What lab reports can learn from literary analysis (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

The lab report is a staple of introductory science classes, so anyone who’s taken such a class knows how it goes. There’s a hypothesis, then an experimental procedure, then some data, then a discussion of whether the data agrees with the hypothesis. While the spirit of the assignment is good — emphasizing the importance of empirical verification through an experiment — it perpetuates some key misunderstandings about how real science is done. Continue reading “What lab reports can learn from literary analysis (Throwback Thursday)”

Workshop: Turning your dissertation into a book

The Graduate School-New Brunswick is organizing a workshop, led by Rutgers faculty, on issues to consider in turning your dissertation into a book or article.

Monday, April 6
12:00 – 1:30 PM
College Ave Student Center, Rm. 411

Please RSVP to: cfarber@rci.rutgers.edu

The Truest Sentence You Know: How to Get Un-stuck

The greatest frustration of graduate school has to be that, no matter how often I hope it will, the dissertation never writes itself. How convenient that would be! Alas. It’s one thing to feel confident and assured that you know what you’re doing in the archive. You found a seventeenth-century piece of parchment, and you actually managed to decipher a line of chancery hand? Congratulations, and well done you! You’ve earned a slice of cake and sit-down. And while you savor that pastry, it all comes together in your head – chapter titles, concluding paragraphs, clever introductions. You can see it all. Then you sit down to write it. And that’s another thing entirely.

I can’t be the only one who knows this feeling. It’s like that liminal space between waking and dreaming when your limbs don’t quite work. The fear of failure or – worse – mediocrity can be paralyzing. I’ve always fashioned myself a writer, but what if this time…what if this time…

And then I know I need him. I need Ernest Hemingway.

Hem may have led a disastrous personal life, but he knew a thing or two about putting pen to paper. And even he, the (so to speak) consummate professional, had his bad days. But, thankfully, because he was the consummate professional, he soldiered through them, and, lucky for us, he wrote about it. His advice, recounted in A Moveable Feast, was directed at himself as he struggled with a story in his Paris years. But he might have been talking to me too.

“Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

By some miracle, it works. It always works. It gives my writing the strength and attitude it needs to be convincing and, if luck is shining on me that day, stylish. Excavating my draft for the core truth I want to convey – in this sentence, this paragraph, this chapter – and being able to communicate it in a simple declarative sentence makes me a powerful writer for a moment.

Because that has to be part of the goal, doesn’t it? I’d like the dissertation to be more than passable, more than good. I’d like it to be stylish. Readable. Art historians like me write about people who created, but we’re creating something too. Shouldn’t we recognize that we are engaging in a creative act and try to act accordingly? Shouldn’t we try to write something worth reading? Something that contributes not only to our field or to the humanities but to humanity? (Did I go too far there?) I don’t flatter myself that I’m the next Simon Schama, Paul Barolsky or John Summerson, whose work I would gleefully read under the shade of an elm tree. But what was the point of doing all this if I’m not going to try?

Hemingway rented a room in the Latin Quarter of Paris – no heat, no toilet, no fun of any kind. When he was stuck, he stared into the fire, peeling an orange until he settled on the truest sentence he knew at that moment. He knew the fear of failure would be there, and he had a strategy for facing it. And Lord knows, he wasn’t alone. A list provided by my good friend and writer Michael Fuchs includes a series of successful writers lamenting their own fear of failure, including himself as he prepares his fifteenth manuscript. And Nora Ephron famously said, “I think the hardest thing about writing is writing.” We all get stuck. What is your strategy for getting un-stuck? In the end, I suppose it all comes down to discipline, whatever your discipline.

Workshop Podcasts Now Available

In response to requests, selected Project AGER workshops will now be recorded, when feasible, and posted on the new “Podcasts” page on this blog.

Two podcasts are now available:  Turning your dissertation into a book or article, presented by Chie Ikeya, Assistant Professor, History Department, 2/12/2014, and Careers in Academe: Issues to Consider, presented by Dean Barbara Bender, GSNB.  They are here.

Communicating science: the elevator speech

In a previous post, I described my experience at a workshop (organized by the Rutgers Graduate School-New Brunswick) on communicating science.  I described the importance of preparing descriptions of your work for a spectrum of likely audiences – having at least some idea of what aspects of your work to emphasize to different audiences and what language or ideas to use are critical.  However, in addition to these more customized versions, having a more generic but highly-polished description of your research that you can recite from memory at any time is probably worth having.  This is often known as the “elevator speech,” since it’s supposed to be something simple and short enough that you can say it during the time you’d spend with a stranger in an elevator.

I’ve had a murky version of this for a while, but it was largely a vague set of examples and analogies I liked to use when describing my research to a friend or family member rather than a well-crafted summary.  But the workshop motivated me to finally develop a better version, so here is my latest attempt:

Every cell in your body contains thousands of different kinds of molecules, stuffed into a very small space and interacting with each other in complex ways.  How does this mess of molecules ultimately do all things that cells do, such as making new cells, extracting energy from food, and transporting nutrients?  And how did the precise interactions of all these molecules develop over millions of years of evolution?  This knowledge is important both for treating human diseases in which these cellular functions go wrong (e.g., runaway cancer cell growth), as well as engineering microorganisms to perform useful jobs, such as synthesizing biofuels with bacteria or making better beer with yeast.  My research uses mathematical models and computational techniques to understand how natural selection changes these molecules and their interactions over time.  We want to use this both to understand how organisms naturally evolved in the past and to predict how they might evolve in the future.

What lab reports can learn from literary analysis

The lab report is a staple of introductory science classes, so anyone who’s taken such a class knows how it goes. There’s a hypothesis, then an experimental procedure, then some data, then a discussion of whether the data agrees with the hypothesis. While the spirit of the assignment is good — emphasizing the importance of empirical verification through an experiment — it perpetuates some key misunderstandings about how real science is done.

