Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Should Scientists Be Forced to Come Out of the Ivory Tower?

A commenter on an earlier post in this series brings up an important issue regarding scientists who are reluctant to be cheerleaders for science.  He argues that the days of scientists working in isolation in their laboratories and never having to bother with staff meetings, congressional hearings, or explaining their science to taxpayers are long gone.

I agree that we are in a different era in which there is an increasing demand for scientists to justify their research.  I do think it's important for scientists to communicate their work to a broader audience…which is why I’ve devoted numerous posts to talking about the importance of science communication by scientists (see the nav bar-- Science Communication).  Many argue that scientists can no longer afford to stay in their laboratories and never communicate with the ultimate end-users…policy-makers, land managers, and the general public.  Personally, I’ve done a complete about-face from being a scientist who does her research in isolation (never talking to the public) to actively promoting the value of my work….developing information products (fact sheets, videos) describing my research and its importance to the general public. I talk to grade-school students about science and about wetlands. I founded and edit a non-technical publication (articles written by scientists) with the purpose of encouraging scientists to directly engage the public.  I started writing this blog.  In other words, cheerleading for my own work and talking about what it's like to be a scientist.

As I've also pointed out in previous posts, however, there are dangers to speaking out in the public arena....just ask any climate scientist (see Who's Got Our Backs? and Sagan's Rejection).  Science communication also takes time and resources, which may not be available to the average scientist.  Such costs should be balanced against the need for science communication.  We should also understand that good science communication takes training and effort and is not typically taught to scientists (although this is changing).  We must also acknowledge that not everyone has the talent for science communication (see Don't Be Such a Romulan).  Many people who are attracted to science are often workers who are quiet, contemplative people and are just not very comfortable dealing with the public. 

The point of my series is to consider the hypothesis posed by the book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts...i.e., that introverted people are unfairly judged and should not be prodded to be more like extroverts.  These are people who are thoughtful, who weigh their words carefully before speaking, and who process information differently from those who are more verbally facile.  In the hypothetical example I gave, Jennifer is a young introvert with a lot of potential as a scientist.  There are many like her in science, both male and female, who need help and encouragement to feel confident in their inherent nature, not criticism for something they cannot easily change.  Such people often do just fine in one-on-one interactions, but find it difficult to speak up in larger groups, especially ones dominated by loud know-it-alls. Their reluctance to speak up is often misinterpreted and mishandled by teachers, mentors, and supervisors who fail to recognize how different introverts are.

We can try to encourage such people to become more verbally skilled, but expecting an introvert to testify successfully at a congressional hearing or participate in a public debate (without extensive training) is perhaps not reasonable (or wise).  Not everyone is cut out to be a good science communicator, nor should everyone be forced to be one. We can help such people improve their verbal communication skills through focused training and similar means, but there will be a limit to how much one can change an inherent way of thinking and feeling.  Scientists who are strongly introverted can be encouraged instead to develop non-verbal communications with the public (writing popular science articles, producing/directing science videos, hosting science blogs, for example). 

The point of my series is to explore the mind-set of introverts and how they differ from extroverts and to consider how this dichotomy relates to scientists.  We are perhaps better off taking advantage of the introverted scientist's natural skills rather than forcing them to change.  We can teach students the importance of communicating their science, try to provide them opportunities to hone their communication skills, but emphasize that they can select whichever communication mechanisms best fit their nature.  Over time, we'll hopefully end up with a science community in which there are a lot of good communicators, but who go about it in diverse ways.

Monday, February 27, 2012

People with Blue Eyes are Smarter

I'll bet you didn't know that fact about blue-eyed people.  To find out more, I encourage you to watch this PBS Frontline episode.  This TV show reviews the famous experiment in racism that was conducted by a third-grade teacher in Iowa shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Some of you may have seen the film (Eye of the Storm) that was made about Jane Elliot's (the teacher) eye color experiment and the dramatic effect it had on her pupils.  This PBS show revisits her students many years later as adults to see what impact it had on their lives.  Equally impressive is the latter part of the show in which Jane Elliot conducts a similar experiment with the employees of a US correctional institute (prison).

If you watch this, pay particular attention to how those people who've never experienced real prejudice react to being treated unfairly (and keep in mind that they only experienced bias for a few hours...imagine a career or a lifetime of biased treatment).  In the last post, I talked about how men often were unaware of the various (sometimes subtle) biases that women in science face.  It may not occur to them that such bias even exists, never having experienced it themselves. They may even deny it exists or believe that the problem lies in an overreaction by women to slights that men just shrug off.  It would be an interesting experiment to put scientists through an exercise like the one designed by Jane Elliot (but emphasize the biased treatment that women typically experience).

Photo Credit: Still image from Eye of the Storm (1968)

Sunday, February 26, 2012

It's All White Guys Up There

A male colleague asked me a question, which I translated to mean, "What exactly do women want?"

This colleague is a young scientist who began and ended the discussion by expressing concern for women in science and how their experiences might be improved.  However, he gave a couple of examples of instances in which female colleagues had behaved in an inexplicable manner (from his point of view).

The primary example was a comment that a female colleague made during a meeting in which she pointed out the preponderance of white males presiding over this particular meeting.  She apparently said something like, "It's all white guys up there", to my young colleague. He was somewhat flustered by her statement, which was loud enough to be overheard by others. 

My colleague interpreted this woman's statement to mean that she was complaining about the lack of women in authority positions and wondered what he should have said in response.  He hinted that this woman was disgruntled in general and that perhaps her outburst was due to her warped perceptions. I hear that sentiment quite often whenever a woman (or some other minority) points out a bias.  Perhaps it's true in some cases.  Perhaps such people become warped after years of biased treatment. Or perhaps it's the observer's warped perception of anyone who complains about bias.

