So, I’m teaching my course in Scientific Writing, and I’m frustrated by something I didn’t see coming. I teach students to write in the active voice (“I measured photosynthesis”, not “Photosynthesis was measured”). That’s the modern best practice in scientific writing – not to use the active all the time, but to prefer it unless there’s a specific reason for using the passive in a specific sentence. But the way the course is structured, I’m running into conflict with my departmental colleagues. Through the semester, I have my students turn in drafts of whatever writing project they’re already working on – usually an Honours thesis or one chapter of a graduate thesis. The first assignment is a draft Methods section. And here’s how things go, for something like a quarter of the class:
- In class, I recommend writing in the active voice.
- For our first Assignment, student drafts a Methods section, in the active voice.
- Student shows the draft to their Honours or graduate supervisor.
- Supervisor crosses out all the active voice and explains – incorrectly – that scientific writing has to be in the passive.
- Student revises into the passive, then submits the assignment to me.
- I grade the assignment, penalizing the use of the passive.
- Student is upset.
What makes this most remarkable, I think, is that most students sign up for the course at the urging of their supervisors – the very supervisors who then overrule what I teach!*
I teach some entomology too, and population biology, and biostatistics. I don’t think I’ve ever had a student whose supervisor has insisted that flies actually have two pairs of wings, no matter what they’ve been taught in Entomology; that logistic growth doesn’t actually asymptote to K, no matter what they’ve been taught in Population Biology; or that the critical value for a 1-way ANOVA with 2 and 6 degrees of freedom is 9.43 and not 5.14, no matter what they’ve been taught in Biostatistics. Writing is different, I’ll admit – there are few writing issues on which someone can be as wrong as thinking logistic growth doesn’t asymptote to K. But there are some, and avoiding the active voice is one of them. I keep coming back to this: if you think it’s worth having your students take a writing course, why do you think they should ignore what’s taught in that course?
I’ve been a little bit stuck on what to do about this. If I teach active voice, I’m penalizing students who listen to their supervisors’ advice**. If I teach passive voice, I’m penalizing students who would do better to write according to modern best practices. I’ve come up with two potential solutions, though (and I’d like to hear your reaction to them in the Replies).
(1) What I’ve done so far: I use this instructor-supervisor conflict as a teaching opportunity. This won’t be the last time that one of my students will need to navigate dissent about how to write. They may have two coauthors disagreeing; they may have two peer reviewers disagreeing; they may even have a single peer reviewer telling them to do two incompatible things (“add these three analyses, cite these 27 additional references, and also shorten your manuscript”). I tell them that it’s their writing, not their supervisors’, and that they can discuss with their supervisor why they don’t want to heed a suggestion (and can do the same with me). This doesn’t reduce the awkwardness for them, though. It may even increase the awkwardness, although it does harness it to good educational end.
(2) What I think I’ll do next year: I’ll try to head this one off at the pass. Other issues can be examples of resolving writing-team conflict; but the exclusive use of the passive voice needs to die the death that is so richly deserved by it***. So I’ve written a short letter, which I’ll send to the graduate or Honours supervisor of each student at the beginning of the semester. Here it is:
Dear Faculty Supervisor,
Your student is taking my course, Biology 4643/6463: Scientific Writing. In that course, I teach modern best practices for scientific writing, including the use of the active voice. (That doesn’t mean using only the active voice, but it means using the active voice unless there is a technical justification for using the passive in a particular sentence. If you’d like to read some recommendations on the use of the active, you can see The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, pp. 164-166 (my book, and the course text); or Schimel’s Writing Science, pp. 134-136; or Greene’s Writing Science in Plain English, pp. 22-28).
Your student will be submitting parts of their draft Honours thesis, graduate thesis, or scientific paper as assignments in Biology 4463. They will be graded on their adoption of best practices, including the use of the active voice. If you prefer that they use the older, passive style when they submit their work to you (or to their committee), you can certainly request that of them. However, please wait and ask them to revise that way after grading for the course is complete. (Keep in mind that they may well be asked to revise again, back into the active, during peer review for publication.)
Instructor, Bio 4643/6463
I don’t know if this will work, but maybe it will take the heat off the student and put it on me, where it belongs. What do you think – should I dial it up a notch and work in some kind of snarky reference to fly wing counts and logistic growth? Or am I correct in suspecting that I should save that kind of thing for blog posts?
© Stephen Heard March 5, 2019
*^It isn’t just the passive voice on which I get overruled, and there’s some variation among cases. Sometimes, supervisors disagree with me about issues that don’t have a clearly “correct” side. For example, last year I had students turn in Discussion drafts before Introduction drafts, because I think that’s the better order in which to write. That one went over like a lead balloon, with supervisors still insisting on seeing their students’ Introductions first – forcing them to write both at once. And I have to admit, Introduction-first isn’t wrong, it just isn’t my preference. So I’ve retreated, and this year students can choose either Introduction-first or Discussion-first. But in 2019, writing exclusively in the passive voice is objectively wrong (despite the desperate rearguard action being fought by a few of my colleagues and a very small handful of unenlightened journals). More about the active vs. passive voice, by the way, in this post, or in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.
**^And not just via grading penalties for using the passive voice – that’s the least important thing. I’m penalizing them by putting them in an awkward position, unable to simultaneously please both me and their supervisor – but knowing that both of us have power over them. Ugh.
***^I know, I’m not as clever as I think I am. As I am thought to be by me.