Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Primate Love Letter

One thing that comes up continuously in the lab sections that I teach is that the writing is bad. And more seriously, flawed thinking about the topic is sometimes only captured on the written page, too elusive for multiple choice or class discussions to capture its sweet tangled inaccuracies. In some cases, students who are bright and interested will write papers that are just subtly, not. quite. right. But before I go any further, I would like to say that, I am no expert. I just know what patterns have emerged in the student writing I have seen over the years. I have not been formally taught how to evaluate science writing, or how to write.

Many students in anthropology 101 are writing a science paper for the first time at the college level. And for these students one almost universal error in their writing is that they put too much opinion and emotion into it. They get excited about the material (which is great and encouraged) but they flourish and wax inappropriately, rather than address it in the dispassionate, neutral manner that it requires. The class is about primates, which makes it accessible and easy to relate to, but also contributes to this problem. I doubt this happens at the same frequency in a course about drosophilia (fruit flies). I find too much talk of cute, emotional primates or superior species, where one is inherently better than another in some way.

Addressing this issue without extinguishing any enthusiasm requires careful consideration and I am still searching for ways to do it properly. Another problem that fuels this issue is that they arent reading the literature. So, they have nothing to say except what comes from their own warm primate heart. I need to address the issue of not reading the literature, not referencing it and just wandering through a cascade of baseless, biased claims. Its dangerous even.

I need to spend more time talking about the papers and what I expect. I fantasize about showing them a sentence that is all opiniony and cute and transforming the same general idea into more scientific terms. I also tell them, the shorter the sentences, the better. I often find long winded sentences with words like thus in them. Its an effort to sound smart. I know it. I appreciate the sentiment, I really do, and I have been there, but I need to channel their excitement into the correct format. And maybe I should spend an hour or two where we talk about how damn cute and lovely all the species are, and use all the elaborate and embellished and emotional adjectives we can find. You know, to get it out of our system, to show our appreciation without having to sound scientific about anything. Because truly, if I wasnt moved by primates, in all their fuzzy familiarity, I wouldnt be teaching this lab.


  1. I think showing the sentence and then re-writing it in front of them is a great idea. I do feel your pain, though. It's very difficult to teach them how to write. So many don't even know the basics such as proper sentence structure. It's frustrating. All you can do is give them good guidelines and constructive feedback.

  2. Thanks you two. If you have any other ideas, please share! I always feel like I am kind of pulling my technique out of the air when I am grading papers.

  3. Hey, Jules.

    Happy New Year to you both.