Sunday, February 18, 2024

Five Tips That Will Help You Thrive as an Academic Administrator


I have been in an administrative position for just over a year now. I started in January 2023. My position is unique. I am not a Dean or Provost. I direct a Center, but the role is unusual in that I am responsible for the physical building, the budget, the staff, the faculty, and the students. We have 20 staff members, 10 adjunct or visiting faculty, and about 200 students who live in the building at any given time. Our Center is akin to a very small campus.

Because my position is unique, I have been hesitant to extrapolate from my experience and offer any general advice or reflections on being an academic administrator. 

That's me on the left - moderating a conversation with our Provost.

That said, here are five things that have helped me thrive in my first year as the Executive Director of the University of California Washington Center. 
  1. Read books on leadership and people management. There are tons of books that offer guidance and most of the advice translates to the academy. I prefer the books that are based on empirical research over the ones that are just the insights of one successful leader.
  2. Block out two hours a day for “focus time.” Use that time to do tasks that require deep thinking. For me, that is sometimes my research and sometimes strategic planning. I enjoy writing and thus make time for it but my job also requires some deep thinking so I choose which of those two kinds of tasks I will focus on each day.
  3. Be ruthless about only working eight hours a day and not working on weekends. The tasks will fit into the time you allocate them. Try it before deciding it's impossible.
  4. Be ruthless about protecting time for self-care and connection with people who care about you. For me, this involves daily meditation, yoga, daily hikes with friends, and cooking and eating home-cooked food. 
  5. Get clarity on your values and stay true to them. Only do the work if it’s meaningful to you.
What about you? Have you considered taking on an administrative position?

Friday, September 9, 2022

How Time Blocking and Time Tracking Can Keep You on Track While Working from Home

This academic year, I am back on campus and back in the office, but our adaptation to remote life means I have more work-from-home days than I did pre-COVID. The semester is just getting started, but it looks like I will have at least 3 days a week where I can work from home.

I love working from home, at least part-time. But, I also find that I can spend the entire day in front of my screen all day without feeling like I have gotten very much done. Somehow the whole day goes by, and I still haven’t gone for a walk, cleaned my kitchen, or responded to all the emails. To address this issue, I decided to pull out my toolkit and see what tools are most useful for my work-from-home days.

Drawing from the infinite wisdom of Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Raul Pacheco-Vega, and Cal Newport, I developed a system for working from home that involves a weekly template, time blocking, and time tracking.

The first step is to develop a weekly template, which I explain in more detail in this post.

This semester, I am teaching just one class, but I have a fair number of commitments and thus have a lot of meetings. Thus, my afternoons are generally blocked off for teaching and meetings. My mornings are my prime time, so that’s when I write.

Here is my weekly template for this Fall semester.

This is just a template. I can copy and paste it into a new Excel tab and adjust it according to the time I wake up and the actual meetings and tasks I have for that day. For example, on Thursday, I woke up very early (thanks to jet lag) and had two meetings planned – one at noon and one at 3pm. Before doing my meditation, I made a plan for the day based on my commitments and aspirations (which included going for a walk and doing some virtual yoga).

I pretty much never do exactly what I say I am going to do. However, I more or less stay on track by time-tracking in 30-minute increments. On Thursday, I did write for two hours as planned, but not exactly in the time slots I had planned. When it came time to do yoga, a nap seemed more appealing. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, I had written for two hours and completed a pending review. I also responded to all the emails I needed to answer and went to my meetings.

At 4:30pm, when my last meeting was over, I felt empowered to shut down my computer and go for a swim.

If I hadn’t done the time tracking and time blocking, this kind of day – which started at 4:45am and ended at 4:30pm – could feel like a 12-hour work day. But, the data make it clear that I in fact worked for 7 and a half hours, and the rest of the time was spent napping, exercising, and taking care of my basic needs. The time tracking also made it clear that I could stop working at 4:30pm as I had a very productive day.

This system may seem a little extra to some of you. But, if you find yourself floundering while working from home or not getting the self-care you hope to get, I encourage you to try a version of this system of creating a weekly template, time blocking, and time tracking.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Three Things Your Academic Book Must Have: An Argument, a Theoretical Contribution, and a Structure

I recently challenged authors on Twitter to state the core argument of their non-fiction book in a tweet. It’s harder than it sounds to state your argument clearly and succinctly. It’s also a necessary step in the manuscript development process. 

