If a Tree Falls . . . This Instructor Is Making a Sound!

Photo of rows of hardbound academic theses on library shelves.

Bound theses on a library shelf. (Courtesy of Ricardo Sosa on Flickr. License CC BY-NC.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

“If someone does science in a forest, but doesn’t make a sound, did science actually happen?” Professor Michael Short poses this philosophical conundrum to his students in 22.THT Undergraduate Thesis Tutorial.

The students are bewildered. What’s he talking about?

Short’s point, which he shares in his Instructor Insights on his This Course at MIT page, is simple:

“If an individual discovers a law of nature, but doesn’t communicate it, that information dies with the individual and it returns to the domain of nature—it doesn’t become part of science. Science is equal parts careful discovery of the laws of nature and effective communication. They’re inseparable. Without either component, understanding does not advance.”

So, in Short’s view, it behooves every science department to recognize the need to teach effective communication and to set about doing so in a serious manner. This means more than having students talk to an instructor about a paper a couple of times during a semester. And it means recognizing that teaching effective scientific writing takes real expertise. This is why Short meets with his tutorial students once each week for an entire semester, and why he teams up with MIT librarian Christine Sherratt and MIT writing instructor Jane Kokernak to help students understand the necessary science,  find relevant literature, and develop rhetorical skill.

Short’s tutorial ranges beyond the ideas and text of the thesis itself. He insists that students not only develop a detailed research agenda, but also an elevator pitch that encapsulates the key ideas of their work:

“Not being able to succinctly describe your research agenda and its relevance is a problem, because if you can’t express these things succinctly, no one is going to listen…”

Getting people to pay attention requires a clear conception of an audience, and for Short this conception shapes everything in the thesis, from the citations…

“…writing for a particular audience is of central importance because it shapes the content of the paper, including the paper’s citations. Most students tend to assume that their readers understand what they’re writing about (which is not necessarily true) and, as a result, they don’t cite sources extensively enough. And then some of them cite sources too extensively.”

…to the testable hypothesis:

“Just as we expect our students to know their audiences, we, as educators, should know our own audiences and realize that this particular aspect of science communication needs to be actively taught to the novice scientists in our classrooms.”

The course site includes style guides, templates, assignments, and examples of both student prospectuses and theses, so you can see how science can happen in a forest (if a researcher writes about it), and other places too!

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