May 212014
 

StudentsFeeling useless is something I know a fair bit about. Being a philosophy major, you could say I’m an expert in uselessness. But these times are tough. In the immortal words of Kent Brockman, “Joblessness is no longer just for philosophy majors – useful people are starting to feel the pinch.” I’m going to ignore the absurdity in that sentence, but it’s really apt for now. The last week has been particularly hard on my students, following #budget2014. No doubt they feel personally insulted, aggrieved and bewildered, and as if society is rejecting them as a whole.

My students almost represent the entirety of the demographic that is under assault by our current politics: Under 30s, science students, Indigenous, mature age and single parents. But my students are fantastic people. If they weren’t, they’d be studying economics (apart from those who follow Steve Keen and the like); human resources (who have no other skill apart from liking feeling superior than everyone else); Accounting (but my students have a personality); Finance and commerce (parasites and sociopaths), or any other number of occupations that seem entitled to dictate what people do and how their value to society is measured.

All gross stereotypes aside, it is important for my students to know that they have valuable skills. These valuable skills are distinguished from those listed above. And just because the occupations ahead might tell them they have no worth to society – for employment or whatever, that they actually do have options about where to head in their future – that they are generating valuable knowledge and extremely worthwhile skills for society.

This semester, I’ve been teaching Oceanography, generally, to a group of Environmental Science students. Teaching at a small regional campus allows me to have my lectures and tutorials in a completely different format to what otherwise would be the case. And this session last Friday, I decided to do something different – aside from teaching them that a shelf is not just something that influences currents, but is also a quiet elf.

Other lecturers such as Lee Skallerup talk about the importance of caring for their students. I’ve written previously about the problems facing us as graduates after university. For mine, they are almost one and the same. I can’t care for my students without looking out for their futures, and what they require. But that doesn’t happen without knowing the drives behind my students, and my students being aware of them. This shaped my latest lecture and tute.

I was sure my students were sick of hearing that their lecturers and whatnot are negative about the budget and the government etc. So before we got started, I asked my students to get into groups of three, and discuss what brought them here – to this unit, to this course, and what about them fundamentally has led them to be doing what they are doing (none of this, it’s a mandatory unit and so on…).

I also asked them to discuss a skill that they have brought, that they can develop at university, which they can use once they leave university.

It was an interesting process. My students are really passionate about what they want, and about why they are doing what they are doing. I have students that want to change what they have done all their working lives, those that wont to make a better world for their kids. Those that want to teach science and environmental issues to students, those that love being outdoors.

What I did not expect was the blank that occurred when I asked the students how they could use their passions into the workforce. I suspect it’s the reverse in the case of the students I’ve lambasted above (no passions but an idea of how to use their skills in employment).

But the fact is, my students do have incredibly valuable skills and knowledge. Many are great with numbers. We need more mathematically inclined people in the workplace. And it really doesn’t matter how you get there. A really good friend of mine and a personal mentor as got into health research through developing skills in ecological statistics.

There are a lot of visual learners in my class. But being science students, I suspect they’re also data interested. I suggested that if this was so, to tailor their studies to GIS and the spatial sciences. You might not be working in an environmental field, but you will likely be working outdoors, with data and in a visual way.

Most of my students are people people. I suggested maybe that they consider teaching. If they’re outdoorsy types, consider youth work or support services. There are ways to use your passions like surfing to do something that is going to utilise your passions, as well as your knowledge and skills that you’ve acquired.

Just because you are doing a science, where people think you are useless, doesn’t mean you are.

We have a problem with valuing intellect and knowledge in Australia. I implored any of my students to look overseas. Go somewhere where you feel wanted, because places overseas do value your skills, your knowledge and your passions. If it wasn’t for personal circumstances, I would be heading overseas to live, myself.

It is important for my students to understand that the small minded society Australia has become, is not a reflection on themselves, or their skills. We shouldn’t be taking societal and employment advice from people who have been given a free tertiary education, only then to be taking a wage directly from the taxpayer. That’s cretinous.

