Brilliance vs. perseverance in academic writing and work

What does it take to publish academic research? Here is a recent reminder of a truism I have heard again and again and experienced myself:

Brilliance (or something close to it) is, I’d say, about 3 percent of creating a publishable article or monograph. The other 97 percent is patience and the stamina to be able to work, over and over, on something for which the end might not be in sight for a while.

This would be similar to two pieces of helpful advice I received within the first few weeks of starting a sociology Ph.D. program:

-Treat your academic work like a job: have regular hours, goals, and progress.

-Be a chipper and not a binger. Short and continuous efforts lead to better work than last-minute, long sessions to meet a deadline.

Or, we could turn to quotes or stories about Thomas Edison’s work and trying over and over again.

To me, all of this makes more and more sense as you work on research projects. The various stages of academic work – conceiving a viable idea, tracking down data and evidence, scouring the existing literature, analyzing the data, considering the implications, submitting for publication and then going through the review process – can each require a large amount of work and require time to ponder and address. Rushing to meet deadlines can be helpful for structuring time but it does not free up the same kind of mental space to ponder the question at hand. Finding the creative edge in academic work often requires more time, not less.

All of this requires working against an American cultural setting where (1) fast work and efficiency is often prized and (2) creative work is viewed as the result of individual genius. There may be grains of truth in each of these regarding academic research but they can also work against the need to persevere. For example, passing along the above information to undergraduate students can be difficult because their academic modes have prized these two qualities: be individually smart and meet relatively short deadlines. And how much is this perpetuated by college projects that may last 10 weeks at most?

All of this academic patience and stamina takes time to develop and likely exists in various degrees and expressions among academics. But, I imagine it would be hard to get far without at least some of it.

Improving sociological writing by putting in the form of a famous poem?

Academics are sometimes criticized for dense and jargon-laden prose. Here is one way to get around this: adopt the form of a well-known poem.

An academic has written a damning report on the shipping industry in the form of Samuel Coleridge’s classic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Professor Michael Bloor, of Cardiff University, spent 12 years, researching the conditions of maritime crews, including a month on a supertanker.

His study, called The Rime of the Globalised Mariner, is published in the academic journal Sociology.

He said he hoped the poetry would have more effect than “sociological prose”.

It would be interesting to get the inside view of the review process for this paper.

While I don’t envision a large number of academic studies now being written in poetic form, this does seem like it could be a useful exercise: see if you can express the same ideas in a different way. Perhaps this isn’t too different that asking students to write an exam essay paper in the form of a speech or to express some concepts in a skit: the process of “translating” the information into an extra form could aid retention as well as boost creativity.

As I noted in my notes on ASA 2012 in Denver, seeing sociologists express themselves (and I imagine participating in this as well) in different forms is rewarding. While we will continue our more scientific standards for most output, why not think more broadly and express ideas in ways that are more familiar to the general public?

Sociology grad student: scholars need to and can make their research and writing more public

Sociology PhD student Nathan Jurgenson argues that scholars need to make their research more public:

To echo folks like Steven Sideman or danah boyd, we have an obligation to change this; academics have a responsibility to make their work relevant for the society they exist within.

The good news is that the tools to counter this deficiency in academic relevance are here for the taking. Now we need the culture of academia to catch up. Simply, to become more relevant, academics need to make their ideas more accessible.

There are two different, yet equally important, ways academics need to make their ideas accessible:

(1) Accessible by availability: ideas should not be locked behind paywalls.

(2) Accessible by design: ideas should be expressed in ways that are interesting, readable and engaging.

Considering that Jurgenson researches social media (see my earlier post on another of his arguments), I’m not surprised to see him make this argument. Though most of his argument is tilted toward the brokenness of the current system, Jurgenson wants to help the academic world see that we now have the tools, particularly online, to do some new things.

A few other thoughts:

1. Does every generation of graduate students suggest the current system is broken or is this really a point in time where a big shift could occur?

2. Jurgenson also hints that academics need to be more able to write for larger publics. So it is not just about the tools but about the style and rhetoric needed to speak through these other means. I can’t imagine any “Blogging Sociology” courses in grad schools anytime soon but Jurgenson is bringing up a familiar complaint: academics sometimes have difficulty making their case to people who are not academics.

