PUNCTUATION; IS NOT. AN, OPTION.

On January 22, 2015

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As a professional physicist – as I sometimes like to pretend I am – I would estimate that at least 70% of my working week is spent on words, not numbers. Many of the undergrads here at Nottingham don’t appear to be entirely comfortable with this when I point it out. Indeed, quite a few students have specifically told me that they didn’t do physics to write essays and that they will go out of their way, in terms of module choices and exam questions, to avoid having to work with words.

But not all of our students have such an adverse reaction to the more qualitative side of their subject.

I have been extremely impressed by very many of the blog posts and articles produced, as coursework, for a fourth-year module we introduced this year, “The Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics”. The majority of the coursework pieces to date have been uploaded at the course blog, and the quality of writing is generally very high. And it’s not just me who thinks this: I was delighted when both Physics World and physicsfocus agreed to publish coursework articles submitted by students.

A key point about the students taking the course, however, is that they were forewarned, repeatedly, that the module was devoid of mathematics. I stressed, during an introduction to Year 4 modules at the start of the academic year, that they would be assessed on the basis of blog posts and articles they submitted. In this sense, they’re a self-selecting ‘sample’ and thus perhaps not entirely representative of the class as a whole.

On the other hand, all physics undergraduates at Nottingham, even those who take our Physics with Theoretical Physics course, are required to do experiments in Year 1 and to submit formal reports on their lab work. (All undergrads also, of course, submit project reports in later years.) The title of this blog post stems from my marking of a set of first-year lab reports a few weeks ago, where the same errors in writing cropped up time and time again. (It’s not the first time that this has happened in my 17-odd years of teaching at Nottingham…)

I’ve been meaning to put together a video which not only lays out what is expected from physics undergrads for their lab reports – which, to be fair, is often not quite as clear and well-defined as it could be – but also highlights those common failings that cause so much wear and tear on my red pen. I managed to finally get round to doing this, after literally years of procrastination, over the Christmas break and I’m including the video here. I’d very much welcome and value feedback from physicsfocus readers.

My concerns about the words-numbers divide are, however, much broader in scope than the niggles on structure, punctuation,[1] and grammar outlined in the video. Having taken on the role of undergraduate admissions tutor this year, I am now even more aware of the extent to which the A-level system exacerbates the arts-and-humanities-vs-STEM divide. I grew up in Ireland where our equivalent of the A-level system, the Leaving Certificate, makes both English and maths mandatory, and where a larger range of subjects (typically seven) is studied in the final two years of secondary school.

I was lucky to do not only all three science subjects and maths for my Leaving Certificate, but also French and English. And Irish. (Some might well say “Is fearr Gaeilge briste, ná Béarla clíste” but then they haven’t heard my spoken Irish. Or my English, for that matter.) There are, of course, other examples of education systems where there is a greater breadth of subjects than is typically the norm in the UK – Scottish Highers, International Baccalaureate. The A-level system, on the other hand, too often means that students end up making a stark choice between the STEM and arts/humanities pathways too early. This is a great shame because it serves to entrench the ‘two cultures’ divide that CP Snow criticised so forcefully almost 60 years ago.

Simon Jenkins, the Guardian’s resident STEM-skeptic, regularly bemoans the negative perception of the value of the arts and humanities as compared to, as he sees it, the unquestioned importance of STEM subjects to society. He was on fine form on New Year’s Day, arguing in an article, “Easy to sneer at arts graduates – but we’ll need their skills”, that “a humanistic education” produces better-rounded and more creative types who “seem better equipped to use their imagination and challenge conventional wisdom”. Last year Jenkins also provoked quite some ire by arguing that STEM graduates, particularly computer scientists, lack the ability to communicate effectively.

This may perhaps come as something of a surprise to readers of physicsfocus, but I have quite some sympathy with Jenkins’ concerns about the extent to which an arts and humanities degree has been ‘devalued’ in terms of its perceived value to society (and, by extension, to the individual graduate). I have always rather disliked articles and reports proclaiming that physics is so much more intellectually challenging – i.e. ‘harder’ – than other subjects. Yes, physics is conceptually challenging. And, yes, it’s intellectually stimulating and demanding. And yes, as I’ve discussed before for physicsfocus, it requires a heck of a lot of work and effort in order to ‘get it’. But, as Dave Farmer explains in a perceptive, important, and smart post, there are many types of intelligence, and there are many types of aptitude.

There are physicists at all career levels whose analytical maths abilities are truly remarkable. But ask some of them to write 500 words which are engaging and thought-provoking, and they’re flummoxed. Echoing the points made by Farmer, a capability with mathematics is just one type of intelligence. Attempting to quantify such a multi-faceted and complex human characteristic via an aptitude in one area, or, worse, via a single ‘IQ’ value, is as ludicrous as, errmm, reducing the value of a university to a position on a league table.

An ability to communicate effectively is essential, independent of subject, discipline, or career. University physics departments across the country have for years complained about the reduction in the rigour of A-level maths, and have introduced first-year ‘refresher’ modules in order to bring incoming students up to speed in mathematical techniques. But similar primers in written communication have not been introduced. Given the lack of subject breadth of the A-level system, and the associated absence of the development of writing skills for many STEM-focused students, one could make the argument that there is an equally pressing, if not greater, need for formal teaching of written communication skills in Year 1 of a physics degree.

