For Writing Students Everywhere

Live Science has an article on simple writing making folks look smart.

Long words used needlessly along with complicated font styles — two tactics employed routinely by students trying to pad their work — are perceived as coming from less intelligent writers.

Or, to put it simply: Short words and classic fonts make you look smart.

Daniel Oppenheimer at Princeton University conducted five experiments manipulating the complexity of vocabulary or font style. Samples included graduate school applications, sociology dissertation abstracts, and translations of a work by Descartes.

Times New Roman, the default font for Internet text and writing programs like Microsoft Word, was contrasted by the italicized Juice font …
The simple writing done in the easy-to-read font tended to be rated as coming from a more intelligent author than the more complex drafts.

“Anything that makes a text hard to read and understand, such as unnecessarily long words or complicated fonts, will lower readers’ evaluations of the text and its author,” Oppenheimer said.

He added, though, that the study does not suggest long words are inherently bad, but only that using them needlessly is a problem. So why do so many people do it?

“The continuing popularity amongst students of using big words and attractive font styles may be due to the fact that they may not realize these techniques could backfire,” Oppenheimer said. “One thing seems certain: write as simply and plainly as possible and it’s more likely you’ll be thought of as intelligent.”

Yes, the teacher will notice that you are padding your papers. I tell my students this all the time. Most of the time they listen. I wonder if they think about it when they are writing papers for other teachers.

Also, note that the big words are used needlessly. If you know what they mean and are using them correctly, then I don’t have a problem with them. But there needs to be a reason to use them. Are you using them because you’ve used the simpler terms six times and you need a change of pace? Good for you. Are you using them to prove you know how to use them? I probably already know that.

Note: The article doesn’t say who the people were responding to the style changes. Were they teachers? Or were they students? Were they readers for a conference? Because I can tell you of some conferences where you need to have long words used. Then it’s not needless; it’s the only way to get in.

Real World Fallacies

Tonight in my English class I was discussing fallacies that are common in argument. I informed the students that these fallacies were not simply problems in freshmen research papers.

“post hoc, ergo procter hoc” is the belief that something coming before is the cause of what comes after. Therefore we have the research study in which the US’s religiousity is blamed for its violence.

The “ad hominem” is an attack on the person as an argument. I referenced the “BushHitler” meme.

Then there was the “either/or” fallacy, where an argument gives two options as the only options. Either you accept Miers as a Supreme Court Justice nominee or you’re sexist. That wasn’t quite what Mrs. Bush said, but many people took it that way. Including Michelle Malkin.

Possible Assignment: Freshman Comp

Preparation for school: Go read Bright Mystery and explain to me how these five points would translate to Freshman English. (See update.)

I only received four papers, though three other students said they did it and just didn’t know they were supposed to turn it in. I explained that Bright Mystery is a math teacher at a college. I still got a “this blog was not what I was expecting.” I don’t know what he was expecting, so I can’t enlighten you.

Grammar: Go read this list of native mangling of English and tell me what is wrong with one in each topic.

Note: Bright Mystery is disappearing. Here is the post:

Five things for Calculus students, revisited

A while back I asked everyone to give a list of five things that they would like incoming calculus students to know — stuff they know now that they wished they’d known then. Lots of good responses. I have boiled them all down into the following list, which I’m going to give to my calculus classes tomorrow. The text in bold will go on an overhead; all the other stuff will be verbal embellishments.

1.Consistent, daily preparation is essential. In 10 years of teaching college calculus at liberal arts colleges, top-tier research universities, and in private tutoring, one thing has emerged that is common to my experience: The single biggest factor in whether a student gets something out of a college-level calculus class is how consistent they are in studying and practicing from day to day. Their prior experience with math makes no real difference. How well they study the night before the test makes no difference. Whether they have a tutor makes no difference. Even the level of raw mathematical skill doesn’t make much of a difference. It really is just a matter of working with this stuff every day, for an hour or two or more if you need it. You’re not guaranteed an “A” or “B” in the course if you study consistently — it takes performance to do that — but you are guaranteed NOT to get those grades if you DON’T. [Note for math teachers reading this: How well students remember their prior math classes and how fluent they are with the prerequisite material comes in a close second.]

