Literally doomed

FemaleScienceProfessor’s grad students are Literally Doomed.  Many have gone through high school and college without mastering basic writing skills.

Should we encourage our grad students to take additional writing courses in the English department? No, this doesn’t typically tend to help with science writing, although it may help with some of the most appalling problems with grammar.

Should we assign a lot of writing in our undergrad and grad science classes? We already do this in some classes, but other classes can’t reasonably incorporate a writing component.

Should we, as grad advisers, continue to work on writing issues with our advisees? Yes, of course we should, but this is likely to continue to be a major effort without dramatic positive effect for some students.

The professor and her colleagues “see no difference in the writing skills of graduates of elite liberal arts colleges vs. large universities, public or private.”

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  1. Someone will have to tell me why it’s so incredibly important that scientists be exceptional writers.

    And most grad science students these days are Asian–which she doesn’t mention. If they are primarily non-native English speakers, she should have.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I said it there, and I’ll say it here.

    Literally and Literarily are not interchangeable.

    We really are doomed — literally and literarily — when the good people on whom we depend for our intellectual salvation, complaining about a widespread inability to write, can’t get their own titles tidy.

  3. Cal..”Someone will have to tell me why it’s so incredibly important that scientists be exceptional writers”…well, in business, it’s important for scientists and engineers to be able to write intelligible and persuasive project proposals, for example, and to write clear and unambiguous product specifications. This requirement goes up sharply for anyone who hopes to be promoted to a management level and succeed at same.

  4. As someone who is a scientist, and who regularly reads published scientific research, I will say I wish many scientists were better writers. I’ve read articles that I had to read three or four times to understand – not because the subject matter was difficult but because they were written in such an unclear and obscure way that it was painful to read.

  5. U. of Chicago has had a writing course for grad students for years. See:

    Also look up “Style: Towards Clarity and Grace” by Joseph M. Williams.

  6. I am currently enrolled in a doctoral program and I will say that many of my classmates have real struggles with basic writing. Of course this is magnified for students for whom English is not a first language–but the problem is far more pervasive. I am a writer and writing has always served me well as a means of organizing ideas. I can absolutely concede that this is not the case for all learners–but I do question what people understand when they are unable to communicate it well.

    Certainly my working life has been enhance by the fact that my skills are so badly needed by so many. But–there are still some basic mechanical understandings needed by all. If nothing else, one should understand grammatical rules sufficiently to know whether or not to accept the grammar check’s recommendations.

  7. Bill Leonard says:

    What Margo/mom said!

    As an old reporter who also has written considerable magazine-length material, I believe that the skills for clear, understandable prose can be mastered by anyone with a genuine interest in trying to do so.

    Grammar and basic English mechanics are critical, of course. But beyond that, a great deal of prose writing can actually be categorized into templates that any literate person should be able to follow and use. And when it comes to organizing the material, I would think that those in scientific and technical disciplines would, through the nature, training and study of their disciplines, actually have an edge on those from the non-scientific arena.

  8. Someone will have to tell me why it’s so incredibly important that scientists be exceptional writers.

    Well I don’t think it’s incredibly important that scientists be exceptional writers. But I think it’s incredibly important that scientists be good writers. This is because writing is an important method of communication, and replication of experimental results is an important part of the scientific process, and it’s hard for people to replicate your results if they don’t know what your methods or results were because you wrote poorly.
    Also, it’s hard to change the world with your incredibly-brillant new theory if no one understands it.

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    Someone will have to tell me where the”exceptional” writers piece came from in the first place.
    I believe the original problem was “barely intelligible”.
    Perhaps the only category besides “barely intelligble” is “exceptional”.
    That would explain a lot.

  10. These are graduate students. They passed high school, with at least three years of English. They won a bachelors degree, earning credits in college English among other distribution requirements. How did they manage this without writing passably well?


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