Not long ago, I heard a presentation by a Writing Expert -- someone (not a professor) who had expertise with teaching writing in academic contexts.
She said that she understands that many professors get frustrated when their students keep making the same mistakes in their writing, but that most people can't learn from their own writing mistakes, even after having the mistakes corrected and explained. It is essentially a learning disability.
The reappearance of the same-old-same-old writing errors, even in consecutive edited drafts, is certainly a phenomenon that frustrates many of us professors. We correct and explain a particular technical error and then expect that we won't see that particular problem again in the next draft, but we do see it.. again and again. Why didn't the student, even one whose native language is English, fix the problem?
Are they lazy or careless? Do they just expect others to fix their writing problems? It is not difficult to find laments such as this in professor-blogs.
But the Writing Expert said that most people can't fix these problems. She said that some can, but most can't. She said "can't", not "won't" or "don't", indicating a lack of ability, not a lack of willingness or attention.
I didn't get a chance to question her on this, so I don't know whether to believe it. Let's assume, at least for a moment, that she's right. Let's assume that there are high-quality, statistically valid, repeatable, controlled experiments that prove that most people are psychobiochemically unable to correct writing errors, even once these errors are corrected and explained, owing to intrinsic nanoneurosynaptic gaps. Or something.
Would knowing that 'they can't help it' help us -- the advisor-editors -- be more understanding when we encounter this frustrating problem? Would it make us -- especially those of us who (like to think that we) don't have this problem -- more likely to be patient when we have to point out (and fix) the same problem again and again?
In my case, probably not. It was interesting to hear this idea, but I am reluctant to embrace the 'they can't help it' explanation. Why can't a person -- one who is capable of understanding complex Science Concepts -- understand the concept of misplaced and dangling modifiers? Is there something special about grammar and spelling as compared to, say, partial differential equations?
Perhaps there is. I certainly realize that writing is a very personal activity, and this accounts for many of the problems we encounter with students and colleagues who are reluctant to write and who lack confidence in their writing. And I realize that learning disabilities are real and exist. But does most of the population have them? And does this also explain why most people are apparently unable to learn how to avoid using a misplaced modifier in their writing?
I don't know, but since I haven't found a brilliant way to help students (and others) help themselves self-correct technical writing mistakes, I would be interested in hearing from students who don't have documented learning disabilities and who know that, at some point, have frustrated their advisors by repeating previously-corrected technical errors in writing.
How did you approach your revisions? Did you focus on content and decide not to worry about the details (perhaps underestimating how much your advisor cared about these things)? Did you not find the previous correction(s) useful in a general way (i.e., you understood the specific correction, but not how that would apply to other, similar examples)? Have any of you received a technical correction and a light bulb went off and you (almost) never made that mistake again? Is there a certain style or type of correction that gets through, whereas others that do not?
Complaining about uneducable students and grammar-fascist advisors can be fun, but I hope that by discussing some examples, perhaps from both students and advisors, we can make some progress in figuring out how to diminish this source of annoyance for both the student-writer and the advisor-editor.
7 years ago