My colleague's second question was what could be done to improve things (for women)?  He suggested specifically the idea of having a woman in a position of authority in an organization.  I wasn't sure how he thought this might help.  That such an appointment would somehow counterbalance any bias occurring elsewhere in the organization? Put a woman in a position to help other women?  Send a message to would-be chauvinists?  Set up a role model for other women in the organization?  My response was that I did not think this would necessarily help.  There is no guarantee that a woman in such a position would be inclined to "help" women under her authority.  Also, just because a woman sits in a position of authority within an organization does not automatically lead to the elimination of bias in that workplace.  More disturbing was the suggestion that a woman should be promoted for such a position in an effort to "help women", rather than because she was the most qualified. 

It was apparent to me that he really did not believe that there was any bias going on, that what needed to be done was to change the perception of those unfortunate women who are bitter about their careers. He was suggesting that having a woman in a more visible authority position would calm such apprehensions and stop hysterical outbursts about "all those white guys up there".  My colleague was hinting that perhaps he could influence such decisions, thereby helping the status of women.  I was quite exasperated by this attitude.  It reflected the perception of someone who has no idea what bias feels like, much less what to do about it.

I've observed that people are quite blind to bias when they are not the target of that bias.

When you've always been treated fairly and accepted as being qualified to work in a particular field (e.g., men working in STEM fields), it may be exceedingly difficult to put yourself into the place of someone who is not.  Furthermore, you are unlikely to even be aware that others are treated differently from you.  Women in STEM fields often find that they must prove themselves again and again, whereas men are just assumed to be competent--a bias sometimes called Prove It Again.  How might such an experience affect someone throughout a career....in contrast to being assumed to be competent, just because you belong to a majority group?  If you've only had to prove yourself a few times, you might think it's not such a big deal and what's all the fuss about?  But what if you were always being asked to prove your competence, did not really feel accepted by the majority group, and had the impression that only one slip up and you would be excoriated?  Such biased treatment adds up over time.  It's a subtle effect, but no less damaging to the victim. 

To do anything about bias, one must first become aware of it and how it typically manifests itself.  Most (white) male colleagues I've mentioned this particular bias to look at me as if I had suddenly sprouted horns. They question the existence of such bias, since they've been blissfully unaware of it...hence, it must not exist.  That is human nature....to deny something one has never experienced.  Moreover, they have no frame of reference to understand the psychological impact of bias.

Even if someone accepts the notion that others may be treated in a biased manner, they still are woefully ignorant of how it feels, how widespread it may be, and how such bias may manifest itself in various subtle ways.  They may even be unaware of how they unconsciously participate in such biased behavior.  I've given examples previously of how some men, in a misguided attempt to be chivalrous, hurt women by trying to "help them" direct their work, but are actually undermining the woman's authority. 

I could see this type of thinking at work during our discussion about female scientists and their puzzling behavior.  Those poor women, they need all the help they can get.   It's the knight-in-shining-armor syndrome.  Their first reaction is to ride in on a steed and rescue the damsel in distress, whether she wants rescuing or not.  The knight only sees things from his perspective (rescuer of damsels) and cannot imagine anything else.  But maybe she's there doing her dissertation research on fire-breathing dragons? Perhaps she's also a knight and sees him as competition? It's not hard to imagine that her reaction to his rescue attempt is likely to be unexpected and puzzling.  Until he bothers to really understand what she's all about and what her concerns are, there is little hope that he can do her any good.

In the next post, I provide a compelling insight into prejudice and how quickly it alters the victim's behavior.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Jennifer's Solution

In this series of posts, we are talking about introverts and the problems they face in a society that idolizes extroversion.  In the last post, I began analyzing a hypothetical situation that a young scientist and introvert, Jennifer, is facing.  Her supervisor has called her into his office and accused her of "hiding in her shell" and not being a "team player".  I explained that his words were in fact a verbal attack, which requires a specific response to counter effectively.  I pointed out that the specific charges Jennifer's boss has leveled at her (hiding, not a team player) constituted the "bait".  Jennifer fell for the bait and responded by defending her "quietness" and desire to work things out on her own before sharing with others.  This was a mistake because it opened the door for further unfair characterizations (lone wolf).

In this post, I will reveal the "presupposition" contained in the supervisor's attack.  The presupposition is the real attack, but is one that usually remains unspoken by the attacker.  The victim of a verbal attack should address only the presupposition and ignore the bait.  In this case, the presupposition is that Jennifer's innate nature (introversion) is not compatible with the job she was hired to do (scientist).  This is a more complex presupposition than we've considered in previous examples and is perhaps a bit more challenging to counter.  But let's try.

How can we state a response that addresses the charge (Jennifer's apparent lack of essential skills) and also effectively counters a bias against introverted people?  Successful responses to a presupposition should be stated in the form of a question. Jennifer might say,

"When did you begin thinking that work involving individual contemplation and concentration was not good?"

Such a response ignores the bait and restates Jennifer's mode of working in positive terms (individual contemplation and concentration)--in direct contrast to the negative, inappropriate terms her supervisor used (hiding, not a team player).  Her supervisor will likely be caught off guard by her response (in fact, I would bet on it).  People who use verbal attacks to control other people are often completely thrown off their tracks by this because they are accustomed to defensive responses.  They usually either completely abandon the attack or they are forced to provide a more specific example, which is easier for the victim to counter.  Let's assume instead that Jennifer's supervisor is a bit faster on his feet and replies:

"Unnhh. I didn't mean that I think solitary work, concentration, and thought were not good. I just think you are too quiet."

Now the supervisor is on the defensive and may continue in this vein for a bit--protesting that he was only talking about her quietness.  He's brought up her quietness as a negative again, however.  Her response might be:

"I'm glad to hear that you appreciate the fact that many scientific tasks require quiet contemplation, without distractions, to most efficiently accomplish them.  Why then would someone who works well this way be criticized for it?"

Jennifer has now directly challenged the idea that "quietness" is a sign of failure and pointedly asked why she is being criticized for it.  Her supervisor might respond,

"Well, when you are so quiet at meetings, your coworkers will think you are hiding something from them or that you don't have any ideas at all."

