Ways of stating the obvious

By Gordon Rugg

Stating the obvious is an activity unlikely to win you many friends, or to influence many people in a direction that you would like. However, sometimes you have to do it.

So, why do you sometimes have to state the obvious, and how can you turn this problem to advantage? That’s the topic of this post. I’ll use the worked example of risks, both obvious and less obvious. (Reassuring note: I don’t go into scary details…)

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Making the most of bad bibliographic references

By Gordon Rugg

Sometimes, you have to make the best of what you have, even if it isn’t great.

In the case of cookery, there’s a legend that Chicken Marengo was created when Napoleon’s cook had to produce a meal out of whatever he had been able to scavenge in the aftermath of the battle of that name; the result is one of the few recipes that combines chicken with crayfish.

In the case of academic life, there’s an all-too-common reality where you are trying to write something, and all you have in the way of references for one section is a stub from Wikipedia, plus an article from a newspaper which claimed in the same issue that Elvis had been sighted piloting a UFO in Spokane.

So, what can you do when you’re faced with this situation? Is there any way of salvaging something from the debris?

The answer is that you can indeed salvage something, and even emerge in a position of strength, provided that you handle it the right way, and that you don’t push your luck.

How you do that is the topic of today’s article.

A dish fit for a future emperor (ingredients not to scale, and without the parsley…)bannerSources for original images are at the end of this article.

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Are writing skills transferable?

By Gordon Rugg

The short answer is: “Not really”.

The reasons for this answer take us through the literature on expertise, and through some little-known byways of history, including Caesar shouting “Squirrel!” and the strange case of the mesmerised trees.

Those byways should be a lot better known, because they have deep implications for education policy in theory and practice. This article unpacks the issues involved, and some of the implications.

Caesar, a squirrel, a tree, and Mesmerheader pictureImages from Wikipedia and Wikimedia – details at the end of this article

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The studied subtexts of academic insults

By Gordon Rugg

The academic insult at its best is a highly sophisticated art form with a long, rich history.

A classic example comes from one of my heroes, Thucydides the Athenian, in his History of the Peloponnesian War. That war between Sparta and Athens took place two and a half thousand years ago. He fought in it, and he wrote its history. He was brilliant by anyone’s standards, and the studied impartiality of his writing is remarkable even by the most rigorous modern standards. Here’s what he had to say about what people’s knowledge of contemporary history.

There are many other unfounded ideas current among the rest of the Hellenes, even on matters of contemporary history, which have not been obscured by time. For instance, there is the notion that the Lacedaemonian kings have two votes each, the fact being that they have only one; and that there is a company of Pitane, there being simply no such thing. So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand.

It looks like a rant from a grumpy old man just before he yells at some kids to get off his lawn. In fact, it’s an elegant, cutting, multi-level take-down that’s on a par with what the best modern academics can offer.

This article is about the serious, constructive subtexts beneath academic insults, and about what those subtexts say about the nature of research.

Long after the war: Scenes from Sparta and Athens today

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Images from Wikipedia

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From boilerplate to pixy dust: Useful writing tips for stressed students

By Gordon Rugg

There’s plenty of guidance and advice available if you’re a professional who is wrestling with writer’s block, or who wants to know which sections a psychology journal paper should contain, or who is idly wondering whether the colon they’ve just typed should be followed by uppercase or lowercase.

It’s harder to find guidance if you’re an ordinary mortal facing problems like:

  • I’m trying to finish this essay but it’s 4 am and my brain’s frazzled and I want to cry
  • Why do I keep getting low marks even though I write lots of relevant stuff?
  • Is this good enough to get a decent mark?
  • Is this good enough to even scrape a pass?
  • Will I manage to finish this wretched thing by the deadline?

This article provides some help for stressed-out human beings in those situations.

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Academic writing and fairy tales

By Gordon Rugg

It’s spring. To some people, it’s a time of flowers and buds and growth and new hope. To other people, it’s the time when they’re trying to write their undergraduate dissertation, and are feeling lost and confused.

This article is intended for people who are grappling with academic writing, and who are having trouble working out what the core concepts are. It has elements of humour in it, but the underlying point is completely serious. It’s about the deep structure and the internal logic of academic writing. Most people are unfamiliar with those two topics in the academic context, but they’re very familiar with them in a different context, which is the core of this article. That context is the fairy tale.

This article goes through the key stages of an academic article, mapping them onto the corresponding stages of a fairy tale, and explaining the underlying logic behind them.

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