Help me help you!

Things have been rather busy and stressful at work over the past few weeks, in spite of the summer break starting, and I’ve consequently been neglecting the blog.  I will be catching up again in the near future, but in the meantime I thought I’d address something blog-related that’s been on my mind for some time.

One of the most common things I hear about my blog when I talk to family members and non-science friends who have read it is something along the lines of “I was reading one of your science articles but I got lost halfway through it.”

This isn’t necessarily surprising, as I’m often trying to write about rather complicated scientific stuff in a non-technical way, and it’s not always going to be as comprehensible as I hope.  What is kinda surprising, though, is the way in which people tell me this, as many people say it so matter-of-factly that they seem to intend it as a compliment.  Or just the way things are.

But here’s the thing I don’t think that many of them understand: when I’m writing these blog posts, I’m trying to write them so that they can be comprehensible to a non-technical reader.  Saying that you’ve gotten lost in a post, but not telling me where, or why, or asking for clarification, doesn’t help me write better posts.  I often feel as exasperated as Jerry Maguire:

“Help me help you.”  That’s a request I’d like to make to my readers: give me feedback! Let me know what you don’t understand, and I’ll try and explain it better. It isn’t always easy to understand the subtleties of physics and optics, but that’s what makes putting in the effort to learn it so rewarding.  It’s a puzzle, like solving a crossword or a jigsaw, and deciphering the mystery can be just as satisfying.

When I think about the phrase “help me help you,” though, it occurs to me that there are two ways to interpret it.  The way I just described it could be emphasized as “help me help YOU,” where “you” are the beneficiary of understanding.  Really, though, it works with a different emphasis, as well: “help ME help you.”  In other words, when you comment on my posts and explain what part lost you, you are helping me to be a better teacher.

Education is really a two-way street, both in online communication as well as in the classroom.  The teacher is, hopefully, imparting knowledge to the student, but the student can also help the teacher learn how to do his job better.*  So rather than simply make this a somewhat condescending plea for the reader to “learn harder,” I am really asking you a favor:  educate me, as well.  Teach me what works, and what doesn’t work, when I explain things.

Hopefully we’ll both find the experience rewarding.


* Random aside: this two-way street is part of the reason why I’m skeptical about MOOCs.

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2 Responses to Help me help you!

  1. rogerthegeek says:

    I’m not sure many people have enough science background to understand many scientific posts. I had trouble explaining organic chemistry to my mom when I was working in the lab. Explaining why I was making radiolabeled drugs and their use was frustrating. Just trying to explain radioactivity and the different types of radioactivity was impossible without some basic knowledge. People tune out after a bit.
    Many people did pay attention in high school science or have studied on their on time, but in general, science blogging has a specific audience that isn’t all that large. I enjoy your posts though so keep at it. Thanks.

  2. Blake Stacey says:

    There’s not a lot of motivation to write blog posts devoted to the basic stuff, i.e., the stuff you need to know in order to learn other stuff. “What is radioactivity?” “What is a ‘half-life’?” If posts like that do get written, they get lost. It’s too bad.

    …this two-way street is part of the reason why I’m skeptical about MOOCs.

    MOOCs also have the problem that they’re designed to replace the wrong people.

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