2.You are responsible for your own learning. The biggest difference between college and high school — both in classes and elsewhere — is that you are now placed in a position of responsibility. You will need to rely on personal discipline where before you had people forcing you to do things. This is a major change and a lot of students end up flunking out of school because they never really try to adapt to it. Here, it will mean that you’ll need to find your own times to work on the class, deny yourself certain “fun” things like TV and video games if you need to work, and so on. The best thing you can do for yourself is to set the tone NOW on the first day of your college career that you will be a disciplined, productive student — just as much as you are a disciplined, productive football player or employee or what have you.

3. College classes are not spectator sports. Being responsible for your own learning means that you can’t expect to gain a full understanding of the material just by attending class. You have to get your hands dirty; form study groups to get your hands even dirtier; keep working at a problem when it becomes difficult; try things out even when they don’t work; do things that aren’t graded; and take initiative to talk to the professor about difficulties. This is why we say you really need two hours outside of class for every hour inside.

4.College expectations are different from many high schools’ expectations. Your education is no longer all about passing a test. You’ve done that. Now we’re going to focus your education on learning how to think, how to reason, how not to get fooled by a faulty argument, how to see the structure and beauty in the created world, and producing quality work that you can be proud of and which will prepare you to live the rest of your life. Which also is not about passing a test. So from here on out, put aside all notions about needing to score high on tests and score lots of points. You need to make good grades but not at the expense of the big picture of “higher” education.

5.Enjoy the ride – learning is fun. Avoiding learning is not fun. If you throw yourself into the learning process and abandon yourself to curiosity and interest in new things, you’ll have a lot more fun in college than if you view your classes as hurdles or burdens. College becomes a miserable experience when you start to take your primary focus off of what you are learning and fragmenting it among everything else. Take a lesson from my 20-month old daughter, who takes absolute pleasure in learning anything. We were all in that place once — let’s all go back there.

Professor and Research Papers

I teach at a community college. The students are writing their research papers now. The limit on the topic was that it had to be controversial. The students had to be able to find three solid arguments both for and against the side they agreed with to write on. That was the limit on the topic.

I was very interested/annoyed/irritated to read about this assignment in a blog. Sorry, it was last week and I don’t remember which one I read about it in. (Note: This page still goes to the assignment but no longer lists the topics you can and cannnot cover. So that isn’t going to explain to you what the problem is.)

I went and read the teacher’s website posting of the assignment. I think it is interesting that he announces academic freedom, but doesn’t allow freedom of speech in his classroom. In fact, he clearly suppresses it.

This is a quote from his site. Please note, that unlike the one he complained about earlier, this is within the acceptable length for quoting of copyrighted material. (Which I have never found even in academic circles to include syllabi and assignments.)

“Topics on which there is, in my opinion, no other side apart from chauvinistic, religious, or bigoted opinions and pseudo-science (for example, female circumcision, prayer in public schools, same-sex marriage, the so-called faith-based initiative, abortion, hate crime laws, the existence of the Holocaust, and so-called creationism).”

So if you believe in prayer in schools, or don’t perhaps?, faith based initiatives, or the Holocaust, you can’t write on them. But you can write on how stupid Bush is and whether or not the Loch Ness monster exists. This teacher believes there are two sides to argue for Loch Ness monster, but not two sides on the Holocaust or hate crime laws. What does that tell you about his politics?

First, it tells you his politics are strong. Then it tells you they are far left. (Look at the first sentence for number 46 if you think I’m not telling the truth.) Then it tells you that if you are right wing, you’re wrong. He won’t even let you argue your view in an argument paper. Or study something you’re not sure about.

On the flip side, I require my students to write on both sides of the argument they are researching. They have to start with the one they disagree with. The reason for that is that it helps them realize the other side does have legitimate and cogent arguments. It also shows them possible holes in their own arguments. I think maybe this teacher needs to write one of my research papers himself.

Volokh is the original site, though an updated archive on the topic, that was pointed to on the blog I read. I might could find that, then. No, because I didn’t go to V- but to the other. Nope. I couldn’t figure out who pointed me in this direction.

Update: Despite the fact that no one I know considers their syllabi copyrighted, apparently they are. Here’s a post on the practice of fisking which is selecting large sections of a copyrighted piece in order to argue with it.

