Category Archives: teaching

On teaching writing, and being overruled: a passive-(voice)-aggressive rant

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.  Continue reading


Yes, I’m teaching a tropical field course. No, it’s not a vacation.

Images: Howler monkey (Alouatta pigra); Royal Flycatcher (Onychorhynchus mexicanus); Helmeted basilisk (Corytophanes cristatus).  All photos © 2017 S Heard, CC BY 4.0

In March, I’ll be heading to Belize to teach an undergraduate tropical ecology field course (not alone; I have an excellent batch of co-instructors).  I mentioned this to someone last week, and their reaction was to chuckle and say “wow, must be nice!”.  And maybe it seems petty, but I’m getting really tired of that reaction.

The thing is, it’s near-universal.  Continue reading

Presenting statistical results: pointers in scientific writing

This semester, I’m coteaching a graduate/advanced-undergraduate level course in biostatistics and experimental design.  This is my lecture on how to present statistical results, when writing up a study.  It’s a topic I’ve written about before, and what I presented in class draws on several older blog posts here at Scientist Sees Squirrel.  However, I thought it would be useful to pull this together into a single (longish) post, with my slides to illustrate it.  If you’d like to use any of these slides, here’s the Powerpoint – licensed CC BY-NC 4.0.

(Portuguese translation here, for those who prefer.)

Here goes.

How should you present statistical results, in a scientific paper?
Continue reading

Steal this syllabus! (or, how I taught Scientific Writing)

Image: Writing, CC0 by Startup Stock Photos from

 This semester, for the first time, I taught a course in scientific writing.  I was very scared going into it, but now that the course is over I’m quite pleased with how it worked out.  Several people who have taught similar courses were kind enough to share their syllabi with me, and that helped – so I’m going to pay it forward here.  If you might teach a writing course, or if you have colleagues who might, or if you’re just interested in how one might do such a thing, read on.  I’ll tell you a bit about the course, and down at the bottom I’ll post the syllabus and other course materials, which you are welcome to download and adapt for your own use. Continue reading

The arrogance and common sense of teaching from my own book

This year, for the first time, I’m teaching a course in scientific writing (with both graduate and undergraduate versions).  There were lots of decisions to be made in designing the course: what topics to cover; the blend of lecture, workshop, and assignment; how to accommodate graduate and undergraduate students in the same classroom; and more.  But one decision was easy: which book to use as a text.  There are quite a few books on the topic, but I assigned my own, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, without any hesitation*.

Well, not really without any hesitation.  Actually, I can’t help feeling mildly embarrassed by joining That Bunch Of Profs Who Assign Their Own Books.  How arrogant!  How closed-minded!  How ridden with conflict of interest! Continue reading

I’m about to teach a writing course, and I’m very scared

I start teaching a new course in just a few weeks.  For the first time, I’m teaching a whole course in scientific writing.  I’m supposed to know something about that – after all, I wrote The Scientist’s Guide to Writing – but nevertheless, I’m scared.

I’ve resisted teaching scientific writing for many years, despite agreeing with my colleagues who argue that it’s one of the most valuable courses a student (undergraduate or graduate) can take.  I’ve resisted in part because teaching a good scientific writing course is a lot of work; but mostly I’ve resisted because I’m not sure that I know how to teach a good scientific writing course.  I’ve never taken one, and so have no model to emulate or to avoid.  On top of that, I don’t actually think of myself as a very good writer.  I’m slow, and although I’ve worked hard to become an adequate writer, my papers are never going to be celebrated as outstanding in our literature.  So how can I teach writing? Continue reading

Things I teach that are not true

Image: Tribolium castaneum (red flour beetle), Peggy Greb USDA-ARS, released to public domain.

Teaching undergraduates is an enormous pleasure (most of the time), and getting paid to do it is a privilege.  Along with that privilege, of course, comes responsibility: I should work to teach my students things that are relevant; things that are important; and of course, things that are true.

Except that sometimes I teach my students things that are not true. Continue reading