Now the supervisor is being forced to be more specific and to justify his original charge with examples.  In reply, Jennifer might ask which coworkers think this?  Her supervisor will not likely name anyone (whom Jennifer can later easily ask).  By now, it should be clear that it's not really Jennifer's coworkers who have a problem with Jennifer's quietness; it's her supervisor. She should key in on this and continue to ask for reasons why someone who is quiet might be "hiding something" or might not have "any ideas at all".  Jennifer can continue guiding the conversation toward more specifics and ask for clear justifications for his criticism.  The key is that she should not apologize for her quietness or for her way of working and processing information.  If she responds in a quietly forceful, but professional, manner, she will get her point across.

Hopefully, over time, her supervisor will come to appreciate Jennifer's introspective nature.  If not, she may need to find another position that is more in line with her natural way of thinking and working.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Jennifer's Dilemma

In this series of posts, I'm discussing introverts, and to kick off the series I described a hypothetical situation in which a young scientist, Jennifer, is being pressured by her supervisor to be more verbal and a "team player".  He further chastises her for keeping her ideas to herself and not sharing her thoughts with other coworkers. Jennifer is shocked because she's naturally a quiet, cautious person who likes to develop her ideas before presenting them to others. Unlike her coworkers who "think out loud", Jennifer prefers to work out her thoughts in private and then, when she's ready, she shares them with others.

So let's analyze the situation in light of the foregoing posts describing the differences between extroverts and introverts and the modern idealization of extroversion as the preferred model of behavior in the workplace.

Jennifer's supervisor says to her, "You're doing really good work, but I'm wondering when you are going to come out of your shell. We need people who are good team players and actively participate in staff meetings and share ideas with everyone." 

First of all, we see that this supervisor is using specific language to describe Jennifer's behavior: "come out of your shell" and "team player".  Snails and turtles have shells in which they hide from predators.  The snail analogy applied to human behavior implies that such people are hiding from the world.  Jennifer's boss is characterizing her as a person who is hiding inside a shell, which implies that she is maladjusted, deficient in social skills, or is unwilling to communicate.  The "team player" reference is one of those overused sports analogies, which became popular in the business world (and later adopted by other professions).  By accusing someone of not being "a team player", you are saying that that person is not supporting the team goals. 

One problem with these analogies is that they characterize people in black and white terms; in other words, stereotypes. Such black and white terms are inappropriate, insulting, and often untrue.  In the modern business world, the worst criticism one can level at someone is not that they are incompetent, but that they are not a "team player".  The charge of not being a "team player" is particularly effective when leveled at women who are traditionally not participants in team sports (or at men who are not as athletic or as aggressive as other males in the office).  Jennifer's not playing well with others.  Bill's not sharing his toys. She's more interested in herself than in others.  He's not helping the team.  Such characterizations serve to further isolate people who are different from the larger group. 

The other problem is that such terms reflect a bias towards extroverts--that any other behavior is wrong or counterproductive.  The implication is that solitary work and the skills associated with it are not only not of value, they are suspect. In fact, there is nothing inherently wrong with solitary work.  Nor is there any evidence that teamwork can lead to a superior outcome.  Clearly, some problems require intense concentration and solitary contemplation to find a solution.  Even team members working on a joint project must often carry out some tasks separately.

So how did Jennifer respond to these charges?  She said, "I'm not hiding...I'm just quiet and like to work things out by myself. When I'm sure I've got a good idea and some preliminary plans, then I share my thoughts with others." 

If you've read my previous posts on how to counter a verbal attack, you will have some inkling as to what was wrong with Jennifer's reply and how she should have responded.  The supervisor's statements were verbal attacks. Verbal attacks contain two components: the bait and the presupposition.  The bait is the obvious attack, which usually involves a charge of some kind.  In this case, the bait is the charge that Jennifer is hiding in her shell and is also not a team player.  The presupposition is the unspoken charge, but is the real attack. Jennifer fell for the bait and responded to it.  When the victim goes for the bait, it opens the door for further attacks:

Her supervisor looks askance and replies, "I'm not a big fan of the lone wolf style of working. People get suspicious when someone keeps all their thoughts to themselves."

What should Jennifer have done? As I described previously, the only way to handle a verbal attack is to ignore the bait and address only the presupposition.  In the next post, I'll describe what the presupposition was in this verbal attack and how Jennifer could have responded. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Quiet People

In the previous post I described a hypothetical situation in which Jennifer, a marine biologist in her first job, has run into a problem.  Her boss has expressed his concern over her lack of participation in meetings and for not being a "team player".  Jennifer is stunned because she is simply a quiet person who does not say the first thing that pops into her head, unlike her coworkers who blather on about anything and everything, often nonsense.  The situation Jennifer finds herself in is not uncommon for people who are naturally quiet, introspective, and cautious in their interactions with other people.

I just finished reading Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain.  According to Cain, there are many people, perhaps as much as half the population (the data are not clear on this), who are introverts. Introverts are people who prefer quiet, minimally stimulating environments, which is different from shy people who fear negative judgement (although a person may be both an introvert and shy).  Such people often experience bias in a world that seems to have embraced the idea that people should work in teams and without office walls...and that those who don't enthusiastically participate are flawed.  She makes the case that many schools and workplaces, particularly in the US, increasingly emphasize "groupthink" and idealize the gregarious, verbally confident person.  People who are naturally quiet and contemplative and prefer solitude to work out their ideas are considered to be less than ideal or even maladjusted.

Prior to Susan Cain's book, there was an essay I read many years ago in "The Best American Science and Nature Writing" (2004) called Caring for Your Introvert by Jonathan Rauch. He describes introverts as people who need lots of time alone. He quite nicely captures their reluctance to go to parties, awkwardness (and aversion to) "small talk" and "pleasantries", and the appearance of being aloof or "too serious" (often untrue). Rauch describes himself as an introvert, albeit one with good social skills.  He can fake it....just as many introverts can.  He loves long, intimate, intellectual conversations.  Extroverts, on the other hand, seem to revel in superficial banter.  Not that there's anything wrong with that....it's just a different preference and way of interacting with other people.

