Exam marking being much on my mind, as discussed in the last post, I was thinking about the way we annotate the scripts as we mark. The practice I am familiar with (although I have no idea how standard this is, even across Cambridge) is to use red ink for first marking and green for second. This approach has the advantage it removes all ambiguity about who has written what. Since one of the crucial roles of the second marker is to check that the first is capable of adding together the scrawled marks and entered them correctly both on the cover sheet and – even more importantly – in the Excel spreadsheet that represents the ‘markbook’, it is necessary that the marks from first and second markers can be distinguished. Hence the need for colour coding (apologies to all who are colour blind, for whom this colour scheme is clearly less than optimal, although I have never heard this raised as an objection. No doubt purple and orange would work as well. The use of any colours other than those a student might use is, no doubt, the relevant criterion).
But when it comes to commenting on the writing of PhD students, away from the exam scene, what colour(s) are appropriate? I typically use whatever pen comes to hand as I scribble on draft papers or theses. I am not yet entirely comfortable with the paperless office, and on a train I find pens definitely easier to wield than commenting on the document on screen (although the students may find my writing hard to decipher if the journey was too bumpy). In my office red may be the pen of choice, but on trains I rarely find a red pen to hand. However, I have had students who object to red. Too stark, too in your face I’ve been told, please use any other colour, say green as softer, less abrasive. I am willing to oblige when this is explicitly requested, albeit I find it surprising. Does colour of ink really affect how students view my attempts to help them conform to some ideal of common scientific practice as well as linguistic clarity?
Writing a first paper draft, a progress report or a thesis draft can be a daunting matter, because so many students have rarely had a previous opportunity to try out their writing skills in extended prose at any point in their education – more’s the shame. Not so long ago I wrote about the need for a far higher proportion of the population to have decent quantitative skills, but it is equally true that scientists need to hone their skills in written (and oral) communication. This is not simply a case of flashy animations in Powerpoint or its cousins – they probably do get taught this, possibly ad nauseam. No, I mean the ability not only to string a sentence together, but to understand how to frame an argument so that there is a logical flow, possibly over many pages. The need to understand (as one of my own ex-PhD students, who was by then a lecturer, expressed it when frustrated about their own students’ prose) that papers need to have a beginning, a middle and an end. We are not talking about writing stream of consciousness texts like Virginia Woolf, or chronological accounts of everything that went wrong with multiple experiments. No, we are talking about conveying complex ideas in an appropriate manner so that someone not involved with the research can make head or tail of it. It is a skill that isn’t taught and perhaps ought to be. (I should stress these comments all refer to UK-educated students, rather than those for whom English is a second language for whom the issues may be very different.)
I have heard it argued that alongside A levels, we should be seeking to inculcate basic mathematics skills into all our schoolchildren using (for those not pursuing an A level in maths itself) something akin to a Use of Mathematics exam, similar to the ideas I discussed in that earlier post. I was of the generation that went through a Use of English exam myself, again intended for those not studying that subject at A level. I was also subjected to training in the art of précis at O level, a skill I suspect is not taught anywhere in our schools currently. Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, reading an extended piece of text and reducing it to 200 words – or any other number as prescribed – is probably something that has stood me in good stead every time I’ve had to write a literature survey or review. Even at primary school I was drilled in punctuation and parsing the parts of speech. Much of this I have probably forgotten, yet I suspect the basic structures lurk at the back of my brain, reinforced by five years of Latin. But for many students now progressing up the scientific ladder, such opportunities may never have offered themselves. Their courses may have required little more than multiple choice answers, or perhaps a sentence or two of explanation, at school. At university, how many tutors have got the red (or green) pen out to correct spelling or grammar in a write-up of an experiment or survey of some piece of the literature? We expect a lot of our students without actually necessarily helping them on their way.
Despite concerns about our language use more generally, the Queen’s English Society has just thrown in the towel, reckoning that people no longer see the point of good, clear English in this age of texts and tweets (anyhow it transpired nobody wanted to join or run their committee). As the Guardian reported, in recent times this society has
also highlighted deficiencies in the use of English by university undergraduates – more than 80% were unable to spell and use the word “effect” correctly, while 43% were unable to spell the word “miniature”.
I would agree – I frequently find myself getting my pen out to correct a student’s spelling of effect/affect. Another particular confusion that irritates me is the misuse of dependent/dependant. It is extraordinary to me how many parameters turn out apparently to be ‘financially or otherwise supported’ by temperature or concentration – not what is intended. However, I find my willingness to wield a red pen as a result of poor grammar (or spelling), or just bad, confusing style, can sometimes be too rampant. When reading published papers, reports or even novels I find myself metaphorically reaching for the pen too – bad style is not just the preserve of the unwary science student.
So, let us as scientists not be prepared to accept verbose, wandering prose, poor punctuation or a lack of clarity in what we write. We should each work on our own style whilst also doing all we can to encourage students to recognize the importance of clear expression, correct spelling and thesuccinct presentation of a logical train of thought. Otherwise we are not going to do anything to further the wider public’s appreciation of what we do and why we love it, even when opportunities present themselves. Right, now where is my red pen?
I realise by complaining about other people’s writing, I am at risk of being corrected myself for an apostrophe gone astray or the infelicities of my own language. Please don’t bother to comment on this!