Bloggin' 'bout science and life

Tag: writing

Valuable Advice About Editing And Teaching In General

Posted by The Baltimore Sun on Thursday, September 8, 2016

This is hugely valuable advice.  If one is to teach what students need to know, one really has to just simply do it!


“Typical” Scientific Creativity

Last week I was listening to the Fresh Air podcast of Terry Gross interviewing Keith Richards in 2010 about his autobiography, Life.  Despite his reputation, I have always found Keith Richards to be a very thoughtful and introspective student of his life’s work. While listening to Richards describe the process of writing songs and working with co-authors (obvriously mainly Mick Jagger), While listening to this and another interview with him, I realized that he was describing the primary method of how most good scientists write their best papers as well. He says that his process is mainly to sit down and start playing his guitar, and after an hour or two of just fiddling around almost aimlessly, a small idea will occur to him, just a germ.  Then he expands on that, and tries something.  That may not work, so then he tries something else.  But all the while playing with the germ of an idea, that you think is good but you’re not sure.  

That’s the creative process in a nutshell for most good scientists, too.  What most people would describe as journeyman work, and not revelatory.  Scientific discovery is portrayed as mainly the “eureka” moments that scientists have.  It is described as the blinding insights that come from nowhere – Kuhn‘s Scientific Revolution.  Well, sorry, but it really doesn’t work that way for almost all of us.

However, it kinda does in very small  moments of insights.  I would say that our insights come in small “eureka” moments.  I can remember many of my own.  When you listen to someone like Keith Richards talk about songwriting, you hear the same process of creativity.  That process is to simply start doing whatever you are doing.  Then question yourself, add something small to it, and play with that for a while.  In this process, little moments of insight and “eureka” emerge.  

Most of your time is spent plodding away.  The moments of insight come when you start to question yourself, particularly with how two things fit together. My moments of insight come when I ask myself one of two questions.  The first is when I’m working on something and then I ask myself, “and then what about this?” trying to add in the next piece.  The other is when I step back and ask myself a very simple question about a hard problem I’ve been thinking about.  Both allow your mind to simply free-associate things.  I’ve found that it’s during that free association, where my mind simply wanders, is where these “eureka” moments happen.


Why Are Grades Higher In The Humanities Than In The Sciences?

In Academic Year 2013-14 the grades given in the Arts & Humanities Division at Dartmouth were on average 0.29 points higher than in the Science Division on a 4-point grading scale, and in 1977 the difference was 0.25 (you can see the data here).  The Social Sciences Division has always been sandwiched between the two, with grades about 0.05 points higher than the Sciences on average over the years. Finally, grades in our Interdisciplinary Programs show more variability over time, but are more similar to the Arts & Humanities than the Sciences and Social Sciences (again, see the data here).  

Discussions about grade inflation typically devolve into a shouting match between the Sciences and Humanities, which is completely wrong.  Grades in all Divisions and in all departments within them over the past 50 years have risen at nearly identical rates (again, see the data here).  Let me say that again: grades in every Science department at Dartmouth are increasing at the same rate as grades in every Social Sciences and Arts & Humanities department and in every Interdisciplinary Program over the past 50 years.  

Our committee believes that these differences in grade distributions among academic disciplines are natural.  Our effort is decidedly not to equalize grades across Departments or Divisions at all.  I think very good educational reasons exist why grades in the Arts & Humanities and Interdisciplinary Programs are higher than in the Sciences and many areas of the Social Sciences. Let me outline some of them here, but in so doing challenge everyone in every discipline to return to more rigorous grading standards.  If we do, our students will be better and accomplish more.


Glorious Words About Grammar

As a former Editor-in-Chief of a major scientific journal, I heartily endorse the following wise words from Stephen Fry. This can be just as well applied to scientific writing. There is no reason scientific papers must be dull, dry and boring. Tell me a story, a glorious story!


Are Students Much Worse Today That When I Was In School?

I hear this question in one form or another almost every day?  Clearly, this is a very provocative title, and is meant to be so.  I think many of the issues that raise this question have to do more with the inflexibility of teachers and instructors than it does with the students.  Here are some more comments I hear from my teaching colleagues all the time:


New Authors and Rejection

A few weeks ago, I was on a panel of Editors that was answering questions from scientists about how scientific papers are published, and giving advice to help authors. This happened at the joint, American Society of Naturalist/Society for the Study of Evolution/Society of Systematic Biologists meeting in Moscow, Idaho. One of the most fascinating parts of this conversation was the degree to which new authors think that the system is stacked against them or that their “enemies” are all reviewing their papers and having them rejected.


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