Saturday, December 14, 2013

Do You Need to Go on an Information Diet?

Is it possible to have too much information? Could information overload be getting in the way of important tasks?


I am a professor, a social scientist, and – to some extent – a public intellectual. It thus seems imperative that I keep up on the news. I talk about current events in my classes. I write about immigration policy, which is constantly changing. And, I like to know what’s going on so I can keep apace at bars and cocktail parties. Thus, in many ways, I need to know what is going on in the news so I can be effective at my work.

Even so, I find it useful to cut back on the amount of information coming at me. There are two ways that I have cut back:
  1. Limiting the amount of time I spend on news and social media sites; and
  2. Getting my intellectual work (writing) done before checking email and other websites.

I am convinced that I am a more productive writer when I write before going on social media and email. However, I have to admit it is a constant struggle. That’s why I find a strategy suggested by Dr. Morgan Giddings useful – “the information diet.” This strategy is also suggested by Clay Johnson, author of The Information Diet.

I am participating in a “Think Creative, Be Productive” Course offered by Dr. Morgan Giddings. I have only gotten through the first module. But, in that module Giddings offers up a great strategy that she calls an “information diet.” She challenged all of the course participants to cut out or cut back the following sources of (often unnecessary) information:

  • News sites
  • Blogs
  • Email
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Text messages
  • Phone conversations
  • In-person conversations

Giddings argues that reducing the amount of extraneous information that you permit to come into your mind will allow you to tap deeper into your intuition. If there is less clutter in your mind, you can think more clearly. I certainly agree with that. But, how do you reduce the flow of information?

Giddings is not suggesting that you completely eliminate these sources of information, but that you control how much you take in and control the times that you indulge in them.

I have a family to take care of, so it is not usually the case that I can wake up and walk straight to my computer without talking to anyone in the morning. However, I can avoid the urge to go on the Internet first thing in the morning. I also can make sure that I write for two hours before permitting myself to engage in email, social media, or phone conversations.

I put this strategy into practice this week and was mildly successful.

On Wednesday, I was successful at avoiding all Internet activities before getting in two hours of writing. On Thursday, I did the same. On Friday, however, I thought I would just check a little bit of email while my kids were getting ready for school. They left the house at 8:30am. At 9:30am, I was still on Facebook.

That’s when I turned on my “Self-Control” application and wrote for an hour. Self Control is a free and open-source application for Mac OS that lets you block your own access to particular websites. Once you install it, you can set a period of time to block for, add sites to your blacklist, and click "Start." Until that timer expires, you will be unable to access those sites--even if you restart your computer or delete the application. (Check out this list here for other apps that can help you go on an information diet.)

On Friday, I set Self-Control for two hours and was able to avoid distractions for an hour. After an hour, however, I pulled out my phone and got sucked into a Twitter debate.

Lesson learned (again). No Internet in the mornings before writing!

It is not just about the time you save in the morning by not checking email, news sites, and social media. It is also about the mental clarity you are able to sustain. Writing is a tough intellectual exercise, and the more focus and clarity you have, the better you will be at it.

What do you think? Are you ready to go on an information diet? Do you already have self-imposed restrictions? How do you avoid the urge? Does the urge go away with time?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

End of Year Check-In … 2013 is nearly over!

There are many ways a writer can stay motivated.

Setting small goals and meeting them is one example. However, setting big goals also can be helpful.

Setting large goals for the year, for example, can help you to think about the big picture. And, once you meet those goals, it can be useful to think about all you have done so that you can develop motivation to move forward.


The trick is to set reasonable goals and reasonable expectations for meeting them.

The end of the year is a great time to go back to your big goals and see all that you have accomplished during the year.

As I was looking over what I did for last month, I was a bit down because most of what I did was to continue to revise works in progress. It can be hard to see the progress I am making when all I have to say for November is that I revised a chapter and an article and they are still unfinished.