If you are writing a nonfiction book and can’t articulate the argument in a tweet, don’t worry. I have written several books, and usually have no idea what the argument is until I have drafted most of the chapters. If you aren’t there yet, keep writing and thinking. 

You need an Argument 

So, what is an argument? An argument is not a topic or a description of themes the book addresses.

Instead, as Wendy Belcher writes in her book, an argument is a statement someone can disagree with. And, as Helen Sword explains, every non-fiction book needs a question. The process of leading the reader from your question to your answer is your argument. 

Here are some examples of clear and succinct arguments from the tweet thread:

The thread inspired me to gain some clarity on my argument in the book I am currently writing. I have been writing this book since 2017, have drafted most of the chapters, and am still working on my argument. Thus, I came up with two versions. The first version describes the argument I am making in the book, using academic language. 

Disinvestment and coercive investment in Black communities in DC have displaced and dispossessed Black residents, making gentrification through racialized reinvestment possible.

I explain all those big words in the book. But, after reading through the thread, I realized I liked the arguments that use simple language better. So I tried again: 

The choice to use prisons and policing to solve the problems faced by Black communities in DC in the 20th century, instead of investing in schools, community centers, social services, health care, drug treatment, and violence prevention, is what made gentrification possible in the 21st century. 

As you can see, you can disagree with this statement. And, per Helen Sword’s guidance, my argument answers my guiding question of what factors led to gentrification. 

You need a theoretical framework 

In addition to an argument, you need a compelling theoretical framework. The theoretical framework is where you explain how your argument is novel and how it relates to what we already know about your topic. You could have a great argument like: “Mass incarceration is the New Jim Crow,” but, Michelle Alexander already made that argument so it’s unlikely anyone would want to publish that. 

An academic book does not need a literature review in the same way a dissertation does. If you don’t believe, me, pick up your favorite academic book and see how much lit review there is in the introduction. Often, it’s just a few paragraphs. It is almost never a full chapter. 

The manuscript I am working on engages with three fields: housing inequality, the War on Drugs, and gentrification. Thus, I explain in the Introduction what we already know about these three areas and how my intervention is new. 

The Introduction explains how Black communities, even those dominated by Black homeowners have been dispossessed; how poor, working, and middle-class Black communities across the city experienced disinvestment and then coercive investment, and how reinvestment is racialized today. As you can see, it all has to stay on the same theme – with a tight focus on the core argument. 

You need a structure 

Once you know what your core argument and interventions are, you need to figure out how you are building your argument throughout the book. Each chapter should contribute to your core argument.  

I am doing this in my book manuscript by focusing first on disinvestment, then on coercive investment, and then on reinvestment. This is in line with my argument that disinvestment and coercive investment in Black communities in DC have displaced and dispossessed Black residents, making gentrification through racialized reinvestment possible. 

I am not making the whole argument in each chapter, but instead focusing on one piece of the argument in each section, which includes two chapters. 

Part I: Disinvestment 
Ch 1: Disinvestment in Black DC 
Ch 2: The Violence of Disinvestment 
Part II: Coercive Investment 
Ch 3: Crack in the Neighborhood 
Ch 4: Bringing in the Feds 
Part III: Reinvestment 
Ch 5: Chocolate City No More 
Ch 6: Racialized Reinvestment 

There are other ways to build an argument. In my book Deported, I set the book up to follow a deportee’s journey, from growing up in the country of origin, to crossing the border, to growing up in the US, to getting into trouble in the US, to getting caught, to detention, and then to life after deportation. This structure allowed me to explain how global capitalism shaped each aspect of their migrant journey. 

If you are having trouble envisioning how to build your argument, try using a mind map. This is where you pull out a pen and paper, write down your argument, draw a circle around it, and start drawing more lines and circles to visualize the connections you are making. This can help you see the elements of your argument and to make decisions about what chapters you need to write to build your argument. 

Finally: Writing a book is an iterative process. 

