Friday, March 30, 2012

What’s the matter with a forty-hour work week for academics?

I am not sure why, but, many times, when I argue that professors should work 40 hours a week, I get push back. Perhaps this is because some people are happy working over 40 hours a week, and understand their flexible work schedules to mean that they are free to work night and day. That’s fine by me.

What is not fine by me is that young scholars are made to feel as if working 50, 60, and 70 hours a week is how things should be, and never even consider the possibility that an academic's job can be done in 40 hours. In my view, a 40 hour week is plenty. And, I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Just ask the folks who fought for the 8-hour work day.

Stakende arbeiders / Striking workers

If you feel as if a 40-hour work week cramps your style, that’s fine. This post is not for you. This post is for those academics who want their life back, who don’t want work to be their life, and who want to believe that it is possible to get their work done in 40 hours a week so that they can use the rest of the time to nourish their soul, feed their bodies, spend with their families, dance tango, or play video games.

Of course, I can’t speak for everyone, but I just want to put it out there that I have been an academic since 1999, and have pretty much always taken evenings and weekends off from work. The exception is my first year of grad school. I began graduate study in August of 1999 and spent the first year reading and writing whenever I got the chance, aside from the five trips abroad I took that first year to Peru, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil. However, I came back to my second year of graduate school pregnant with twins, and, by force, spent a lot less time hitting the books. My husband spent the day taking care of our twin babies, so there was no way I was getting away with studying on the evenings and weekends.

When I got my first tenure-track job in 2005, my schedule stayed pretty much the same: I worked from 8am to 5pm, with a break for lunch. What has changed while on the tenure track is that I had to become much more efficient with my time to get it all done within the 40-hour work-week. And, I have had to stand my ground a few times when colleagues have suggested we have meetings on Saturdays.

So, how do I do it? On Tuesday, I actually kept track, as I do from time to time. The thing to note here is that I actually worked 8 hours, but did not do it neatly between 9am and 5pm. Instead, I worked from 6:30 to 7am, 8am to 11:30am and then from 1:30 to 2:30 and from 3pm to 5pm. Oops. That’s actually 7 hours. Unless you count the last half hour of social media, then it’s 7.5.

6am: woke up. had coffee. checked email.
6:30am: prepped my files to begin working for the day.
7am: got my three kids ready for school. had breakfast.
8am: Wrote for one pomodoro (25 minutes) on my book on deportees.
8:30am: Twitter, FB, planning.
9am: one pomodoro (25 minutes) responding to revisions on textbook.
9:30: social media stuff.
10am: one pomodoro revising textbook.
10:30am: another pomodoro applying for Human Subjects approval.
11:00am: another pomodoro finishing Human Subjects application. (5 pomodoros of writing!)
11:30: shower, get dressed, take a walk
12:30: have lunch with my husband.
1:30: read book for deportee project
2:30: walk to campus and get a new key for my office
3:00: check email, FB, Twitter.
3:30: more email. office cleaning.
4pm: Met with student to go over revisions to paper.
4:15pm: Reviewed book proposal for colleague.
4:30: Wrote a speaking proposal in response to an invitation to give a lecture.
4:50-5:05: some speed grading.
5:05: Social media
5:30: went for a walk
6:30: dinner, kids, more social media (not work-related).
8:30: kids to bed.
9-11pm: Read “Love and Capital” while kids were in bed reading as well.
11pm: Sleep

So, what did I do in that 7 hour work day?
- read a book
- responded to about 20 emails and processed another 50
- graded 15 short student essays
- met with a student
- wrote a speaking proposal
- responded to a colleague’s book proposal
- revised a chapter of a book-in-progress
- wrote and submitted a human subjects application
- pulled together data for a chapter of another book-in-progress.

For me, at the end of a productive day like that, I felt completely wiped out. There was no way I was going to be able to get in another 30 minutes, much less two to three hours of work. Thus, over the years, I have learned to stop working once I feel tired. That is why I stopped at 11:30am, took a long break, and then stopped again at 5pm. Admittedly, instead of reading Love and Capital at 9pm, I could have read something more directly related to my work. And, I do sometimes read for class at night. But, I at least try to stop working at 5pm.

Perhaps those people who work for 50, 60, or 70 hours a week have more stamina than I do. Perhaps I am more efficient and get done in 40 what others might do in 60. I really don’t know. But, I do want to put it out there that this system of working 8 hours a day (more or less) for five days a week works for this productive academic.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Get Inspired: Change Your Writing Location and Spark Creativity

Although few academics think of it this way, writing is a creative process. When you write, you pull words together to make a point or argument, to describe a scenario or a person, to analyze data, or to introduce a phenomenon. Doing this well requires creativity and ingenuity. Thus, it is important to feed your creative side.

