I’ve been reading a surprising amount about conehead crickets recently. An insect I had never previously encountered but which crossed my path, metaphorically, twice in one day due to my bad habit of reading multiple books simultaneously. On my Kindle I’ve been enjoying A Sting in the Tail by Dave Goulson, a book recommended to me by Mary Beard as being stuffed full of interesting anecdotes. (She had read it when judging the Samuel Johnson Book Prize and it had obviously stuck in her mind even several years later.) Whereas, for bath-time reading where the Kindle does not follow me, I have been dipping into Claxton by Mark Cocker, made up of brief articles dated day by day, following through the seasons. In high summer up turns the conehead cricket in Claxton (Norfolk), as it does in the explorations of Goulson around the New Forest.
These two books are in very different styles and serving different purposes. Claxton is a collection of short articles written as nature columns for a variety of publications, whereas A Sting in the Tail is a memoir of a bumblebee researcher’s life, along with accompanying science. The brief columns seem to be much more self-consciously lyrical in their vocabulary, with many vivid adjectives depicting everything that crosses the author’s path. Indeed, although this may be heretical to say, sometimes I find the lyricism excessive, almost too self-consciously beautiful. Perhaps that’s because I’m a prosaic scientist for whom clarity matters above all. I think I prefer the writing of Robert Macfarlane: lyrical as he can be about our landscapes, he never seems to be too far away from some underlying science.
I seem to read a lot of books about the natural world. No doubt it is one form of escapism, but it does seem to me that nature writers are particularly prone to indulge in the flowery adjective (no pun intended) and get unduly poetic so that the message they may be trying to convey gets buried in an endless descriptive stream of words. It is hard to imagine ‘lablit’ or even a campus novel à la David Lodge expressed this way. For my amusement – well it is the vacation so clearly I have nothing better to do as Lord Adonis has made so plain – I have tried to frame things this way.
Consider the typical scene of a 9am lecture:
Early in the morning, when the frost was fresh and glittering on the grass and the trees looked stark and beautiful against the rising sun, the young lecturer swung into the packed lecture theatre to greet his students with his customary exuberance. Their stony visages met his cheerful greeting, their phones still clasped in their hands as they struggled to cast the shadow of last night’s drinking binge from their befuddled brains. The lecturer unbuttoned his cuffs and rolled his sleeves up, gracefully striding over to the podium so that he could beam down with his sunny countenance upon their tired, morning-after, eyes-half-shut unwelcoming faces.
Just as the vixen sniffs the early morning air to seek her mate or prey, so the lecturer briefly gazed upwards to ensure that his brimming, bubbling confidence could not be dented by a crowd of less than warm-welcoming too-early-in-the-morning unenthusiastic medics whose task it was to get to grips with the intricacies of the lower intestine and its multiple possible malfunctions in the middle-aged. He welcomed the churlish crowd by singing his mundane words of greeting to an Aria from Cosi Fan Tutte in his deep baritone voice, precipitating a flurry of surprised eyes to open or temporarily to lift from their phone screens, like a herd of nervous sheep who hear the first bark of the sheepdog. The excitement was brief but palpable.
No I don’t think that would do at all. But it is interesting to note that a lecture theatre’s environment does not lend itself to adjectives, whereas moorland or the shore’s fringes might. We expect students to ‘know’ how to write in a correct style; I suspect I have always assumed that they – like me in days gone by, because I certainly was never given any formal training – will simply absorb the correct style from reading the papers they will necessarily be studying for the content. There are, of course, centrally-run courses on how to write your PhD. But writing doesn’t necessarily come easily.
If I think back to my school days, our science homework (certainly our Chemistry homework, which was the first science I encountered at secondary school), had its own prescribed formula consisting of sections of Aims, Methods, Results and Conclusion. So, to continue my frivolity, here is the lecture theatre scenario of my young lecturer above written in this second style.
Aim: To deliver a lecture on the lower intestine to 250 medical students.
Method: Use of pre-prepared Powerpoint slides and a laptop. Students were already in the lecture hall before the lecturer walked in so before delivery of the full lecture some preliminary experiments were carried out to make sure the audience was awake. The appropriate end-point of the lecture was established by careful clock-watching. As the hands pointed to the hour the lecturer shut down the computer and swiftly left by the nearest exit.
Results: The preliminary experiments ensured that at least half of the students put their phones away, at which point it was decided it was time to switch into full lecturing mode. During the course of the ensuing hour one student fell off their seat due to being overcome by drowsiness, three phones rang with excruciating ring tones and the Twitter feed of the MedSoc President indicated they were more interested in US politics than the lower intestine.
Conclusion: Charismatic lecturers are not sufficient to compensate for dull teaching topics.
It is equally unsuitable written like that. All of us need help with our writing and reading other people’s words can only take us so far in our progression.