To pull myself out of that slump, I decided to look at all I have done over the course of 2013. And, it turns out I have some major accomplishments to report.

I have been working on a fifteen-chapter textbook for just about three years. I wrote the first chapter in early 2011 and have been moving forward slowly ever since. This was the year for the final push and I managed to write the final six chapters this year! That is 48,000 new words. In addition, I returned to the reviews and made final revisions on each of the chapters. The final deadline for the textbook revisions was December 6, so the book is now officially in production. The book will be out in August 2014, and I will certainly celebrate that. (If you are curious, I have details about the book here.)

I also have been working on a book on deportees for a while. I completed the interviews in August 2010. I finished going through the transcriptions, writing memos and doing the preliminary analyses of the interviews in January 2011. I have been writing up the chapters ever since. In 2012, I wrote the Introduction and the first three chapters. In 2013, I wrote chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7 – four new chapters or about 40,000 words!

In addition to those two books, I have also been working on articles and book chapters for edited volumes. I wrote and submitted one book chapter and one article based on the interviews with deportees. I also wrote a rough draft of another article. Those three pieces overlap somewhat with the book manuscript, but are not exactly the same.

While writing this, I looked back to see what I did in 2012, and my productivity was similar – five textbook chapters and four chapters of the deportee book in addition to a few shorter pieces. It is good to know that I can maintain a consistent writing pace. It is also remarkable to me that my productivity for 2012 and 2013 were so similar. Perhaps I really have found my writing groove! As I mentioned last year, I have been able to accomplish all of this writing by maintaining a consistent writing habit of two hours a day, five days a week.

I find looking back over my accomplishments to be rewarding. It also gives me energy to move forward and keep up momentum for next year.

Now that I am finished with the race textbook, I can focus all of my energies on revising and submitting the book on deportees. There is no doubt that I can be finished with the revisions by Spring 2014. This is fantastic, as I am ready to be done with it!

Once I finish the deportee manuscript, I can work on the three articles I have drafts of. And, then I can move on to my next project!

What about you? Did you make goals for 2013? Have you met them?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Negotiating an Academic Job Offer: What are the Secrets?

The academic job market is difficult, but people are still getting job offers. When you do get a job offer, how do you negotiate? Should you negotiate? I think the answer is yes and I offer some tips for how to negotiate in this post.

Negotiate this, motherfucker!

For my first job offer, I did not negotiate at all. I had heard I was supposed to negotiate. However, I had no idea where to start or what to ask for. I meekly asked for more moving expenses. The chair said he could not budge on moving expenses. Instead, he offered me $1,000 more in salary and I took the offer.

I had interviewed at another place, yet withdrew from the search before (potentially) receiving an offer. I had heard that I could use a second offer to negotiate, but I feared that I would appear greedy.

It was my first academic job and I was happy to have a job at all. So, I did not negotiate for a better salary.

I am not alone. Only seven percent of women negotiate when they get a job offer, as compared to 57% of men!

After six years in my first job, it became clear that my salary was not competitive. I asked my senior colleagues for advice on how I might get a raise. They told me that the only way to get a raise was to go on the job market and get another offer. So, I sent off three job applications.

One of those applications turned into an interview and then a job offer. The job offer included a significantly higher salary and a substantial amount of perks that I did not have at my then-current position.

Still, I did not want to regret not having negotiated. And, after six years as a professor, I had heard plenty of stories of people getting more resources when they negotiated. So, I decided to ask for more resources in each of the following categories:

  • base salary
  • research funds
  • conference funds
  • equipment funds
  • course releases
  • summer salary
  • moving expenses
  • housing allowance

For each thing I asked for, I gave a justification. When I asked for help with housing, I explained that I would be unlikely to be able to sell my house due to the housing crisis. When I asked for course releases, I said I would use the time to write a grant. When I asked for research funds, I explained what I would do with the money.

I made out my list of requests and accompanying justification, ran it by a few trusted people, and sent it to the Dean.

