Academic Once Bitten, Twice Shy

Bad blogger, went back on own promise to blog daily. No excuses… Just shame. (No, not really. OK, maybe a little.)

A few examples of academic once bitten, twice shy:

  1. When I was a wee assistant professor, I had a single-author paper at the pearly gates of a high-profile journal. I made a stupid mistake of dismissing (i.e., not carefully responding to) some of the referee’s comments, because I thought I got it made. Turns out I didn’t.
    Since then I am the kind of author who carefully and painstakingly responds to each and every reviewer comment, even the stupid ones. Never again did I ignore a criticism and never again did I get a rejection after a reasonable request for revisions.
  2. I will be very, very, VERY careful when hosting visiting researchers. The first and only I have had so far ended up being a complete flake and went MIA upon arrival. He had money from his institution and apparently decided to vacation here. Being that he was a foreign national and I invited him, I could have gotten in a lot of trouble. I can’t see myself hosting anyone from abroad in the near future.
  3. I will be very, very, VERY reluctant to ever again take on students just because they come with a fellowship. (To paraphrase: Don’t take for free what you wouldn’t be willing to pay for.) I am just dealing with the results of a recent mistake; the student came with a fellowship to do an MS. The student is considerably weaker than my other students and the fellowship requirements were such that I ended up having very little time, less than what I had originally been told, to try to teach them something. The weak student on an unreasonably short clock was supposed to produce a thesis, so I ended up crafting and supervising what I would call a very minimal project, something the student could actually do. The whole ordeal was a very, very poor use of my time. Now I am stuck correcting the thesis, which contains an infinitesimal amount of novelty but innumerable writing infractions…
    Which brings about… Writing rant number 3,875,621!
    OMFG, why is the writing of some graduate students who are native speakers of English so unbelievably atrocious? I am pulling my hair out now with run-on sentences, no commas to save a life, the same verb or noun three times in the same sentence. What is it that they spend time on in their English 101 or whatever it is that they are required to take in college? Or is it that our humanities colleagues try their best, but it all falls on deaf ears? Doesn’t anyone read anything, FFS? Doesn’t anyone reflect upon why some writing doesn’t suck and why their own writing does?

What say you, blogosphere? What are some things in your profession that you will never ever do again?


  1. As far as student writing, I am between lab reports right now. I do everything that I can to encourage better writing skills. What’s pathetic is that right now my institution is making me produce documents attesting that all of our classes have meaningful writing assignments (I’m chair of my department’s curriculum committee) but they are utterly uninterested in going after people who openly give nothing but multiple choice tests. One joker actually published a paper on how he assigns no reading and just gives freshman-level multiple-choice tests in a class that was originally designed as an upper-division course in a “Science and Society” GE area. But he has more fun teaching freshman material, and would rather not teach topics that would necessitate writing-intensive assignments.

    Does the school go after him? No. Do they make me produce documents full of fiction? Yes. Do they take any interest when I point him out to them? No. Do the students graduate unable to write at an acceptable level? Yes.

  2. I spend a lot of time giving students feedback on writing, but that seems to be a rare occurrence here—most faculty have their TAs grade all student work, just give multiple-guess tests, or both.

    The reason so many US students can’t write is that no one has ever cared enough about their writing to tell them that they couldn’t write, and to make them redo assignments that were not adequately written. If their teachers never cared, why should they?

  3. If their teachers never cared, why should they?
    I always thought these skills are acquired slowly, through K-12, and only polished in college and beyond. All these kids with STEM degrees must have been good students in K-12. Do you feel that all the project reports and essays they write in middle and high schools are worthless? That’s depressing…

  4. All these kids with STEM degrees must have been good students in K-12.


    We get people coming in who place into remedial math and say they want to be STEM majors. And for some reason we don’t just tell them to go get a clue. We let them declare a STEM major. Why? Because we’re even dumber than they are.

    As far as their k-12 writing assignments, I can’t figure out whether it’s that they never actually got graded down for bad grammar so they never learned grammar, or that they know how to write a grammatically correct sentence but don’t put in the effort because they simply don’t believe that I will grade them on it. What I do know is that they keep giving me horrible grammar every week and I keep grading them down. I actually give a fuck, so I will have lots of F’s to give in my grade sheet this December.

  5. In most public schools, there is almost no teaching of grammar, and teachers often don’t have enough knowledge of English grammar to correct their students’ work, even if they wanted to.

    In research universities, most of the faculty refuse to read student work and provide substantive feedback, so the only feedback student get is in freshman composition courses, which are often just remedial courses in which the instructors are glad to get things that resemble English.