We also shouldn’t be taking employment and education advice from people who measure their worth to society by the amount of tax that they pay/ or don’t pay. Because if we did, there would be no beans for the bean counters to count, no money for financiers to be parasitic of, no ideas for the idea quashers to quash, and no occupations where HR types would be able to feel more secure than.

May 142014
 

Flipping SentencesFlipping SentencesFlipping Sentences

 

Flipping SentencesFlipping SentencesFlipping SentencesFlipping sentences, reversing sentences or writing your introductory sentences as concluding sentences in a paragraph is a common problem I see with my students. Flipping sentences can also occur in the first two sentences of a paragraph. It was also a problem with my own writing before I embarked on my thesis. It wasn’t until I was given feedback by my supervisors that I realised what I was actually doing wrong. I was flipping sentences. Rather than writing good, strong topic sentences, I was hiding these within the paragraph, often as concluding sentences. Doing so leads to vague language, confused paragraphs, and all too often confusing sentences with more than one idea making an unwelcome appearance. Since then I’ve made an effort to discuss with my students how this problem presents itself, and how it can be resolved. Having this problem with my writing pointed out to me and corrected has improved the ease and proficiency of my writing no end. And I’m hoping it will improve your writing as well.

 

The Problem and Cause

Flipping sentences is a legacy from when we are taught to write. The narrative, story telling approach to writing that we develop from a young age encourages us not to write up front – to hide conclusions, to present a mystery to the reader, and only to provide a resolution after all information has been presented (in some cases at least). From this a habit of writing without telling the reader what is actually happening ahead of time, or has happened, can develop.

Academic writing is different. Academic writing demands that we state what we are saying up front. For the most part, we aren’t telling a story; we are telling a factual account or explaining a critical analysis. And it’s this element which students (and myself) have the most trouble in getting their heads around.

It’s not simply a matter of stating conclusions up front. It’s a little more of an art-form than that. And you will find the best, particularly scientific writers, are able to write their topic sentences fluidly – giving you just enough information to know what their thesis or argument is, without giving away the conclusions. But at the same time, giving you enough information to know what the paragraph will be about.

As with everything, changing a writing technique, or knowing how to employ an academic writing technique takes a lot of practice.

With most forms of errors in writing, flipping sentences are hard to self diagnose. But students will often tell me some pointers that indicate they are flipping their sentences, even before I’ve looked at their work.

 

Symptoms

A classic case is being overly reliant on quotes in the topic sentence. I tell my students that I don’t want to see references or quotes in the topic sentence, if it can be helped. There is a place for it, but not in most paragraphs.

I will often hear that students are continually concluding paragraphs with a question. Posing questions as a concluding sentence is a classic example of what is most likely a topic sentence. I don’t like seeing questions written in academic papers – they should be answered, argued and explained. The questions raised should be intuitive, and flow from one paragraph to the next. This issue of leading into another paragraph is especially if they raise a counterpoint.

Another piece of consistent feedback will be that the language is too conversational, vague or non-academic. Often, this feedback is ignored because the student doesn’t know exactly what to do with it, or about how to change it.

For me, I know when I’m flipping sentences when I get feedback such as, “repetition in consecutive sentences”. I don’t notice this myself. When I’m writing I feel as though I’m elucidating subtle differences. But what it actually is, is that I’m not clear enough, active enough and positive enough to state my topic sentence clearly. For me it leads to a lack of succinctness and accuracy in detail which is a great skill to have if you can pull it off.

When flipping sentences between the first and second sentences within a paragraph, it shows a lack of confidence in what is being said. What I have found in my own writing is that I know what it is that I should say in the topic sentence, but I lack the confidence and authority to be able to state it up front. And I notice this with my students as well. I’m often telling my students to have confidence in what they are saying. Sometimes, we should listen to our own advice.

All of these symptoms (and possibly more) are the result of flipping sentences, and can be corrected by employing the use of appropriate topic and concluding sentences.

 

Tips to Improve and Correct Flipping Sentences

As with all things, the most effective way to improve writing is to practice. But there are some ways that I have been able to correct my own writing, and the writing of my students.

