Image: Skillet Clubtail dragonfly, by David Marvin (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
This year in my 3rd-year Entomology course, we introduced a new student assignment: to write a blog post about an insect of conservation concern in Canada. (I say “we”, because most of the credit goes to my TA and PhD student Chandra Moffat. I’ll link to some of the resulting posts below; but first, a few thoughts.
We instituted a blogging assignment because we hoped it might address some different skills, and thus different kinds of learning, compared with the more traditional mini-papers I’d assigned in the past. We wanted to let students (1) write in a different style, and with a more interesting audience, than they usually do; (2) think and write about insect conservation, which we otherwise don’t address much but is interesting and important; and (3) see consequences of their work not just for a grade, but (for those who were willing) for real-world science communication.
This use of social media in teaching is a first for me (and yes, you’re allowed to roll your eyes at what a stick-in-the-mud I’ve been). If you’re inexperienced too, this post by Chris Buddle provides some very useful advice. Chandra and I were extremely happy with the results, for two reasons. First, the students were more engaged with this assignment than with any other. Second, their writing was better – much better. I suspect that’s partly the engagement, but there might be something else at play too. We seem to teach students that there’s a lot to worry about in scientific (journal-paper) writing, which we ask them to emulate in lab reports and papers. This gets them writing as if they’re balanced on a high wire, terrified of putting a foot wrong, and therefore doing things that seem to them to emulate the literature: passive voice, turgid sentences, reams of detail. Loosening the (perceived) constraints of the scientific-writing genre seems to have let them write more freely and naturally, and as a result, better. Our technical literature might well benefit from a similar relaxation, and this exercise has led me to wonder if that’s another reason we should encourage scientific writers to throw off the shackles a little and write with at least glints of humour and humanity.
We gave our students the choice of having their blog posts seen only by their classmates, or releasing them publicly. Five of thirteen chose to make their work public. Those that did not (there were no consequences for making that decision) gave two reasons. Some were reluctant to contact copyright-holders of images for permission to use them publicly. Others simply felt a bit intimidated by the notion of worldwide availability of their work. Interestingly, there was no correlation between quality of the work and student willingness to go public with it!
I’m grateful to Sean McCann and the Entomological Society of Canada for hosting my students’ posts on the ESC blog. The five took different writing approaches, but all are great. Please click through to check them out:
- The five-spotted bogus yucca moth, by Isaac MacLean
- The sand-verbena moth, by Lisa Jørgensen
- The skillet clubtail dragonfly, by Melody McLean
- The cuckoo gypsy bumblebee, by Zach DeLong
- The cobblestone tiger beetle, by Mischa Giasson
UPDATE: here’s the assignment and rubric as distributed, for anyone who would like to try this themselves.
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) January 29, 2016
You might think that I have my curmudgeon hat on again, but all five of your bloggers fall into a turgidity trap that before they even get past the link title.
They all refer to their animals as “The….” even though they are writing about populations, not single individuals. This is a carryover from formal science, where it seems to be a centuries-old leftover from concepts of species as single entities.
Maybe I’m splitting hairs, but to me it seems very strange to be writing about animals and referring to them as the animal. I also have a sneaking suspicion that phrases such as “Save the tiger” (instead of Save the tigers) contribute to notions that we can do conservation one individual at a time, rather than by conserving populations and habitats. In my own field of mammal social behaviour and communication it is a particular sticking point because most of mammal social behaviour is about individuals that are different to one another, not uniform entities that can all be subsumed under one undifferentiated label.
The “The…” is so utterly familiar that nobody notices it, until the text is rewritten in the plural. When I did that in two books on African mammals for lay audiences the copy editor dutifully changed all my plurals back to singulars, having apparently missed the paragraph in the introduction where I explained why I was doing it like that.
Maybe I’m worrying about nothing, if I take;
“The sand-verbena moth (Copablepharon fuscum) is, when it comes to looks, a relatively anonymous fellow. This nocturnal moth, which belongs to the order Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) and the family Noctuidae, has a wingspan of 3.5-4.0 cm and has only been found in three Canadian sites, all on the coast of southwestern British Columbia, and in a few sites in the northwestern coastal part of Washington, USA.”
and change it to:
Sand-verbena moths (Copablepharon fuscum) are, when it comes to looks, relatively anonymous fellows. These nocturnal moths, which belongs to the order Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) and the family Noctuidae, have a wingspan of 3.5-4.0 cm and have only been found in three Canadian sites, all on the coast of southwestern British Columbia, and in a few sites in the northwestern coastal part of Washington, USA.
does it draw a different picture in anyone’s head ?
Peter – this is interesting, because (precisely as you anticipate) the “the” is so utterly familiar that I didn’t notice it!
Interestingly, I don’t react any differently to your two version of the sand-verbena moth paragraph. Or if anything, I lean to the original on the grounds that “the” sand-verbena moth is about the whole species; but “sand-verbena moths” is about some of them, and it’s unclear whether it’s all of them, or just some, and why we’re worried about that. This may be entirely a matter of preference, or (more interestingly) I wonder if this is a place where lay writing might lean to the “moths” usage and technical writing to the “the moth” usage.
I hope others will chime in on this, because I’m really intrigued.
