My Favorite Ambiguity

My previous post highlighted the importance of avoiding ambiguity in your communication.

[Notice that above I could have said, “My previous post was about….”  Instead, I replaced “was about” with one descriptive and powerful word: “highlighted.”]

I want to share my all-time favorite ambiguity. A classmate of mine in university wrote this in a creative non-fiction assignment. He was writing about the interaction between a friend of his and the friend’s mentor. Here’s what he wrote:

“He said, ‘Thank you very much, professor,’ and stroked his beard.”

Can you detect the ambiguity?

It makes me laugh every time. Readers don’t know whether the student was stroking his own beard or the professor’s beard!

I probably don’t need to write a future post explaining that it is not appropriate to express gratitude to a professor by stroking his beard.

Avoiding Ambiguity

It takes a long time to become a great academic writer. But there are a number of key writing strategies you can use to begin improving your writing immediately.

Avoiding ambiguity is one of these valuable strategies. Writing is ambiguous if it has more than one possible interpretation. This possibility of different understandings of what you’ve written means your writing is unclear. And unclear writing is bad writing; the whole point of academic writing is to present ideas as clearly as possible.

Here’s a simple example of ambiguity: Fred went shopping with John. He bought a new coat.

It’s easy to see, right? It’s unclear who the word “he” in the second sentence refers to. It could be Fred or John.

Here’s a slightly trickier example: He examined many studies of African economies and found them to be severely flawed.

Can you see the ambiguity? We don’t know what was flawed. Was it the African economies or the studies of African economies? This sentence would be very frustrating for readers, because without understanding this sentence they would worry that they’re not understanding the rest of the article. Of course they could perhaps figure out the meaning based on the context of the paragraph, but you don’t want your readers to have to search for clues about your meaning. They’re likely instead just to stop reading.

Here’s another ambiguity: I was studying international security in Southeast Asia.

This one actually appeared in a first draft of something I wrote. The ambiguity is subtle in this one. But notice that this sentence could be the answer to two different inquiries.

First, one might ask, “What were you studying?”

You might respond, “I was studying [the topic] international security in Southeast Asia.” In other words, you were studying about how Southeast Asian nations try amongst themselves (internationally) to maintain security. Note that you could have been studying this topic anywhere.

Or, someone might have asked, “What were you studying and where you studying?”

Then your answer would be, “I was studying [the topic] international security [while I was living] in Southeast Asia.”

The same sentence could have had these two very different meanings. Before I fixed that sentence, my readers wouldn’t have known whether I was telling them my study topic or my study topic and where I was living at the time. That lack of clarity would have been frustrating for readers.

Once you start watching for ambiguities, your writing will improve instantly. You may not catch every ambiguity, but each one you catch and edit will make your writing clearer and more convincing.

New Year’s Resolutions

Maria Popova has compiled one of the cleverest lists of New Year’s resolutions I’ve seen, using ideas from some of history’s great thinkers.

You may not agree with all fifteen resolutions, but you’ll definitely find some of them intriguing. Four of my favourites are:

1] Make your life wide rather than long

2] Cultivate a growth mindset

3] Think rather than know

4] Master critical thinking

Pay special attention to “Cultivating a growth mindset.” It’s an example of what I wrote about in my previous post–how thinking the right things can be just as important as doing the right things.

The Power of Ideas

Many of my blog posts will focus on tips and strategies for achieving success at university, things you can do. Another group of posts will explore ideas or perspectives, things you should think in order to succeed.

Some students find it hard to see the value in learning specific things to think. They only want to know actions they can take, like how to read a text effectively or how to maximize study impact (see future posts). Actions are important. But ideas are extremely powerful, too.

Everything you think is an idea. You become comfortable with your ideas over time. They seem to become part of you, and new ideas can feel strange or even trivial. But on the quest for success you must be open to new ways of thinking. Our ideas, our perspectives on life, shape our entire existence.

Imagine that your TV falls off the shelf and smashes and you can’t afford a new one.

If you focus on all the sit-coms and awards shows you’ll miss and all those cozy nights on the sofa binge-watching mysteries, you’re bound to be upset and frustrated. But imagine, on the other hand, convincing yourself to see your destroyed TV as an opportunity. Maybe the extra free time will give you a chance to develop new skills or hobbies, or finally get outside and do that forest hike you’ve been planning. Or, perhaps the TV accident motivates you to find a better job so you can afford the things you want.

With the first mindset, when you’re focused on the demise of your beloved TV, you’re sad and angry. With the second, more positive frame of mind, you’re excited about making a change. The reality is the same; the TV is still broken. The difference is how you think about your situation.

Ideas matter!

Changing the way you think is one of the surest paths to increased success in your studies. Stay tuned for much more on this.

Embracing Challenge (East and West)

Developing the proper mindset toward challenge is one of the most important paths to success as a student.

If you expect your study life to be easy, you’ll never live up to your potential. But you need to remember that excessive struggle and stress can also derail success. As with so many things in life, the key is finding the balance that works for you.

The most effective level of challenge is different for every individual, but understanding how challenge is viewed in your culture can help you explore this critical element of university life.

Alix Spiegel has written about cultural perspectives on challenge in the Mind/Shift blog at kqed.org. She says, “The way you conceptualize the act of struggling with something profoundly affects your actual behavior.” And, as Spiegel explains:

Obviously if struggle indicates weakness — a lack of intelligence — it makes you feel bad, and so you’re less likely to put up with it. But if struggle indicates strength — an ability to face down the challenges that inevitably occur when you are trying to learn something — you’re more willing to accept it.

Spiegel points out a general difference between Eastern and Western cultures. In the West, we tend to envision educational struggle as revealing a lack of ability. Students often want to avoid challenge because it may reveal their limits. Eastern cultures, on the other hand, widely perceive struggle as a good thing, a sign of emotional strength and dedication. .

There are counterexamples to these general perspectives, but they often hold true, and so they impact students who are entering a new educational culture.

My advice is to learn to embrace challenge and struggle. A lot of research indicates that this is the best way to succeed in university life. I’ll introduce you to some of these ideas in a future post.

Meet Your University Mentor—Part One

Hello! Welcome to University Mentor!

My name is Mitchell Gray and I’m your new academic mentor.

I’m going to do everything I can to help you succeed in your studies. For example:

1] I’ll share tips and strategies for studying and goal-setting. (Things like avoiding time-killing procrastination!)

2] I’ll show you research results that will help you understand how to learn and how to conquer your classes. (Did you know that reading your text again and again is one of the worst ways to study?)

3] I’ll tell you about my successes (and failures) and what you can learn from them. (I’ve dropped out of one university and won the award at another for top graduating student in the social sciences. I learned a lot from both experiences.)

4] I’ll help you enhance your writing and communication skills so you can make the most of your great ideas. (Mastering well-organized, concise and clear communication opens the doors to academic programs and great jobs!)

I’ve worked with university students for seven years now at the University of British Columbia, including hundreds of international students. The ideas you’ll find at University Mentor are the innovative and evidence-supported techniques I’ve been using to help students build the skills they need to excel in their current studies and increase their chances of acceptance into future programs.

I’m excited to be part of your path to success. Welcome to University Mentor!