  6. We are not a research university, I’m one of only two people in my department to publish in a Glamour journal in the past decade, and I assign and grade far more writing than some of my cow-orkers who talk a big game on both research and “best practices” in teaching.

  7. I’m having guilt flashbacks reading this post. My poor advisor wasted so much ink on correcting my thesis :-/ I wrote well as an undergrad (good grades, college-wide award for a course research paper senior year), but hadn’t made the transition to graduate-level scientific writing. Something that helped me improve my writing, and probably kept my advisor from setting my subsequent chapter drafts on fire, was creating a checklist of every single comment or change my advisor made to each draft. This made pre-editing subsequent drafts prior to giving them to my advisor much more effective. If your students seem to at least be trying you could suggest they create and use a thorough, written checklist for making correction prior to giving you their drafts.

  8. It’s not that correcting drafts annoys me per se; it’s part of the student education process. It’s that in this particular case the writing is atrocious, plus I am being forced to adhere to the fellowship-granting body’s ridiculous deadline, on account of which I already drastically lowered my criteria for an MS thesis, because that’s what this particular student could conceivably pull off in the given amount of time. So now I have to edit this stupid document that is long yet will never become a published paper (which is what I normally expect for an MS thesis) because it’s not original enough, and there is not enough time for back and forths with the edits because, again, ridiculous deadline. Everything is rushed, I feel blindsided (because I was) by all the deadlines and shortened timescales that keep popping up, and the whole thing is a ginormous waste of my time and energy. Hopefully the student learned something, although based on the writing, it wasn’t much. So a giant, giant waste of time.

    That’s my longwinded way of saying: I don’t hate editing per se, but there has to be time for back and forths, and the product should be something that eventually makes a paper. Unfortunately, this situation I am currently in makes me nothing but resentful. So the once bitten, twice shy point No 3.

  9. Ah, yes that makes sense. That would be extremely frustrating – if I had to revise and edit someone’s work without them really standing the chance of learning from it I’d find the situation very disheartening :-/

  10. Here’s me “translating” the first sentence of the abstract in the internet-approved bunny-hopping language.

    “Dense woodland hopping in the woods in continental Europe is a very important consideration when analyzing the motion of bunnies in various habitats since woodland hopping slows the motion of the bunnies in the habitats and therefore makes the bunnies less likely to procreate.”

    I swear I am not making this up and this is a very faithful “translation” of the first sentence.

  11. Does the student have German or Spanish as a native language? As a German speaker, this sentence sounds quite ok to me if it was translated in to German, except it’s missing some commas. Is that what is happening here?

  12. Yeah, it needs a comma or two, but compound sentences can be done right. Academic writing has a decent amount of compound sentences because academics usually have the skill to pull them off.

  13. AnonP, nope, the student is American born and bred, speaks only English. But I think in any language having the same word appear three times is poor form.

    I agree with Alex, compound sentences can be done right, so the length itself is not necessarily an issue, provided there is appropriate punctuation; I could not read the original, completely unpunctuated sentence out loud without stopping to gasp for air, which brings new and literal meaning to “no comma to save a life.”

    Here’s what I believe is wrong with the above sentence: several terms appearing 2 or 3 times (e.g., wood/woodland and bunnies 3 times each, habitat 2 times); we don’t realize till the middle of the sentence that it’s the bunnies hopping (because it could also be frogs or grasshoppers); it’s nebulous how dense woodland hopping relates to a generic habitat (as opposed to, say, just the habitats known for having abundant dense woodlands) or why the hopping slowing down would affect bunny procreation (it does, but in a way that is not trivially obvious, and should therefore probably not make it into sentence No 1 of the abstract).

  14. You’re going to have mixed feelings on this, but have you considered telling your students to spend time arguing with people in blog comments sections?

    I did too much of that in grad school, and it improved my writing.

  15. I understand the deadline frustration, but if you only help students edit once they get to the point of doing publishable work, then you’re not doing much for the undergrads to get them to the point where they’d be able to be decent writers as grad students.

  16. Hmmm. Now I understand why my mentors/advisors were fawning over my writing (which I think is passable, but nothing extraordinary). I learned to write and write well in high school AP English classes and then had a very liberal arts undergraduate experience with a fair amount of writing required (though I placed out of English/comp classes) to polish things up a bit more. Its served me exceedingly well throughout my career.