Rauch asks the question, "Are introverts misunderstood?" His answer: "Wildly."  Introverts keep their thoughts to themselves mostly, whereas extroverts are "open books".  They do their thinking out loud, voicing every thought that pops into their heads.  The introvert, on the other hand, is mentally sorting through a lot of material and perhaps will share what they decide is most relevant and insightful, leaving the less clear or premature ideas unspoken.  It's not that introverts are hiding anything; they just don't see the point in spewing their thoughts out, unformed and messy, in a constant deluge.  The upshot is that extroverts have no clue as to what introversion is all about.  They come to various incorrect conclusions about introverts because their understanding is based on superficialities (and introverts don't help by being inscrutable most of the time).

Extroverts, by being overly verbal and apparently open with their thoughts, give the impression that they are holding nothing back. The observer finds this behavior to be guileless, genuine, straightforward, truthful, and open. I don't think this is necessarily an accurate assessment (more about this later), but this is the typical impression an extrovert conveys.  So it's no surprise that the introvert's behavior is seen as being cool, standoffish, judgmental, secretive, solitary, or bashful.  Such an impression may stimulate in the observer feelings of being judged, excluded, or dismissed.  They become uncomfortable, wondering what this quiet person is really thinking.  Is she thinking I'm stupid, incompetent, or unworthy? Why doesn't she say what's she's thinking? It must be bad...that's the only reason someone would keep quiet for so long....

You can see how quickly people can jump to incorrect conclusions when they do not understand what underlies other people's behavior.  The fact that perhaps half of the human population is misreading the other half is cause for concern.

Rauch asks, "Are introverts oppressed?" His answer is yes, undoubtedly.  His thesis is that extroverts dominate our modern society (at least in the US), and their influence has gradually led to the adoption of extroversion as the ideal. Extroverts, who prevail in social life, politics, and business, have ultimately set our social expectations of what's acceptable and what's not. The outcome of this celebration of extroversion is bias against people who are naturally introverted.  More troubling is the move to "socialize" introverts; to force them to change their behavior, either through direct pressure to attain extrovert skills or indirectly through social pressure to conform to the extrovert ideal (the party animal).  This argument is also made by Cain in her book, except she goes into much greater detail, backed up by extensive research into the topic.

An interesting observation made in Rauch's essay is the distinction between how introverted men and women are judged.  Often, the male introvert is characterized as the "strong, silent type".  Think Gary Cooper in Frank Capra's classic, Meet John Doe.  He's quiet, but still admired for being strong-willed and talking only when he has something of substance to say.  Quiet women lack such an alternative persona; they are more likely viewed as being haughty, withdrawn, or shy.  Never in a positive light.  When I googled "strong, silent type and women", I did not find examples of female Gary Coopers.  Instead, I found links to descriptions of why women prefer the strong, silent type of man.

So we have Jennifer, who is a strong, smart, quiet woman with good ideas and excellent skills.  Yet she is not only undervalued by her boss and coworkers, she is being pressured to change her inherent nature.  In the next post, I'll examine what is wrong with this belief that Jennifer and other introverts need to change and become "team players" and what she can do to protect herself from such misguided thinking.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

I'm Not Hiding

Imagine the following hypothetical scenario:

After receiving a Ph.D. in marine science, Jennifer started working for a government science agency.  She's a quietly confident person who prefers to think before she speaks, unlike many of her co-workers who jabber endlessly during meetings, never really saying anything of substance. She's noticed that the people who do the most talking are often viewed as being the smartest or most productive workers, even though much of what they say is nonsense.

At her six-month performance review, Jennifer's supervisor says, "You're doing really good work, but I'm wondering when you are going to come out of your shell. We need people who are good team players and actively participate in staff meetings and share ideas with everyone." Jennifer is shocked and dumfounded. She stammers, "I'm not hiding...I'm just quiet and like to work things out by myself. When I'm sure I've got a good idea and some preliminary plans, then I share my thoughts with others." Her supervisor looks askance and replies, "I'm not a big fan of the lone wolf style of working. People get suspicious when someone keeps all their thoughts to themselves."

Jennifer stumbles out of her supervisor's office in a daze.  She went in thinking that she would be praised for the excellent work she's doing. Now she's wondering if she has a future here.  

What went wrong? What should Jennifer have done or said? Should she try to change her naturally quiet, introspective nature to better fit in with this workplace atmosphere?

In the next series of posts, I'd like to explore the idea of how people like Jennifer are undervalued and even discriminated against. I will dissect this hypothetical situation and try to provide some ideas as to how Jennifer might have handled her supervisor and what she might further do to address this problem.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Final Sentences

In this series on writing sentences, I've covered a lot of territory.  As I explained in the first post, I was prompted to write this series after reading Stanley Fish's book, How to Write a Sentence, and How to Read One.  To recap a bit, Fish postulates that it's the sentence that should be the focus of writing skill development. Sentences, not words, are the building blocks of writing.  A student must learn how to organize components of a sentence in a coherent manner to become a good writer. I would agree with that, although it's not all one needs.

Furthermore, Fish suggests that by studying good sentences from literature and understanding their form, a student can learn to construct similar sentences.  By providing examples of sentences (first sentences, last sentences, satirical sentences), by analyzing how they were constructed, and by suggesting exercises to replicate them, Fish gets his point across.  Another point he argues is that we should forget content initially, and focus on form. There is some merit to this idea, but eventually the writer must provide content. The writer must also put together sentences in a logical manner to produce a cogent narrative.  Just because we can mimic a sentence written by Hemingway or Woolf, doesn't mean we are ready (or ever will be ready) to turn out something as good as The Old Man and the Sea or A Room of One's Own.

Nevertheless, one must start somewhere to develop writing skills, and the sentence seems to be a key starting point.  As scientists, we must eventually write up our findings and explain our work to others.  We may have important knowledge about a topic, but without writing skills, we will not be able to explain it in a logical, convincing, or entertaining way.  Scientific writing is highly specialized and for some, difficult to master.  Most can learn the basic rules of grammar and punctuation, but style is something that is often overlooked or downplayed in favor of content and reliance on the fairly rigid format of scientific papers (as a substitute for style).  Yet style is what sets us apart from other authors and breaths life into otherwise dull and pedestrian treatises.  By focusing on the sentence we've learned some things about writing styles that perhaps we've overlooked previously, especially those of us who are technical writers and for whom content and logical narrative have been emphasized. I can say that after reading this book, examining examples of sentences from different literary sources, and practicing some of the exercises, I have a new appreciation for the sentence.

