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Archive for June, 2010

The Rest of the Conference

I managed to drag my sun-stricken body to day two of the IATEFL/BALEAP conference and had a reasonably good time, attending sessions on content-based reading, metaphor, grammar in EAP and discipline-specific language. Nothing made me go “Wow, I’d never thought of that!” but then that is maybe the problem with attending a conference in your speciality, then selecting workshops in areas in which you specialise even more.  On the other hand, I came away with interesting tit-bits of information to confirm my general impressions, such as that verbs indicating opinion in humanities texts tend to be related to the writing/arguing process while those in the hard sciences tend to refer to the experimental procedure, or that 85% of academic writing is in the simple present tense (which is a problem given that 85% of my students have problems with the simple present).

All in all, I thought it was a pretty good conference. EAP is a bit of a poor cousin in terms of international EFL events and EAP teachers are definitely poor cousins in the family of academia, so it was good to see my own university host a major EAP conference.

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Sun Stops Play

This is the season when the English are used to the famous phrase “Rain stops play”, but in this case the problem was sun. I was hoping to give an on-the-spot commentary on the IATEFL/BALEAP conference, which is taking place just down the road for me, but unfortunately I am suffering from the aftereffects of a bad case of sunstroke I was hit by yesterday. I thought I’d be fine today, but aches in every part of my body meant I just went to one session (on pre-sessional teacher training) then went to the doctor to confirm that it was only sunstroke, then slept for most of the rest of the day. Yes, we have some serious sun here in Ankara. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll have something more interesting to say here.

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Jobs Round-Up

For those with the summer-time blues, Surrey University, Hertford College, Oxford, and the University of Gloucestershire are looking for EAP teachers for pre-sessional courses. If you prefer a more permanent post, there are jobs in the usual places: Abu Dhabi, Korea, Korea again and China.

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How to Tell If You Have an Engineer in Your Class

June 11, 2010 2 comments

No, this isn’t going to be a joke about guys with neatly pressed jeans and scientific calculators, just some observations about writing which may be worth bearing in mind given that most EAP teachers have a humanities or social sciences background and may react with alarm at the conventions of writing in more technical disciplines. After working on my templates for APA, MLA and Chicago style papers, I had a look at one for the IEEE and noticed the following.

  • IEEE papers are submitted in a 10pt font (9pt for citations) and single-spaced. Either engineering profs wear thick glasses or papers are easier to read when typeset using LaTeX. (If you got that joke, you’re probably already an engineer or a mathematician and don’t need to read further.)
  • Not only that, but they’re in two columns as well, though I’ve never known a student do this.
  • Text is fully justified, not ragged-right as in MLA and APA.
  • The tendency of some students to cite by simply giving a number in square brackets referring to a numbered list of citations at the end of the paper is common in science and engineering papers. IEEE, ACS and AIP citations are in the order in which they are cited in the text, not alphabetical order. I imagine if you asked an engineer why they didn’t include page numbers, they’d just think “You mean you don’t know how to do a text search?”
  • A subheading starting with a number like 2.1.4. is a dead giveaway that you’re dealing with an engineer. This love of subheadings may contrast with what we were taught; I remember my English tutor decrying subheadings on the grounds that “they disrupt the flow of the prose.”

The point is not that we should be teaching all this, but rather that we shouldn’t react with shock when a paper looks weird to the eyes of someone used to the big three of MLA, APA and CMS. If you want your students to submit papers that are, for example, double-spaced, you need to tell them that this is your preference, not assume that everyone does it like that.

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Ghost Papers and Grammar Errors

June 11, 2010 2 comments

A spammer left a comment in my Live Journal advertising the services of an essay mill called “Ghost Papers”. At the bottom of this nefarious organisation’s page is the disclaimer, “After receiving your thesis, you can only revise if the theses [sic] is not completely based on your details.” Another sentence contains a less serious grammar error but manages to combine hypocrisy with irony: “We are strictly against plagiarism hence; all term papers are proof-read manually before delivery.

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Essay Templates

I have made some templates that can be used by students for submitting papers. Currently there are only versions for OpenOffice, but if anyone wants to convert them to .dot files for the benefit of those benighted Word users out there, feel free.

MLA essay follows the guidelines for the new (2009) MLA style, which is slightly less ugly than previous versions—no more imitating typewriters.

APA essay , again follows the most recent (6th) edition.

Chicago-like essay is my personal favourite and the one I recommend to students where they don’t have to use a particular layout, whether or not they use Chicago style. I say “Chicago-like” since (unlike its derivative, Turabian) the CMS doesn’t specify paper layout strictly.

Categories: Writing

Cyberspace Sophists

There seems to be no stopping the flow of articles claiming that cyberspace  is making us stupid. The latest is Ruth Marcus’ “Cyberspace Dunderheads”, which is the usual story of reduced attention spans with a dash of lowered empathy thrown in. There is probably a fair amount of evidence to support both of these claims, though the argument that lowered student empathy scores occurred after the introduction of smartphones  kind of screams “Post hoc!” The problem is that cyberspace is big enough to find evidence to support pretty much any claim you want.

Let’s leave empathy aside; it’s a tricky subject, and as one commentator on the article pointed out, Marcus seems uncertain about the difference between empathy and sympathy. Attention span is at least easily quantifiable. There is also an intuitive appeal to Marcus’ observations:

Once upon a time, which is to say before the advent of the Internet, my work as a journalist involved reading documents, making phone calls, attending events. Turning to the keyboard, or the screen, was the end of the assembly line. Now, it seems, it is the totality: I spend hours skittering across the virtual surface of the Web, flitting from place to place, never resting for very long. I read a few sentences—or write a few—and my hand twitches, like an alcoholic reaching for the bottle, toward the BlackBerry.

Well, most of us have been there. But that kind of information grazing is just one thing we do in cyberspace. We also, especially if we are academics or technical workers, spend hours intensively researching one subject. When I am online trying to find a suitable text to put in my ENG 101 course or solve a problem with our Moodle service, I experience the same sustained concentration normally associated with professors poring over dusty tomes or scribbling furiously in notebooks. (Note to younger readers: as well as a kind of a computer, the word “notebook” can also refer to a bound collection of small sheets of paper.) Cyberspace allows us to spread our attention very widely, but it also allows us to focus it intensely, and do so for long periods of time. Ask any hardcore gamer. Are the people who claim that the Internet is shortening our attention span the same people who complain about kids playing World of Warcraft for eight hours at a stretch?

Related to the supposed decline of our attention span is the perennial complaint that young people these days don’t read books. I remember this from the 1970s, though of course they didn’t blame the Internet in those days (as far as I remember the culprits were TV series and 45 rpm records). If no one is reading books any more, why do I see  Harry Potter everywhere? Do all these Potters just materialise in our world without being read, only to vanish as mysteriously as they came? And what about Dan Brown? In the first week after it was published, The Lost Symbol sold half a million copies in the UK alone, making it the fastest-selling adult book ever (though that is largely because when equally eagerly anticipated books came out in the past, there were no online booksellers). Let’s not forget that (a) Dan Brown is not the kind of author you buy because he looks good on your shelves, and (b) this was a weighty hardcover book retailing at about twenty pounds. In other words, it’s not something that people would buy and then not read because they got distracted by their Blackberries.  And while we’re talking about mobile devices, if they sap our concentration so much, how come people are using them to read books?

As final observation, I should mention that while writing this I was distracted several times; however, none of these had anything to do with the Internet and all of them had something to do with my wife, who is not a piece of technology.

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