Friday, October 25, 2013

In which David interviews a rock star.

For the first few weeks, the MOOC's quiz software asked us to rewrite clunky sentences into graceful ones, then showed model responses, and asked us to grade ourselves on whether we had improved the originals. I got consistently high marks, and probably not even because I was grading myself. The simple truth is that fixing sentences is my life work and I'm good at it. As the song says, "It's the only thing I can do half right."

But then came the MOOC's first real writing assignment: a 300-500 word piece which could be either a report on a scientific paper "in your own field", a review of a science book, or a profile of a working scientist. 

The first option was not applicable, as I don't have my own field of science. Sentence fixing is an art, not a science.

Writing a book review initially sounded appealing, so I checked Gordon Shepherd's Neurogastronomy out of the library, hoping it would be full of fantastical neurobunk I could make fun of. But it turned out to be a very responsible, science-based work with low bunk content, so I lost interest.

That left one choice, profiling a real scientist. I browsed the Middlebury College website, picked out a couple of junior faculty science stars, and emailed them. One, a geologist, responded immediately and we made an appointment. To prep for the interview, I read everything about his work I could find online, including a chunk of his doctoral dissertation. 

(I would tell you the title of the thesis, but it has no title, except for the word "Thesis."  Titles or the lack thereof is a subject of considerable interest, which I will take up in a later post.)

The interview was set for last Tuesday morning. Just before I left the house, on impulse, I grabbed one of my household rocks, a dense two-pound speckled stream cobble I use as a doorstop. Some primal instinct told me I could not visit a geologist without bringing a rock to show him. 

And the rock turned out to be a superb conversational icebreaker. After sitting down, and getting permission to start my voice recorder, I pulled the rock out of my bag and handed it to him. The geologist hefted it, turned it over and over, then offered his diagnosis. (Yes, the word for identifying a rock is "diagnosis," don't you love that?) Pointing out my doorstop's sparkly bits of actinolite, and rusted-out brown flecks of magnetite, he pronounced it to be an actinolite-magnetite schist from the Green Mountains.

My doorstop was extremely pleased, after millions of years as an anonymous oblong the size and shape of a mango, to finally be recognized for what he truly is. It perked him right up. It also raised my own estimation of him so much that I have promoted him to paperweight.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Teacher, Teacher! May I go to the Google?

An anonymous student posted this on the SciWrite discussion board. I swear I'm not making this up.

* * * * * * * * * * * * 

Sentences too technical (Unit 2 homework)

anonymous 3 days ago

I love the course, but I think some of the sentences are too technical (e.g. Unit 2 Homework Question 2.6 -> what is a "raised nevi"(it is not in Cambridge online dictionary)? should I search on Google the meaning of words?).
This is very annoying in homework exercises, because I am not able to correctly understand the meaning of the sentences in order to rephrase them. I have a computer science background and I am not a native English speaker. It would be great to know if others are having the same problem and if so solving it could be a big plus, especially for an online course.
Thank you :-)
The mind boggles. Where to begin? A student who claims to have a computer science background has asked, in public and presumably with a straight face, fully 15 years after Google came online and changed the entire world, whether he or she is supposed to search to learn the meaning of an unfamiliar word. The student finds the use of words he or she does not know as "very annoying."
I typed "define nevi" into the Google search bar and got over 150,000 hits. The first five were more than enough. A more specific query, "raised nevi," yielded over 1,000 results. 
Has this person been trained up to avoid search engines, or been told that using them is cheating? Impossible. Even Middlebury College's history department, when in 2007 it banned the citing of Wikipedia in research papers, conceded that the online encyclopedia wasn't a bad place to start a search; they just didn't want it cited as a source.
Or is this one of those poor timid souls for whom everything that is not mandatory is forbidden?
If I were the teacher, I would very kindly explain that checking Google is a natural bodily function, that everyone does it, sometimes several times a day, and there is absolutely no shame attached to it. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Teacher announced today that the SciWrite MOOC's enrollment is up. First I heard was 22,000, then it jumped to 28,000, and today it's 30,000. Let me put that in perspective for you. Fenway Park has 37,065 seats. My classmates would fill it to 80% capacity. 

Is the world ready for 30,000 newly educated science writers? But not to worry, that won't happen. Although Red Sox playoff tickets average $322, a MOOC ticket is free. The cost of signing up is zero, it hardly takes a minute to do so. The course itself, on the other hand, is supposed to occupy 4-8 hours per week. How many will persevere and finish? Completion rates vary widely. The most often quoted figure for MOOC dropout rate is 90%.  (I'll cite more precise data in a later post.)

