Cherise Saywell

Image credit: Brodie Leven

When re-designing workshops for online delivery, I include more demonstrating than in face-to-face teaching, and I try to exploit the auditory and visual potential of the platform to enhance what I’m communicating. Participants will be ‘plugged in’ to the experience, probably wearing headsets, and almost certainly sitting close to the screen. I want their learning experience to be rich and layered. Reading aloud can be very effective in this environment. It’s an opportunity to ‘perform’ the writing, to bring it to life. Visuals are important too, with the learner experiencing the session up close.  Simplicity is my guiding principle. I keep layouts straightforward, and text readable — no fussy fonts, and minimal use of capital letters. But while I keep slides to a minimum, it makes sense to use these slides more deeply.

These principles worked very well in a recent workshop for PhD candidates, where I discussed the benefits of varying sentence length. In Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword cites a marvellous example: an excerpt from a piece by Gillian Beer.[1] After a short assertion, Beer moves from a couple of medium-length sentences to a punchy six-word line right in the middle of the paragraph. Then she delivers a long sentence with wonderful build. I shared this on screen and read it out:

Most major scientific theories rebuff common sense. They call on evidence beyond the reach of our senses and overturn the observable world. They disturb assumed relationships and shift what has been substantial into metaphor. The earth now only seems immovable. Such major theories tax, affront, and exhilarate those who first encounter them, although in fifty years or so they will be taken for granted, part of the apparently common-sense set of beliefs which instructs us that the earth revolves around the sun whatever our eyes may suggest.

It’s lovely to read — it’s rhythmic and slips off the tongue. I thought it would be useful to go a little further, so I presented a slide with an edited version. I didn’t alter Beer’s meaning, but I made all the sentences a similar length:

Most major scientific theories rebuff common sense because they call on evidence beyond the reach of our senses in order to overturn the observable world. They disturb assumed relationships and shift what has been substantial into metaphor so that the earth only seems immovable. Theories that engage in this way tax, affront, and exhilarate those who first encounter them, but in fifty years or so it is likely that they will be taken for granted. They will be part of the apparently common-sense set of beliefs which instructs us that the earth revolves around the sun whatever our eyes may suggest.

The text looks quite similar to the original. I moved between the two versions to emphasise this. But when I read the edited version aloud, participants commented on how different it sounded. It wasn’t awful — not at all. But the varied sentence lengths added drama and build, helping Beer to emphasise her point. Without this variation, something was lost.

I suggested that participants try the technique on their own work. One student said that she liked working with words she’d already written; she had the raw material there on the page, but a new way of thinking about it. Another observed how useful it was to see the passages close up, and then hear them read aloud — evidence for their eyes and ears of how sentence style matters. Exactly what I’d hoped to achieve.

[1] Sword, H. Stylish Academic Writing, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012, p. 50

30 July 2020