It is a little more advanced than simply knowing what a paragraph structure looks like, you must be able recognise what each of the elements does. However, most students do know this and require more corrective instruction, rather than outlines and generic formulas.

The first tip is to eliminate any conjunctions in the first sentence of a paragraph. Words like and, but, or join two parts of a sentence together. In the topic sentences, these words have a tendency to create passive language, confuse the writer, the reader, and often lead to a messy paragraph. By eliminating the conjunctions in the first paragraph, the writer is likely to say what the paragraph is actually about, and then explain appropriately from there.

A tip to tackle this problem is to reformulate the topic sentence.  By reading out loud, you will begin to eliminate extraneous words, shorten sentences and write how it should be read.

If you feel it necessary to have a conjunction in the first sentence, first consider if the second topic is worthy of another paragraph, and then link them – rather than potentially messing up one clear paragraph.

Avoid vague descriptors in paragraphs, but especially in the topic sentence! Words like very, many, most, some will lead to passive language. These words can point to something important, so back it up with statistics or a reference – be forceful and active by taking out these words. If it requires further specification, move it to the second or supporting sentence and write another topic sentence introducing the topic of the statistic.

Remove references and quotes from first sentences. On occasions, using references and quotes can work in a topic sentence. But generally, as a marker, I want to see that students can explain the concept, topic or element of the work in their own words. Referencing and quoting detracts from that. When I’m under time constraints to mark and grade papers, if a student has placed quotes and references in each of their topic sentences, immediately I’m looking to place their grade in the middle of the pack.

And what to do with posing questions in an essay, especially as concluding sentences in a paragraph? There are multiple ways this issue can be tackled and corrected. The question rewritten as a solution can be used as the next paragraph’s topic sentence. The question, rewritten as a problem can be used as that paragraph’s topic sentence. And it can be stated as such. If you feel a question needs to be raised, it’s often a signal that the topic hasn’t been clearly explained, it lacks detail, or it hasn’t been fully argued.

Academic writing is a process of presenting, critiquing and arguing. Once a student is into the body of their work, questions raised should almost become intuitive to the reader. It’s fantastic when I’m reading a journal article, or book, and I think, “But what about this?” And without even posing the question, the author is able to tackle the question; the points raised or further explain. It is a hard skill to achieve, but when I see students that have been able to master this art, I do feel as if they “get it”.

I’ll write in upcoming addition about tips to produce high quality introductions. In that, I state there should be a justification for what it is that is being done. If a question is to be raised, it should be in there. Different pieces of work are different, but most undergraduate assessment pieces should follow that structure.

Answers, explanations, critiques and premises of that question are then expected to be unpacked through the assessment. If a student has a persistent problem with posing questions throughout the work, I would suggest listing these questions at the beginning of the paper, and analysing which are most beneficial to be stated there, as a way of shaping and structuring the paper.

Repetition, my own writing problem when flipping sentences, is solved by a drill that I work out. I delete the first two sentences of a paragraph that contain repetition, and I write one. Sometimes it is necessary then to rewrite the paragraph, but so be it. It makes my paragraphs more concise, succinct, to the point, active and confident. These are all things that I want to be aiming for when I write, and when I’m trying to eliminate flipping sentences.

What have you found helpful when rewriting topic sentences? What symptoms do you notice in your writing when you experience some of these symptoms? Let me know, and I’ll lend some assistance in the next writing tips post.

May 122014
 

 

PrecariatRecently I wrote about my experience in the Precariat, and it seemed to generate a lot of interest and some discussion away from the blog. It appears to speak to a narrative which is quite hard to navigate, and is fraught with racist and xenophobic undertones which threaten to hide legitimate issues requiring discussion. It just so happens that after expressing my opinion of the 457 Visa system as being a rort, and scammed by many employers, that in the last week or so, an alleged organised crime racket has been exposed for allegedly abusing 457 workers. This unfortunately for the 457 workers involved, puts them in an extremely precarious position – the worst kind of Precariat situation imaginable.