3. Jurgenson doesn’t really get at this but these new tools also mean that data, not just writing, can be shared more widely. This could also become an important piece of a more open academia.

4. The idea that academic writing should or could be fun is intriguing. How many academics could pull this off? Might this reduce the gravitas of academic research?

Sociology professor developed and used computer program for grading papers

Sociologist Ed Brant has developed and used a grading program for student papers:

Brent designed software called a SAGrader to grade student papers in a matter of seconds. The program works by analyzing sentences and paragraphs for keywords and relationships between terms. Brent believes the program can be used as a tool to save time for teachers by zeroing in on the main points of an essay and allowing teachers to rate papers for the use of language and style.

“I don’t think we want to replace humans,” Brent says in an article in Wired. “But we want to do the fun stuff, the challenging stuff. And the computer can do the tedious but necessary stuff.”

Using the software still requires work on the teacher’s part, though. To prepare the program to grade papers, a teacher must enter all of the components they expect a paper to include. Teachers also have to consider the hundreds of ways a student might address the pieces of an essay.

Interestingly, one person in the testing business argues that the biggest issue is not how well the software does at grading but whether people believe the program can do a good job:

But it’s tough to tout a product that tinkers with something many educators believe only a human can do.

“That’s the biggest obstacle for this technology,” said Frank Catalano, a senior vice president for Pearson Assessments and Testing, whose Intelligent Essay Assessor is used in middle schools and the military alike. “It’s not its accuracy. It’s not its suitability. It’s the believability that it can do the things it already can do.”

If this were used widely and becomes normal practice, it could redefine what it means to be a professor or teacher. This is not a small issue in an era where many argue that learning online or from a book could be as effective (or at least as cost-effective) compared to sending students to pricey colleges.

I wonder what percentage of sociologists would support using such grading programs in their own classrooms and throughout academic institutions.

Argument: college students are poor writers because they ape the academic prose of their professors

An English professor argues that the problem with what students learn about writing in college is that they learn to write in the style of professors:

This Wall Street Journal article implies that our poor communication skills fresh out of college result from simple laziness or stupidity on our part. But Dr. Richard Lanham, professor emeritus of English, UCLA, believes the problem is not lack of learning.

Rather, he believes, when we are undergraduates, we learn all too well: we learn to ape the bureaucratic, academic, clear-as-swamp-water prose of our professors. He writes in his book, Revising Prose (in my opinion the single best practical book on prose writing in existence):

“Much bad writing today comes not from the conventional sources of verbal dereliction—sloth, original sin, or native absence of mind—but from stylistic imitation. It is learned, an act of stylistic piety, which imitates a single style, the bureaucratic style I have called The Official Style. . . .”

And to drive home his point, Lanham cites a passage from Talcott Parsons. This particular passage appears to be from Parsons’ book The Social System and you can see the passage here on page 7 in Google Book. (Interestingly, this passage is edited. Yes, it is difficult but why not cite a complete passage rather than starting at the end of a paragraph and cutting some of another?) Lanham says this about Parsons’ passage:

This is not prose. This is the systematic abuse of prose. Anyone hoping to learn writing should stay a thousand miles away from people who write in such a manner. That is, they should stay a thousand miles away from most university professors.

The author of this article goes on to cite Sokol’s Social Text hoax, argue that computers could teach academic writing (though it may not make any sense), and suggest that college students need to get beyond typical college classes.

The trend these days in college seems to be to train students to write in discipline specific styles: if you are a biology major, write a biologist, a sociology major, write like a sociologist (though not like Parsons), and son. This makes some sense for faculty as our professional careers are based on particular writing styles. It may not make sense for all students as they may not be interested in graduate school or professional careers. But, if students are specific majors, part of their senior-level competency should be an ability to communicate within that sphere.

However, the problem referenced at the beginning at the article may not be the same problem cited in the rest of the article. The article begins by citing a Wall Street Journal article saying that businesses are having a hard time finding possible employees who can write and speak effectively. But this problem is not the problem of academic writing; rather, it is an issue of basic communication. Employers aren’t saying that college grads are writing postmodern gibberish; rather, they are saying that applicants write as though they are interacting with friends. Academic writing may be problematic (and it is recurring issue within sociology though most work doesn’t read like Parsons) but the problem employers are discussing is a few steps before academic writing.

