Honestly, it’s not me, it’s you

September 2, 2011

In the “trying a little too hard to become a citation classic” category of title-crafting, it’s hard to surpass Martin Schwartz’s “The importance of stupidity in scientific research“. Regardless, this is a gripping short essay for the grad student feeling just a wee bit overwhelmed. Some key points:

I’d like to suggest that our Ph.D. programs often do students a disservice in two ways. First, I don’t think students are made to understand how hard it is to do research. And how very, very hard it is to do important research.

Yes, very, very, very, hard indeed with the occasional redeeming bits of dizzying fun, yawping pride, and profound satisfaction.

…we don’t do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid – that is, if we don’t feel stupid it means we’re not really trying. I’m not talking about ‘relative stupidity’, in which the other students in the class actually read the material, think about it and ace the exam, whereas you don’t. I’m also not talking about bright people who might be working in areas that don’t match their talents. Science involves confronting our ‘absolute stupidity’. That kind of stupidity is an existential fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown.

All good points. We must humbly seek out the great unknown, and be prepared to feel a mite confused for years on end.  However just as I would eschew phrases like “comfortably numb” and “passively agressive”, “productively stupid” should at most be a state of mind but not an item from the mission statement of your CV.

But the capper is the best rationalization for the hazing that grad students go through at the hands of the inquisitorial boards we ominously call “your committee”…

Preliminary and thesis exams have the right idea when the faculty committee pushes until the student starts getting the answers wrong or gives up and says, ‘I don’t know’. The point of the exam isn’t to see if the student gets all the answers right. If they do, it’s the faculty who failed the exam. The point is to identify the student’s weaknesses, partly to see where they need to invest some effort and partly to see whether the student’s knowledge fails at a sufficiently high level that they are ready to take on a research project.

Yes, we reduce you to a mass of quivering jelly because we care…too much.

Definitely worth a read.

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Writing: 5 steps toward constructing a better sentence

September 2, 2011

But if one understands that a sentence is a structure of logical relationships and that the number of relationships involved is finite, one understands too that there is only one error to worry about, the error of being illogical, and only one rule to follow: make sure that every component of your sentences is related to the other components in a way that is clear and unambiguous (unless ambiguity is what you are aiming at).   Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence, and How to Read One

One may argue that words are the building blocks of all writing, and that any writing program aimed at helping you produce a two page NSF Pre-Doc proposal in two months might well begin with a discussion of vocabulary. But by now you have most of the words you will ever need to convey even the most complex idea. To write well, the words are all there, you just have to get them in the right order.

In a lovely book celebrating the construction and reading of sentences, Stanley Fish lays out the notion that good sentences are paragons of tight, unassailable logic. Like great music, as Leonard Bernstein once observed, good sentences have a sense of inevitability to them–you cannot imagine  it written any other way.

When you write a good sentence you are literally creating reality in the heads of your reader. Again, in Fish’s words…

Language is not a handmaiden to perception; it is perception; it gives shape to what would otherwise be inert and dead.

In the construction of a sentence you find yourself grappling with two monumental tasks for any creative person: discovering what is it you mean, and crafting words to convey that meaning. We will talk about the former some other day, now a few ways to improve upon the latter.

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