I didn’t get everything I asked for, but the Dean was willing to give me some of the things I asked for.

What I found interesting about the process is how simultaneously hard and easy it is. It is hard to work up the nerve to ask for stuff. But once you have the nerve to ask for things and know what to ask for, negotiating is remarkably easy. You ask for it and the Dean either says yes or no.

In my case, the Dean said yes to some things, met me halfway on others, and said no to others.

I took the letter back to my university and they offered me a substantial raise, research funds, and course releases. The hard part was making a decision: should I stay at my job with improved resources or should I leave and venture off into unknown territory?

Eventually, I decided to move because the new job and location seemed like the best option for my family and I was ready for something a bit different professionally.

Now that I have the job and the accompanying resources, I am glad I negotiated because I feel like I got the best deal possible. In my first job, I always had that nagging feeling that I should have negotiated.

The important lesson here is that you never know what you will get if you ask, but you can be sure that if you don’t ask, you won’t get anything.

Friday, November 1, 2013

It's November, also known as #AcWriMo

For the past couple of years, academic writers on social media have begun to participate in #AcWriMo - Academic Writing Month - the academic version of National Novel Writing Month.

Work with schools : writing a composition : girls each weari...

I first heard about #AcWriMo from PhD2Published - which has a post announcing and describing the 2013 version of #AcWriMo. I have done #AcWriMo for the past two years - using my Twitter account.

I plan to do it again this year, and I hope you will join me.

Here are the four basic components of #AcWriMo that you might find helpful:

  • Decide on your goals. These goals can be simple or multifaceted. For example, you can have a goal of writing 750 words every weekday, or completing four pomodoros every day, or finishing a draft of an article.
  • State your goals in a public forum. You can do this on Twitter using the hashtag #AcWriMo. You can do it on the public spreadsheet created by PhD2Published. You can start an accountability group over email with friends. You can post your goals in the comment section below. You can do it anywhere you like. But, don't skip this step!
  • Post your progress. If you are on Twitter, you can post daily updates using the #AcWriMo hashtag. If you are on Facebook, PhD2Published also has a Facebook page where you can post. It is important to have public accountability, because it actually works!
  • Declare your successes at the end of November and celebrate!

In the spirit of public accountability, here are my November writing goals.

During the month of November, I will write for at least two hours each day. Most of my work is revising, so I will stick with a time goal, as opposed to a word count goal. When I am doing new writing, I will try to produce 500 new words a day.

My specific writing goals include:

  1. Put the final touches on OUP15 - the last chapter of the race text I am writing!
  2. Revise DEP5 - the fifth chapter of my book on deportees that is nearly finished.
  3. Finish writing DEP6 - the sixth chapter of my book on deportees that is in disarray.
  4. Pull together a first draft of DEP7 - the seventh chapter of the same book that is all in pieces.
  5. Finalize ASA conference paper.
  6. Work on grant for next project and submit to any November deadlines.
I will post my progress on Twitter. Happy #AcWriMo!

Thursday, October 3, 2013

How to Read A Lot

A few weeks ago, I posted a picture of a stack of books on Facebook that I had on my list of books I need to read. I know many other scholars also have similar stacks of books and articles they plan to read because I have seen such stacks. After posting that picture, a few people wrote to me to ask how I am able to keep up on reading.

I posted that picture nearly three weeks ago, and have gotten through five of those books. This post will explain how I keep up with my reading, amidst my other responsibilites.

As I reflected on my reading process as well as this thoughtful post on reading by David Leonard, I realized that my reading habits have changed over time.

Reading like a single, childless graduate student

My first year of graduate school, it seems all I did was read. My first semester, I read a big book for theory and another book for my race seminar each week. In addition, I did background reading for my first seminar paper. I’d come home from the library with stacks of books and would read them voraciously. With few commitments in my life other than graduate school, I just read all the time.

