Read: Writing Science

  • Schimel’s “Writing Science” seems a better guide to ‘serious’ writing than Pinker’s recent “The sense of style.” Though both are aimed at the non-fiction writer and have many recommendations in common.

    Schimel takes a more hands-on, practical approach. Indeed, “Writing Science” is a more classical textbook, even including end-of-chapter problems. It is showing what works and less discussing the why. On the other hand, it makes very clear why good writing is necessary. You want your article not just getting published but also cited. And you need that grant.

    All in all, “Writing Science” is not dramatically different from other good writing guides. A distinguishing feature may be the explicit framing of the article and that grant applications as stories. A scientific article is not that different from a novel, the research note may not be that different from a newspaper piece. Hence, the story arc features prominently in this writing guide. The story arc determines the overall structure of the article, its sections, paragraphs, and sentences.

    As particularly eye-opening and helpful I would consider Schimel’s discussion of an article’s resolution, its conclusion. It should not end with and emphasize the article’s shortcomings but its contribution. It should not emphasize that “more research is needed” but the potential application. It should not give the reason to read another paper but the reason to cite this article.

Read: The Sense of Style

  • Pinker’s The Sense of Style is a unique writing guide in the sense of its foundation in psychology, its acknowledgement of the nonsense of a strict prescriptive–descriptive dichotomy, and its reference and discussion of other well known guides and popular texts on writing. I like that. It unfortunately also contains a chapter with a very common list of good and wrong usage of terms that could be found on any blog on writing as well. I did not like that.

    Hence, the first five chapters are easy to recommend. They instruct, explain, and entertain. It was interesting and enlightening to learn that many “rules”, that need to be broken, are based on the misconception that English is Latin. It is not. Latin grammar does not apply to the English language.

    There are a couple of other things I noticed and learned.

    Pinker’s Sense of Style is political. Pinker takes clear positions. (On, for instance, feminism and the gender neutral singular)

    Every sentence requires a writer to grapple with tradeoffs between clarity, concision, tone, cadence, accuracy, and other values. Why should the value of not excluding women be the only one whose weight is set to zero?

    Typographical conventions that support the reader, the ease of reading, and hence facilitate the understanding of a text may be at odds with grammatical structure that also clarifies the meaning and facilitates the understanding of a text.

    No discussion of the illogic of punctuation would be complete without the infamous case of the ordering of a quotation mark with respect to a comma or period. The rule in American publications (the British are more sensible about this) is that when quoted material appears at the end of a phrase or sentence, the closing quotation mark goes outside the comma or period, “like this,” rather than inside, “like this”. The practice is patently illogical: the quotation marks enclose a part of the phrase or sentence, and the comma or period signals the end of that entire phrase or sentence, so putting the comma or period inside the quotation marks is like Superman’s famous wardrobe malfunction of wearing his underwear outside his pants. But long ago some American printer decided that the page looks prettier without all that unsightly white space above and to the left of a naked period or comma, and we have been living with the consequences ever since.

    I would usually prefer the typographers’ approach. Though Pinker (and Pullum) makes a valid point when it comes to the discussion of the structure of a text, its sentences.

    The American punctuation rule sticks in the craw of every computer scientist, logician, and linguist, because any ordering of typographical delimiters that fails to reflect the logical nesting of the content makes a shambles of their work. On top of its galling irrationality, the American rule prevents a writer from expressing certain thoughts. In his semi-serious 1984 essay “Punctuation and Human Freedom,” Geoffrey Pullum discusses the commonly misquoted first two lines of Shakespeare’s King Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”68 Many people misremember it as “Now is the winter of our discontent”, full stop. Now suppose one wanted to comment on the error by writing:
    Shakespeare’s King Richard III contains the line “Now is the winter of our discontent”.
    This is a true sentence. But an American copy editor would change it to:
    Shakespeare’s King Richard III contains the line “Now is the winter of our discontent.”
    But this is a false sentence, or at least there’s no way for the writer to make it unambiguously true or false.