Don’t expect to sit down, write a book, and publish it as is. Instead, sit down, write a draft, stop, figure out what your argument is, rewrite the manuscript to fit your argument, and then revise your argument to fit your manuscript. Repeat this process until the manuscript is doing what you want it to.

Since it takes years to write a book, make sure you have a community to support you through this long process. If you don't know anyone working on a book, the Twitter thread has lots of people you could reach out to and ask if they are also looking for support.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

How to Teach Engaging Discussion Sections as a Teaching Assistant

This is a guest post by Maria D. Duenas, PhD student at the University of California, Merced, and a long-time Teaching Assistant and Teaching Fellow in Sociology.

Graduate students are often tasked with leading discussion sections, yet graduate departments sometimes do not provide adequate training on how to teach effectively. 

During the first year in my Ph.D. program, I remember my cohort and I feeling unsure about what we needed to do in a discussion section since, for many of us, our undergraduate institutions did not offer discussion sections. Even if you have experience being a student in a discussion section, it can be difficult to know how to plan your classes. 

The goal of this guest blog post is to help ease graduate student anxieties about what to do in discussion sections by providing a structure you can use in your own classes. 

Before describing my recommended structure, I'd like to point out that the first task you should complete when designing your discussion section is to ask your instructor of record what expectations they have of you and the discussion sections. Getting clarity on those expectations up front will make things easier down the road. 

Unless I get specific guidance to do otherwise, the format of my discussion sections is class announcements, a mini-lecture reviewing the key concepts of the week, and class activities.
Image of an empty classroom
Photo by M. Monk on Unsplash

Class announcements 
A good way to start classes is with class announcements. Make sure to leave plenty of time for student questions, especially in weeks with upcoming assignment deadlines. After that, I either transition into a class activity or a mini-lecture.

A mini-lecture reviewing the key concepts of the week 
I review the key concepts of the week in a mini-lecture in PowerPoint. Your mini-lecture can be from 5 to 15 minutes and should cover the substantive arguments from the readings and lectures and how the arguments are supported. I use clear language and word choice in my mini-lectures and large font sizes in my PowerPoints to help create an inclusive class environment for students with disabilities and for students for whom English is not their first language. At the end of this part of class, I leave time for student questions. 

 Class activities 
Discussion sections offer an important learning opportunity for students to discuss course concepts with each other that they may not have in a big lecture. I use 1-2 active-learning class activities (3 at most – and only if they are shorter activities) in a 50-minute class period. 

Using backwards lesson design, I develop class activities that get students thinking critically and talking to each other in smaller groups of 2 to 3 about the main ideas or concepts of the week. As students are discussing in groups, move around the classroom, ask students questions about concepts or the discussion questions, and answer any questions they may have. Then, bring the students into a larger discussion as a class where you incorporate clear explanations of the key take-home points throughout the discussion. If students are misunderstanding a concept or idea, class activities allow you to see what to clarify and to continue reenforcing key points. 

Active-learning class activities can take many forms. One example is discussion questions with open-ended questions that engage students in critical thinking. Todd Beer at Sociology Toolbox has an excellent blog post with critical thinking discussion questions you can use in your classroom. 

Another idea is to have students watch a video that provides a real-life example of a concept and design discussion questions that ask the students to think critically about how a concept applies to the content presented in the video. You can also facilitate a guided class discussion where students inductively learn a course concept through a guided conversation. I developed a class activity that uses this technique to teach Goffman’s impression management. 

Students enjoy game-like review sessions using Taboo created through PowerPoint or Kahoot and simulations like PlaySpent that are followed up with reflection questions. 

Innovative activities that get the students doing something they do not usually do are memorable and exciting. For example, I designed an activity where students move around the classroom in groups to visit chat stations that list statements containing racist discourse and identify whether the statements are biological racism or one of the four frames of colorblind racism. ASA’s Teaching Resources and Innovation Library for Sociology (TRAILS) offers a great repository of class activities and other teaching resources that you can use in your classroom. 

Concluding thoughts 
Think of the class announcements, mini-lecture, and class activities format as adaptable to your specific course and student needs. For example, if you need to include a weekly quiz into your discussion sections, please feel comfortable adding this assessment into the general discussion section structure I present here. Christine Tulley advises us to think of class content as interchangeable segments you can use to build a class. 

