. But this is really the first substantive [5000 words] piece of academic writing they've ever submitted. Accordingly I've had to explain some of the basics of communication.

They read, they write, I read, I come across a strange word. Now I had an expensive education, some of it involving Latin, so I can often make sense of long words. But sometimes I'm totally foxed so I Google it up and find a definition there. That's not really good enough. The Lit Review should aspire to being self contained, so I push the students to include a Glossary.

Glossary - should include all the words that only appear in your report, which you wouldn't expect your bff or another Binfo to know; because you're the only person on Campus who has read what you've read. In some cases, that will be an essential addition for the readability and utility of the report. Remember that the report goes off to an external examiner who is a generalist. S/he may not be able to spell Blast, let alone Huanglongbing or Sporolactobacillus. The glossary also serves as a memory aid: that three letter acronym TLA which you defined some place earlier in the report; I've forgotten what it means. All those should be in the Glossary.

They read, they write, I read, I come across a strange idea which I'd like to follow up. If it's come from the literature, there should be a citation embedded in the text which will kick forward to a list of references.

References.- Everyone should use referencing software like Endnote Mendeley or Zotero to match the citations to the references because it is part of the training. But the result has to be fit-for-purpose which is to allow the reader to follow up one of the statements to the source. In the old days of print this required: Authors, initials, (year), Title, Journal, Vol, pages. Back in 1977 I could write Smith AB 1975 NAR 213: 410-417 in my notebook and hunt out the relevant volume in the library. The students of The Institute are submitting a hard copy, so all this info shd be included for that reason. In the modern world of epub and full text, for any biomedical paper, it is handy to include the Pubmed ID like PMID: 8441625 because I can easily get to the source then. Referencing software operates on a GiGo [garbage in garbage out] principal and some of the kids have driven the software so that itmangles the author name or the citation, or doesn't include page numbers - it is part of the learning experience to sort this out.

As our reading gets so cluttered with hypertext links, I like the idea of being forced to think that a written essay is a mode of communication. To reflect on what must be done to ensure than your reader is not misled and is empowered to follow your thoughts forward into the unknown.

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