    Hence, yes, the typographer’s rule needs to be broken if necessary.

Read: Make it Stick

  • even if they are told. Hence, I cannot point out these simple learning strategies often enough. On the other hand, there are institutional constraints, too, that we need to overcome in order to provide a better learning environment. Shorter, more frequent class sessions may be substantially better for the long term learning outcome than few long and exhausting sessions.

Read: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

  • The desire to improve one’s productivity also entails improving one’s (work) environment. I noticed, e.g., that for some tasks I would move out of my home office and use the free, uncluttered living room table. Hence, the challenge for this year is to unclutter. Finally moving in together showed that there is just too much stuff.

    Marie Kondo’s advice is simple: Everything must go.

    Ok, it’s not that extreme. Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” is fascinating, insightful, I cannot take it (all) serious, and annoying at the same time.

    The book is fascinating and insightful as her approach to tidying up, to unclutter is refreshingly different. Instead of choosing what to throw out she recommends choosing what to keep. This change of perspective quite radically changes the default and thus the amount of stuff that has to leave. The less stuff, the less clutter. The guiding question “Does it spark joy?” is also quite simple and easy to apply. Though I am not quite ready for that kind of radical uncluttering.

    Due to this radical approach, it’s philosophy of extreme minimalism I also cannot take it all serious. There are things that do not spark joy but are necessary. And, I just do not want to throw anything into the trash that maybe someone else may still find useful. Therefore, the radical one-time weeding out of stuff seems just not feasible. Selling and giving away takes a surprisingly large amount of time. Further, thanking (earlier) possessions for a job well done and for fulfilling a purpose seems just plain silly. Finally, the continuous references to her, Kondo’s, youth (that is actually not that far in the past) and her early interest in tidying up and “better living” magazines do not necessarily spark confidence in her expertise.

    Lastly, the book is annoying as Kondo is quite sexist, assuming only women would like to tidy up and unclutter their living and work environments. It is targeted specifically at women, thus reinforcing a stereotype that should not exist in an enlightened society.

Read: How Learning Works

  • “Research based principles for smart teaching”: sounds great. The authors even start with a quote from Herbert Simon. And yes, the authors’ advice is research based.

    The “bridge” between learning research and practice, however, is a rather superficial one. The research is mostly discussed in a way I would do it if the referee asks to add an additional reference. It’s mentioned without assessing its merits, its contribution, what was done well, and what was not. X found that in context Y, full stop.

    Nevertheless, the advice seems sound, at least reasonable. Only one chapter seems a bit lopsided. “Student Development and Course Climate” is a bit too much “cuddle pedagogy”, advocating for a soft, making everyone feel comfortable approach. I, and I guess others too, think a little discomfort goes hand in hand with a necessary challenge. Without a little challenge students would not see that they can still improve, that there is more to learn.

    The most helpful part of the book is, however, the appendix. Here are examples of rubrics, peer review question templates, learnings objectives, self-assessment tests, and an exam wrapper. Nothing original, yet, all apt to give inspiration for applying this and that in one’s own course.

Read: Maximize Your Potential

  • While each individual chapter of Maximize Your Potential reads rather nicely the whole compilation does not add much. The articles do not build on each other so there is no logical progression, when they are based on research it’s not the author’s and more often than not it’s just one single older study that has been refuted since.

    Bottom line: it would have been more reasonable just reading u99’s blog than buying this little book. I consider it a donation.

Read: Manage your day-to-day

  • I don’t know whether “Manage your day-to-day” is a best-of of the relevant articles on 99u but it certainly could be. So here is a small collection of articles by various authors on three productivity topics: finding focus, the use of tools, become productively creative.

    If you have ever read a productivity blog there will be nothing new. Still, the little book was rather entertaining and a very quick read. Most of the advice is or should be common sense. Nevertheless, I had the feeling that there are also some inconsistencies. Of course, if you have several authors independently writing up some material on related topics and they start talking about their own personal experiences and try to come up with some general advice based on these they will contradict each other in some points. There is no one-size-fits all.