I've gone through similar exercises that focused more specifically on scientific writing and how to improve clarity.  Those were quite different from the ones proposed by Fish but were similarly based on an analysis of sentence construction (as well as linkages among sentences in a narrative) (see posts about Gopen and Swan's The Science of Scientific Writing).  The common thread is the identification of basic sentence constructions that characterize "good writing".  What I've learned from all such approaches is a keener awareness of what styles of writing work and why.  It's also clear that to really absorb these lessons, one must practice them....not only analyzing how other writers construct sentences but imitating different styles of writing.  Even if you never have need of certain styles of writing for your own work, being aware of them may enhance your understanding and appreciation of writing in general.  I've learned quite a lot in the process of researching and writing this series.  I've revisited some classic science and nature writing, which I viewed with a new eye toward style rather than content and gained a renewed appreciation for those essays.

Some reviews of Stanley Fish's book, How to Write a Sentence:

Sentences that take your breath away
Writing Styles
The Afterword
Fiction Writers Review

Thursday, February 9, 2012

What It Means When a Benga Spits on Your Hand

We are discussing sentence construction and have been considering the additive style (see previous posts for background).  In the last post, I gave some examples of the additive style using fictional examples.  In the additive sentence, components are not arranged in relationship to each other (as in the subordinating style), but instead are provided in a seemingly haphazard manner, giving the appearance of spontaneity. Their purpose (often) is to infuse the sentence with a mood, emotion, or impression.

Can the additive style be used in science writing?  Yes, I would think for nature writing that it is likely quite useful, but probably not so much for purely technical writing, which depends on logic, clarity, and absence of emotions, moods, feelings, or impressions.

But perhaps there are sentences from earlier scientific works that come close. Here's Darwin again:

"In considering the Origin of Species, it is quite conceivable that a naturalist, reflecting on the mutual affinities of organic beings, on their embryological relations, their geographical distribution, geological succession, and other such facts, might come to the conclusion that each species had not been independently created, but had descended, like varieties, from other species."

Darwin lists items that a naturalist might reflect upon in no particular order of precedence: mutual affinities, embryological relations, geographical distribution, geological succession. However, the sentence contains subordinating elements and a logical structure: the contemplation of the naturalist on various aspects of organic beings leads to a conclusion about how they had descended from other species. So, perhaps this sentence is does not quite fit the additive style.

How about nature or popular science writing?

When I say nature writers, I immediately think of Stephen Jay Gould, Oliver Sacks, Jared Diamond, and John McPhee, to name a few favorites.  Are there any sentences in their writing that fit the bill? (this is my excuse to reread some of their works)

...I'm back...I failed to find many really good examples of sentences in the additive style–as defined by Fish–in the works by these authors.  Perhaps the reason is that nature essayists mostly report on facts and relationships and, although they may wax poetic at times, typically do not string together sentence elements without articulating their relationship to each other.

Here are a few lines from John McPhee's essay, 'Atchafalaya', in his book, The Control of Nature (1989):

"This was a countryside of corn and soybeans, of grain-fed-catfish ponds, of feed stores and Kingdom Halls in crossroad towns."

"Among navigable rivers, the Atchafalaya is widely described as one of the most treacherous in the world, but it just lies there quiet and smooth. It lies there like a big alligator in a low slough, with time on its side, waiting–waiting to outwit the Corps of Engineers–and hunkering down ever lower in its bed and presenting a sort of maw to the Mississippi, into which the river could fall."

And from Jared Diamond's essay, 'The Maya Collapses' in the book, Collapse (2005):

Like Easter Island chiefs erecting ever larger statues, eventually crowned by pukao, and like Anasazi elite treating themselves to necklaces of 2,000 turquoise beads, Maya kings sought to outdo each other with more and more impressive temples, covered with thicker and thicker plaster–reminiscent in turn of the extravagant conspicuous consumption by modern American CEOs."

The foregoing sentences have subordinating elements, so are not totally in the additive style.  In Diamond's sentence, for example, the Maya kings are being compared to Easter Island chiefs, Anasazi elite, and American CEOs.

However, I knew Oliver Sacks would not disappoint. Here are a few sentences from his book, The Island of the Colorblind (1997):

"Knut enjoys the visual world quite as much as the rest of us; he was delighted by a picturesque market in a side street of Honolulu, by the palms and tropical vegetation all around us, by the shapes of clouds–he has a clear and prompt eye for the range of human beauty too (He has a beautiful wife in Norway, a fellow psychologist, he told us–but it was only after they married, when a friend said, "I guess you go for redheads," that he learned for the first time of her flamboyant red hair.)"

And another one: 

"I could not help thinking of the horror stories from the 1950s: the strange white ash that had rained down on a Japanese tuna fishing vessel, the Lucky Dragon, bringing acute radiation sickness to the entire crew; the "pink snow" that had fallen on Rongelap after one blast–the children had never sen anything like it, and they played with it delightedly."

One more: 

"The nurse, the Spam baron, the self-righteous missionary, had so occupied me that I had scarcely noticed the passage of time, the monotonous sweep of the ocean beneath us, until suddenly I felt the plane descending toward the huge, boomerang-shaped lagoon of Kwajalein."

These wonderful sentences all occur within the first 25 pages of the book.  The first sentence lists disparate visual elements (picturesque market, tropical vegetation, clouds, and beautiful wife with red hair) that Knut was delighted by....but they are listed in no particular order or described in relationship to each other.  The words seem to flow out in a spontaneous way, including a digression about the wife.  Yet the sentence makes sense; it gets across the point that Knut, although colorblind, is not blind to beauty.  Sacks had a specific point to make, and listed several elements that illustrate beauty, but he did not present them in relation (subordinate) to each other.

