Thursday, May 28, 2020

Writing During The COVID-19 Pandemic, by Don Orth

Stay healthy and learn something during the pandemic! That’s been my credo since COVID-19 sent me home March 7th. I created a nearly impossible writing schedule, and then realized I budgeted no time for reading, research, responding to survey requests, writing letters of reference, many rounds of editing, interruptions, zoom meetings, and finding my copy of that article or book I know possesses the wisdom I lack. In this post I follow the advice of Yoda “Pass on what you have learned.” It's been 10 weeks of stay-at-home, so I must have learned something that may help at least one writer. 

Highly erratic writing is my style. I tell my students to just finish the first shitty draft. I don’t like my shitty writing. And I hate to read the first shitty draft of a student writer. Yet "Write the shitty first draft" is Rule One.  Fear perfection — it is your enemy.  “Named must be your fear before you banish it you can.” — Yoda.  Only after you have some sentences can you get on with clarifying, organizing, polishing, and trimming.  

In graduate school and my early days as Assistant Professor, I wrote with a pencil on lined paper. Shitty it was.  “The greatest teacher, failure is.” — Yoda.   You may never get a manuscript ready to share with others if you do not first write that shitty draft.  Before I ever attempted to type up a draft for someone else to read and edit, my lined paper was all marked up with carets, circled phrases, arrows, insertions, strike throughs and erasures. Only then did I attempt to sit at a typewriter and compose the draft. A double-spaced draft meant the shitty draft could at last be read and edited by someone.
IBM Selectric typewriter. Photo by Oliver Kurmis.  CC Y 2.5. 
I learned later that Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994), wrote that “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.”  I still chuckle thinking about her phrase, “fantasy of the uninitiated,” when I hear a graduate student say “Everything for my thesis is done, except for writing it up.”

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” 
― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

The last phrase has stayed with me — I often tell myself “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”  How many revisions are needed? Don’t worry about it.  Just focus on one sentence and then one paragraph at a time.  In the graph below I plot the word count against the version number for a manuscript currently in review. I wrote the first shitty draft (version 1) in January 2018! Maybe the 31st version will be acceptable for publication.
Plot of word count for thirty one versions of one manuscript awaiting reviews. 
Today, I am not as fond of the pencil and lined paper. And haven’t typed on an IBM Selectric in almost 40 years.  My high school typing teacher will always be remembered for shouting “Ready! Type!” to signal the start of timed typing. We would type furiously “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”  This sentence is undoubtedly the best-known pangram. It contains all 26 letters of the alphabet (as it must do in order to be a pangram) and is 35 letters long. Students today have no clue when I rattle off this sentence. I know there are alternatives, but I never in my life typed  "Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs." another panogram.

I am sad to learn that typing teachers were replaced by Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing and other computer software. Typing courses were provided by typewriter manufacturers like Remington over 100 years ago, in an effort to establish the typewriters status as an essential technological aid in business.  I eventually learned to compose at the typewriter, a skill that has served me well when keyboards replaced typewriters.  “A typewriter is a means of transcribing thought, not expressing it.” — Marshall McLuhan.  I will record a lecture soon for a summer class and I needed to transcribe my thoughts on the subject (5,681 words pithing 24 hours) because I cannot speak on the subject extemporaneously. 

As I tap these words out on my iPad’s keyboard app, I use two fingers. I never mastered the thumb typing required by modern “smart” phones. Or the iTap or T9 predictive text technologies for mobile phones. I still use the old multi-tap on my flip phone.  I also resent Outlook when it suggests how to complete my sentences. I’m sure I could write more per day if I learned to accept these suggestions.  Go ahead, call me a luddite! We all adopt new technologies at our own pace.

Writers block. “Happens to every guy sometimes this does” — Yoda.    Photo
What I am learning during my stay-at-home time? Uninterrupted by on-campus meetings and drop ins, I can produce upwards of 5,000 words per day.  However, I’m still not sure how to measure time required to create meaningful, polished prose and I won’t use daily word counts to measure my work productivity. Apparently certain famous writers, such as Michael Crichton, writes 10,000 words per day.  That just makes me feel inadequate.  😖  I am also easily distracted by social media. The latest Ray Stevens song interrupted my daily writing recently — “I stay at home. Shelter in place. Social distance, don’t go work.  I wear a mask, gloves, and stay away from church.”  For a distraction, listen to Quarantine.  And, of course, I had to share the “I will survive” parody by History Professor Mark Bruening, Missouri University of Science and Technology, with all my friends and followers. Whenever I have any self-doubt, I now sing “As long as I know how to zoom I know I’ll be alive.” Thanks to Professor Bruening!

It was easier with pencil, lined papers, and a typewriter, but harder to do a word count. It was a world that I had some control over.  As author Joan Didion wrote “I’m totally in control of this tiny, tiny world right there at the typewriter.” There were no incessant notifications from Outlook, Twitter, Facebook, New York Times, Washington Post, and...well, you get the idea. The process of stopping writing to look up a word in the dictionary slowed me down to think about definitions, synonyms, and word choice.  I will keep my preferred technology even as I long to be a slow professor and rail against the corporatized academy.  

Among the many books I cannot quickly locate on my shelves is How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing, by Paul J. Silvia.  He wrote about excuses, bad habits, and barriers to productive writing. I am sure I assimilated something from this book and passed it on to someone struggling to write more. “I can’t find time to write.” and “I need large blocks of time to write.” are two common complaints. I use these frequently. If I ever return to campus, I will use them both.
Pencil and paper are low tech and easily sharpened and updated.  CC 0
The following is my humble advice learned from years of trying to overcome the imposter syndrome as a writer.

