Month: October 2022


The other day, I came across this tweet (screenshot below):


I started fuming, but that’s neither here nor there, since I fume a lot, on account of being a perimenopausal woman and the world generally being a steaming cauldron of irritating shit. Still, upon closer inspection, I realized this was a very specific kind of fume, the kind I reserve for annoying takes about writing and/or STEM.

I replied to the tweet, then promptly deleted it, because life is too short to be aggressive on Twitter, but just the right duration to be passive-aggressive on a personal blog.

It could be that the author never had in mind STEM technical writing, but was instead interested in popular informative writing, academic writing in the humanities, etc. That may well be, and in that case what I am about to expound upon perhaps doesn’t hold (even though I totally feel it does). Still, the tweet sounded like its author was someone who was tasked with training struggling academic/informative/technical writers how to write better. Given how utterly useless academic-writing coaching is at my institution — no, it’s worse than useless; it has negative usefulness because it overrides some of the students’ best instincts that they develop naturally through reading technical prose — I feel more than a little aggravated that generations of unsuspecting new academic writers somewhere will be taught by someone who thinks they are all simpletons with fourth-grade vocabularies.

You guessed it: The thing that irritated me in the tweet was the reference to plain or simplistic writing. First of all, even when it comes to reading fiction — and I read a ton of it, across several genres — I am absolutely fucking allergic to purple prose. By that I mean overly ornate prose whose job is usually to obfuscate and distract from the absence of an interesting plot and/or character development.  There is no such thing as “eloquent” and “elegant” that doesn’t detract from clarity at least a little, plus eloquent may as well be an antonym of succinct. But the worst thing is that a person who thinks that the tenets of writing in the technical genre make such writing “plain” and “simplistic” clearly holds the whole fucking genre in low regard and should not be given the job of teaching other people how to write it.

You have to know, respect, and appreciate a genre before you can write it, let alone teach someone else  how to do it. You can’t think that those who write it are idiots. If you can’t stomach the absence of florid prose, then do not read or write academic or technical texts. Those are not the places to get your literary fix, FFS.

The point of academic or technical writing is, first and foremost, to convey ideas. The beauty, elegance, and excitement come from ideas. Not language. IDEAS. The language can help, but it cannot be used to polish a turd the way it’s sometimes (over)used in fiction. The underlying ideas have to be solid. They have to be technically correct, as proven by data; they have to flow logically from prior art and from one another; they have to have a purpose (addressing an open problem that the community agrees is open and needs addressing); they have to do it in a way that is ideally novel and creative, but first and foremost correct.

The language used to convey ideas must not obfuscate the need for the solution, the established tenets of the field, the new ideas and how those flow from prior art, or any of the logical pieces presented in the paper that connect the parts into a coherent whole. Correctness, accuracy, and clarity come before all else. Then we can talk about stylistic elegance, to a degree.

But what is it about writing that makes a paper read well? The same ingredients that make any thriller read well. An engaging opening. High stakes. Logical jumps that connect successive revelations in the puzzle. That heady mix of not knowing what comes next yet having enough information that you feel like you *could* guess what comes next.

Besides, plenty of literary techniques and devices do, in fact, get used in technical writing. Varying sentence length works well in any genre. Technical writing relies heavily on parallels, contrasts, and analogies. Maybe we do not use metaphors outright, but we often use similes. We use antithesis to elucidate contrasts. We use amplification to emphasize the most important findings, and the very structure of the paper, where the key insights repeated in the abstract, intro, and conclusion, serves as a giant amplifier — a veritable resonant cavity for the main takeaway! We use euphemisms to convey our  disagreement with the possibly erroneous prior work without outright offending our colleagues. We use foreshadowing in the early parts of the paper to hint at the exciting meat in the Results section. (Me saying “meat” and you understanding I mean “important results” is an example of a metaphor.)

At the risk of being overly dramatic, I will paraphrase James Baldwin’s quote, where he says that black children cannot be taught by the people who despise them.

Fledgling academic and technical writers cannot be taught how to write by the people who despise the relevant genres, who don’t understand or appreciate their tenets, and who consider the genres’ practitioners to be inferior writers producing “plain” and “simplistic” prose.

Fledgling academic and technical writes should be taught by the people well versed in those genres, who have mastered the art — yes, art — of writing in a way that is informative, first, persuasive, second, and engaging, third. It is no mean feat, and there is nothing simplistic about it.