What about nature writing by a literary giant? The best one I know is The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951) by John Steinbeck about a trip with the marine biologist, Edward Ricketts.  Here are a few lines from that book:

[observing boats] "If the stays were rusting and the deck unwashed, paint scraped off and the lines piled carelessly, there was no need to see the master; we knew him. And if the lines were coiled and the cables greased and the little luxury of deer horns nailed to the crow’s-nest, there was no need to see that owner either."

[talking about adventurers] "In reputedly rough water, he will go in a canoe; he will invade deserts without adequate food and he will expose his tolerant and uninoculated blood to strange viruses."

These seem to be clearer examples of additive sentences.  The first two sentences describe features of boats that reveal what type of skipper they belong to.  The third sentence is a description of an adventurer and lists three different examples of actions unrelated to each other.  The examples are listed in no particular order or precedence but together convey the message that the adventurer is someone with an underlying motivation to expose himself to danger.

You may be thinking at this point, "What about women nature or science writers?" I naturally think of Mary Kingsley (Travels in West Africa) and Margaret Mead (Coming of Age in Samoa, Blackberry Winter).

Here is an example from Coming of Age in Samoa (1928): 

"For it must be realised by any student of civilisation that we pay heavily for our heterogeneous, rapidly changing civilisation; we pay in high proportions of crime and delinquency, we pay in the conflicts of youth, we pay in an ever-increasing number of neuroses, we pay in the lack of a coherent tradition without which the development of art is sadly handicapped."

Here, Mead is talking about the burden of choice that young members of a modern civilization face; that some civilizations have few or only one choice of life. She is arguing that with the greater choices come payments in the various forms of cultural ills she lists.

I searched all over for my copy of Travels in West Africa (1897), but finally had to locate a copy online.

....sorry.  I'm back.  I got distracted reading Kingsley's mesmerizing descriptions.  Here is a line extracted at random:

"The moonlit sea, shimmering and breaking on the darkened shore, the black forest and the hills silhouetted against the star-powdered purple sky, and, at my feet, the engine-room stoke-hole, lit with the rose-coloured glow from its furnace, showing by the great wood fire the two nearly naked Krumen stokers, shining like polished bronze in their perspiration, as they throw in on to the fire the billets of red wood that look like freshly-cut chunks of flesh."

Here's another sentence:

"On each side are deep forested dells and ravines, and rocks show up through the ground in every direction, and things in general are slippery, and I wonder now and again, as I assume with unnecessary violence a recumbent position, why I came to Africa; but patches of satin-leaved begonias and clumps of lovely tree-ferns reconcile me to my lot."

And a final one:

"When you have found the easy key that opens the reason underlying a series of facts, as for example, these: a Benga spits on your hand as a greeting; you see a man who has been marching regardless through the broiling sun all the forenoon, with a heavy load, on entering a village and having put down his load, elaborately steal round in the shelter of the houses, instead of crossing the street; you come across a tribe that cuts its dead up into small pieces and scatters them broadcast, and another tribe that thinks a white man’s eye-ball is a most desirable thing to be possessed of - do not, when you have found this key, drop your collecting work, and go home with a shriek of “I know all about Fetish,” because you don’t, for the key to the above facts will not open the reason why it is regarded advisable to kill a person who is making Ikung; or why you should avoid at night a cotton tree that has red earth at its roots; or why combings of hair and paring of nails should be taken care of; or why a speck of blood that may fall from your flesh should be cut out of wood - if it has fallen on that - and destroyed, and if it has fallen on the ground stamped and rubbed into the soil with great care."

Kingsley clearly had a talent for writing wonderfully detailed descriptions of nature and people's behavior.  She also employed the additive style of sentence construction.  This last sentence illustrates how the nature writer can use the additive style to convey different examples of or variations on a theme. Kingsley explains in this long sentence why finding the key to identifying a fetish (fetishes are ideas governing or underlying people's actions) does not give you a guide for how to respond to that behavior.  She lists a series of behaviors illustrating fetishes without explicitly describing their relationships to each other, then lists another series of actions one might do in response. The latter set, Kingsley advises, requires "another key entirely." The examples convey a sense of mystery or intrigue with definite hints of danger (steal round, cuts its dead up, white man's eye-ball) but at the same time seem to be offered with an air of irony. 

There may be some other examples of sentences from science or nature writing that are in the additive style, but these few serve to illustrate the idea.  I found such sentences to occur infrequently, however, which is not surprising considering that such writers are trying to explain things in a logical, coherent fashion most of the time.  But there seems to be a use for this style in nature writing and may be partly why these particular works are so enjoyable to read.

In the next post, I'll wrap up this series on sentences and attempt to summarize and provide a few concluding thoughts.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

"If You Really Want to Hear about It...."

....is the beginning of the first line in J.D. Salinger's novel, Catcher in the Rye. This sentence (more below) is written in a particular style and is used to illustrate how it works to breath life into writing.

In an earlier post, I described two basic sentence styles: subordinating and additive.  I've already covered the subordinating style, in which components of the sentence are ordered in a logical way, i.e., have a relationship to each other:  "Before opening the door, he cautiously peered out through the peephole." A subordinate (dependent) phrase adds meaning to another part of the sentence.

In this post, I will talk a bit more about the additive style in which components are listed in sequence but not necessarily in a subordinate relationship to each other.  This style has been described as being more "organic" versus the subordinate style as being "linear".  Consider the following sentence from Tana French's thriller, In the Woods:

"This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of long grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses."

No one element listed in this sentence is subordinate (less important) than another.  Instead, they set a mood and stimulate the reader's imagination.  As we read each item, we envision or remember tasting a blade of grass, sweating, eating biscuits (cookies), and drinking lemonade during the summer.  In literature, the additive style has been used to convey spontaneity rather than a logical order.  It can be a list of experiences that have no relationship to each other, other than being, for example, fond memories of summers past, as in the sentence above.  The elements are listed in no particular order according to time or importance.  Chewed blades of grass are no more important than red lemonade in terms of fondness or occurrence in time (at least not as expressed in this sentence). 