 

As I have discovered recently through some twitter debates, the issue gets quite heated, and responses to insecure work in Australia can quickly degenerate and appeal to racist elements in the community. One such representation of this is recent union advertising, pointing out that 457 workers “took our jobs” and that these jobs belong to “us”. Despite the fact that unions do help uncover 457 visa abuses, and help 457 obtain better working conditions and entitlements, this is an unwelcome response to an issue that is tricky enough to navigate as it is.

 

Language such as “us” and “them” when talking about foreign workers, immigrants and so on is inherently xenophobic. Australia has a pretty horrible history with such language and policy responses, going back to mining days in the early goldfields, Asian immigration in the north of Australia and the response with the White Australia Policy.

 

What is missing, and what was pointed out by others in the debate, is worker solidarity. In a globalised world, insecure employment is an issue impacting upon young workers almost everywhere in the developed and undeveloped world. And the response must be global. The issues facing young workers in Australia are undoubtedly faced by the workers coming to Australia on 457 visas in their own economies. But it makes no sense to create more problems in other countries – the movement of skilled labour internationally is a huge false economy and a massive cost faced by the host social systems and structures, not borne by the corporations that create them.

 

Those who were a part of the conversation that lead to this post were quite right in arguing that the correct response should be to improve the working conditions, pay rates and improved employment across the board in the host countries.

 

It is the lack of accountability on companies and businesses which leads to inappropriate employment practices and the lack of up-skilling of workers in developed countries, right around the world.

 

It is precisely because companies do not have to provide adequate pay, conditions and training that enable 457 Visa rorts. If companies were only allowed to work 457 visa holders to 40 hours a week, at the market rate of pay, the incentive to employ, train and invest in local workers is increased. In my opinion, it is only because of these factors that make 457 workers attractive to employers. For every worker on a 457, there is probably another half a full time job that they are doing, that could be done by someone else. This is not an acceptable situation. We do not have full employment and we have an alarming increase in our youth unemployment. These problems could be addressed with increased training and investment by companies.

 

The other issue is the abuse of the sponsorship and visa provisions. Unions, and I think everyone should argue that is employed on an ongoing basis should be given something akin to permanent residency. The fact that the employer holds the employees citizenship rights, is a naturally abusive power imbalance. The power imbalance is what undoubtedly leads to worker abuse and the sort of practice I explained in the previous post. I don’t think 457 workers would be prepared to lie in legal documents if they knew they could go elsewhere. As it is, employers can force 457 workers to sign documents wrongfully showing their working hours. An unwillingness to sign such a document, or to work illegal, exploitative and abusive hours is likely to see a dismissal and deportation.

 

By ensuring that all workers have appropriate rights to stay in Australia means that employers will have to ensure that they are well looked after and remunerated. I’m sure many companies who struggle to attract and retain Australian workers face their shortages because they are such poor places to work. If their 457 workforce were to be able to leave, it would ensure that their employment practices are appropriate – otherwise their shortages would continue. The 457 process hides failings within the employment practice that are unwilling to be addressed by the companies. Ironic, given the reasons many companies give to hiring foreign workers – laziness, incompetence, lack of skills etc of Australian workers.

 

Thanks to an earlier discussion, there is a way forward on this issue that can positively impact change that is not xenophobic or racist. Tactics employed by the unions in this area are counterproductive and as so often with the union movement, tarnish the good things that unions do. The focus should move to improving conditions for all workers, changing the working residency status for workers and improving employment and up skilling practices. Not only would this be better for 457 workers, but also increase the chances of Australians attaining work, and a more skilful, harmonious and loyal workforce.

May 082014
 

TurnitinTurnitin is the bane of many student’s and lecturer’s existence. But I am in the camp where Turnitin is one of the best advances in technology in academia since I became a University student. I am all for using technology to assist with writing. And used correctly, Turnitin is an extremely useful tool for improving the standard of written work. Turnitin is extremely useful as a teaching, correction and writing coaching tool. Primarily, Turnitin is a plagiarism detection tool and method for assigning marks and correcting work. However, it is most effective in its instruction and self correction abilities.

