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Dec 06 2007

Reflections on writing the posts on evolution and the law

When I started out to write the series of posts on evolution and the law, I originally intended it to be about ten posts in all, divided roughly equally between the Scopes trial, the Dover trial, and the period of legal evolution in between them. As those readers who have stayed with the series are painfully aware, the subject matter carried me away and the final result is much longer.

Part of the reason is that I always intend my blog posts to have some useful and reliable information and not just be speculative rants (though those can be fun), which meant that I needed to research the subject. Fortunately, I love the subject of constitutional law because it as a spin-off of my interest in how one creates a just society. If one traces people’s constitutional protections to their source, they tend to be rooted in questions about power and control, the nature of liberty, about who gets to make decisions that govern all of us, and what constraints we impose on them.

As I started to research the subject more deeply, I became fascinated at the interplay of political, social, and religious factors surrounding the question of the role of public schools in a democratic society is and how we decide what should be taught in them. I could see that the legal history involved in the teaching of evolution in public schools was more complicated and fascinating than I had originally conceived.

I had two choices. I could close off some avenues of discussion and stick only to the main points. That would be like driving to some destination while sticking just to the highway in order for maximum speed. Or I could take some detours off the beaten track, to get a better flavor of the country I was passing through. I felt that the former option, while making for quicker reading, would result in posts that were a little too glib and not have enough supporting evidence for some of my assertions.

So I chose the latter option, feeling confident that those who read this blog tend to be those who are looking for at least some substantiation of arguments even if they disagree with my views.

The way these posts grew made me reflect on my philosophy of teaching as well. In my seminar courses, students have to write research papers on some topic. Usually a course requires two five-page papers and a final ten-page paper. Students have been through this drill of writing papers many times in many courses and they usually find that they do not have enough to say and struggle to fill what they see as a quota. They use some time-tested techniques: wide margins, large fonts and spacing, and when those things have reached their limit, unnecessary verbiage. Superfluous words and phrases are inserted, ideas are repeated, pointless examples and non sequitur arguments are brought in, and so forth.

The reason for this is that in most cases students are writing about things that they do not really care about and are just going through the motions to meet someone else’s needs, not their own. The result is painful for both the student (who has to construct all this padding without it being too obvious that that is what it is) and for the instructor (who has to cut through all the clutter to find out what the author is really trying to say). It is largely a waste of time for both, and often unpleasant to boot.

To help overcome this problem, I give my students as much freedom as possible to choose a research topic within the constraints of the overall course subject matter. I tell students that the most important thing they will do in the course is choose a topic that they care passionately about and want to learn more about. Once they do that, and start investigating and researching such a subject, it is almost inevitable that they will get drawn in deeper and deeper, like I was with evolution and the law.

Once they are on that road, the problem is not how to fill the required number of pages but how to cut it down so that you don’t exceed the page limits by too much. This has the added bonus of teaching students how to edit to tighten their prose, to use more judicious language, and to only keep those things that are essential to making their case.

The passion for the subject and the desire to know more about it is what makes genuine researchers carry out difficult and sometimes tedious tasks, because they really care about learning more.

The way this series of posts has grown is an example of this phenomenon at work. Because it is a blog without length restrictions, I have been able to indulge myself a bit. But if I had to restrict the length because of publication needs, then I would go back and do some serious pruning.

POST SCRIPT: The bullet trick

Penn and Teller do another of their famous tricks.

3 comments

  1. 1
    Nicole Sharp

    Students have been through this drill of writing papers many times in many courses and they usually find that they do not have enough to say and struggle to fill what they see as a quota.

    It’s kind of funny to see you say that because that was usually the opposite of the problem I would have in writing papers, in part because I would do so much research before writing that I really had to prune down what I wanted to address.

    Usually when I was tutoring students, I had to help them identify places where they were repeating themselves unnecessarily and point out places where they could elaborate on an interesting point instead. The result was invariably a much stronger paper than the one that they brought in initially. The best moments were when you were able to find a gem in the draft that the student really was interested in and encourage them to pursue that further in the paper.

  2. 2
    Mano

    Nicole,

    I agree that if, like you, people do a lot of research, the problem is too much stuff. The question is what makes people want to do extensive research. Research is painful if you don’t care about really learning more and in depth about the topic.

  3. 3
    Nicole Sharp

    Mano,

    Oddly enough, my motivation for doing extensive research was usually not so much that I had a great interest as my feeling that I needed to do a substantial amount of looking into the subject before I felt informed enough to form a reasonable opinion and construct my argument. I suspect that’s a result of the methodology taught to me in high school by my teachers–especially my 11th grade history teacher.

    Pursuing things further, though, it was probably my interest in learning (just for the sake of learning, sometimes) that motivated me to put in that kind of effort. That, obviously, won’t work for everyone, so, as you say, we get back to the importance of writing/researching things that are interesting to you.

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