If college students are trained in any discipline specific style and can successfully write within that world, that’s better than not being able to write any prose. Theoretically, students should be able to write basic prose before they write discipline specific prose but some prose is better than no prose, right? Students need to learn the basics, thesis, supporting evidence, etc., and perhaps the average professor is not able to offer much help in this since they are immersed in academic language.

For students to move beyond simply aping the academic style of their professors, they need to practice writing a lot. Even while there might be guidelines and norms within particular disciplines, there is still freedom within these areas to exhibit some personal style. Within sociology, for example, there is a wide range between ethnographic and statistical/mathematical work. Styles are not formulas. Of course, more writing means more work for students and professors. But there is evidence that an increase in writing within academic courses leads to better educational outcomes.

On the whole, I think this is a bigger issue than academics passing along bad prose to their students. Sociologists could indeed do better than writing like Talcott Parsons. All classes should help students write basic, effective prose that can be used outside of the college classroom. How all this could and should be worked out within a typical four-year degree needs to be developed.

The prospect of the automated grading of essays

As the American public debates the exploits of Watson (and one commentator suggests it should, among other things, sort out Charlie Sheen’s problem) how about turning over grading essays to computers? There are programs in the works to make this happen:

At George Mason University Saturday, at the Fourth International Conference on Writing Research, the Educational Testing Service presented evidence that a pilot test of automated grading of freshman writing placement tests at the New Jersey Institute of Technology showed that computer programs can be trusted with the job. The NJIT results represent the first “validity testing” — in which a series of tests are conducted to make sure that the scoring was accurate — that ETS has conducted of automated grading of college students’ essays. Based on the positive results, ETS plans to sign up more colleges to grade placement tests in this way — and is already doing so.

But a writing scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology presented research questioning the ETS findings, and arguing that the testing service’s formula for automated essay grading favors verbosity over originality. Further, the critique suggested that ETS was able to get good results only because it tested short answer essays with limited time for students — and an ETS official admitted that the testing service has not conducted any validity studies on longer form, and longer timed, writing.

Such programs are only as good as the algorithm and method behind it. And it sounds like this program from ETS still has some issues. The process of grading is a skill that teachers develop. Much of this can be quantified and placed into rubrics. But I would also guess that many teachers develop an intuition that helps them quickly apply these important factors to work that they read and grade.

But on a broader scale, what would happen if the right programs could be developed? Could we soon reach a point where professors and teachers would agree that a program could effectively grade writing?

A reminder that information overload is not just limited to our particular era in history

There is an incredible amount of data one can access today through a computer and high-speed Internet connection: websites, texts, statistics, videos, music, and more. While it all may seem overwhelming, a Harvard history professor reminds us that facing a glut of information is not a problem that has been faced only by people in the Internet age:

information overload was experienced long before the appearance of today’s digital gadgets. Complaints about “too many books” echo across the centuries, from when books were papyrus rolls, parchment manuscripts, or hand printed. The complaint is also common in other cultural traditions, like the Chinese, built on textual accumulation around a canon of classics…

It’s important to remember that information overload is not unique to our time, lest we fall into doomsaying. At the same time, we need to proceed carefully in the transition to electronic media, lest we lose crucial methods of working that rely on and foster thoughtful decision making. Like generations before us, we need all the tools for gathering and assessing information that we can muster—some inherited from the past, others new to the present. Many of our technologies will no doubt rapidly seem obsolete, but, we can hope, not human attention and judgment, which should continue to be the central components of thoughtful information management.

As technology changes, people and cultures have to adapt. We need citizens who are able to sift through all the available information and make wise decisions. This should be a vital part of the educational system – it is no longer enough to know how to access information but rather we need to be able to make choices about which information is worthwhile, how to interpret it, and how to put it into use.

Take, for example, the latest Wikileaks dump. The average Internet user no longer has to rely on news organizations to tell him or her how to interpret the information (though they would still like to fill that role). But simply having access to a bunch of secret material doesn’t necessarily lead to anything worthwhile.