Friday, 15 January 2016

Elbowing writing problems out of the way

One omission from my recent post on writing and research was any reference to the work of Peter Elbow. He is probably best known for his promotion of free writing but he also has a great deal to say about the role of our understanding and use of spoken language. Spoken language, he argues, can be used as a tool to help us write more clearly particularly when it comes to harnessing it for editing existing texts. I particularly like this quotation from his 2013 paper "Using careless speech for careful, well crafted writing – whatever its style". 

"We can’t count on speech (or freewriting) to yield crisp clear sentences, but when we harness the resources of speech by reading aloud to revise, we can count on the intonational habits of the mouth and ear to produce sentences that are stronger and clearer than are often produced when people try to write with care". 

Ironically I find his writing a little dense in parts and often skip over parts of the text but that is a minor issue, because in my experience what he is saying is eminently 

Elbow, Peter (2013) "Using Careless Speech for Careful, Well-Crafted Writing— Whatever Its Style," The Journal of the Assembly for Expanded Perspectives on Learning: Vol. 19: Iss. 1, Article 3. 
Available at:

Honour and success

The laidlaw trilogy, and indeed all the books of William McIlvanney offer philosophy as well as detection, they are why done it's rather than we done its. 
Laidlaw is a very moral man, well educated and reflective. I was particularly heartened by Mcillvanney's comment. 

I think that we all benefit when honour and acting honourable are privileged over pursuing personal success. 

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Writing as research and other ideas

I have been doing a lot of thinking and writing about writing just recently.

Just about every module that I teach includes some aspect of writing, I supervise phd students who have to write a lot, and I spend a great deal of my own time thinking and writing as well. So anything which can make the process more enjoyable and more productive has to be a good idea, and if I can find ideas and share those ideas so much the better.

I can't quite recall what started me on this latest expedition back into the territory of writing and thinking. I suspect that I came across ideas in a book for research supervisors supporting PhD students (Kamler and Thompson, 2014).

I found the book pretty heavy going overall, that they were gems within the text and the concluding chapter was particularly useful from my point of view. I think it was this edition, downloaded with great pain as an e-book from the University library, that reminded me of the concept of writing as research (more of which in another post) .

I also recall that I read in weekend edition of the newspaper an article about Robert Boice's famous book a How writers journey to comfort and fluency (Boice, 1974). The main issue with this book is that it costs at least £65 and you can be pretty hard to come by.

However being a resourceful academic I made use of that ultimate research tool, the search engine, and found myself a few related articles which I have collected together in my Mendeley group,  a few of which are referenced at the bottom of this piece.

One by Boice which made a lasting impression on me, brought together sources as diverse as hypnosis, spiritualism and surrealism - if you are ever come across information on automatic writing, you are advised to take note of this quote

Having made a foray into the online sources of papers by Boice, I returned to the task of finding a book. I managed to locate a much cheaper but related book, Professors as Writers (Boice, 1990) which was available in electronic format. Reading that alerted me to hold other set of publications. So I made some time and did a load of reading and lo and  behold, I am chugging away with my writing, and champing at the bit to share my newfound prizes with other people.

Moving on from Boice, a number of useful publications are pitched at fiction authors. nonetheless I think much of the advice is equally relevant and useful two academic authors. Julia Cameron devised a method of daily pages for creativity, which has much relevance to writers. The method is explained in The Artists Way, which for my money has a little too many references to God and uncovering genius, however, I came across it via a motivational web site called 750 words, and it does present a well structured approach which can definitely make positive contributions to the writing process.

Interesting, some aspects of cameron's approach can be found in a much earlier publication by Dorothea Brande titled Becoming a Writer (Brande, 1934) which has been widely cited and is much admired by many famous authors.

Interestingly, the advice of Cameron and Brande is actually borne out by the evidence which Boice (originally a psychologist, but much concerned with professional development)  assembled whilst he was working at Stanford

There are of course lots of resources online which relate to academic writing

A goto destination for academic advice is always the tomorrow's professor website, run by Rick Riess, this site is a gem of a source for educational and professional development items which will be relevant and useful for academics and post grad students particularly, But in some cases even for undergraduate students. Listed below I just a short selection of the currently available relevant resources:

Another one is the Academic coaching and writing web site which is particularly useful since it has a writing ebook, and many links to interesting and relevant articles. 


Boice, R. and Jones, F., 1984. Why Academicians Don’t Write. The Journal of Higher Education, 55(5), pp.567–582. Available at:

Boice, R. and Meyers, P.E., 1986. Two Parallel Traditions Automatic Writing and Free Writing. Written Communication, 3(4), pp.471-490.

Boice, R., 1990. Professors as writers: A self-help guide to productive writing. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.

Boice, R., 1994. How Writers Journey To Comfort and Fluency: A Psychological Adventure. Praeger, Greenwood Publishing Group, 88 Post Road West, Box 5007, Westport, CT 06881.

Boice, R., 1995. Writerly Rules for Teachers. The Journal of Higher Education, 66(1), pp.32–60. Available at:

Brande, D., 1934. Becoming a writer

Cameron, J., 2002. The artist's way. Penguin.

Kamler, B. and Thomson, P., 2014. Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision. Routledge.