People who write a lot make a schedule and stick to it.
Write the shitty first draft.
Fear is the path to the dark side. -- Yoda
Stay off social media and TV.
Sleep some more.
Set goals and measure writing progress somehow.   

Consider the sage advice from Anne Lamott “But how?" my students ask. "How do you actually do it?" You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down at, say, nine every morning, or ten every night. You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on the computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the ceiling, and over at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again. Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind -- a scene, a locale, a character, whatever -- and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind.” ― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Pandemic Online Ichthyology Teaching, by Don Orth

Teaching Ichthyology online was never imaginable nor desirable. Lab periods in Ichthyology were typically a chance for students to get hands-on training in anatomy, dissections, and identification of many fish orders, families, genera, and species.  Field trips provide access to live unknown specimens in their natural habitats.  Without these options, Ichthyology instruction had to adapt to a virtual world. Two teaching strategies persisted in the pivot to online teaching— the concept of mere belonging and the student notebook. 

When students engage in synchronous behavior and/ or feel connected to others in some way, its easier to complete learning tasks. While this may appear to be an unreachable challenge when teaching online.  Students no longer shared the experience of working over smelly, long preserved fish specimens. Classroom Jeopardy sessions were difficult to organize. Mere belonging was achieved by assigning students work (reviewing fish identifications, peer reviewing essays)  to pairs or groups to complete assignments. Further, student's mastery work during lab periods were shared in Flickr and/or Facebook groups. In this and other ways social connections were maintained. Field trips were replaced with virtual field trips and students still worked together to check field identifications. Finally, in lieu of group photos in the field, students shared personal photos so a collage could be created.
Students may never encounter an arapaima in lab or a local field trip.  This close-up photo of Arapaima sp., taken at Shedd Aquarium in 2019, does provide a study in mouth shape. Photo:  D.J. Orth 
The Lab Notebook is one well accepted, long standing, and low tech learning method. Sketching what is observed and writing observations is how we have always made sense of the world. It is an essential skill of the scientists. Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz told his students “a pencil is one of the best of eyes.” While high tech tools, photography, CT scans, 3d models, and other visualization tools provide more information, the Student’s Notebook depends on students observing and sketching with a virtual fish specimen collection.  Drawing also enhances a student's memory (Fernandez et al. 2018). Each day’s observations were recorded, reviewed, corrected, and built upon. When moving to field work, the scientist uses a Field Notebook to organize observations, sketches, and data, and skills learned will transfer. Scientists have always used raw, observable data to infer patterns, over space and time, to generate  hypotheses.  Online learning activities required Ichthyology students to engage in these authentic tasks.
Sample page of Lab Notebook by Ichthyology student, Jaimee Dolan. Source. 
In February while still teaching in face-to-face mode, we had Shark Day for one lab. Learning objectives were to (1) Become familiar with the diversity of sharks, skates, and rays, (2) identify sharks, skates, and rays to family or species (as appropriate) with a variety of approaches, and (3) identify difficulties in studying sharks, skates, and rays. Our museum collection of sharks, skates, and rays is very limited.  Consequently we reviewed the Shark Pulse website, presented by Francesco Ferretti, and identified sharks, skates, and rays from models, specimens, and photographs.  In SharkPulse, students could view sharks photographed in all parts of the world. Together, they could work to determine appropriate identities. 
Students enrolled in Ichthyology in spring 2020 during pandemic online teaching. 
At the end of the Lab session, each student presented one shark, skate, or ray in a "sharks I know well" series to teach other students.  In a short presentation, each student provided the best diagnostic characters to identify to family, genus, or species.   In the process, we also addressed many of the difficulties in identification of Chondrichthyes specimens under authentic conditions.  For example, there are color variants, juvenile and adult differences, lack of detail in photographs, and in fish markets sometimes only the shark fin is available for making an identification.  In that case, iSharkFin provides expert advice in identifying species from shark fin shapes alone.

After all classes shifted to remote, online instruction we adapted this model for learning freshwater fishes.  By the end of the semester, the students identified 45 specimens collected virtually from different drainages of Virginia.  Students were provided with photos of fish specimens in hand just as they would observe them immediately after capture. The virtual field trip will be adapted for future labs even if we meet face to face.  For example, we can create videos and specimen photos to simulate a field trip to the Caribbean or south Atlantic and struggle to identify sharks and rays (FAO 2016; Florida Museum of Natural History N.D.).   While this learning experience is not equivalent to a genuine field trip to these distant locations, the opportunity to travel virtually with a large group of Ichthyology students and provide them this training may be worth it.

A Former Pupil (1874) revealed the methods used by Louis Agassiz. The student was provided a wet, smelly fish in a tin pan. "Take this fish," said Agassiz, "and look at it; we call it a haemulon; by and by I will ask what you have seen." Agassiz would then leave and return hours later. But Agassiz would say very little except look at your fish!”   Rather than quit, the student would really concentrate and take his time in observing the fish.  Each stage of the process of looking at the fish forced him to concentrate and focus more and see connections.  

A Former Pupil. 1874. In the laboratory with Agassiz. Every Saturday: A Journal of Choice Reading (April 4, 1874).
FAO. 2016. Identification guide to common sharks and rays of the Caribbean. By Ramón Bonfil. FishFinder Programme. Rome, Italy.
Fernandes, M., J. Wammes, and M. Meade 2018. The surprisingly powerful influence of drawing on memory. Current Directions in Psychological Science 27(5):302-308.
Florida Museum of Natural History. N.D. Field Key to Sharks Encountered in the U.S. Atlantic Bottom Longline Shark Fishery and Recreational Anglers. Website 
Accessed 20 May 20, 2020