Lastly, remember to be easy on yourself. You are learning how to teach, which takes time. Be understanding and patient with yourself as you develop course activities, ways to explain concepts, appropriate pacing for mini-lectures and activities, and more. 

What are some of your favorite class activities that you incorporate in your classroom?

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

How to Write a Compelling TEDx Script: Revise, Get Feedback, Repeat

I just finished writing a script for a TEDx talk and I am certain I have never before put in so many hours into such a short piece. 

I chose to write a script instead of speaking from an outline. The talk needed to be 12 minutes or less and the best way to ensure that would happen was to write a script.

As an academic, writing a TEDx script is like exercising a whole new muscle. I write all the time but had never done this particular form of writing. Learning how to do this well took a lot of time and feedback. Thus, I did something I have never done before: I got a speaking coach who read and listened to multiple drafts.

The first draft of my TEDx talk was similar to talks I have given in academic venues. The talk had place-based and historical references. It explained policies like redlining, White flight, and slum clearance. Here is my attempt at explaining why what I was saying in the talk was novel:
"If you read The Color of Law, then you know that federal policies created racial segregation. If you read The New Jim Crow, then you know that Black communities were devastated by mass incarceration. And, if you read How to Kill a City, then you know that gentrification has led to the displacement of working class and Black people from cities. Now, what you might not know is that segregration, incarceration, and gentrification are connected. My research into the neighborhood where I grew up has taught me that policies that created segregation laid the groundwork for mass incarceration, which in turn made gentrification possible."

I shared a version of the talk with this verbiage with my speaking coach. After listening, she told me she felt like she had just attended a fascinating academic lecture. But, that is not what a TEDx talk is. I needed more storytelling. I needed to cut some of the policy descriptions to make room for the stories. I needed to slow down and tell those stories. I also needed to cut the paragraph above because most people have not read those books.

I also reached out to a developmental editor I’ve worked with in the past, Audra Wolfe, as she has done some work on podcast and radio editing. She told me I needed to tell the stories in a way that evokes the senses and emotions. This was hard. For an academic, I might be a pretty good storyteller, but this was a whole new level. I wasn’t ready to invoke smells. But, I could try sounds. And, I knew I could invoke the visuals. I decided to describe the bus ride from my house in a primarily Black neighborhood to my school in a primarily White neighborhood.

I then presented the talk to a group of generous colleagues. My humanities colleagues, however, told me I needed to slow down and really tell the stories. This meant telling more of my own story as well as that of my friends. It meant providing more details and texture to the stories. This meant cutting even more of the policy discussions.

As a sociologist, I endeavor to strike a balance between storytelling and structural analyses. To tell more stories, I had to cut some of the policy discussions. This was hard as it all seemed so important!

I cut the part about how the Washington Real Estate Board’s code of ethics promoted racial segregation, about how White people were able to access federally-backed loans to open businesses in the 1940s, and about how only 2% of the loans insured by the FHA went to Black borrowers. I also had to cut the part about the wealth gap – DC’s White residents have 81 times the wealth of DC’s Black residents. I had to cut those because I didn’t have the space to explain them fully. There is no use giving a random fact if you can’t flesh it out.

I went back to my speaking coach with my revised script. She suggested I focus and really tell the stories I did tell. I cut the story of a family who left during White flight so that I could flesh out the other stories.

My speaking coach also said I needed a call to action for the conclusion. This was very hard. What should I tell listeners to do?

After a gut-wrenching discussion of the violence of disinvestment, lives lost, and people displaced and imprisoned, I couldn’t think of any policy suggestions that did the topic justice. More affordable housing? Changing lending laws? Providing jobs to formerly incarcerated people? None of these did the topic justice.

I reached out to my brothers, who share my politics and are not academics. I had come up with something about lessons learned and how White supremacy is encoded into laws. My brother Sean said: “Why just acknowledge the harms? Why not abolish the police?” My brother Ian said: “You wouldn’t end a talk enumerating the harms of chattel slavery by vaguely talking about profits over people and the deep roots of White supremacy, right?”

They were right. I had to stay true to my message and my values.

I revised the conclusion and ran it by my colleague and friend, Crystal, who suggested I end by calling back to the stories I had mentioned earlier. So, I did that.

