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Thursday, 31 December 2015

Subverting the headerless (and sub-headerless) chickens

Who tells nursing students not to use headings and sub-headings in their assignments?  Worse, who tells nursing students that they will be penalised if they use them?

I am being quite specific here, by the way, as this ridiculous phenomenon appears to be unique to nursing academics.  Frankly, I'm sick of it.  I've had arguments with colleagues about it, I still supervise undergraduate student assignments and when I suggest to the students that using headings and sub-headings would improve their work I am almost inevitably told, in cowering terms, that some colleague - usually less experienced than I - has warned them sternly against it.  I have asked for the proof of this, in writing, and it has NEVER been produced; instead, if I confront colleagues about it I am told that everyone knows that good writing does not need headings and sub-headings (ie EVERYONE knew that - why didn't you?) and that they interrupt the flow of the writing.  All complete nonsense and, in fact, the opposite is true.

The least of my worries would be be specifically offending my 'headerless' immediate colleagues; nevertheless, to assure them I am not targetting them, I have encountered this in more than one of the universities where I have worked.  Two of my daughters are currently studying nursing at post-graduate and post-registration levels at other universities and, whenever they show me their work and I suggest headings and sub-headings, the refrain is the same: 'we have been told not to'.

My own background is in biological sciences (The University of Edinburgh) and I hold a PhD in biochemistry (University of Sheffield) and I have edited academic nursing journals for over 20 years.  Currently, I am Editor-in-Chief of the most cited academic journal in nursing.  My publication record of books, chapters, academic articles, professional articles and other contributions such as editorials and comments exceeds 500.  In none of these endeavours has using headings and sub-headings ever presented a problem.

I was one of the earliest Members of the Institute for Learning and Teaching and a member of their accreditation panel.  Neverthless, when I have questioned colleagues about this quirky aspect of nursing education I have been treated with considerable disrespect - not being a Registered Nurse Teacher - which is where this vacuous concept seems to stem from.  The uniqueness to nursing has been further emphasised to me by colleagues from student support services in this and my previous university who have questioned me - in somewhat desperate and disparaging tones - about why they cannot seem to convince nursing students to use headings and sub-headings in their work.  I know there is a tradition in essay writing of not using them but when I have questioned colleagues in English departments if they would penalise students for using headings and sub-headings, I have - invariably - had the response 'no!' in a 'why on earth would we?' tone.  Other than some form of received 'wisdom', there is no substantial basis for discouraging or penalising the use of headings and sub-headings.  Like a virus, this idea has infected nursing education and spread.

The case for headings and sub-headings
The case hardly needs to be made; instead, try naming any style of writing that does not have headings and sub-headings and you will see how risible the 'headerless chicken' brigade really are.  Books of all kinds - antiquarian and modern - academic articles, journal articles, newspapers and even 'round robin' letters use headings and sub-headings.  Imagine a newspaper which started at the top left hand side of the front page and proceeded to the bottom left of the back page...without a break.  'Ah but', the 'experts' in nursing education say, newspapers and academic articles are a different type of writing from essay or assignment writing.  How so?  There is only good writing and poor writing - whatever the platform.  Telling a joke and making a scientific argument require precisely the same style: as few words as possible and packed with meaning.  'Ah but', reiterate the experts, the headings and sub-headings help people to find information in newspapers and academic articles which is...my point entirely.  Why should the reader not be facilitated in finding information in an essay?  'Ah but', - experts opine - headings and sub-headings break up the flow of the writing and my view is: 'thank goodness'.  When we are reading, we all need breaks and how much better is it that the writer can indicate where the breaks should take place?  Otherwise, if the readers make their own decisions, they may...er...lose the flow of the writing.

How do we help students?
With difficulty I think as it is our colleagues who need help.  Nevertheless, when faced with students who seems clueless about how to organise their writing (usually because they have not encountered headings and sub-headings before) I exercise a neat piece of subversion: I  suggest a few headings and sub-headings and tell them to write under those.  Then, when they are happy that their assignment is complete, remove the headings and sub-headings and submit.



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