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Teaching Toolbox

WRITING IT RIGHT

By Thomas K. Grose

Every year, engineering academics from around the country submit, on average, around 1,700 academic papers for presentation at the American Society for Engineering Education's annual conference. Engineering professors realize that a necessary step on the road to tenure is getting scholarly papers published by peer associations. Historically, the ASEE annual conference accepts about 1,200 of those submissions, or about 70 percent. That's a good-size window of opportunity, but it still means that hundreds of authors are rebuffed, and no one wants his or her paper to land in the reject pile. So, to help improve your chances, here are some tips—culled from a quartet of engineering educators who are widely regarded as writing whizzes—for composing a successful ASEE conference paper.

Know thy readers. That's a cardinal rule that Lester Gerhardt, associate dean of engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, says can't be emphasized enough. The most scintillating finding in the world will cause a giant yawn if it's presented to the wrong audience. So when it comes to writing for an ASEE conference, “that means (writing about) something to do with engineering education,” says John W. Prados, professor emeritus of chemical engineering at the University of Tennessee- Knoxville and a past editor of the Journal of Engineering Education. And consider, too, the demographics of the society. Because ASEE is an interdisciplinary group, its membership comprises not only academics from engineering's various disciplines but from different types of schools. Notes Gerhardt: “You're really dealing with a very diverse audience . . . a very special kind of audience.” And writing for such a mixed lot is a harder task than writing for a specialized group because you can't fall back on the vernacular and implied references that everyone else in your field knows.

Ensure your subject has not been written about before. “Do a search of the literature,” Prados advises. If your topic is unique, then go ahead. If it's been covered before, make sure that you are updating or expanding the dialogue. For example, suppose an original paper discussed a teaching method that worked well at a small, private engineering school. You might expand on that by writing about how well it worked at a large, land-grant university. As Richard Felder, a professor emeritus of chemical engineering at North Carolina State University, says, ask yourself if your topic is interesting to anyone outside your school, and whether your findings have application elsewhere. “There must be an element of interest for people at other institutions.” Once you're sure that your topic is right for ASEE, then indulge in tunnel vision. “Focus on one, and only one, message in your paper and stick to it,” suggests Jack Lohmann, editor of the Journal of Engineering Education, and associate provost at Georgia Tech. Avoid the temptation to detail “serendipitous events,” he says. “They are not nearly as interesting and informative to the readers as you think.” They can also mask your message and confuse readers. “Basically,” he adds, “keep to the point, and make sure your scholarship is sound.”

Prados says when it comes to writing about engineering education, too many academics become “fairly sloppy,” presenting conclusions they would eschew in a technical paper. There is a tendency to state opinion, not fact. Phrases akin to “it felt good” or “the students seemed to like it” act as signposts warning of weak scholarship ahead. A reliance on opinion unsupported by verifiable data is the main reason papers are rejected, Prados says. It's not enough to say a teaching method worked because it appeared popular with students. You need objective, measurable evidence of its success.

Before setting pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard, give a few thoughts to organizing your paper. Prados suggests this basic structure: An introduction that states your topic and why it is important to the audience. Next, offer background material to put it into context, citing the literature and what's already been tried. Then list your objectives and how or if they were met. Tell what you discovered, how it helped students learn, and the value it will add to the education process, including its significance beyond your own classroom. And don't forget: Failure is often fodder for illumination. Papers based on programs that didn't pan out or experiments that didn't meet objectives can be useful, especially if they're based on reasonable assumptions others seem likely to try, Felder says. But you must be able to clearly state and prove why there was a failure, and the lessons that can be drawn from it.

GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS

Next comes the part that some authors dread and others enjoy: the actual writing. When it comes to writing, there are many ways of doing it. Much like driving a car, the basic mechanics vary little, but the methods you choose to implement them offer plenty of room for individual preference. Some people like to write in one sitting, using a stream-of-consciousness approach. Others work in short bursts of activity, punctuated by long breaks. Notes Felder: “Different people have different strategies. It's a matter of figuring out which works best for you.” That said, our team of experts agree that writers shouldn't get too hung up on trying to make the first draft sing. Paragraphs can be moved, sentences chopped, words replaced, syntax unscrambled, grammar fixed, and spelling corrected during the revision process. “Just write without censoring yourself,” Felder says.

If the mantra of real-estate agents is, “location, location, location,” the mantra of writers is, “revision, revision, revision.” Says Lohmann: “Edit drafts ruthlessly.” Prados calls revising writing's “most critical step.” And its aim, he says, is conciseness (see sidebar). “Omit needless words. Papers often use a lot of verbiage and meaningless terms like, ‘the fact that.'” The result, he says, is too many academic papers that are boring to read. “They're a good anti-insomnia device.” Your strategy should be to keep your readers awake, not to prove how erudite you are. And a good way to ensure their wakefulness is a text that's precise and concise. Lohmann says, “Make every word count. Your message will become more muddled the more words you use imprecisely or unnecessarily.” Adds Prados: “Each sentence should say something significant.”

Lohmann suggests at least two reviews for every draft. First, read for overall comprehension. Next, read for scholarly clarity and precision. “Read each sentence word by word, with the goal of eliminating unnecessary words, clarifying imprecise language, reigning in statements that go beyond the facts...and maintaining consistent usage of terminology.” It's also a good idea to put your paper away for a time between drafts so that each time you read it, it's with fresh eyes. And just because ASEE does not set a limit on length, that's not an invitation to go long. Prados says the best papers are usually five to seven pages of text. There are, of course, exceptions. But usually, he adds, brevity is a useful snooze control.

And avoid jargon as you would clichés. Jargon's a useful shorthand when communicating with colleagues within your discipline, but most of your ASEE readers toil in different fields. Concepts in engineering education are not highly technical, Prados says, “so there is nothing you need to say that can't be put into plain English.” Write as if you were addressing a lay audience.

Finally, Felder says, “Don't let the reviewer be the first to critique your paper. Beg, bribe, or threaten colleagues to critique it for you.” And tell them to be nitpicky and tough, he adds. Then revise accordingly. Chances are, most of their critiques will be consistent. If there are contradictory suggestions, use common sense to sort them out.

Common sense should also motivate you to write a clear, concise, precise paper with a quality reflecting a command of the English language, Gerhardt says. All the time and effort you put into a project, program, or experiment “deserves all the time it takes to communicate it effectively.” Yes, he understands why busy academics may feel that it's more important to put all their effort into research. They're busy people; so when it comes to writing, if the English isn't quite right, some may say, “So what? The work's important, so the readers will figure it out.” But the trouble is, they might not. Or they won't bother to try. And if that's the case, Gerhardt argues, “what then becomes the purpose of the paper?”

 

Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
He can be reached at tgrose@asee.org.

Lester Gerhardt, associate dean of engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, John W. Prados, past editor of the Journal of Engineering Education, and Jack Lohmann, the current editor, will be offering a workshop on how to write, review,and present a paper at ASEE's annual conference in Salt Lake City in June.

 
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