Category Archives: pedagogy

Scientists Need Transitional Words (and Better Jobs)

I have been encouraging my students to use transitional words in their topic sentences. Lest they think that only writers in the humanities need care about such things, I offer a passage from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology’s November 2012 report, Transformation and Opportunity: The Future of the U.S. Research Enterprise. Asking for better treatment for early-career researchers, this group of scientists makes its case with such transition words as indeed, likewise, and thus, straight off the University of Wisconsin’s helpful list of Transitional Words and Phrases. (Emphasis added.)
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Critical Reading for Non-Historians

My Honors College students have challenged me to add some non-history examples to this website. I think this is a fair request. I enjoy working with students who don’t plan to major in history, and those who do major in history could benefit from seeing how the analytic techniques they are taught can be applied to a range of questions and materials. So I have decided to start collecting examples of good writing and analysis by non-historians. One caveat is that most of the scholarly books I read are works of history, so many of these examples will have to come from non-scholarly sources.

Here’s the first.
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Why I Discourage the Passive Voice

I frequently encourage students to write sentences with people as their subjects and verbs in the active voice. Some critics contend that professors go too far in disparaging the passive voice, and I am sure that I do at times. But a recent example shows why I prefer to err on the side of the active.

The example comes from a review of a book that presents both Palestinian and Israeli perspectives on the history of the shared land. [Geoffrey Wheatcroft, “Can They Ever Make a Deal?” (review of Side by Side: Parallel Narratives of Israel-Palestine by Sami Adwan, Dan Bar-On, and Eyal Naveh), New York Review of Books, 5 April 2012] The reviewer quotes two versions of the same event:

1. One of the most notorious massacres perpetrated against the Palestinians took place in Deir Yassin on 9 April 1948. The Zionist forces killed more than 100 and wounded dozens more.

2. There was a massacre at the Arab village of Deir Yassin, near Jerusalem; Irgun and Lehi units attacked the village, and by the time the battle was over, according to most updated historical research, 100 to 120 Arabs had been killed, including women, children, and the elderly.

The first sentence of the first account has a non-human subject (massacres) and a weak verb (took place). But the second sentence offers a human subject (Zionist forces) and strong, active-voice verbs (killed and wounded). It tells us who did what to whom.

The second account starts with a “there was” construction and ends with a passive verb (had been killed). Though it implies that Irgun and Lehi units massacred and killed, it leaves open the possibility that some other actors–werewolves, perhaps–chanced to pass through at the same time and commit mass slaughter.

Perhaps the authors of the second passage are not sure who perpetrated the massacre. Perhaps they believe that the Irgun and Lehi units killed all those people, but are reluctant to say so, for fear of giving offense. Either one of these is a serious flaw in a historical narrative. Rather than using grammatical tricks to paper over such flaws. I would advise students to address them with more research, a discussion of the limits of their sources, or the courage to present their findings.

Employers Want College Grads Who Can Write

Jeff Selingo, editorial director of the Chronicle of Higher Education, reports that “the one skill that almost every job requires is the ability to write well.”

[Jeff Selingo, “Wanted: Better Employees,” Next, 12 December 2011.]

“In the past few months,” Selingo writes, “at conferences, at dinners, and on airplanes, I’ve had the chance to sit next to a handful of recruiters who work for companies large and small, from Zappos to United Technologies.” Asking if colleges were preparing students for corporate jobs, he received responses with four “common themes”: “some students are not college material even with a college degree,” many graduates can’t write well, many lack a strong work ethic, and many have an inflated sense of entitlement.

The second set of responses reinforces my determination to emphasize writing in my courses. As Selingo explains,

We keep throwing around the word “skills,” but it seems the one skill that almost every job requires is the ability to write well, and too many graduates are lacking in that area. That’s where many of the recruiters were quick to let colleges off the hook, for the most part. Students are supposed to learn to write in elementary and secondary school. They’re not forgetting how to write in college. It’s clear they’re not learning basic grammar, usage, and style in K-12.

He could have added that there’s a lot more to good writing than basic grammar, usage, and style, and even students who mastered those in high school can improve in areas like analysis and organization. As a humanities professor, I am glad to use my classroom and this site to help students improve skills that are in such demand.