Academic coaching and writing:
Tomorrow's Professor:

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Project preparation and how to read a paper

Followers will know I think reading and writing are rather important.

Project students at all levels, postgrads and interns all need to work on this, not to mention post docs and academics.

Here are some pointers to materials which can be used as foundational tools for those wishing to update their skills, or just think and reflect.

Practically the FutureLearn MOOC on Developing Your Research Project is helpful. Although, I do take exception to the supporting material which talks about learning styles, but that is the theme for another post.

A team of academics developed an online course on research methods which is well worth a skim read with some drilling down to explore issues (just like you might use a text book).

Moving on to the practicalities of reading academic papers, I can point to two useful resources,

  1. A short practical piece by Michael Mitzenmacher of Harvard


2. A paper presented at a CS conference titled "How to read a paper" by Srinivasan Kerchav from Waterloo in Canada.


Gendered narratives: reading between the lines

Recently I have been tasked to take a lead on enhancing the participation, recognition and support of women in STEM: particularly electronics and computer science. I may not be making much impact on the approaches and attitudes if my colleagues, but my own radar has been notched up to fine tuned!

My observations:

  • I hear stories of everyday realities in education, learning, teaching and subject disciplines frequently presented as heroic narratives with male heroes.
  • I attend seminars when slides are illustrated by images of male authors, occasional female authors referred to by initials with no images - thus becoming invisible.
  • In presentations, references to female students encountering difficulties.
  • Female academic 'actors' referred to in passing, male 'actors' portrayed as the ground breakers and pathfinders.
  • Faculty discussions to ameliorate the position of female academics and postgrads are characterised by a model of deficits, the women are broken, help them mend themselves.
  • Discussions focussed on increasing the percentage of female participants focuses on undergraduates and outreach rather than implementing structural changes across the board.

The result?

I find myself
  • increasingly frustrated recognising the 'broken record' effect of this portrayal and discussion.
  • wondering about how to make change happen. This stuff is too important to be left to a few (mostly female) evangelists.
  • Seeking to identify and champion structural methods af making change happen
  • Seeking patronage for change
  • Being willing to hand over the kudos for making change happen to anyone else ;-)


Monday, 22 June 2015

Magical modelling

It's a good few years since I was formally reminded of the value of modelling.

I am not talking about embarking on a career as a paid, or otherwise, clothes horse; I don't have the height, age profile or stereotypical 'correct shape, never mind the political sensibilities!

Nor am I talking about mathematical simulation and hypothesis testing.

However, perhaps there is a trace of both of these ideas, in the sort of modelling which is truly magical.

Such modelling often begins with admiration, of behaviours or achievements or created artefacts. It is sometimes evoked serendipitously, sometimes identified through everyday experience, sometimes through purposeful searching and discovery.

The high achieving scholar, whose diligence is evident through their research publications or the highly successful potential rĂ´le model are the most obvious seeds for models, and modelling can be initiated by a single questions.... "how do they do that?".

There is another seed, that I believe is truly valuable to researchers and students, of all levels - the informative and reflective blog site or post.

Sites of value, to my mind, reveal the thinkings of the author through their content. Research methods and approaches are to some extent embodied in the posts. They also reveal a commitment to sharing, openness, transparency and active reflection - all of which are valuable principles for the student and researcher.

I actively encourage my students to blog like this, but also accept that for many the prospect it too intimidating or perceived as too onerous.

There are many possible reasons

  • claiming time;
  • creating an additional apparently conflicting priority;
  • demanding work out of the comfort zone;
  • exposing undeveloped skills
  • Attracting unwonted comment

But it is possible to adopt another perspective. Such blogs can work as thinking tools

  • be part of the discipline of the researchers logbook or diary;
  • Provide space for practicing turning thoughts into words
  • Act as a living notebook creating an archeological trace which can be searched and indexed
  • Provide personal feedback for ground covered and progress achieved
  • Establish the foundations of a reputation
  • Help identify the key questions you want to ask
  • Help fellow students and identify your community of scholars


Friday, 12 June 2015

Better projects, dissertations and writing...

At this time of year, the whole cycle of student research, projects and writing and dissertations come into sharp focus.
I am always on the look out for good tools and models of good practice to help students understand and engage with the whole process in both a constructive and holistic manner.
Today's example was a slide explaining the contribution of some research into the teaching of derivatives to students of Economics.
Since I am often teaching engineers (of one sort or another) I often use the metaphor of engineering the document.
The image above comes from a presentation by A L Alzira Jimenez presented at the IMA International Conference on Barriers and Enablers to Learning Maths: Enhancing Learning and Teaching for All Learners, 10 – 12 June 2015, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, Scotland (programme details)
The example uses a table, which removes some of the pressure to write prose and at the same time, clearly states the contributions of the work and links back to sources discussed in the literature review.
IIt demonstrates (to a small degree) visual literacy - a favourite theme of mine, and hopefully removes some of the stress of writing.
The use of tables in this way is not confined to the contributions, however this is an area often neglected by students in their write ups maybe because conclusions and future work are stuff written at the end if the activity.
Perhaps most importantly, it can function as a thinking tool, helping author review and enhance the quality of their work - engineering a clearer explanation.
Anything which makes this process more enjoyable AND improves final product has to be a good thing.