Read: Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals

  • Thomson and Kamler’s “Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals: Strategies for getting published” differs substantially from other guides with similar titles like “Writing your journal article in 12 weeks”. It has the same audience, the rather inexperienced doctoral and early career researcher.

    Their approach is different. The writer is seen as an individual that (still) struggles with his or her identity as a writer. Thus, strategies for getting published also include finding one’s identity. Following a universal to-do-list and checking off item after item is not enough.

    Thomson and Kamler take a “meta-perspective.” They analyse, they deconstruct, and they build a whole from the atomic parts. The different maturity stages of a (tiny) text are shown, exemplifying their advice. Of course, in a way they, too, share a list of tasks with their advisee, their reader. Yet, these tasks are not just exercises on how to write an academic text. They are indeed strategies for increasing the likelihood of getting published.

    Hence, Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals is not just another practical guide for writing publishable articles, it is a valuable complement to other guides on academic writing. It focusses on different aspects of the writing process and parts of the text – like the abstract or the title – that are often neglected.

Read: Style -- The Art of Writing Well

  • I have to admit that I am not able to fully appreciate Lucas’ Style – The Art of Writing Well. Imagine, I lack the necessary education: in the French language, in classical English literature. And I am not the only one.

    Style is not a practical guide to hone one’s English writing. It is about Writing Well in a much more general sense. It is not about how to achieve a certain effect. It is rather to show the importance of a few general principles that are likely to improve any text. Lucas summarizes these as “pursue clarity, brevity, and courtesy to readers; to be, if not gay, at least good-humoured, never to write a line without considering whether it is really true, whether you have not exaggerated your statement, or its evidence; to shun dead images, and cherish living ones; and to revise unremittingly…” There are other books than Lucas’, textbooks that will better help in putting these principles into action.

    Still, Lucas also gives some practical advice. In the last chapter on the Methods of Writing he urges the writer to think but not to over-think, to revise but to know when to let go or else the text becomes too constructed, too cold. I think this is the most important lesson.

    Lucas considers French a language that allows good style more easily than English (which, in turn, has the advantage over German), hence all the French, all the long French, examples to illustrate his points. I can understand the despair of the many readers who were denied a translation in the first edition 1955. These readers are mentioned in the preface to this, the third edition of Style. The translations are now provided in many, many footnotes – I would have preferred to put the English translation next to the French –; yet they cannot do justice to the original as they lack the elegance and melody of the French excerpts. Hence my feeling of a lack of proper appreciation.

    Finally, there was also a moment of confirmation of a personal conviction. Endnotes en lieu of footnotes are a terrible obstacle. They are just rude. Already footnotes disrupt the reading and comprehension process. Now, with endnotes you have to flip through the pages of the book: First to find the endnote, then to find the reference to the endnote again that send you away from reading the actual text. If there are endnotes, I usually don’t bother to look at them. The author obviously does not want me to. If an author should limit his use of footnotes – sometimes they are adding to the clarity and brevity of the text and are thus beneficial – endnotes should not be used at all! Never.

Read: Leading Dynamic Seminars

  • Always on the look for ideas for improving my teaching I stumbled upon Anderson and Bellenkes’ Practical Handbook for University Educators.

    It is only practical in the sense that it does not fall in the Pure Theory category. It is, however, rather generic and in an attempt to avoid describing specific tools that may not be available in the future it avoids describing any practical implementations at all. No, that is wrong. It is offering some specific phrases the seminar leader should avoid or use for obtaining the best results, taking care of the potential diversity of his seminar participants. I do not think anyone should learn these specific phrases in order to repeat them in the seminar room.

    Bottom line is the little handbook was a bit of a downer. The authors define their audience in the beginning of their text rather broad, from the novice teacher to the seasoned department chair and university administrator. That definition is too broad. The generic directions are of use mainly for the novice. After only a few years of teaching all the mentioned points should be obvious and intuitively part of the seminar leader’s repertoire.