I then gave the talk to three of my closest friends from Washington, DC who are not academics. They suggested I add in at least one uplifting story, so I did that. I ran it by my other brother, Justin, and his girlfriend, Tina. They suggested a couple of points that needed explanation.

I don’t know if you’re keeping count, but I definitely called in a lot of favors for this talk. I asked at least 27 friends and colleagues to either read the script or listen to the spoken version. I haven’t even mentioned everyone here. My colleague Anthony also read it and provided great feedback. He gave great tips on how to phrase things and where to slow down for more impact. My mother gave me feedback on an early version. She told me I needed to narrow down the points I was trying to make. My friend Christina told me I needed to make the argument clearer.

Once the script was done, it still wasn’t over. I needed to rehearse and to figure out how to perform the script. There was a part of the script that was very hard to deliver effectively because of the emotional ride in that part. I reached out to a friend and colleague, Nicole, who is a theatre professor and she stepped in and generously gave me some amazing tips on delivery.

My university agreed to professionally record the talk, so I delivered it on a stage. I got a student to help me with the graphics and the university’s media team put the video and graphics together. It thus looks a lot better than just me in front of the zoom screen.

I didn’t tabulate the hours I put into this effort. But, I know I worked on the talk at least 10 hours a week for 8 weeks, so at least 80 hours of writing and revising. I also spent at least another 40 hours practicing it. I listened to it and practiced it out loud every single day on my afternoon walks.

Was all this effort worth it for the TEDx talk? Watch it here and let me know!

Sunday, January 17, 2021

If You Want to Do a TEDx Talk, Start Preparing Now

Exciting news: My TEDx talk "How to Kill a Neighborhood and Make a Profit" will be released on January 23, 2021! 

I have long thought about doing a TED or a TEDx talk. (TEDx events are independently organized TED events.) Thus, when I heard of a local opportunity, I applied immediately. That was in February 2020. As you can imagine, that event was canceled due to the pandemic. 

Once I applied, however, I started giving some serious thought to what I would say in a TEDx talk. To apply, I had to tell the organizers what I would say, so I had already come up with a throughline: Disinvestment in Washington, DC made gentrification possible. 

The throughline is the argument on which your entire talk is based. If you imagine your talk like a tree, the throughline is the trunk and you use the branches to fill the argument out. 

Your throughline should be based on your expertise. I am writing a book on this topic, am a Washington, DC native, and am a sociologist of race. For academics, the expertise and credibility part is straightforward. However, I also wanted to choose a topic I have personal as well as academic interest in. I could have given a talk based on one of my other areas of expertise, but this topic is the nearest and dearest to me because everything I discuss in the talk happened in the neighborhood where I was raised.

Your throughline also should convey something novel or unexpected like Barry Schwartz’s TED talk, which explains that more choice makes us less happy. That’s unexpected, right! 

Tanya Golash-Boza delivering her TEDx talk

The novelty doesn’t have to be something only you know, but it should be novel to a broader audience. For my topic, academics who study gentrification know that gentrification requires disinvestment. However, most people have not thought about the fact that racist housing practices and policies like redlining and blockbusting led to disinvestment in Black communities and made gentrification possible. Another twist in my talk is that the community I discuss is a Black middle-class community, which adds another novel dimension to the conversation on gentrification. 

Once I had my throughline in place, I began to think about which stories I would tell – both from my own story of growing up in a neighborhood that has gentrified and from my research. There are so many stories to choose from, so I had to decide which stories would be the most compelling 

On November 17, 2020, the organizers from the TEDx UC Merced event reached out and told us they decided to go virtual so the event was going to take place in January 2021. And, the script was due on December 23, giving me less than five weeks to prepare. 

Luckily, I had already begun working on the talk because five weeks is a very short time to come up with a compelling script. So, the first lesson in all of this is: If you want to deliver a TED or TEDx talk, start working on it now so that you are ready when the opportunity arises. (There are plenty of opportunities to deliver a TEDx talk – this website lists several events every day!) 

Come up with a throughline and a full outline before applying. First of all, you need a good throughline to apply in the first place. And, secondly, this will give you a head start on preparing. 