As many commentators have previously complained, standard labs teach students that doing science means following a recipe (e.g., the instructions from your lab book), and there is a “right” way to do it and a “wrong” way to do it. (Of course, the “right” way results in data that agrees with the hypothesis.) Practicing scientists know that actual science looks nothing like this. You rarely start with a clearly-defined hypothesis and straightforward experiment to test it. Instead you usually just have some vague idea you want to investigate, and then you do some calculations, perform some experiments, whatever you can think of, but with no guarantee they will work or solve your problem. And often you end up addressing a problem different from the original one you were trying to solve (see my post about this here).

But I contend the lab report fails to teach another important aspect of science: how to craft a persuasive, evidence-based narrative. Real scientists almost never write anything that looks like a lab report. A lab report is, well, just a report: rigid, sterile, lacking any point of view. Reports are what police officers write after they investigate a crime. Scientists write papers for scholarly journals. And scientific papers, in my opinion, are much more like the literary analyses I used to write for humanities classes. They’re persuasive. They have a point of view. You start off with a thesis, which can be pretty specific and quantitative (“My model in equation 1 describes the data well”) or broad and qualitative (“Protein folding stability is the main determinant of protein evolution”). But just like in literary analysis, you’re advancing a point of view, and your job is to convince the reader that it’s valid. To support the thesis you build a narrative based on evidence — in literary analysis, this may be quotations from the work being analyzed or historical facts about the author, while in science the evidence is experimental data and calculations. One professor I had in college described scientists as “lawyers for the natural world.” Your paper describes your case. You are trying to make a persuasive case about some phenomenon in nature, convincing the readers (the jury) that your thesis is correct.

The cold, rigid nature of the lab report pretty much kills this aspect of doing science. To students the lab report mainly serves as proof that they did the experiment “correctly,” and any discussion of the data is perfunctory and merely reiterates what they think is obvious, that the data agrees with the hypothesis. We need to break free from the rigid structure of the lab report and allow students to see their write-ups as opportunities to craft convincing narratives in support of a (scientific) point of view, supported by evidence. We should select topics that allow students to form a non-obvious point of view that must be carefully justified with data and argument, rather than giving them experiments where the outcome is obvious and the data is self-evident. Not only would this teach a much richer and more accurate version of science, but it reveals a major place of harmony for the sciences and humanities: how to use evidence and logical argument to support an idea through writing.

Breaking through the Jargon Barrier

While recently reading an article in an education journal [1], the word “frame” kept jumping out at me.  The author, a sociologist, kept using this normally unremarkable word in a way that I found unusual and confusing.  Soon, though, I realized that “frame” was probably a piece of jargon with a specific meaning within sociology, distinct from its everyday use in English.

The author likely failed to clearly explain this usage (he parenthetically defines it later in the article, unfortunately not immediately after the first instance) because he was so accustomed to speaking sociology’s language of jargon that he forgot the double meaning of this word: its standard English usage, and its sociology usage.  Certainly this is an easy mistake to make for any scholar, but it poses a barrier to effective communication of ideas to a larger audience.

I think there are generally two classes of jargon which (in the spirit of creating even more jargon) I will define as class I and class II.  Class I consists of words that are unique to a particular field of knowledge, with no meaning in standard English.  We have lots of excellent examples of these in physics: “fermion,” “quasar,” or more infamously, “boojum” [2].  While these terms tend to be the scariest for a non-technical audience, in some sense they are also safer from a communication standpoint: “fermion” has no meaning outside of physics, so while lots of folks won’t know what you’re talking about if you say it, they will never confuse it with something else.

Class II is sneakier.  It consists of words that DO have a common, everyday meaning, but also have a very specific technical meaning within a field, like the aforementioned example of “frame.”  Ref. [3], which discusses the challenge of communicating climate science to the public, provides several fascinating examples of such words.  The most notorious of these words is probably “theory.”  To a scientist, theories are the most established and complete scientific ideas, typically referring to whole frameworks for understanding a wide range of phenomena that have been rigorously validated by experiments and observations over decades.  Good examples include Newton’s law of gravity, quantum mechanics, and evolution.  To the layperson, however, a theory is what a scientist would call a “hypothesis” or “claim”: an educated guess that hasn’t been verified or fully understood yet (e.g., “conspiracy theory”).  Obviously, you can see why biologists cringe every time someone derides Darwinian evolution as a mere “theory”!

So while we tend to focus most of our attention on class I jargon words when communicating to a wider audience, we should pay greater attention to class II words.  They have much more potential to mislead.  This was demonstrated especially in the recent “Climategate” ordeal, in which e-mails of climate science researchers were made public.  One point of contention for climate science deniers was the scientists’ use of the term “trick” in analyzing data.  Most scientists recognize this usage as referring to a legitimate but clever method for solving a technical problem (e.g., “I solved the equation using Fourier’s trick”).  But in ordinary English, “trick” usually refers to an intentional act of deception, which is obviously what climate science deniers were hoping to find in the e-mails.  Awareness of these class II terms in our respective disciplines, and an alert eye for them while reading about other disciplines, would serve us all well.

[1]  Wilson WJ.  (2011)  “Being Poor, Black, and American: The Impact of Political, Economic, and Cultural Forces.”  American Educator, Spring: 10.
[2]  Mermin ND.  (1981)  “E Pluribus Boojum: the physicist as neologist.”  Phys. Today 34: 46.
[3]  Somerville RCJ, Hassol SJ.  (2011)  “Communicating the science of climate change.”  Phys. Today 64: 48.