For you / Para vosotras (Sant Jordi)

Once you think of writing as a creative process, it becomes evident that it takes creative energy and that it requires stimulation and inspiration. This does not mean, of course, that you must wait to be inspired to write. With packed schedules and long to-do lists, inspiration rarely strikes on its own. The good news is that you can train your mind to be more creative on demand, and that there are a few tricks you can use to spark creativity.

The trick I am going to focus on in this blog post is very simple: change location. Many writers dream of having the perfect writing spot. For me, this would be a large, sparsely decorated room with hardwood floors, high ceilings, a sturdy cherry writing desk, and most importantly, an enormous window with a view of the sea. Unfortunately, I have no such luxury. Instead, I do much of my writing on my couch, in my cluttered office, and at various coffee shops around town. And, even if I did have an amazing office, it still would be important to try writing in other spaces. The reason is that a change in location sparks creativity.

If you have a favorite writing location that works for you, that is fabulous. However, if you ever find yourself stuck with your writing, it can be a good idea to try a new location, even if it is just for a day. For example, I know a very productive writer who works in her lovely home office most days, but once a week she meets with friends at a local coffee shop where they write together for two hours. For her, injecting a bit of variety in her writing routine provides just enough stimulation to keep going and to continue to be creative and productive.

I know another writer who resolved to write in her office on campus every morning. This strategy worked out well for the first few weeks of the semester. However, as the semester wore on, and fatigue began to set in, she found it more and more difficult to get her creative engines running, and easier to be distracted by all the tasks (and people) that called her attention in her office. She decided to change location, and to try writing at the campus library. This simple strategy of changing location worked wonders for her.

My own strategy is to write at home three days a week, and to go to a coffee shop two days a week. Usually, writing at home works for me. However, once my mind begins to wander and the disorganization in my living room shouts for my attention, I pack up my laptop and head out for a coffee shop. That change in location seems to work well. Once I am in a new space, I am able to concentrate again.

There are many possible ways of implementing the idea of changing location. For those of you who have a stable writing location that works, it might be a good idea to meet with friends at a coffee shop once a week to write together. If you do not want to leave your house, you can simply try writing in a different room. For those of you who are not getting the writing done in your office that you would hope to get done, it might work for you to try a new location: the campus library, a coffee shop, the public library, your home office, or even a friend’s house. For some people, it will work better to change locations every day. For others, adding a little variety into your regular routine is the trick.

The reason changing location works is that, as you are writing, you are – consciously or unconsciously – taking in all that surrounds you. This background noise or scenery will have an impact on how your brain works. If your environment is nurturing and inspiring, that is great and will work to your advantage. Nevertheless, if it is the exact same environment every single day, you might be missing out on an opportunity for creative inspiration by putting yourself in another space. On the other end of things, if you are writing in a less than ideal space – such as your cluttered office or your unkempt living room – you might be limiting your creativity by allowing your mind to focus on all of the things that demand your attention. In that case, you might be surprised how a simple change in location – one with fewer distractions - leads you to new places in your writing.

If you do decide to change it up, let me know how it goes! Either way, best of luck with your writing this week.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Seek Out Your Writing Inspiration: How to Find the Ideal Writing Spot

Writing requires concentration and lots of mental energy. That is one reason where you write is important. If you are in a location that it not conducive to concentration or is uninspiring, it can be hard to get your writing done.

In an ideal world, I would be writing in a large, clean, sparsely decorated room with inspiring objets d’art, and two huge picture windows. One picture window would have an amazing view of the sea, and the other of snow-capped mountains. Aside from the geographical feasibility of that ideal location, it is simply an ideal, not my reality. But, knowing what my ideal location would be tells me some things about the kind of places I should seek out for writing. It is important for me to be somewhere with something nice to look at. I draw inspiration from my surroundings. It is also best if I am in a quiet place, with few distractions.

What would your ideal writing location look like?

Do you enjoy the quiet or do you like a bit of bustling around you as you write? How important is your view? Do you prefer to write in a warm place or a cool place? Do you want to hear birds chirping, conversation buzzing, classical music, top 40 hits, cars whizzing by, or nothing at all? There is no right or wrong answer to this question, but thinking of your ideal writing spot can help you figure out where is best for you to write and where is simply not conducive.

Like waves, we roll on

I know for sure that the most important thing for me is a minimum of distractions. That is why it is sometimes difficult for me to write at home, where there is laundry to be done, clothes to be picked up, plates to be washed, and lots of snacks in the kitchen to be eaten. My office can be a good location sometimes, but only when it is fairly well organized and my door is closed – signaling to potential visitors that I am busy.

My office and home have the advantage of being quiet, for the most part. And, I prefer the quiet for writing. But, I am willing to sacrifice that for the lively energy of a coffee shop. Thus, two days a week, I make my way to a local coffee shop to write. When the next table gets a bit rowdy, I pull out my earphones and put on classical music.

