Texas Tech University

Narrative, Trust, and Teaching: A Case Study

A Particularly Pedagogical Passage
Within a Successful NSF Proposal

As part of a movement towards open science a great number of scientific proposals are freely posted online. All sections in this case study are drawn from one such NSF proposal, freely floating on various webpages. 

I do not know the people who wrote it; they likewise do not know it is being analyzed here. I hope the brief analysis here is of use not just to Texas Tech faculty but to whomever stumbles across it.

With that said, let's begin with beginnings.

"Among the most fundamental missions of biology," goes the opening sentence, "are a complete global inventory of the species on our planet, and a natural classification of those species on the basis of their phylogenetic relationships; the importance of both missions is well delineated in the reports and recommendations of Systematics Agenda 2000."

With this flag staked (already, we see something of scope; few proposals are sufficiently expansive to credibly claim as their domain one of the fundamental missions of biology), the authors shift into a highly discursive, pedagogical tone. This tone of explanation and pedagogy is what I want to draw attention to. 

Phylogenetic classifications are scientific hypotheses that are crucial to all aspects of comparative biology; not only do they provide maximally efficient descriptions of the data on organismic attributes already at hand, they allow maximally effective predictions about the distributions of attributes not yet studied in detail... Imagine that we find a newly discovered species, and are able to identify it as a spider (for example, by discovering that it has abdominal silk glands and spinnerets, features unique to spiders). From that information alone, we can predict, for example, that this new species will have male pedipalps that are modified for sperm transfer (another feature unique to spiders). We can also predict that it will have the features characteristic of the larger groups to which spiders belong; as an arachnid, we can predict that the newly discovered species will have two body regions and four pairs of legs; as an arthropod, we can predict that it will have jointed appendages, etc. Every grouping of species in a hierarchical classification enables such predictions, and the accuracy of the predictions depends on the degree to which the classification reflects the evolutionary history of the groups (i.e., the phylogenetic interrelationships of their component taxa)." (A Tree of Life: Phylogeny of Spiders)

Though full of definitions, explanations, and illustrations, and perfectly comprehensible to any thoughtful undergraduate student, this feels acceptable in a grant proposal because it is at heart a pitch. Yes, it is a pitch that unfolds in the manner of a classroom lesson. Yet all belongs to that merit claim--phylogeny matters. What's more, it defines how phylogeny matters--because it is predictive. And it defines the nature of that predictivity--as hierarchical, and tightly coupled to evolutionary biology.

Merit, merit, merit.

Scientifically speaking, this is all basic stuff. And, if one looks closely at the narrative movement of the passage, they might realized that the authors have not even arrived to the subject matter of their project yet. Not coincidentally, all of the examples supporting that idea are drawn from spiders (the proposal title is A Tree of Life: Phylogeny of Spiders). Yet these are illustrative. Merit belongs not to that particular branch but to the very concept of the Tree, and the point would be illustrated just as well by the phylogeny of cows, or starfish.

But let's not take for granted the the ground that they have covered by the close: "The accuracy of the predictions depends on the degree to which the classification reflects the evolutionary history of the groups." In the world of grant proposals, flinging open a window to improved predictivity can only be interpreted as a call to action.

If accuracy can be improved, it should be improved. Thus the passage hums along from merit towards approach. And one will find that this is an absolutely standard formula for the opening section of a grant proposal in almost any genre, arts or sciences. Begin with a big merit claim, justify it, adorn it with increasing nuance, and very quickly arrive at a call--implicit or explicit--to action.

Lastly, the scope is appropriate. As will become clear later in the proposal, the authors propose to fundamentally transform our state of knowledge of the phylogeny of spiders, and might therefore lay a credible claim to actually affecting that fundamental mission. In laying that claim, the pedagogical tone contributes to authorial credibility: this paragraph does not yet delve into debatable claims, but presents everything as simple, well-supported statements of fact. After all, sounding like a teacher is much better than sounding like a salesperson.


The Relationship Between Teaching and Narrative

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Brendan Allison, Grant Editor
College of Arts & Sciences

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