  17. Alex: have you considered telling your students to spend time arguing with people in blog comments sections? 🙂 I did! I told them to get on blogs and forums and argue on whatever they are passionate about. They thought I was joking. One said, “Comments are basically yelling at people.” I think I said something like “Yes, but you can yell eloquently.”

    gswp: This is a grad student. If I had more time I would love to go back and forth with the edits, but since the student has to turn it in like tomorrow, I have edited as best I could and talked with them about the pervasive problems and I hope something sticks.
    The thing is, it can’t all be the responsibility of the end person on the line (me). What is all the schooling before for? I am not an English teacher/professor, I am a scientist. Some of this stuff is basic composition, which I shouldn’t have to teach (nor am I qualified to do so) to people who are native speakers and have had years of English instruction. I will help non-native-speaking students to the best of my abilities, because there’s no one else, but I also recommend ESL classes to those who are far behind in comprehension. The native-speaking students should really have a leg up in the realm of communicating in their mother tongue, but I don’t see it in their writing.

    But you bring up a good point about teaching undergrads to write. I have stopped assigning term papers in some of my courses because it’s too depressing. Instead of being an opportunity for them to learn and expand on a topic of their choice, 80% of the time I get a piece of copy/paste plagiarized crap. I am not sure this knowledge can be forced on someone but I also don’t know how we make people care.

  18. Don’t assign term papers, but don’t give up on writing either. They’ll get more benefit from several 1-2 pagers that are assigned at regular intervals and returned with comments than they will from one 8-10 pager.

    Right now I’m teaching a class where several of the assignments require them to use simulation software. I require a few paragraphs that interpret the simulation output and explain its relevance to some bigger question. For the first assignment they thought that I was joking when I said that I take off points for bad grammar. By the third assignment most of them realized that I’m serious.

  19. They’ll get more benefit from several 1-2 pagers that are assigned at regular intervals and returned with comments than they will from one 8-10 pager.

    I am sure you are 100% correct. Practice makes perfect, right?

    The same holds for teaching teens how to drive. I have been teaching Eldest to drive for a month or so, and I can attest that driving for 10-15 min every day is waaaay better than driving once a week for an hour.

  20. WHAT ALEX SAID. Short, focused assignments that the students actually care about, plus substantive feedback and a built-in revision process (I’m not a points-off person, but I am a revise-until-it’s-correct person). Just last week I had to defend my classes to dept. chair who wanted to know why I didn’t have a ten-page paper assigned at the end of term. I explained that the students in my classes spend 3-4 hours EACH WEEK writing (I teach online, so no classroom time – all reading and writing), and that over the course of the semester they produce probably 30-40 pages of writing, about half of which goes through a revision process with feedback from me and multiple readers (learning how to give others feedback about their writing is another important skill students need). My goal is that they should be done with my class BEFORE the last week of term when they start writing overnight the papers they will turn in for their other classes which will receive only grades and no feedback.

    I’ve been teaching these writing-intensive classes online for over 10 years. I really enjoy it, and I am glad that students get the opportunity to learn how to become better writers . . . since that is clearly not happening in their other classes. All materials online here for anyone who’s interested in what a writing-intensive online class might look like:

  21. I was going to respond that everyone gets depressed about the writing they see from students, but if the result is just to give up and kick the can down the road to the next professor, then whoever is at the end of the line (xykademiqz in this case) had an impossible problem to solve.

    It is not the job of English professors to teach science writing (or even, for that matter, basic composition, which is usually the domain of a totally different faculty). That’s like asking the physics faculty to teach arithmetic and algebra—they may have to, but it isn’t really their job.

    But the advice given by Laura and Alex is more useful than what I was going to say.

  22. That’s like asking the physics faculty to teach arithmetic and algebra—they may have to, but it isn’t really their job.

    You pretty much describe why my life sucks.

  23. gswp: Maybe I need remedial writing because I don’t think I am being clear. I don’t expect English teachers to teach scientific writing; I expect them to teach grammar and basic composition. I strongly believe that good composition practices largely transcend genres and even cut across languages (at least those from the Indo-European group). I really recommend Pinker’s “The Sense of Style.”
    I asked the student in the example if anyone had ever commented on problems with their writing before and they said never, it’s all been good, but that they tend to be wordy. There is no way in hell, with what I have seen in this 60-page document, that the student writes appealing nontechnical prose; what is more likely is that their nontechnical writing sucks even more fiercely than what I have read. Not repeating the same word 3 times in a sentence, using proper punctuation, splitting an intractable sentence into shorter ones, presenting a logical thought flow that the reader can follow — these are not the province of technical writing, they are key for all writing. That my student can come and say that nobody ever pointed out anything wrong with their writing, and what I am holding is a steaming pile of word crap is mind boggling.