Other people find that quietness is the most important aspect of a writing space. Thus, they seek out library carrels, empty conference rooms, home offices, and secluded cabins in the woods.

Choose a good place to write because writing is important

Choosing a suitable writing spot also has the advantage of signaling to yourself that writing is important enough to you for you to make the effort to find the best place possible to do it. Doing so can be empowering insofar as you are not only writing, but acting like a writer, like someone who writes and takes it seriously.

Think about it. What would be your ideal writing spot? If you can’t recreate that space in your current environment, what aspects of it can you recreate? Can you find the quiet, the inspiration, the movement, the view, the space you need anywhere close to where you are?

Of course, you probably can write anywhere. However, as a writer, you deserve to treat yourself by finding the best location possible for your writing.

Here are ten ideas for writing locations:

  1. A library carrel
  2. The public library
  3. An empty conference room
  4. A coffee shop
  5. Your home office
  6. Your work office
  7. Your backyard
  8. Your front porch
  9. A local park or arboretum
  10. A friend's house
Pick wherever works best for you and let the ideas flow!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

How To Concentrate Better and Focus on Your Writing

To write, I need to concentrate. To concentrate, I need to have a clear mind. And, when something is bothering me, it is hard to have a clear mind, and, consequently, to write. So, how do you write when you have too much on your mind?


The simple answer is that you can not write when your mind is preoccupied with other things. To concentrate, you have to get the problem off your mind. The difficulty that clearing your mind involves depends on how big of a problem you have. Some problems can be taken care of fairly easily, whereas others are much bigger and require major steps. Let’s start with the easy kind of problems.

Annoyances with an Easy Fix

Let’s say you can’t write because you cannot stop thinking about an annoying email from a student asking you if they can enroll in your class even though they will miss 75% of the class sessions because of baseball practice and you can’t get it off of your mind. (Of course, you should not have opened your email before writing, but, that’s beside the point.) The best thing to do in this situation is to respond to the email.

Do something about the situation instead of letting it bother you. Tell the student attendance is required in your class, and that you cannot make any exceptions. Then, close the browser window and get back to writing.

If you are having general problems with concentrating, you also might consider doing meditation, which has been shown to enhance concentration.

Respond to What's Bothering You and Get it Out of Your System

This technique – of responding to situations that bother you to get them off of your mind – also can work for more complex problems. If, for example, your chair just asked you to serve on yet another committee even though you are already on five other committees and you are all riled up about what to do about it, the best thing to do is to send a firm email explaining why this is not a good time for you to take on another committee assignment. Again, act, and get it out of your system.

Suppose your problem is that you have just received a rejection letter from a journal and feel depressed about your academic future. The best thing to do is to be pro-active. Take out a pen and make a plan for submitting the article to another journal. Set a firm date as a goal for beginning the revisions and for submission. Having a plan will make it easier to move forward.

Acknowledge Your Emotions and Work with Them

It is essential to acknowledge your emotions and to work with them. If you had an argument with your partner this morning, and can’t get it off of your mind, sometimes it is best to acknowledge that you are upset, and to engage in tasks that do not require much concentration. You can fix the bibliography on your latest manuscript or organize those articles that are piling up on your desk. Who knows, you might even calm yourself down while you are busy looking up citation formats in the Chicago Manual of Style.

Of course, there are some problems that are not going away any time soon. You may be involved in a custody battle with your spouse. Your mother may be dying of cancer. You may be on the brink of divorce. To figure out how to be productive in those very trying circumstances is much less simple.

The first question you have to ask yourself is: how long is this going to last? If your sister has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and will die within the next thirty days, by all means, drop everything and spend every minute you can with her. If, on the other hand, you have a mentally-ill brother who requires long-term care, you have to decide how much of a role you are going to play in his care, and set limits to the amount of time and energy you give him.

Setting limits on what you can do for your loved ones is difficult. But, often, it is for the best. If you depend on your job for your financial solvency, it would be detrimental in the long term for you to spend so much time caring for others that you end up losing your job. Once you have lost your job, you likely will be of much less use to your loved ones who rely on your emotional and financial support. So, be sure to keep the long-term in mind.

Finally, do not hesitate to seek out professional help if you are having trouble dealing with your problems on your own. If you find yourself unable to move forward with your life or your work because of constant emotional setbacks, your best bet is to seek out a qualified therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist who can help you to find the most appropriate solutions for you.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

How I Published Three Books in One Year

Have you ever looked at someone’s CV and asked yourself how in the world they were able to publish more than one book in a year or several articles in one year? I have. I often have asked myself “How did they do it?” or “What’s their secret?” when looking at someone’s impressive CV.

