A picture of the statue of a blue elephant on a pier.

One of the elephants of the Elephant Parade, currently in Dana Point, CA. I can identify with elephants: slow and persistent.

I have not blogged in quite a while, which is mildly frustrating. Last week was almost exclusively dedicated to my university’s Fall Assembly, which is one of the two times per year that most (if not all) faculty and admins from all campuses are physically in the same space. Needless to say, those are the days when most businesses and collaborations get done or started, so besides the programmed meetings there is a lot of networking going on. Add the couple of days before and after spent in a frenzy of prepping and then catching up with grading and everything else, and the week is gone.

But I have realized that one of the issues that affects my blogging is English writing. I feel my writing is quite ok, and my spelling is far better than that of many of my students, but my original Spanish does bleed over in a way I structure certain sentences (usually much longer than acceptable in written English). And although late nights are usually my quietest times and when I often have most inspiration, that is also the time when I tend to make more mistakes. So I often will start a posting at night with the determination of reviewing it next morning…and very often the draft stays a draft. Every time I look at my list of drafts I cringe. The only times I had been able to write more or less regularly were the times where I forced myself (like now) to sit down after breakfast, write, and publish on the spot.

The thought of taking a creative writing class in English has been in my mind for quite a while. And recently I learned the importance of good English writing in a context way more important than blogging: while assembling my reappointment dossier.

My university does not have traditional tenure, but timed appointments (starts with 2 years, and depending on the metrics and rank the length increases later on). Honestly, I find the system much more energizing than the traditional one- keeps people on their toes because even with a certain job security one has to prove one’s value on a regular basis. I see old timers working really hard and exploring new things all the time.

My appointment is until next July, but I was strongly suggested to complete my dossier for the Fall reappointment cycle so I’ll know by the end of this year. So that has been another of my reasons not to blog as much as I wanted- assembling the dossier was quite an undertaking.

Following my elders’ advice I had started collecting documents months ago, and created a google document where I would type my achievements as they happened (certificates, committees, you name it) as well as ideas for my reflections. The latter was absolutely critical at the time of the actual writing- having inspirational quotes and ideas at hand to frame my uniqueness and excellence made the job much easier.

But it was only when I read the detailed instructions and the reappointment process that it hit me. My reflections would be read not only by scientists, but by colleagues from all disciplines, including humanities. I was not asked to write a research proposal or a grant application: I was asked to do creative, elegant, and convincing writing. Now that was scary.

Of the three required reflections (teaching, scholarship, and service) I was told the hardest to write and the most scrutinized would be the teaching one. So I spent most time on it, and at the end I was quite content with the result. After many iterations of the opening sentence, I decided to just dive in to define who I am: “I came to teaching through science, after long years of working as a research scientist. Therefore the core of my teaching is the passion for science and particularly biology literacy.” After that I defined some of the main pointers in my teaching practices, and then included a quote from Steve Jobs that I have always found inspiring and very true: “That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

No kidding.

After I was done with what I considered to be a literary masterpiece, I sent it to a number of mentors, and in a spark of inspiration, to one of the English faculty asking for feedback. That was the best thing I did. He sent back the document with a number of minor corrections and comments regarding transitions and lack of clarity, and once corrected I felt much better.

On the other hand, all the time invested in the teaching reflection meant I spent much less time on the service and scholarship reflections. To be honest, I was typing the final version of the service reflection the morning of the due date. Ouch. My husband was kind enough to review and correct some of my usual grammar booboos (I still have difficulty with the usage of “X and me” versus “X and I” among others), but without the feedback of the experts I know they do not measure up to the teaching one. Fingers crossed.

After this experience, I am again seriously considering taking an English writing class. I doubt I will be able to do it any time soon, but the prospect of hopefully being able to write quickly and without major grammar and style errors sounds like a good investment both for my formal and informal scholarship.

Colleagues from the sciences, especially non-native English speakers, do you have a similar experience with writing?

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