Fortunately, in my first semester of graduate school, my theory professor Charles Kurzman suggested to all of us that we take notes on every single thing we read and that we label the computer files with a .nts extension. I still have those notes from that semester and the semesters since.

When you have few externally imposed limits on your time, to read a lot, all you need is passion and perseverance.

Reading like a graduate student with small children

My twin daughters were born in my fourth semester of graduate school. If I read anything that semester, it was on how to survive being a mother of twin infants. However, when my twins were five months old, I went back to graduate school and had to figure things out again.

My third year of graduate school was the year I took my comprehensive exams – which meant I had to get through two lists of 100 readings each. To do this, I worked with a group of two other students also studying for these exams, and we made goals for ourselves of the readings we planned to get through and met weekly to talk about those readings. To get through the readings, I left my twins at home with my husband from 9am to around 3pm each day and went to the university to read and take notes. I also would read if and when the twins took naps in the afternoon and evening.

Reading like a new faculty member with small children

When I got my first job, my twins were four years old and my youngest daughter was one year old. We did different things with childcare over the first few years of my job. However, one thing remained constant, and that was that I did not have responsibility over the children between 9am and 5pm.

With small children, it was important for me to be home with them after 5pm. It was also important for me to focus on my work for eight hours each day. Thus, I carved out time during the day to read. I would try and spend at least an hour a day reading.

One other thing I did during this time to keep up with my reading is that, two or three days a week, I would take the kids with me to the gym so that my husband could prepare dinner in peace. The kids would go to the daycare of the gym and I would read for class the following day while on the treadmill or the elliptical.

Reading like a tenured faculty member with children in middle school

When I took my new position at UC Merced, my twins were in their first year of middle school. Middle school has meant that my children are no longer in afterschool programs, and thus get home between 3pm and 4pm. For me, this has meant that I often also need to be home around this time to help my children with their homework and to keep them on track. I have found that I am no longer able to keep a 9 to 5 schedule.

However, another thing has changed, which is that, once my kids are done with their homework, they no longer require my immediate attention. In addition, we have instituted a “no electronics after 8pm” rule in my house. This means that, at 8pm, everyone has to turn off their devices and go into their rooms and read.

I also take this time to read. I find that I generally have enough energy to get in one to two hours of reading after 8pm. I use this time to read for my graduate seminar and to get through my stack of books.

My reading habits have changed over time, but what has remained constant is that reading gets done if and only if I carve out the time for it.

I should also say, in closing, that I also make time to read fiction – either in the evenings, on weekends, or when I travel. This year, I have read every single work by Octavia Butler, inspired by my colleague Erica Williams, who did the same. I also read books by Tayari Jones, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Tannarive Due.

What about you? What are your reading habits? Do you make time for fiction? Do you read mostly books or articles? Do you use a Kindle or do you prefer paper?

Friday, September 6, 2013

How to Submit an OpEd to a Major Newspaper

Every so often, we academics get fired up and want to write an opinion piece so that the world can hear what we have to say. Just how do you submit an OpEd to the New York Times, The Huffington Post, or the Washington Post?

The Washington Post

In a previous post I shared information on how to write an OpEd. Here, I will discuss how you actually go about submitting one.

The first thing you should know is that the OpEd project actually has a comprehensive listing of just about any mainstream media outlet where you might want to submit. That listing is here.

Like most things, however, the process is not as simple as just sending your OpEd to one of those editors and then waiting to see it in print or online. Instead, you have to develop a strategy to ensure the best possible outcome.

Your strategy will depend on a wide variety of factors – mostly timing and your content. Here are a few suggestions for submission strategies.

Strategy 1: Go straight to the top

OpEds have to relate to current news. So, let’s say something major happened last night and you are able to write a solid 800 words about the event and its importance this morning. Lets suppose that, in addition to that, you are able to get two friends to look over the piece, provide feedback, and by 3pm EST you have a solid piece on a major news event.