NOVEMBER 2022: If you have a question you’d like me to answer during Nov 2022 daily blogging, please leave a comment to this post. 

I have a new pen name/email/web domain for the new (to me) genre in which I am writing a novel. This brings the number of different email accounts to seventeen gajillion. I know this sounds silly, but this all makes the endeavor more real, like I’m truly committed to it (which I am). I am feeling energized to get back to the novel (I have about 50k as of July, but haven’t been able to work on it very much since, on account of, you know, day job and stuff). However, I am hoping to put down some more words during the rest of this month and especially in November.

Speaking of November, I usually blog every day, following the old-timey NaBloPoMo tradition, and will try to do it again. It will likely be a mixture of reposts, new posts maybe 2-3x a week, and the rest  links/Twitter silliness posts. Which, to be honest, is how previous Novembers mostly went, too.

If you have a question that you would like me to answer, please submit either via email (xykademiqz at gmail), or leave a comment to this post. There will be a new post like the one on the RHS for the upcoming November. I will try to answer as many as I can, and if I don’t get to yours, it usually means I planned to, but it slipped my mind. Just ping me again sometime in the future.

The following is definitely a feature of the job, but it still sometimes strikes me how constantly critiquing people’s work erodes my joie de vivre. Even if my opinion is 100% correct, it still takes something from me to have to submit even the most tactfully crafted negative opinion, to recommend declination of a proposal or paper, or to decide to reject a paper as editor. These are all actions that, even if justifiably, hurt other people, colleagues who usually put a lot of time into the work, and I have to the person who tells them ‘no.’ Saying ‘no’ is always fraught, and so many people take it way more personally than they should — the judgement is on a particular piece of work and its suitability for a journal or a funding agency, not on the authors’ ability to do science — but I have also been on the receiving end of such bad news, and it’s often hard to decouple the two (the rejection and the sense of self-worth). It’s easy to read too much into a rejection, and it’s perhaps not always misguided to do so, because people also hold grudges and gatekeep, so the noes aren’t always as impersonal as they ideally should be. For me, having to dispense negative opinions and decisions always takes a little something away from me, makes me a little colder, as little more closed off.

Which is also why it’s so nice to do stuff on my own, without anyone to teach. I don’t have to witness other people’s hardship and failure. My own is fine; usually I take it as a sign that the reward is worth the sweat, and I always love a good challenge! Not that I never get demoralized, but when it’s just me, I am usually OK. In contrast, seeing my students (or my kids, for that matter) have setbacks can be really hard.

An undergrad came to talk to me about grad school, and we chatted about where he would want to go. I suggested a bunch of places and people, but the field he wants to go into isn’t really mine, so my information is limited. Then he said he’d asked a person it the field, but couldn’t get an appointment with them, after which I contacted the same person on behalf of the student, and the person got back to me quickly, with off-the-top-of-their-head information that probably took them no time at all to type up, so now the student had all the info he could need. This little (barely) anecdote got me thinking how we who are specialists in our fields are really such vast repositories of knowledge, knowledge that is very hard to get in other ways but that we possess and can effortlessly dispense, but only to those who have the ability to get a hold of us. This can be a metaphor for a whole bunch of stuff, but one thing is certainly true: like with so much of everything in life, access is everything, yet it is also the thing that most will never have.

Stream-of-Consciousness Post

  • This book chapter, a gift that keeps on giving. And by giving, I mean taking. Mostly the will to live. The book has been in the making for literally years, and there’s constantly some additional shit that needs to be done by us, the authors, rather than by the typesetters and copyeditors that the publisher — who will be one making money from the sales — presumably employs.
  • How the hell am I again so busy and so behind?! Where is all this work coming from?
  • Nearly two decades into the career, I still have to fight tooth and nail to carve out time for thinking during the semester. Why are our jobs so out of whack that the things we are evaluated on are the things everyone around us wants us to have absolutely no time for?
  • How do we get anything meaningful done, seriously?
  • No, seriously, how? 
  • Loudly for everyone in the back: A course belongs to the department and college and university, not to any one faculty member. A course belongs to the department and college and university, not to any one faculty member. Senior people who refuse to step aside and let someone else (usually someone junior) teach “their” course should be ashamed of themselves; I don’t care they’re the  one who developed the course, it’s not their personal property. Departments should not support this toxic territoriality. Intellectually agile people should be able and willing to teach a bunch of courses. Teaching across the curriculum is part of the job, not a tax on doing research FFS.
  • We have to prioritize, when hiring, people who will be committed not just to the advancement of their own research agenda, but to all aspects of the job. There are plenty of excellent people who will do that. We do not have to hire the most self-centered candidate. However, it is not easy to convey that on the search committee without sounding like a jerk.
  • Sadly, those excellent well-rounded people will find themselves screaming into the void, as I am doing now: How the fuck do I carve out time to finish the revision of this paper with all the other shit I have to do ASAP? Those who treat teaching and service as a chore likely won’t, but they make things worse for everyone else by not contributing.
  • People, be kind and helpful to junior colleagues, FFS, why is this something that has to be spelled out for people who are supposedly educators and mentors?
  • Salty along several axes these days.