I also didn’t notice the “the” issue until reading these comments. I just did a quick glance at some of my own blog posts and scientific writing, and I think I tend to use “the western black widow” fairly often when writing about my research, but typically, “oecobiids” or “spiders in the genus Oecobius” or “starlegged spiders” on my blog, which is aimed at a lay audience (without ever having thought about it before now). I do notice that whenever I am writing about spiders, I have a similar issue when writing about the different sexes. I am always initially inclined to write “the female’s pheromone…” and then grapple with whether it’s better to say “females’ pheromones…” but the latter seems so awkward.
Steve – I think you’ve addressed this issue in the post itself, where you note that the advantage of blogging or other social media as an assignment is that it allows students to find their own voice when they write. We’ve used a blogging exercise in our Desert Ecology field course since 2013 (desertecology.wordpress.com). I review the posts before they go live, but only to check them for factual errors or inappropriate language. The writing style is entirely up to the students.
I think the “the” usage is a non-issue. Species can be viewed as a group of separate individuals (no ‘the”), or as an evolutionarily and ecologically discrete and cohesive entity (“the”). I see both used regularly.
The first comment on your post illustrates nicely one reason some students are hesitant to put their written work out for public consumption: the likelihood that they will be subjected to unnecessarily critical, pedantic comments that have nothing to do with the content of the work. If our responsibility as established scientists is to encourage the next generation of scientists, one of the most important things we can do is to cut them some slack along the way. The turgidity trap here isn’t in their blog posts.
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I also agree wholeheartedly with Terry – there is nothing wrong with using “the” the way these students have in their posts, and it takes quite a lot of courage to put your writing up on the internet for the world to see. I’m very impressed by your students, Steve.
Thanks for posting that, Terry. Well put!
I’m sorry if the students feel that my criticism is too harsh for them, but they can take heart from being in the company of every biologist (including me and several Nobel prize winners) who ever wrote “the” as if organisms are like the fundamental particles of physics – the electron and the the proton stand for all electrons and all protons everywhere and for all time, one proton is identical to all the rest, one electron behaves the same as all the other electrons. Can the same be said about living organisms ? – I don’t think so, which is why I prefer to use the plural form, even in the peer reviewed literature.
Stephen and Catherine confirm that the singular form is so entrenched that it has become invisible, thinking about what it implies, and whether it is appropriate needs to be part of the process of improving scientists’ writing, just as much as using the active voice, and short words and sentences instead of long ones.
Maybe I can illustrate my unease with the singular with some made up sentences;
“Scientists need to improve their writing” vs “The scientist needs to improve her/his writing”
“Lions eat buffaloes” vs “The lion eats buffaloes” (which for consistency’s sake should really be “The lion eats the buffalo”).
Like Catherine, I also find some of the plural constructions a bit awkward – probably in part because they are unfamiliar. One work around is to write about individual organisms; instead of “The elephant eats 150 kg per day”, or “Elephants eat 150 kg per day” I use “An elephant eats 150 kg per day”.
Species are both groups of separate individuals and evolutionarily and ecologically discrete and cohesive entities. When writing about a species the singular is appropriate; “The tiger evolved from …….”. When writing about individual members of a species I prefer the plural. Species do things, like evolve, that individuals do not, and individuals do things, like mate, eat and run that species do not. So I would not write “Tigers evolved from …..”, “The tiger runs at 35 km/h” or “Panthera tigris runs at 30 km/h”.
People can write the way that they want to, but if the idea is to get non-scientists engaged with science then how they write makes a huge difference.
My opinion is the ‘the’ issue might be more of a ‘tomāto’/’tomahto’ perception. ‘The’ often imparts a perception of a collective, rather than an individual, and of formality in technical science English writing. Such nuances and rules of formality, individual, plural, and gender are lacking in the English language, and writing, compared to some of the classical languages.
As Billie Holliday sang, if ‘the’ is used, we don’t have to call the whole thing off. 😉
It is precisely the “formality in technical science English writing” that I think we should take pains to avoid when we write for a general audience. I have been trying to think of any examples of collectives outside biology where the singular “the” is currently in common use – so far I have come up empty. The closest I can get is in referring to nationalities; “The French drink lots of red wine and live to a ripe old age” sounds OK, but only because French is plural. “The German eat lots of fatty sausages and drink beer” is bad grammar, and singular “The”. “The Germans eat etc” is good grammar, and plural, as is “Germans eat etc”. It is certainly possibly to find plenty of singular “The” references to “The German, The Frenchman, The native” etc in English writing, but you have to go back a few decades for it to be as uniformly common as it still is in popular writing about biology. The main reason why I do not use the singular “The” when I write for a lay audience is that I want to avoid sounding formal and, dare I say it ?, old fashioned, I want the writing itself to be similar to what people are used to reading – then there are no distractions from the message.
Steve, I was wondering how you graded these. I’ve been thinking of incorporating a similar assignment in my Evolutionary Medicine course, and one thing that’s been stopping me is the rubric. Did you give them goals to meet?
Kari – I just updated the post with a link to the actual assignment. If that helps, borrow away! And if you want to know more, I can put you in touch with Chandra, who graded them.
I used blogging in Invertebrate Zoology the last 2 years I taught it at UNBC. Another advantage with this format is that is actually fun to grade these assignments. I proofread all entries and for the most part was extremely pleased with student performance.
One reason for the engagement is that students fell greater ownership when they are free to write in a manner they enjoy. I specified that it should be written for a lay audience, which makes a world of difference.
With respect to the first comment, I agree completely with Terry. I don’t interpret “the” to denote an individual but the species. If they used “this [species name]” I can see the problem.
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