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2006-11-12 - 2:58 p.m.

..student project and thoughts on advising...

I have been spending a lot of this weekend helping my high school work study student to finish up her science project - based, in the end, on the half of the data that wasn't lost!

It's actually turned into a wonderful experience and a very nice little paper. In fact, I think that having more data might have complicated things too much.

She and I worked together via instant messaging all day yesterday. While she read papers and rewrote text, I worked on figures and did a few calculations of changes in ocean carbon chemistry based on her data. In the end, I was really impressed. She is painfully shy and gives off the impression that she isn't understanding anything. But in the end her writing revealed that she understood about 95% of the complicated topics that we were explaining to her, and well enough to spit it back in clear, concise English. IN fact, her writing is better than that of most grad students I've met. I have been very pleased with the end result.

Several people have commented on the amount of time that I have devoted to this student's project. But it seems like the natural way to be doing things to me. First of all, she has devoted 2 years to collecting data for this project - the least I can do is spend a few days of my time helping her to finish. Second, it is definitely worth my time, because I am certain that we will be getting a published paper out of her project. Third, well, okay, there IS an element of guilt in there, in that I left her during her last summer of finishing this project. I wanted to make sure that she didn't feel completely abandoned during the final stages.

The final and perhaps the most important reason is that I think that this is the way papers should be written with supervisors. Students should work with their supervisors to get a coherent outline. The degree to which the supervisor contributes to that outline depends on the level of the student (in this case, a high school student is not really expected to know as much as a senior-level grad student writing up a thesis...). After the outline is agreed upon, the student should proceed by writing up the text alone. At that point the supervisor will make comments, suggest rephrasing or re-organization, suggest new paragraphs, or any re-thinking that needs to be done. Again, the degree of involvement depends on the background of the student.

One thing that I learned from this and other experiences is that email and instant messaging are both great tools for the writing process. In this case, my student is extremely shy, but that shyness seems to vanish over email and instant messaging. So we were able to chat and make jokes very easily while working on her drafts.

Also, I've discovered that in personal meetings with students, I have a tendency to overwhelm them with ideas and background, and I move very quickly, and it tends to obscure the simple clear story they need to be writing. Email and IM force the students to write out their questions and ideas, AND it gives them a written history of the points that I have made. So the conversation is documented from the beginning.

Anyway, that's the gist of it. Now I'm off to fold and hang laundry in the attic - in the hopes that it will dry before next Spring....yes, it's still raining.

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