I never thought that I would actually publish three books in one year, but I did. And, in this post, I will tell you how I did it. The truth is: there is no secret. Publishing often takes a long time, yet sometimes happens quickly. This, in turn, means that, sometimes, you will see a cluster of publications on a person’s CV.

First, let me clarify what I mean by the statement that I published three books in one year. I don’t mean that I wrote three books in one year. I just mean that I had three books released in the space of twelve months. In March 2011, the University Press of Florida released Yo Soy Negro: Blackness in Peru. In September 2011, Paradigm Publishers released Immigration Nation: Raids, Detentions, and Deportations in Post-9/11 America. In February 2012, Routledge published Due Process Denied: Detentions and Deportations in the United States.

Here’s how it happened: Book #1: Yo Soy Negro: Blackness in Peru.

I defended my dissertation in May of 2005, and immediately began to revise my dissertation with an eye towards turning it into a book. I wrote a new chapter in the Spring of 2006, and another new chapter in the Fall. In January 2007, I submitted a proposal to several presses. To my delight, one editor was interested, and asked for four chapters. I got busy and sent those to her the following month. She was remarkably efficient, and got reviews by the May 2007. One of the reviewers thought the manuscript had promise. The other disagreed. The editor told me that I could submit the complete manuscript after a major revision.

I then spent the summer in Peru collecting more data for the book. I did some more historical work and ethnography and came back from the summer to the University of Illinois at Chicago where I had a post-doctoral fellowship. I dug in and began to revise the manuscript. By February 2008, I had a revised manuscript. I thought it was much better, and decided to submit it to what I considered my dream press. The editor expressed interest and sent the full manuscript out for review. A full year later, in February 2009, she had the reviews in hand. One was positive and hopeful about the book. The other two disagreed. The editor decided, based on the reviews, not to move forward. I was devastated, but determined to publish this book. I revised it yet again, aiming to develop a consistent argument and theoretical line that carried through the text. In May 2009, I sent it to a third press.

This press, the University Press of Florida, was efficient, and had reviews in by November 2009. The two reviews were positive, and the revisions they suggested were minor. Finally! I made those revisions, and submitted the final draft for publication in March 2010. A year later, in March 2011, the book appeared in print.

Now, we get to book #2: Immigration Nation.

You might have noticed in the story above that there were long stretches of time when Book #1 was under review. The first time was in the Spring of 2007. At that time, the book was incomplete, so I continued to work on the chapters. But, I also spent some time on my new project on immigration policy. The second time was between February 2008 and February 2009: a whole year. In addition, I was on fellowship between February and August 2008, and had lots of time to write. It was during this time that I drafted what would become the core of Immigration Nation. In the Fall of 2008, I spoke to a few publishers about Immigration Nation, and wrote a proposal. One of the publishers I talked to expressed interest and I shared a few sample chapters with her. However, the book wasn’t finished, and she was dragging her feet. In the summer of 2009, after submitting Yo Soy Negro to Florida, I resolved to finish Immigration Nation.

In August 2009, I had drafted several chapters of Immigration Nation, and sent those to Paradigm Publishers. They were very interested, and gave me an advance contract. They sent the chapters out for review, and I worked on finishing the remainder of the book. Paradigm sent the reviews back to me in February 2010, and I was able to work on the revisions, as I had just sent Yo Soy Negro back to Florida for copyediting. I sent the revised manuscript to Paradigm in April 2010. The editor got back to me with further suggestions for revision, and I worked on those until November 2010, when Immigration Nation finally was ready to move into production. Getting it into production in November 2010 enabled Immigration Nation to appear in print in September 2011.

And, then there was book #3: Due Process Denied.

Once Yo Soy Negro and Immigration Nation were in production, they weren’t completely out of my hands, as I had to complete the copy edits and page proofs. However, those tasks were fairly minor compared to actually writing the books. In the Fall of 2010, a series editor at Routledge approached me and asked if I would like to write a short book on deportations. I said that I would, and agreed to a May 2011 deadline. In February 2011, I decided that I would focus the short book (25,000 words) on the lack of due process in detention and deportation proceedings, a theme I mention in Immigration Nation, but do not develop fully. I worked furiously on the draft, and was able to meet the May 2011 deadline, more or less. The book went out for review. The reviewer was positive, and only suggested minor changes. I revised the book and sent it back to the publisher in the Fall of 2011. The production process was super-quick, and the book appeared in print in February 2012.

So, that’s the story. It took years for me to publish my first book, a fairly normal time for the second, and an abnormally short time for the third, in large part because it is a very short book. I was able to publish the first two in fairly close succession because of the long review process for the first.

Perhaps I do have two secrets to publishing three books in one year: 1) write every day so that you have lots of material to work with and 2) keep submitting your work until it gets published.