Where my views diverge dramatically from those of Jenkins, however, is with his argument that arts and humanities graduates are necessarily more creative than those with degrees in STEM subjects. Science is intrinsically creative and Jenkins does his important arguments about the value of the arts and humanities a great disservice by playing down to lazy stereotypes of STEM graduates.

Equally importantly, an arts and humanities degree is no guarantee of an ability to communicate concepts in a clear, engaging, and effective style. I’ll leave you with Exhibit #1 – an excerpt from the work of Prof. Karen Barad, of the Philosophy Department at the University of California Santa Cruz. (I suspect that I’ll be returning to a discussion of Barad’s work for a future physicsfocus post).

“Multiply heterogeneous iterations all: past, present, and future, not in a relation of linear unfolding, but threaded through one another in a nonlinear enfolding of spacetimemattering, a topology that defies any suggestion of a smooth continuous manifold. Time is out of joint. Dispersed. Diffracted. Time is diffracted through itself. It is not only the nature of time in its disjointedness that is at stake, but also disjointedness itself. Indeed, the nature of ‘dis’ and ‘jointedness’, of discontinuity and continuity, of difference and entanglement, and their im/possible interrelation ships are at issue.”

Thanks to my colleague at Nottingham, Brigitte Nerlich, for bringing my attention to that quite remarkable piece of impenetrable writing, via this blog post.

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[1] I’m a fan of the Oxford comma.

Image Credit: Shutterstock/sheelamohanachandran2010

About Philip Moriarty

Philip Moriarty is a Professor of Physics at the University of Nottingham, where his research focuses on nanoscale science. He is a member of the Science Board of the Institute of Physics and coordinates the multi-partner ACRITAS European network. He has participated in a number of research council-funded public engagement projects, including Giants of the Infinitesimal, and was a member of the Programme Committee for the controversial “Circling the Square: Research, Politics, Media, and Impact” conference held in Nottingham in May 2014. He is also a regular contributor to the Sixty Symbols video series.

3 Responses to PUNCTUATION; IS NOT. AN, OPTION.

  1. If I may be so bold, I would love to see what you require of your undergraduates in terms of writing a formal lab report. I teach in the US and require my students to write formal lab reports and I have always felt that discovery is useless if you can’t transmit this information in a meaningful way to other people.

    Since I teach Secondary students, a greater understanding of the multitude of requirements that occur at the next level is beneficial to me as I tweak what I have my students do. (I will say many of my students come back and say that they get high praise from their college professors about their ability to write up a labs and that very few know how.)

    Please drop me a message, in the midst of all your business (I know this is a big request) as anything you can provide me would be greatly appreciate and useful.

    Brian Kays
    AP Biology, Honors Chemistry, Physics
    St. Lucy’s Priory High School

  2. As one of the students who took “The Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics”, the emphasis on writing was a large part of what attracted me to the course. I believe the language used in the introduction to fourth year modules was along the lines of ‘if you enjoy writing, this module is for you’. The content also sounded interesting, but I picked the module for the writing. As Philip says it’s far from the first time I’ve had my writing assessed whilst at university (although articles and blog posts are rather more fun to write than lab reports) and over the course of my undergraduate degree I’ve found my English A-level almost as useful as my maths, further maths and physics A-levels and certainly more useful than AS chemistry (which I thought was mandatory for anyone applying to do a science degree, and dropped when I found out that it wasn’t).
    However, at no point in my school career did anyone ever suggest that writing would be a large part of a science degree or a scientist’s daily life, and therefore that my English A-level would be useful for more than getting into university in the first place. In fact, in one of my first further maths lessons I remember a fellow student wondering aloud why anyone would want to do English, his tone of voice implying that he considered it a foolish choice. Five years after the incident his exact words escape me, but I still remember wondering how many of the other students shared his view. The sentiment went both ways, with my English class not understanding why I would want to do ‘difficult’ subjects like further maths and physics.
    The divide of STEM and humanities subjects is also influencing students’ perceptions, and nobody seems to be correcting this assumption. Around the time I was choosing my A-levels the maths department was emphasising that maths was a useful subject to take whatever else you chose to do, and English would benefit from a similar approach.
    I agree that a science communication module for first year science students would be useful. When I took my A-levels (2009-2011) we had to do some extended pieces of writing for physics coursework, but science A-levels taught from September 2015 onwards will be assessed by exams only. Students arriving at university with only STEM A-levels will not have had their writing assessed since their GCSEs, and even those who have done at least one humanity at A-level are unlikely to have been exposed to scientific writing before being expected to write their first lab reports.

  3. Well done, Sir! A splendid post.
    A point I’d like to make is that an attempt to convey complex information in a lucid manner to a wider audience helps to cement one’s understanding of the issue. This may be by oral presentation or textually.
    Furthermore, there is a real pleasure in grabbing the subject, structuring it and delineating it in a comprehensive and unambiguous manner. I sadly only discovered this latter in my scientific life.
    Conveying the pleasure of blogging to students is important.
    Oh, and on a matter of opinion; there’s a time and place for the Oxford comma, and I’m not sure that was it!