Turnitin does have its flaws which do irritate students and those marking – the classic being the assignment cover sheet reading as a plagiarised section. The similarity report (the overall “plagiarism” percentage) will also depend upon the order in which the assessment was submitted. Students submitting their work last will read higher in their similarity index as references and so on will be found as a false positive in colluding work between students.

What is more important than these overall numbers is the way in which these statistics appear within the student’s assignment. If a quote is not properly referenced, it will be picked up and highlighted by Turnitin. Incorrect paraphrasing will also be picked up by Turnitin. And it is this feature that highlights incorrectly paraphrased and quoted material, which is the best use of the Turnitin technology. It is the easiest and most effective way for improving a student’s writing standards.

Paraphrasing is a notoriously hard skill to teach and for students to master. Using Turnitin, it is the first thing I look for when assessing a student’s work. It is the easiest way for me to decide whether a student has fully grasped and understood the concepts and context at hand. How Turnitin highlights sentences within the document shows me whether or not a student is able to use their own voice in relation to the topic and questions at hand.

Turnitin makes it easy for a marker to identify consistent faults in paraphrasing, referencing and quoting work in the assignment. Once you have identified consistencies in the problems, it is simple to provide quick, effective feedback that is instructive to the student, and will have a lasting impact on their future submissions. The feedback is not vague or general – it is tangible. The student is able to see the highlighted portion, and the marker’s feedback in relation to it.

That is the instructional use and value of Turnitin. Students can also get value in learning to self correct work before the submit it. Turnitin is a great tool for students to use to check first drafts before submission. My advice to students is to submit their draft to Turnitin before the due date (Turnitin allows multiple submissions before the due date) to make basic error corrections, to check for referencing errors and to make sure paraphrasing mistakes have not been made. These will show up to students as they would for the markers, allowing the student to correct and change incorrectly paraphrased sentences.

The visual nature of the feedback given by Turnitin also assists students in understanding when they are relying too heavily on quotes, or on one particular source. If they are continually quoting from one author or source, the colours will show up in their work as similar. This is a great way of being able to evaluate one’s own work when submitting. You can quickly assess whether there is a good spread of references, or if you are relying for your argument on only one or few sources.

Turnitin has become so valuable for my students and my own marking that I’ve actually begun to use it to alter, edit and revise some of my own work. Not only is it useful for the student and lecturer/ marker, but I think it also provides potential value for the academic and author. Often when you are reading on one topic, referencing can become sloppy and paraphrasing problematic. Turnitin offers a way to deal with this before any unintended surprises through innocent mistakes. As technology improves and no doubt journals begin to use basic electronic scanning software to pick up mistakes, I think it is probably wise to use software and programmes like Turnitin to help analyse first drafts and pick up basic mistakes that might otherwise be missed.

As an experiment I decided to put a draft of the main chapter in my thesis through the Turnitin check (you can see this in the image for this article). Surprisingly, it did very well. I was actually expecting it to pick up my thesis somewhere on the internet, but it did not. It came out at 22% similar, a little high for my liking. However, this is largely due to it picking up a rather large reference list. Some 122 sources were identified, with five at 1% and the rest at <1%. And that is more important than the overall figure. Scanning the document reveals to me that the five sources at 1% are due to the same direct quotes being picked up in other assessments around the world. I am happy with this. There are no paraphrasing mistakes and no one source is standing out to me as overused.

Plagiarism prevention, marking and assessment organisation is really the backbone of the Turnitin software. But, it is actually most effective when used in conjunction with instructional and coaching assistance. The marker is able to focus on a student’s consistent errors in structure, referencing and paraphrasing mistakes. But the student also gets a visual representation and visual feedback that can be used in conjunction with assessment feedback, in order to self correct and improve writing into the future. I am convinced that software like Turnitin can also be effectively used for improving the standard and reduce the risk of potential problems for academics and researchers alike.