    Alex: Ditto.

  24. And here’s the satisfying thing: most of my students are science or engineering or business majors (I don’t get that many humanities majors; they usually take care of their Gen. Ed. with classroom-classes, rather than resorting to online), and those students are really grateful for this very basic help with sentence-level mechanics, commenting on how much the practice they get in my class then helps them with the kind of writing they do in their other classes (lab reports, etc.). The kinds of things they need help with really are very basic: comma splices, use of apostrophe, passive verbs, etc. etc. Here are the help pages I prepared for them based on looking at my students’ most common errors over the years:

  25. Part of the problem is that students don’t read anything that isn’t assigned. I get that scientific writing has its own conventions, e.g. when do you say “We used Monte Carlo simulations” and when do you say “We used the Monte Carlo simulations”? Some of these differences in conventions might make students get confused and use incorrect grammar. That wouldn’t explain all of the mistakes that I see, but it would explain some of them. The only way to get past that is to read a lot of scientific writing so that you get used to the conventions of the field.

    One thing I tell my freshmen and sophomores is that if they aren’t reading about their subject beyond what’s assigned for classes then they will never get very far. As a student I got subscriptions to Physics Today and Science. At this point it’s obligatory to say something about subscription costs and under-privileged students, but there’s a reason why universities have libraries and online journal subscriptions.

  26. xykademiqz, you were being clear, but I was not. What you are asking for is not the domain of English professors, but of middle-school and high-school teachers. Many colleges now have writing instructors, who are not English professors, to try to teach what the K-12 system has not taught. Since they have only 10 weeks or 13 weeks to teach what should have been covered over the previous 8 years, they often make relatively little progress.

    What I was suggesting is that all faculty, in all disciplines, pay some attention to giving students feedback on writing, so that the students learn that it matters and can seek out the numerous on-line resources and remedial courses that they need.

  27. I don’t see why you have to allow a subpar student to graduate just because s/he has a fellowship with a particular timeframe in mind. Getting a fellowship isn’t a promise to get a degree…

  28. Yes, it is amazing how poorly some native English speakers write.

    Currently, I am struggling with a biomedical research postdoctoral trainee (has a PhD) who cannot write a grammatical English sentence and thus is incapable of writing his own papers….and he was born in the U.S. Unfortunately, I have found that this problem with his writing also accurately reflects his poor aptitude for science. I would be happy if his only problem was run in sentences! He fails to correctly interpret the results in papers from the literature. He also cannot grasp the logic behind doing one experiment vs. another, even when I try over and over to explain this to him. So his writing problems actually reflect a massive problem with critical thinking.

    Another thing I have noticed over the years, is that PhD students these days become more indignant and shocked when I heavily edit/criticize their terrible writing. Apparently, they have not experienced this before? They seem so surprised when I go through their every sentence and rewrite it. I wonder if undergrad writing professors have stopped doing line by line criticism?

  29. “I wonder if undergrad writing professors have stopped doing line by line criticism?” To a large extent, yes. The average writing instructor is dealing with about 50 students a quarter, many of whom have really serious deficits in grammar, vocabulary, and organization. They cannot, in the one or two quarters of contact with the students get them all to an acceptable level. It would be good if they failed more of them, but since most are contingent faculty, they fear for their jobs if they have an honest fail rate.

    It doesn’t help that so many research faculty never read undergrad writing and provide detailed feedback. If the students have never had a scientist or engineer critique their writing, they assume that scientists and engineers don’t care about writing. Ask the undergrads who major in science and engineering—many will admit to putting no effort into their writing, because no one ever reads it.

  30. Today I gave a mini-lecture on hyphenation to a graduate student who is a native English speaker after I had realized the student did not have a clue as to what the rules are. We went to The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation to read the rules, then went through a page of heavily corrected text, where the student had randomly sprinkled hyphens, and we discussed why each bit was corrected. Hopefully, one more person will now be able to hyphenate.

  31. Re: gasstationwithoutpumps’s comment about feedback: It’s not even just lack of feedback, but also lack of revision. If faculty do labor over giving detailed feedback to students but don’t make it part of a writing process (i.e. revision), then the feedback is not really useful. Students may or may not look at it; they will likely just look at the grade and move on. To be useful, feedback needs to be part of a revision process where students then get feedback on the revision.
    Also known as: practice.
    Advice from Sol Stein: “Ballet dancers practice technique. Pianists wear down their black and white keys with hours of daily practice. Actors rehearse and rehearse again… By practice one learns to use what one has understood. Only writers, it seems, expect to achieve some level of mastery without practice.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s