A college in the non-virtual world that lost 90% of enrollment in every course would not exactly make the top of the U.S. New & World Report rankings. MOOCs are different, right?

I wonder what the enrollment number would be, and then the retention rate, if signing up cost as little as $10. People like to get their money's worth. Charging $100 would drastically cut enrollment, but I'll bet retention rate would skyrocket. 

Should we care? Are enrollment and dropout rates relevant? Is the MOOC a horse of such different color than older forms of education that none of the old rules apply? Is this college, or is it a new flavor of public television?

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Can Good Writing Be Measured?

Word Count Tool Online

The SciWrite site wiki recommends a free text analysis utility, but don't go there yet, I'm talking. The program can be used on the web or downloaded as a Chrome browser extension. It is easy to use, and has generous capacity --  I dumped in a 25,000 word fiction manuscript and it went right to work. It counts up words, sentences and paragraphs; Microsoft Word's spellchecker does that too, of course, but you can't consult it until you've slogged through the spellcheck. Also, there are some bonus extras, of which three sound most useful.

1. A tally and percentage of "difficult words," defined as those not found on this list of 3000 "familiar" words. My ordinary non-scientific  prose runs about 22% unfamiliar; compare that with Einstein's 1905 paper "The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies" at 43%. (This refers to the 1922 translation by W. Perrett and G.B. Jeffery.)

2. Average sentence length, which you could easily calculate from Word's report, but I like having it faster. My typical sentence runs just under 10 words in length. 

3. A list of all the words you have used, in order of how often you have used them. (You can choose to view top 10, top 20, or whatever number you're curious about.) Why would you want to do this? I use it to police my overuse of certain words, notably "but." Too many buts gives my prose an argumentative tone, and I'm scary enough already.

Here is Word Count Tools' main display, giving the lowdown on this very blog post you just read.

Friday, October 4, 2013

In Praise of Shitty First Drafts

Creative writing people, echoing Annie Lamott's advice in Bird by Bird, recommend writing "shitty first drafts." SciWrite professor Kristin Sainani said something similar:

My biggest tip for the first draft is don't be a perfectionist. A lot of scientists are perfectionists, and they want to get it right on the first try. But writing is not the place to be a perfectionist, especially writing the first draft. When I write a first draft, my goal is to get down my ideas in complete sentences, that's the bar I set for myself. Complete sentences, in order. And that's it.

In Dream Song 54, John Berryman said, "Write as short as you can, in order, of what matters." And that should apply to any draft, from first to final.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Day 9. Binge-watching the MOOC

M​ore of the SciWri ​video modules opened up, and I'm watching them like I watched "How I Met Your Mother"--one episode after another, for hours.

The videos all have closed captioning, apparently produced by either voice transcription software, or a human court reporter who is uncommonly devoted to getting every word. So it becomes very noticeable that informal speech is a thousand miles from written language. Unless you are accustomed to reading transcripts, you'll be surprised by the number of kinda's and gonna's and sort-of's in her lecture. Yet the prose she is showing the class how to write is, while not excessively formal, always extremely correct.

Sometimes the transcriber (robot or human, I haven't decided) doesn't hear quite what the teacher is saying. Today, "abutting" turned into "a budding."

In a few more days, the part I'm really waiting for: the first essay assignment. Stay tuned.

P.S. Here's a big Same-Day Archaeology hello to the Russian spammers who have suddenly noticed the blog and are giving it their full attention. Thank God for comment moderation.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Bill Buckner and the sublime dash of Angell's

Most people, even most writers, would not sit still for a 41-minute lecture about punctuation. But I ate it up. It was a thrill to hear the real truth about how English punctuation works, what it does, what it can accomplish.

Punctuation creates pauses in a sentence. In rising order of the length of pause created, we have comma, colon, dash, parenthesis, semicolon, and period, each one suited to certain moments.

To dramatize the expressive power of the dash, Prof. Sainani, who grew up a Red Sox fan in Vermont, told a baseball story, quite a long one, involving the indelible memory of first baseman Bill Buckner's tragic between-the-legs fumble in the 1986 World Series. The punch line is that in the last play of the 2004 World Series, when the Boston pitcher caught a grounder and ordinarily would have fired the ball to first base, he remembered Buckner's fumble. So instead of pegging it, he ran closer to first until he could send an easy, guaranteed catchable underhand throw to the first baseman for the final out and the World Championship. Now here comes the dash, the two dashes: this is what New Yorker writer Roger Angell wrote about that moment:

Baseball is the only game that’s played every day, which is why its season often seems endless, right up to the inning and the out—the little toss over to first base—when, wow, it ends.