Stanley Fish, in his book, How to Write a Sentence, goes into much detail over the additive style, providing many examples from literature to illustrate.  He provides more complex examples of additive style from the works of Hemingway, Woolf, and Salinger.  Salinger, for example, uses this style in the opening sentence of Catcher in the Rye:

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

Fish interprets this sentence for us saying that it conveys two voices: that of a callow young man and simultaneously that of the cynical author.  The apparent randomness of the thoughts sound spontaneous and how an immature teenager might talk.  The reference to David Copperfield, however, is suggestive of someone who is not your everyday teenager.  The elements of the sentence are offered in no particular priority or according to a timeline (birth, childhood, pre-conception, present day). They are strung together in a seemingly haphazard fashion.  They are not, of course. The sentence is well crafted to convey the mood and specific emotional aspects of the narrator that the author wanted to introduce right at the beginning of the novel.

Ernest Hemingway was a master of the additive style, but in the form of superficially simple sentences.  Many people find his style very appealing.  Here is an example from A Farewell to Arms:

"In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels."

Even though the words are spare and lean, the sentence structure is not simple.  There are two different groups of objects, rocks and the water, which are described in spare terms, but there is no explicit relationship between them articulated in the sentence.  The pebbles and boulders are sitting there in the bed of the river but presumably not in the water (dry and white in the sun); the water is moving nearby in the channels. This sentence describes a scene one might see standing on a river bank looking at the view–a vivid snapshot with the two main elements (rocks and water) juxtaposed in the mind's eye.

I think you get the idea.  In contrast to the subordinating style, which follows a logical framework, the additive style sets the mood, expresses the emotional feelings of the narrator, or paints a scene in a natural, spontaneous manner. Whereas subordinating sentences in a composition provide a coherent structure, the additive sentences add atmosphere. They express the human aspect of the narrative.

Although this style appears to be easy to replicate, Fish warns that it is not.  He suggests that the subordinating style is easier to accomplish because of its logic: you can ask yourself if a sentence's components make sense in relation to each other.  The additive style appears to be uncontrolled, spontaneous, organic, with no apparent logic....just writing down one thing after another in no particular order.  There is no recipe or format that one can follow, as was the case with the subordinating style.  Although the sentence elements appear to be randomly positioned, the sentence still conveys something understandable.  It's not just a jumble of words without meaning or intent.

Fish warns that a writer must learn how to construct the subordinating, controlled sentence before taking on the free-wheeling, additive style...and making it work.  He does suggest that this style can be imitated (and practiced) by starting with examples from less experimental writers.

Fish suggests an exercise to practice writing in the additive style.  Start with a scene, say one in which someone is standing looking out at a view:

She thought, gazing at the expansive vista of high desert and distant peaks tinged pink by the setting sun.

Then add a few participial phrases: "The air smelling of pine resin, the breeze cooling her face, the horse snorting gently,"

Perhaps add another phrase at the end: "would she find the child in time, living?"

Put all together:

"The air smelling of pine resin, the breeze cooling her face, the horse snorting gently, she thought, gazing at the expansive vista of high desert and distant peaks tinged pink by the setting sun, would she find the child in time, living?"

The various elements are listed in no particular order according to occurrence or importance. They set a mood, however, by describing different elements of the environment, which are calm and majestic, and putting these adjacent to an emotional question involving life and death.  The effect is to perhaps convey the impression that the person (a woman) being described is somewhat removed emotionally from the action.  If she's looking for a lost child, why is she so calmly standing and savoring her surroundings?  Is she a professional tracker or detective?  One could easily change this mood, however, by modifying the participial phrases:

"The air reeking of smoke, the wind whipping at her hair, the horse stamping nervously, she thought, peering at the expansive vista of high desert and distant peaks tinged pink by the setting sun, would she find the child in time, living?"

Now we have a completely different impression of the action taking place and the emotional state of the woman.  We perceive more desperation or sense of urgency, but not because of any specific feelings described for the woman.  Instead, it's the phrases (air reeking of smoke--is there a fire? wind whipping, horse stamping nervously) that lend a different mood.  When we reach the part of the sentence describing what previously sounded like a majestic vista, we now interpret the high desert, distant peaks, and setting sun as being ominous portents of the outcome of her search for the child.  We simultaneously have the impression that the searcher has an emotional investment in the action, although this is not explicitly stated.  The subtle change in the word "gazing" to "peering" adds to the impression that the searcher is not calmly admiring the view, but gauging the challenges suggested by the view.

Well, I went on a bit longer about the additive style than I had originally planned.  I will finish up the discussion of the additive style in the next post by considering if this style can be used in science writing.

Image Credit: View of Death Valley, California-Nevada, USA; DrDoyenne

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Delayed Gratification

In this series of posts, I'm discussing sentence construction. Stanley Fish, author of How to Write a Sentence, is the inspiration for these posts. In the last post, we talked about the subordinating style of sentence, in which the components are arranged according to relationships such as causality or time:

While preparing for a field trip, I packed duplicates of all key pieces of equipment.

In this post, I'll talk about a subordinating sentence structure that does not immediately jump to the pay-off as the sentence above does, but instead builds through several beats before arriving at the key point.  Taking the sentence above, I'll try to delay the reader a bit by adding an intervening phrase:

While preparing for a field trip and remembering previous disastrous excursions in which a critical instrument was smashed by a careless student, I packed duplicates of all key pieces of equipment.

What this construction has done is to provide more context to the sentence–a personal history, which explains the narrator's current behavior when preparing for field trips. As well as being more informative, it's a far more interesting sentence.  Can we extend this exercise further and add more to this sentence?

While preparing for a field trip and remembering previous disastrous excursions in which a critical instrument was smashed by a careless student and Murphy's Law that "anything that can go wrong, will go wrong", I packed duplicates of all key pieces of equipment.

Now as the reader progresses through the sentence, she is taken on a short trip into the past (previous disastrous excursions) and then reminded of an aphorism (Murphy's Law), which is well known to field biologists. The reader pauses at that point, reflecting on this apropos saying and perhaps her own experiences along these lines. Next, the reader arrives at the subject of the sentence (I) and finally the narrator's solution to the problem.