Update again: Since his syllabus isn’t up anymore, I guess I’m not quoting it. I am quoting those who quoted it. Here are some of the other choices of topics:

2. “Recreational” Drugs (legalization of, medicinal use of; you must know the current legal status of these issues at both the state and federal levels). For marijuana, probably the best approach is to narrow your topic to medicinal use. See Eric Bailey’s “Key Court Victories Boost Medical Marijuana Movement,” Los Angeles Times, 23 December 2003: B1+. Even the usually conservative Press-Telegram is calling for a “carefully regulated system of legalization and high taxation” of drugs (editorial, “Gangs and Prohibitions,” 3 October 2004: A20).

3. Energy (nuclear, solar, fossil, synthetic fuels, etc.). A related topic is Dick Cheney’s secret conference on energy policy. Why hasn’t the administration revealed who participated and should it reveal this information? Also important is the fact that, as Kevin Phillips writes, “four generations of the [Bush] dynasty have chased [oil] profits through cozy ties with Mideast leaders, spinning webs of conflicts of interest” (Los Angeles Times, 11 January 2004: M1+).

8. The Economy (tax cuts, the military budget, education, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment, etc.). Under President Clinton, the Federal Government had a handle on the national debt. Now the Bush administration is passing that debt on to the post-baby-boom generation. See Ronald Brownstein’s column, “Our Children Will Pay the Bill for Bush’s Budget,” Los Angeles Times, 10 February 2003: A10.

12. Capital Punishment (pro or con; one way to limit the topic would be to argue whether or not there should be a moratorium on executions until they can be proved to be fair to all concerned, if that’s possible). See the bipartisan web site: The Constitution Project on this issue. See also Henry Weinstein’s article, “Death Penalty Study Suggests Errors,” in the Los Angeles Times (11 February 2002: A13, and Eric Slater’s “Illinois Governor Commutes All Death Row Cases,” in the Los Angeles Times (12 January 2003: A1+; in the same edition of the Times, see Henry Weinstein’s “Move Will Intensify Debate on Executions”: A1+ and Eric Slater’s “Unlikely Candidate for Death Penalty Reformer”: A28). According to Amnesty International, in 2002 the United States had the third highest rate of executions after China and Iran (“China Tops World List of Executions,” Los Angeles Times, 13 April 2003: A33).

17. The Environment (insecticides, off-shore drilling, protecting the forests, clean-air laws, protecting pristine land in Alaska from oil drilling). See Elizabeth Shogren’s, “States, White House at Odds on Environment,” Los Angeles Times, 29 December 2002, A23. And see Kenneth R. Weiss’s “Seas Being Stripped of Big Fish, Study Finds,” Los Angeles Times, 15 May 2003: A1+. This would be a good research paper topic as well.

21. Affirmative Action. Be sure to define the term and be aware of its current status in California. See the cover stories for Newsweek, 27 January 2003, the Los Angeles Times, “State Finds Itself Hemmed In,” 24 June 2003 (A1+), by Stuart Silverstein, Peter Hong, and Rebecca Trounson, and “Court Affirms Use of Race in University Admissions,” by David G. Savage, in the same issue of the Times.

27. Gun control (should a license, including a card with a picture similar to a driver’s license, be required of gun owners? should handguns be banned? These are only two narrowed gun control topics; “gun control” itself is far too broad as a topic). See Aparna Kumar’s “More Guns in Citizens’ Hands Can Worsen Crime, Study Says” (Los Angeles Times, 23 January 2003: A15). Also, for an especially good opinion column (backed by facts), read Jennifer Price’s “Gun Lobby’s Perfect Aim,” Los Angeles Times (9 February 2003: M1+). A third topic is ballistic fingerprinting: see Jonathan Alter’s “Pull the Trigger On Fingerprints,” Newsweek (28 October 2002: 41).

34. Birth Control: Should the so-called “morning-after” contraceptive pills (pills that prevent fertilized eggs from implantation) be more readily available to all, whether they can afford them or not and regardless of age? Of course, in your paper you would need to state your position and support it while acknowledging the opposing position. (You cannot argue that such pills amount to an abortion; I do not accept abortion as a topic. See below.)

