technical writing and the “language barrier”

One thing that strikes me about US graduate programs in electrical engineering is that the student population is overwhelmingly international. For most of these students, English is a second or third language, and so we need to adopt more “ESL”-friendly pedagogical approaches to teaching writing. I came across a blog post from ATTW by Meg Morgan from UNC Charlotte that raises a number of interesting issues. For one, the term “ESL” is perhaps problematic. The linguistic and social differences in pedagogy between other countries and the US mean that we need to use different methods for engaging the students.

In terms of teaching technical writing at the graduate level, the issues may be similar but the students are generally older — they may have even had some writing experience from undergraduate or masters-level research. How should the “ESL” issue affect how we teach technical writing?

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Teaching technical (re-)writing

I think it would be great to have a more formal way of teaching technical writing for graduate students in engineering. It’s certainly not being taught at (most) undergraduate institutions, and the mistakes are so common across the examples that I’ve seen that there must be a way to formalize the process for students. Since we tend to publish smaller things a lot earlier in our graduate career, having a “checklist” approach to writing/editing could be very helpful to first-time authors. There are several coupled problems here:

  • students often don’t have a clear line of thought before they write,
  • they don’t think of who their audience is,
  • they don’t know how to rewrite, or indeed how important it is.

Adding to all of this is that they don’t know how to read a paper. In particular, they don’t know what to be reading for in terms of content or form. This makes the experience of reading “related work” sections incredibly frustrating.

What I was thinking was a class where students learn to write a literature review (a small one) on a topic of their choosing. The first part will be how to read papers and make connections between them. What is the point of a literature review, anyway? The first objective is to develop a more systematic way of reading and processing papers. I think everyone I know professionally, myself included, learned how to do this in an ad-hoc way. I believe that developing a formula would help improve my own literature surveying. The second part of the course would be teaching about rewriting (rather than writing). That is, instead of providing rules like “don’t use the passive voice so much” we could focus on “how to revise your sentences to be more active.” I would also benefit from a systematic approach to this for my own writing.

I was thinking of a kind of once-a-week writing seminar style class. Has anyone seen a class like this in engineering programs? Are there tips/tricks from other fields/departments which do have such classes that could be useful in such a class? Even though it is “for social scientists”, Harold Becker’s book is a really great resource.

“Flowery” language, global English, and scholarly communication

I really love language, but my desire to be idiomatic often runs athwart to the goals of scholarly communication. Especially when motivating a paper, I enjoy writing sentences such as this:

In the data-rich setting, at first blush it appears that learning algorithms can enjoy both low privacy risk and high utility.

(Yes, I know it’s passive). However, consider the poor graduate student for whom English is a second (or third) language – this sentence is needlessly confusing for them. If we are really honest, this is the dominant group of people who will actually read the paper, so if I am writing with my “target audience” in mind, I should eschew idioms, literary allusions, and the like. Technical papers should be written in a technical and global English (as opposed to a specific canonized World English).

Nevertheless, I want to write papers in a “writerly” way; I want to use the fact that my chosen career is one of constant writing as an opportunity to improve my communication skills, but I also want to play, to exploit the richness of English, and even to slip in the occasional pun. Am I a linguistic chauvinist? Unlike mathematicians, I never had to learn to read scholarly works in another language, so I have the luxury of lazily indulging my fantasies of being an Author.

When I review papers I often have many comments about grammatical issues, but perhaps in a global English of scholarly communication it doesn’t matter as long as the argument is intelligible. Do we need so many articles? Is consistent tense really that important? I think so, but I don’t have a philosophically consistent argument for what may appear, in situ, to be a prescriptivist attitude.

The cynical side of me says that nobody reads papers anyway, so there is no point in worrying about these issues or even spending time on the literary aspects of technical papers. Cynicism has never been very nourishing for me, though, so I am hoping for an alternative…

Tips for writing

As a postdoc at a school with a gigantic biosciences program and surrounded by other biomedical research institutes (Scripps, Burnham, etc), a lot of the professional development workshops offered here are not specifically helpful to me. For example, I went to a workshop on writing grants, but it was almost entirely focused on NIH grants; the speaker said he had never applied to the NSF for a grant. Still, I did pick up general tips and strategies about the process of writing a grant. In the same vein, I read an article in The Scientist (registration required) about improving scientific writing which offered ideas applicable to technical writing in general. One that stuck out for me was:

Write daily for 15 to 30 minutes
During your daily writing sessions, don’t think about your final manuscript. Just write journal entries, says Tara Gray, director of the teaching academy that provides training and support to New Mexico State University professors. “People think there’s two phases of a research project—doing the research and writing it up,” she says. Rather than setting aside large chunks of time for each activity, combine them to improve your writing and your research. The first time Gray encouraged a group of faculty members at New Mexico State to adhere to this schedule for three months, they wrote about twice as much as their normal output.

I think I’ll try doing this. I often complain that I live an “interrupt-driven” lifestyle, but sometimes flailing on some very involved epsilonics at the last minute to get something to work results in errors, tension, and woe.