Thursday, 28 February 2013

Thesis (Διατριβή)

I'm very lucky to be paid to read so much new information from my students' thesis writing, as it puts me a step ahead with the latest developments in various fields, none of which I would read up about if it weren't for my work. As I proofread theses, I realise just how little has changed in the presentation and writing style of a thesis since the time I wrote my own over twenty years ago.

Today I had a meeting with a student who wanted to clarify some issues concerning my proofing of his work. He had written about marketing and management, a common thesis topic these days, as this is seen as the way forward in a world crippled by a global economic crisis. His English proved of a good enough standard, but he had made the usual stylistic mistakes that students often make when writing an internationally acceptable MA thesis. This includes consistency errors (eg both 'UK' and 'GB' appeared throughout the text), 'hanging' headings (ie they were not numbered) and badly phrased references (eg he had mentioned the researcher's name, but not the year of publication). These, in my opinion, are all innocent errors and can easily be rectified in an hour or so, for a 70-80 page text, once they have been pointed out.

Most students communicate with me by email over their corrections, even when living in another country, so I was surprised that the student actually wanted to see me. I thought maybe that direct contact was easier for him because he would be in the area juggling other jobs. I eventually realised that this wasn't the case: he fitted the 'oral' type, the kind of people who pay for a lot of talk time on their mobile phones because they are better at the spoken rather than the written word.

Together, we went through the notes I made in his thesis, of which the first was that there was no abstract in his work, the little one-page summary that all students are required to write about their (on average) 100-page dissertations. This is a standard procedure all over the academic world.

- But I don't need one, surely, he insisted, because I've written an introduction.

I explained why they did need one, and why it was different from the introduction, but I could tell that the student was rather annoyed. Most students don't actually get annoyed with my comments during hte proofing stage; they realise I'm making their thesis look better than what it would have looked without my corrections. A few old tricks were played (eg my supervisor told me it was OK not to write one), which made me think that he thought his thesis was perfect just as it was. I knew what other comments I had made, and I was already feeling uncomfortable: I would have to be firm, something that diminishes the 'friend and helper' status that I usually try to convey to my students.

Today was spaghetti day at MAICh, but with the amount of fresh salads available, it's easy to make a main meal out of them.
The hanging headings caused a problem for him. I told him that all headings had to be mentioned in the table of contents, but an unnumbered heading cannot be placed appropriately in this list, so they need to number it. He insisted that he had done it on purpose to highlight it, which is actually impossible, since it won't even appear in the chapter and section headings! I also pointed out to him that his headings were not consistent - sometimes they were written in bold test, other times in italics, and other times underlined. Again, this affects the readability of the text - we often know what we want to say, but we have to convey to our readers in such a way that they understand what we meant, and a consistent manner of heading paragraphs helps people to read a text more quickly and efficiently.

He wasn't convinced. He used the 'but my supervisor said it was OK' line again, as if my corrections were ruining his masterpiece. But at MAICh, English correction is obligatory, not optional, and I need to approve the thesis work before it can be submitted. I like to remind students that my word is not final; they are allowed some artistic licence to a certain extent, as to how they present their work, which is why I track my changes on the electronic versions of their thesis. They can accept or reject them, within reason of course: if it's a spelling/grammar error, this obviously needs correction, but if it is a question of layout, this is debatable. I always tell them this, in order to make them understand that they are in control of their work, as well as implying that all potential errors are traceable.

The one thing that really shows how much a student has researched their work is the way they write their references. If you mention the name of a researcher, you much mention the publication (including the year, name of journal/book that the reference came from and page numbers) of the author's work. If you simply write his/her name without the year, it shows that you possibly copied the reference from somewhere, and didn't research it further to get the full reference details. In the world of the internet, this is plain and simply sloth, a sign of laziness.

- Oh, that's how I found the reference written, he said.

- Sure, but you must have found it somewhere in the first place, I pointed out.

- Yes, but it was written like this, he kept insisting, as if he was tired of listening to me, and he had better things to do than argue about insignificant details.

- Where?

- On the internet.

- So where would someone look to find it?

- On the internet. they could look it up.

- How?

- It's on a site.

- Which site? Where's the URL?

- Oh, that!

Yeah, that. It's that simple. At least he wasn't as shameful as another student I had a few years ago who asked me to send him the submission approval before I had even proof-read his work.

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On a different note, I could do a lot of my work from home instead of going into my office environment. I used to insist on working from home when I could in the past, but the economic crisis has changed that, at least in my case. One of the reasons why I come into work every day is to show solidaruty with my colleagues whose positios require them to be at the premises (cooks, cleaners, lab technicians, plumbers, electricians, etc). My petrol costs would be vastly reduced if I didn't come in to work every day, while my colleagues would not have any other choice but to come into work.

But if I didn't come into work, then I wouldn't be spending my time sharing meals with other people, like I did today, sitting outside on a very sunny day, when it suddenly started raining. But the rain was so light, htat we didn't move, and continued eating uncovered. We only went inside, after we had finished our meal, laughing as we carried our plates and trays. There is something magical about sharing meals, and I often get ideas about things I write about later in my blog from those experiences. Even though much of my time spent int he office consists of 'passive face time' (because I get most of my work done elsewhere), I would be missing out on a very important interaction with my colleagues and students.

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