52. What evidence do we have that Mr. Bush and his cronies lied to the American people and the world in promoting the war with Iraq? Do you agree that America has lost its “moral authority” in the world because of this immoral war? See “Another Casualty of War: American Moral Authority,” by Rami G. Khouri, in the Los Angeles Times, 9 October 2003: B17. See also, “Iraq War Questions Gain Momentum,” by Janet Hook, Los Angeles Times, 30 January 2004: A1+, and John Barry and Mark Hosenball’s “What Went Wrong,” the cover story for Newsweek, 9 February 2004: 24-31. Another article from the Los Angeles Times, Bob Drogin and Greg Miller’s “CIA Chief Saw No Imminent Threat in Iraq” (6 February 2004: A6+), might be useful. Other articles worth reading are Peter Singer’s “Bush’s Meandering Moral Compass,” Los Angeles Times, 26 March 2004: B13 and Bob Drogin and Greg Miller’s “Iraq’s Illicit Weapons Gone Since Early ’90s, CIA Says,” Los Angeles Times, 7 October 2004: A1+.

from Clayton Cramer’s blog

Energy… A related topic is Dick Cheney’s secret conference on energy policy. Why hasn’t the administration revealed who participated and should it reveal this information? Also important is the fact that, as Kevin Phillips writes, “four generations of the [Bush] dynasty have chased [oil] profits through cozy ties with Mideast leaders, spinning webs of conflicts of interest”…

The Economy… Under President Clinton, the Federal Government had a handle on the national debt. Now the Bush administration is passing that debt on to the post-baby-boom generation…

Birth Control: Should the so-called “morning-after” contraceptive pills (pills that prevent fertilized eggs from implantation) be more readily available to all, whether they can afford them or not and regardless of age? Of course, in your paper you would need to state your position and support it while acknowledging the opposing position. (You cannot argue that such pills amount to an abortion…).

Should Justice Sandra Day O’Connor have been impeached for her partisan, political actions in the Bush v. Gore case of December 2000 (she is reported to have expressed a desire to retire but would do so only if a Republican were president…)? What about Justice Scalia, whose son worked for the law firm of the lawyer who argued for Bush before the Supreme Court, or Justice Thomas, whose wife was part of an organization selecting people to work in a potential Bush administration?

George W. Bush’s time in the National Guard presents important questions about the character of a man who has sent hundreds of Americans to their deaths in war and killed and maimed untold thousands of others…

Breaking a campaign promise, Bush has reversed rules to limit industrial carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere…Do you agree or disagree with this decision?

Is it right for the Bush Administration to use the War on Terrorism for political or commercial purposes?…

What role does George W. Bush have in the Enron scandal? How should the various Congressional investigation (sic) proceed? Should any new laws be passed? Should all those who have received contributions from Enron recess themselves or only those who received a certain amount of money…

It is no secret that the Bush administration and many Republicans have taken steps to undo the progress in environmental protection made before they took office. Now that they control the presidency and the Congress, they have better opportunities to carry out their agenda…

Civil Liberties: The Bush administration has used the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 to erode the civil rights of citizens and non-citizens alike… What can be done to stop this erosion of liberties or can you logically defend it?…

Should there be stricter laws against a woman harming her potential child through smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, or using other drugs while pregnant?…

What evidence do we have that Mr. Bush and his cronies lied to the American people and the world in promoting the war with Iraq? Do you agree that America has lost its “moral authority” in the world because of this immoral war?…

Although George W. Bush said he would support the national continuation of the ban on assault weapons, he did nothing to urge Congress to pass it…

from Mike Adams

Update (8/6/08): I want to use this story in my discussion of “Looking at Both Sides of the Issue” for TYCASW, assuming I get to read it.

History/Civics/Writing Assignment

FIRE has a November 20, 2003 post about freedoms in the amendments. It notes that most students do not know what the amendments protect.

The Bill of Rights only deals with the first ten amendments. All these were added in 1789.

What if I had the students look up the Bill of Rights. They would have to write a sentence or two on their own to say what the amendment actually says is a right. Then I could have them look up an internet post on each topic and comment on what it said.

Nah. That’s too hard. I’d spend weeks at the computer reading the stuff.

What if I had them turn in the posts they read?


I had a sub for a class two weeks ago so I could give the talk in Ladies’ Bible Class that I had agreed to last May. The sub was a teacher of the class and was actually knowledgable on the subject. My students said thank you for that.