My example is not precisely like the examples Fish uses; he interposes the delaying phrases between the subject and verb.  Here is an example of mine that does just that:

As she reached the top of the rise and looked at the vista–high desert surrounded by distant peaks tinged pink by the setting sun–her horse, having steadfastly borne her across raging rivers and down steep embankments, stumbled.

What this sentence style accomplishes is to provide a much richer and more complex reading experience for the reader.  Imagine if this sentence were instead written as a series of simpler statements:

She reached the top of the rise and looked at the vista.
She saw high desert surrounded by distant peaks tinged pink by the setting sun.
Her horse had borne her across raging rivers and down steep embankments.
It stumbled.

Or one that describes only the basic action:

As she reached the top of the rise, her horse stumbled.

Not at all the same reading experience.  The more complex sentence first lulls the reader into a sense of complacency by describing a majestic scene (the high desert and distant peaks), then curiously introduces another subject (her horse). Then there is a phrase describing the horse's past performance (taking the reader back in time).  And finally we get to the key action (stumbled), which suddenly changes everything–the rider is now in danger.  Once you understand the structure and how it's accomplished, starting with a basic, simple phrase or short sentence, it's relatively easy to duplicate.  I found this exercise to be one of the more useful bits of insight I gleaned from Fish's book.  

Such sentences, however, violate the advice of technical writing experts, which is to avoid interrupting the subject-verb or verb-object relationship with intervening words or phrases.  The technical writer is aiming for clarity and succinctness, and by putting words and phrases between these sentence elements, the writer muddies the water, so to speak. The reader of a technical paper is wanting information to be provided in a clear and unambiguous manner–not to be entertained. 

As I write about this exercise, however, I realize that scientists and students of science are masters at writing such sentences:

"A broad treatment of optical bistability, including all the steady-state and transient characteristics of nonlinear optical systems which exhibit bistability under some operating conditions, is presented."

That's not the worst example, but illustrates my point.  Such sentences are common in scientific papers; it took me all of 3 seconds to find this one on Google Scholar.  I've written previously about how to improve the comprehension of scientific writing.  In those posts, I provide exercises to take such convoluted sentences and rewrite them in a more understandable fashion.  

To summarize, using the subordinating phrase to delay the reader from getting to the sentence's payoff can greatly enrich one's writing style.  Although this style may not work well in the purely technical paper, it might be useful in nature writing or other semi-technical writing where the author is trying to both inform and entertain.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Subordinating Style

I've been talking about sentence structure and how to develop skills in writing better sentences.  I've been using examples from a book called How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish and applying them to scientific writing.  In the last post, I mused about sentence style versus content.  In this post, I will describe two basic categories of style: subordinating and additive.

The subordinating style refers to sentences in which the components are arranged according to relationships of causality, temporalness, or priority.

For example:

"It was the older, classic papers in science I was assigned during college rather than the more recent, specialized articles I read in graduate school that influenced the choices I later made in my career."

In this sentence, there are two actions that each occur at different times in relation to each other (temporalness: college and graduate school) and that also have different influences (causality), one more important than the other (priority) on events occurring at a later time (career).

An additive style would not link components in terms of their relationship to each other:

"I read 'On the Origin of Species', and I passed all my courses and began dating Mark."

We don't get any hint of how or whether these different actions relate to each other or when they occurred in the writer's life.  These are constructions that teachers commonly encounter in student writing. The problem with this one is that the writer is just stringing together different actions without establishing their relationships. They may have some relationship, but the writer is unable to structure the sentence so that this relationship is clear.

There is nothing inferior, necessarily, with the additive style.  Here's another example that is less scatterbrained than the one above:

"I read ancient texts, studied classic treatises, and perused modern articles to achieve a broad view of science and its history."

This example also strings together a sequence of actions without explicitly showing when they were carried out or which were more important.  In contrast to the previous example, this sentence works because it delivers a coherent message.  It conveys a time sequence, but one based on the historical context of the sources: ancient, classic, modern and in that sense there is a temporal relationship among the sentence components.

Fish offers an example of a subordinating sentence in which an assertion is made in such a way as to dismiss any other opinion on the topic.  This sentence by Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice) is also one of the examples I gave earlier of famous first lines in novels:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

Here we have a very short sentence, which conveys a complex social conundrum, but does so with a clear tone of authority.  It begins with a claim that what is going to be stated is irrefutable, preempting any effort on the reader's part to challenge the revelation.  The sentence also shows parallel structure: "in possession of" and "in want of".  The authoritative tone is again emphasized by the use of "must be" later in the sentence.  This is a technique that can be used to communicate confidence in any sentence making an assertion.

Darwin did something similar in the opening line of On the Origin of Species, except that his intent was to simultaneously convey a sense of humility:

"When on board H.M.S. Beagle as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South American and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent."

I've already dissected this sentence in an earlier post, but use it again here to illustrate the subordinating style and specifically its usefulness in making scientific assertions.  Darwin begins his opening sentence with a phrase that establishes his credentials as a naturalist, preempting any assumption by the reader that he's just an armchair theorist.  I have no way of knowing if Darwin deliberately used this sentence structure, but it works beautifully to establish his authority without sounding pompous. In this sense, it is more palatable than Jane Austin's assertion about a "universal truth".  He uses the term "facts" to refer to the observations upon which his conclusions are based, terminology that further anticipates and preempts any criticism of the basis of the theoretical musings to come.

What's impressive about Darwin's sentence is that his assertions are tempered by a tone of humility and sense of discovery ("I was much struck").  Darwin's humility was not faked; by all accounts he was a humble person who constantly questioned whether he was the best person to put forth this theory and additionally was quick to acknowledge other authorities who had similar ideas or had made contributions to his thinking.  This point is an important one to understand. If you choose to structure your sentences to convey authority or any other tone, it must reflect reality.  If it's faked, the reader will know.  And as Fish points out, you are more likely to persuade a reader of a "universal truth" if you do not actually use the phrase "it is a truth universally acknowledged".

In the next post, I'll try to describe a sentence structure that, using subordination, delays the "payoff", the kernel of truth that the writer is trying to convey and by doing so, promotes a sense of satisfaction in the reader who has patiently waited for it.