Environment Magazine

A Supervisor’s Lament

Posted on the 05 September 2011 by Bradshaw
A supervisor’s lament

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Time for a little supervisory whinge. I’ve lamented these very issues over many a beer at many a conference, so I thought I’d solidify those hazy arguments into a blog post.

I’m by no means the most burdened academic when it comes to student load. We tend to be very picky in our lab when engaging post-graduate student prospects, and even pickier when hiring post-doctoral fellows (because the latter require little things like salaries that unfortunately, do not grow on trees). We also endeavour to share the load – most of our post-docs have at least one primary PhD student responsibility which reduces some of my burden and gives the post-doc in question the requisite experience in supervising. In my opinion, it’s a good way to run a lab, and allows for a high number of productive students, yet is not overly onerous for any one person.

That said, I make sure I read EVERYTHING my students produce, and I take a certain amount of pride in providing as much of my intellectual input as possible: from study design right through to proof correction. If my name is going to be on a paper, I had better bloody well earn my co-authorship.

Now, something that seems to have been getting worse and worse over the years is our students’ capacity to write good English. I’ll fully admit that I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to good grammar, and I’ve been called a pedant for it (and as much as I enjoy people like Stephen Fry and their playful laissez-faire approaches to language - mate, you’re not a scientist). I’ve even written a few blog posts (Torture I and II) about particular grammatical bugbears of mine. But to me, without good, precise English, the incontrovertible communication of one’s hard-won results is often lost in the lazy mists of incomprehension and misinterpretation.

So to me, before the grounding in evolutionary theory, before the nuances of cell division, and even before the knowledge that ecosystems are fragile assemblages of millions of interconnected species, English writing prowess is an absolute priority in scientific training. And unfortunately, this skill has been slowly putrefying in the bowels of our educational systems for decades.

I maintain that can teach nearly anyone the basics of ecology, and even get across the most complex theoretical underpinnings of population dynamics to the uninitiated. But to teach someone to write! Are there enough hours in the day or days in the year? One could also question whether this is indeed my job – am I now responsible for the instruction of basic grammar?

As a case in point, ask almost any Australian under the age of 30 if he or she can identify a noun, adjective or adverb (let alone a dangling participle, indefinite article or split infinitive) in any given sentence. I’ll bet a large quantity of alcohol that most cannot. Ah, but how important is it to be able to identify by name the constituents of language? Who should care, as long as one can write well? The simple fact is that none of those ignorant in the ways of grammatical nomenclature can write any better. This is because in places such as Australia, grammar hasn’t been taught in most schools since the late 1960s or early 1970s; how can one have a functioning and enduring society if no one can get across any clear ideas? I liken it to the example of an architect versus a carpenter. Ask the former to build you a house – it might look good on paper, but the first strong breeze would blow it down. Ask the latter, and he might not win the Pritzker Architecture Prize, but the toilet will work and the floor will support the weight of more than one human being.

Now, if you are a student reading this, do not despair; but for the love of all things beautiful in language and for the sake of unambiguous scientific interpretation, do something! If you know you are not strong in English, the onus is on you to fix the problem. Take courses, read more books on the basics of language, practice writing both prose and poetry, and take a second language (for knowledge of another language’s grammar tends to force you to learn your own better) – for these skills will continue to become more and more relevant as your careers progress, and you will require better and better flourish of your virtual pen (a.k.a. keyboard) as you mature into fully fledged scientists.

I fully contend that English, even before mathematics, is the cornerstone of all good science. Without it, you will be mediocre at best, unintelligible at worst.

I hope I didn’t make any mistakes in the above diatribe – that would be embarrassing.

CJA Bradshaw

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