Give their grammar a fine-tuning

May 23, 2003

Martin Luck explains how Haydn can help students to communicate

In week one I ask first-year bioscientists to listen carefully to a Haydn string quartet. Being freshers, they respond obediently. After some minutes, I switch the CD off and ask if they have noticed anything about the music. It's not quite what they are expecting from a compulsory language-awareness session.

After a little prodding, someone will say that the music is "old" or "sleepy" or "played by an orchestra" or, as on one memorable occasion, "the sort of thing you hear in lifts". Very occasionally, someone might identify it as baroque (well, OK, I can't tell garage from R&B) or tell me it is by Mozart.

After I can take no more, I point out that no one noticed the music was played by instruments perfectly in tune with one another. The response to this varies from amusement to apathy to contempt. Someone will tell me, quite correctly, that they did not know what they were supposed to be listening for. They will, however, unanimously accept that had the instruments been out of tune they would have noticed.

What I am illustrating is a key feature of communication, applicable to the written word as to music: good communication - correct spelling, correct grammar and appropriate style - goes unnoticed, poor communication does not. The rules of spelling, grammar and style are maintained not primarily for historical or abstract academic reasons but so that the message gets through while the means of transmission is undetected.

Communication in the biosciences, as in every other subject, has its own additional conventions of usage and style: part of the scientific training they are about to embark on will be concerned with getting them to write and speak in a manner, or manners, appropriate to their chosen discipline.

I am not so naive as to think that a single awareness-raising session will turn them into professional-quality communicators. Indeed, a good many of them will be starting from an extremely low base in terms of linguistic skill and very few will have spent much time thinking about words in the past. My colleagues and I will spend much of the next three years patiently correcting their essays, lab reports and projects, and trying, sometimes in vain, to detect the science beneath. Our corrections will be normative but also formative and supportive, for such is the lot of university teachers.

Recently, working at the other end of the higher education spectrum, I found myself examining a PhD dissertation. The presentation of this document was shocking: bizarre spelling and monkey-puzzle grammar on every page, sections misnumbered or just missing, incorrect and inadequate references, hopelessly truncated figure and table legends, erroneous or badly presented data, and other disasters too horrible to recount. It took me three readings and several pencil-sharpenings before I felt mentally able to cut through the weeds and tares of the text and reach the substantive science.

In addition to the frustrations of wasted time and effort, this experience caused me more than a few moments of insecurity. Was I being too picky? Should I be less distracted by textual trivia? Is an examiner really expected to be a proof-reader? I consulted colleagues for reassurance. All shared my dismay at the poor quality of the thesis and agreed that in this instance a correctional response was the right one. One colleague summed up the situation wisely: "We are the gatekeepers," she said. "If we as examiners do not set the standards, who will?"

Part of this PhD candidate's research training should have included exposure to the discipline of language, not to mention the conventions of scientific presentation. That discipline could have been applied as a dry, authoritarian straitjacket, perhaps by the supervisor as a corrective before submission. It would have been far better delivered progressively, as an integral part of the training. Had the candidate realised that the substance of their work risked being irretrievably buried under the rubble of the text, they would surely have been motivated to seek advice.

If this individual goes on to make an academic career, I wonder how important language will become to them. Will the examiners' report on the dissertation prove to have been a turning point? Will their first grant application be intelligible? How will they react to an editor's pen ripping through their first independent research paper? And if they teach, what will be their approach to student language? What metaphor for the importance of language might they adopt?

I think I have heard enough Haydn for a while. What about a change of style for next year's new intake? I have this fine recording of Schubert's Octet that cannot fail to hold their attention. Well, perhaps for a moment or two at least.

Martin Luck is a senior lecturer in animal physiology in the School of Biosciences, University of Nottingham.

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