How’s life, academic blogosphere? 

Random Bits of Academia

In recent years, our enrollments have been increasing, which I suppose is good for the department and the college. However — and I don’t know if this is a pandemic effect, or the effect of us enrolling students who aren’t as prepared as we need them to be — the skills of students in basic math have been steadily decreasing at all levels, from required undergraduate courses to graduate-level ones. At the undergraduate level, what I mean by declining skills is that, in this very math-heavy major, students are not fluent in basic algebra (multiplying and dividing fractions, factorizing polynomials, canceling out terms on opposite sides of the fraction line and/or when multiplying fractions, being able to graph simple functions without a calculator). Let’s not even mention the single- and multivariable calculus they supposedly had classes on and that I really need them to know for the courses I teach, but, alas, they don’t.

I do end up teaching on the fly the things my students should know but don’t, but this lack of proficiency in math continues to be the main stumbling block for a great many of them. They can’t work with advanced concepts because fairly low-level math takes up all their mental CPU cycles. It’s like trying to write an essay in a English when you have to look up the spelling of even simple, commonly used words.

I was recently reminded how little the quality of a grant proposal and/or the scores received correlate with fundability. I got a grant funded by the NSF in one division with lower scores and IMHO with worse writing than the unfunded grant in another division (i.e., the unfunded grant had higher scores and was IMHO better written). The unfunded grant got funded by another agency, so I’m not exactly drowning in tears here, and I had a really really good year overall, but it’s good to occasionally remind myself that:
a) So much of getting a grant funded is a crapshoot, and I am glad it worked out for me this time, but it also could have not worked out, and I should never forget that
b) Putting your heart, soul, and/or sense of self-worth into any one proposal is a recipe for misery.  Exciting and well-written proposals often don’t get funded, sometimes repeatedly, and sometimes so many times that you have to shelve those ideas, even though you’re excited about them and certain great science would come out of them. Hastily thrown-together proposals sometimes do get funded, presumably based on pure luck with the panel composition and/or the genuine pull of an excellent new idea, presented for the first time and thus infused with a childlike excitement that has not yet been squashed by repeated rejections. (Truly, there is a lightness to brand new proposals that is absent from those that have been smacked around a few times. You can recognize the latter by the stiffness of prose, the defensive tone in the writing. They seldom review well.)

Write proposals. Write many proposals. As long as they are solid, they have a chance. Polishing to perfection doesn’t hurt, but it’s far from a guarantee of funding. You have to keep slinging those grant-proposal  spaghetti against the funding-agency walls.

The lockdowns and online schooling are behind us, and a new year of tenure and promotions is before us. On a related early-fall occasion, from the mouth of an administrator came words that should surprise no one, yet, somehow still managed to surprise me. We were reminded to look at merit, and, upon the mention of the pandemic, we were told that, yes, there were Covid extensions for everyone, but some people were able to “get organized” and write more papers and proposals during the pandemic, while others saw their productivity plummet, and we should take that into account while mapping out the future of our institution. I wanted to yell and scream that the difference between those two types of people wasn’t organization, but that the first kind most likely had no or very few caregiving obligations and apparently no physical or mental health struggles, while the other, “lesser” faculty might have had health struggles and/or were taking care of the kids, the meritorious significant others, their own ailing parents or in-laws, while likely also serving as a sounding board for students with physical or mental-health issues. For the supposedly merit-challenged, I would like some actual fucking acknowledgement where it counts for tenure and promotion and raises, rather than the empty pandemic platitudes that have apparently already been forgotten. Even with all the good things feminism has done, we are nowhere near women getting the respect, consideration, and compensation they deserve for always carrying the society on their fucking backs.