When I received my invitation to give my virtual TEDx talk, I had my throughline and a very draft-y version of the talk prepared. Only a few lines from that original draft made it into the final version, although the throughline stayed the same. I worked on my talk every single weekday (and some weekends) between November 17 and the date I delivered it: January 11, 2021. 

I will write a couple more blog posts in the coming days to provide more TEDx related tips. So, please comment below if you have questions!

And, please watch and share my TEDx talk!

Monday, May 18, 2020

How Deep Work Can Enhance Your Productivity and Creativity During the Summer of the Pandemic

We are facing unprecedented times. The summer is now upon us and it will be unlike any summer we have ever experienced.

This will be the first summer in over two decades that I will stay put. When I moved to Merced, I knew the summers were very long and very hot. But, I also thought that I would be able to leave for at least a month each summer to escape the heat. Clearly, that won’t be happening this summer.

I am particularly disappointed about having to postpone our writing retreat which was going to be on a private island in Belize, but, this is our new reality and I have accepted that.

With three long, hot months ahead of me, I know I need to plan to make sure that I emerge from the summer feeling relaxed and rejuvenated and ready to take on whatever the fall semester may bring.

I also have work to do as I have grant-funded research that needs to happen this summer.

Fortunately, I know from both research and experience that it is possible to have a summer that is both productive and relaxing. Today, I will share some strategies with you that will also help you to have a productive and relaxing summer.

This will require using small chunks of focused time for deep work. Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University, defines “deep work” as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capacities to their limit.”

Newport argues we have to work in distraction-free environments to reach the limits of our cognitive capacity.

The work we do as academic writers requires tremendous cognitive capacity. To publish our research, we have to create new knowledge. That requires first understanding at a very deep level the current state of the field and then having the creativity and ingenuity to create new knowledge. The work we do is not mundane. We are creating new knowledge and this requires deep work.

There are some knowledge-creators who have the luxury of going to lakeside retreats by themselves for weeks or months at a time where they can achieve a state of flow and concentration that allows them to make important breakthroughs. If you are a single person who lives alone, you may wish to try out a monastic strategy where you cut yourself off from the world completely for a week to focus on your research and writing. However, I know that is not possible for most of us. And, fortunately, there are other ways to achieve this state of distraction-free concentration.

My strategy is to carve out two hours each morning to focus on deep work. I know from over a decade of experience that focused work for two hours every day is all I need to achieve very high levels of productivity. I have been keeping track of the time I spend writing since 2007. Thus, I can say with certainty that I have written for about two hours a day every weekday for the last 13 years. I have only written more than two hours on very rare occasions and have written several books and dozens of journal articles within that time. Thus, I am confident that two hours of deep work is all I need to have a productive summer.
My Summer 2020 weekly template

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to just write for two hours and call it a day because I have lots of other work to do that is not deep work. Thus, I plan to set aside another two to three hours each weekday to manage the dozen or so employees I have working for me, to respond to emails, and to plan out and troubleshoot my ongoing research.

I also know that exercise and self-care will be very important so I have set aside time in my schedule for those activities.

I show you my summer plan here and will walk you through the logic behind my decisions. I wake up very early. I am an early riser, so this is not difficult for me. Also, as I mentioned above, it gets very hot here in Merced, California. However, the early morning hours are cooler and this is the time I would be able to get in a jog. Thus, I plan to jog for 30 minutes four days a week, first thing in the morning.

I also will meditate just before writing as I find that meditating greatly improves my focus and helps me get into the mindset of doing deep work.

Sitting for two hours is not the best thing for my back, so I will do yoga after meditating to stretch out those kinks. Then, I will take a break to have lunch and do some housework. Then, I will spend 2 to 3 hours taking care of email and meeting with my students and employees before dedicating the rest of the day to hang out with my partner and our three teenage daughters.

And, one day a week I will break up this routine and go on a long morning hike. I chose the morning time because this is the only time it will be cool enough for a long hike.

You will notice that I also set aside time for email and housework. The logic behind doing that is that, knowing that I have those activities on my calendar will make it easier for me to not get lost in email when I should be writing or decide that I really need to dust the ceiling fans during times I have set aside for writing.

How about you? Have you come up with a weekly template for your summer? Will you be able to set up an hour or two of distraction-free time for yourself?