Monthly Archives: August 2012

Putting it in Your Own Words

My six-year-old son loves this blog. Well, not the actual blog itself, but the stats page. And he’s merciless about slow days. On Sunday mornings, he will often report, in a tone of morbid satisfaction, “Only nine views! You are doing terrible today!”. (I hope in your head you can hear the word ‘terrible’ being stretched out for maximum emphasis.) He understands that the spikes in activity—which are the whole point, to his quantitative way of thinking—are caused by new posts, so his suggestion is usually that I should sit right down and write something. Unfortunately, his desire for me to write is in direct conflict for his desire for me to play endless games of Monopoly. Even more unfortunately, I don’t have the heart to tell him that blogging is actually way more fun than Monopoly.

Given all this, you can imagine his pleasure when I told him that I might be able to use a new joke he’d repeated to me in the blog. Here goes:

Q: How can you fit a 10 page article on milk into 5 pages?

A: You condense it!

Hilarious, right? Welcome to my summer vacation!

As summer vacation slowly turns into preparation for fall, I’ve been mulling over how to improve the way I teach one of my least favourite topics: paraphrasing. I’m sure my discomfort with this topic is connected to the fact that paraphrasing necessarily brings up issues of plagiarism, a topic that we all feel anxious about. The immediate stakes are high for students when I talk about effective paraphrasing, in a way that isn’t the case with discussions of transitions, semicolons, or sentences. If I’m wrong about those topics or even if I just do a poor job explaining my intent, the implications aren’t particularly significant. But if I handle paraphrasing badly in the classroom, a student might go on to provide a weak paraphrase in their own writing, an act that can have consequences.

It is also the case that explaining a good paraphrase can be pretty hard to do; even if you ‘know one when you see one’, it can be hard to craft enduring principles to use in future writing situations. The classroom conversation often ends up centred around whether sufficient changes have been made. This is a legitimate issue for students to worry about, but I think that the notion of ‘sufficient changes’ is ultimately a problematic one. Conceiving of any writing task as a matter of making sufficient changes to someone else’s text seems risky to me.

To address this risk, I like to shift the focus away from the whole notion of making sufficient changes. Of course, the idea of putting something into your own words is a commonplace in academic writing, but I think the resultant emphasis on changing words can lead students to feel that they are engaging in a meaningless technical task. What’s worse, students who don’t write in English as their first language often feel that they end up with something less elegant and effective than the original formulation. But what if we were to think less about word or phrase replacement and more about how we can effectively use someone else’s ideas in our research; that is, not so much just ‘put it in your own words’ as ‘reframe the idea in your own words so that it helps you to explain your research aims’.

For sound advice on paraphrasing, you can try the OWL at Purdue site or the Writing at U of T site. In keeping with my advice to think about paraphrasing as part of a broader issues of talking about the literature, I also suggest looking the Academic Phrasebank from the University of Manchester. This site is one of my favourites, and I will return to a discussion of its many merits another time. For now, I point to it because it provides a helpful range of ways to talk about the scholarly  literature. Asking ourselves why we are talking about another person’s work is often the first step to deciding how to phrase our explication of that work. The Phrasebank, by offering a range of sentence templates, can help us to decide whether we are interested in a text because of its author, its methodology, its topic, its time frame, etc. Those decisions can help us with the broader issue of how to structure a lit review, but they can also help us talk effectively about other people’s work at the sentence level.

Communication and Content

This interesting article by Jacques Berlinerblau in The Chronicle of Higher Education discusses the future of the humanities. This is well-covered territory, obviously, but I was interested in the way he discusses the role of communication skills. His argument is that the humanities can be ‘saved’ by greater engagement with the general public and thus by a greater emphasis on communication skills. Berlinerblau suggests that we ought to “impart critical communication skills to our master’s and doctoral students. That means teaching them how to teach, how to write, how to speak in public.”

Needless to say, I am in complete agreement with that sentiment. However, I am puzzled by the next step in his argument: “this plan will result in far less time for the trainee to be immersed in seminars, bibliographies, and archives. That this will retard the absorption of deep knowledge at an early stage of one’s career is undeniable.” While I understand that this may be a strategic concession designed to allow him to get back to defending his core idea, I do not understand why he allows that time spent on communication skills necessarily has a deleterious effect on disciplinary knowledge. To be clear, Berlinerblau is definitely saying that this trade-off—greater capacity for communication, diminished grasp of content—is worth it. But why is he so sure that this is a trade-off? I see no reason to believe that graduate students who devote time to improving writing or speaking skills are actually taking time away from their disciplinary studies.

There can be no doubt that we all feel that way at times; we all feel that we must try to balance time spent on process with the more urgent demands for production. This sentiment can be particularly pronounced in graduate students. I often hear from students that they would like to visit the writing centre, but they just don’t have enough time. And I am not denying that—in any given day—putting writing on hold in favour of visiting the writing centre may not get you tangibly closer to the goal of a finished piece of writing. But graduate students can and must think in longer increments of time: over the course of their degree, they genuinely do have time to improve their communication skills.

More importantly, formulating this relationship between communication and content as a trade-off contributes to the problematic notion that our communication skills are somehow distinct from our disciplinary knowledge. I would argue that the two are in fact closely intertwined. Effective communication is not valuable only to the recipient; as we improve our capacity for communication, we necessarily improve our own understanding of the topics about which we are communicating. The better we communicate, the more we engage others; the more we engage others, the more we learn from them. And when we strive to explain ourselves better, we inevitably come to a better understanding of what we thought we knew. The artificial division of content knowledge and communication skills needs to be resisted. Knowing what to say and knowing how to say it aren’t distinct. Graduate students who address themselves to the crucial matter of communication aren’t diminishing their content knowledge, they are enhancing it.

Earlier in the summer, I had the great pleasure of participating in the GradHacker podcast. I spoke with one of the hosts, Alex Galarza, about this blog and about academic writing more generally. The audio is a bit wonky in places near the end, but I hope you’ll listen and I hope you’ll return to the GradHacker blog and podcast; they are both great resources for graduate students. You can find the podcast on their site or you can subscribe in iTunes.

Finally, Rob J. Hyn­d­man from Monash Uni­ver­sity has created a helpful list of research blogs (in which he kindly included this blog). Not only did he create this list, he set it up so you can subscribe to all of these blogs as a bundle: one stop shopping for enhanced insight into many facets of the research process!

My links posts are a discussion of things (articles, news items, or blog posts) that I have recently found interesting. I choose things that are connected—sometimes closely, sometimes only tangentially—to academic writing. Responding to other people’s ideas allows me to clarify my own thoughts and to draw your attention to other approaches to the issues central to this blog.