Tomorrow morning I will be subbing for a class. A teacher’s son has broken his collar bone and she needs to stay with him. This was a last minute request, obviously. I stopped in and said I’d do it. They are taking a test, so it doesn’t matter if I know what is going on or not.

Thursday night I will be subbing for another class. It’s a class I teach. I will actually have to teach that class. But I agreed to sub for it over a month ago, since I knew I would need a sub.

I think the two subs I am doing will make up in pay for the one class I had to have a sub for. You’d think they want us to be absent, since they don’t have to pay the full amount for our subs.

The college pays adjuncts very little- a total, I think, of $1600 a class. A full-time teacher with my level of experience gets $50K. Divided by eight classes, that’s $6K a class. Yes, they have to have office hours, but I have to grade papers and it would be easier if I could do them during office hours. It’d make my life easier.

But right now, I can’t homeschool and teach full time, so I’ll take what they pay me and hope later I can get a full time position.

Update: Apparently the teacher told them they did not have to be present for class and did not need to stay. About eight students turned in papers and left. But I was there for an hour and a half teaching the material the teacher had given me to cover. I wonder if she had a sub because she had to and honestly did not expect any of the students to stay in class. At WalMart today (10/10) I saw a student from that class who said she didn’t even comment on so many of them walking out of class. Oh well. Those who stayed received a bit more knowledge and reviewed grammar which will, I hope, serve them well on their papers.

Wage Gaps

English 1301 was reading about the elderly. One of the articles talked about the insanity of older women trying to look young. (I disagree with her, I think, at least in principle.) A question on the issues afterward asked: “What difference do you think the feminist movement has made in easing the unrealistic pressures on aging women?”

The first comments were on how feminism is just a revised communism. We discussed that. We differentiated the two. Then we discussed equality of opportunity (democracy) as opposed to equality of outcome (communism). We also discussed this in terms of the “wage gap.” It was, I said, a problem in past years, but was much less so now.

After that discussion, we returned to the book’s question. I argued that feminism has in fact increased the unrealistic pressures on all women. Instead of being expected to care for our homes, our families, and ourselves, we are expected to care for our homes, our families, and ourselves while getting an education and working at a white collar job full-time. Since I have several single mothers in the classroom, there was much nodding of heads.

iFeminist wrote recently, and has her article on the Fox website, about the wage gap. I have heard her arguments before and I agree with them. I just thought that this presentation was both cogent and timely. I am thinking about having my students read the article as an extra credit work. A written response of some kind will be required.

Freshman Papers

My students turned in their first papers today. The number of people who managed to miss basic points, including double space, type, and number pages is amazing.

This is in the syllabus:

“All papers should be double-spaced, 12 point font, Palatino or Times New Roman.

Heading should be left justified and as follows:

Your name

My name

English 1301

Full due date

Then skip a line and center your title.

Then skip a line and type your essay.”

I did verbally remind them that they needed to put the page numbers on each page.

I didn’t think to tell them not to capitalize all the letters of their title. … These are the problems I’ve seen from them just turning the papers in. I haven’t actually started reading them and grading them yet.

Research on journaling

The thing that interested me most in Beach’s work was the summaries of research on journaling.  I do a lot of personal journals, have assigned them to classes over the years, and am presently doing a kind of one for you.  I want to read his work and see if I fit the profile his study came up with on learning styles.  I think it would be particularly interesting for me because my reasons for writing and my styles have changed considerably over the last sixteen years and those changes can be traced over time.  (Wonder if I could make that into a paper?  Probably not.  Although I do have several tests I have taken repeatedly across the last sixteen years, like Myers-Briggs.)


Not sure if it is actually in this, but I have it, so I am guessing yes.

Beach, Richard, and Lillian S. Bridwell, eds.  New Directions in Composition Research. New York:  Guilford, 1984. 


Had finals this week. I gave mine on Saturday. Had to be graded and grades in by today at noon. Got it done. That’s not amazing. What is amazing that I had people come to class who have been absent half the time, haven’t turned in any papers, and want to know if they can pass.

NO YOU CANNOT PASS an English class if you don’t write the papers. No you cannot pass any class where the teacher wants you to learn stuff they talk about in class if you don’t show up for the class.

Then I had students who are still on my rolls even though they didn’t come past the second week. So they got Fs. Cause they didn’t drop the class themselves. What’s up with that? (Happens every semester and it still freaks me out.)