Ok. That is golden, and you should send the piece directly to the editor of the Opinion page of the New York Times letting them know that you would like a quick response because of the timely nature of your piece. If you have a connection or a direct email address to the NYT or another opinion page editor, send it straight to them.

Someone will see your email. If they want to publish it, they will contact you very quickly.

This strategy works best when you have a hard-hitting piece ready to go on a major news topic. News gets old quickly in mass media, so you have to be ready and act quickly.

That strategy can be difficult, however. Fortunately, there are other options.

Strategy 2: Aim locally

Another option is to try and publish a piece in your local paper. Let’s say you know the school board is meeting in two weeks to discuss a major redistricting plan. Suppose you are an expert in education and have some strong, empirically-based opinions about the redistricting plan in your town.

Here, you have a little bit of room and can spend a few days writing your piece, getting feedback, and revising it. Once it is ready, yet before the school board meeting, you can send it out with the lede: “On Tuesday, the local school board will meet to discuss redistricting. Only one of the plans they have on the table is optimal for our town. Here’s why.”

(By the way, I did not completely make that strategy up. My colleague, Irenee Beattie, actually did this and you can read her awesome OpEd here.)

Strategy 3: Aim left (or right)

There are lots of places you can publish that are not The New York Times. In fact, in the digital era, you can publish a piece just about anywhere and get a million hits if it strikes the right chord.

Do you read any online magazines? I am an unabashed leftist, and I read Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, and the Black Agenda Report. What outlets do you read? If your views are outside of the mainstream, I suspect you are reading more than mainstream media. Think about trying to publish a piece in independent media.

Often independent media will publish articles that are not necessarily today’s news. They also will publish longer pieces. That gives us academics a bit more time to sit and think through our ideas and arguments. You could write a piece today in these outlets about why attacking Syria is a bad idea, but you also could write about something less well-known, like the teacher strikes in Mexico or the future of green energy.

I will also point out here two fine outlets that have published many academics lately: The Boston Review and Al Jazeera Opinion. There may be others, but I have noticed that these two publish many academic voices – including my own!

Strategy 4: Start Early

It can be hard for an academic to respond with lightning speed to the daily news and formulate a well-crafted 800-word article in less than 24 hours. I know. Luckily, you don’t have to.

The other strategy is to predict the future. Think about an OpEd you would like to write. Write it. Then, wait for something to happen in the news that relates directly to your OpEd.

For example, if you work on immigration policy, write an OpEd now. Then, wait for Congress to debate the next big bill. Or, if you work on climate change, write your OpEd and wait for an international forum to happen to submit the OpEd. In many cases, you can write an OpEd which can have many possible ledes.

The good thing about this strategy is that you can recycle your OpEd if it is not accepted. If the New York Times doesn’t publish it, you can revise it, wait for the next major event to happen and send it to the Washington Post.

Over the past few years, I have realized that I am not alone among academics who want to reach a broader audience. As I have had some success in this area, I have realized that strategy can be crucial for success here. Thus, I share these tips with you.

I look forward to hearing your tips and success stories in the comments.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

How to Welcome New Faculty with Children: Three Tips

There has been a lot of talk going around the Internet lately about how difficult it is to be a parent – particularly a mother – and an academic. A recent article even called having a baby a “career killer” for women.

As many of you know, I have three school-aged children and I don’t think it is that difficult to be an academic and a mother.

On a research trip with my 3 kids

Nevertheless, in the spirit of offering practical advice instead of entering into a debate about whether or not it is possible to be a good professor and a good parent, I would like to offer some suggestions for how faculty members can make life easier and more pleasant for new parents who join their departments.

Hiring new faculty is one of the most important investments that a university and a department make. Thus, when you learn that a new faculty member has a child or children, it is in your interest to make sure that the transition is as smooth as possible and to cultivate a family-friendly environment for the new faculty.

Tip #1: Introduce them to other parents

Find out how old the faculty member’s children are and introduce them to other people with children in the same age range. There may not be anyone in your department that also has a two-year-old, but you can ask around and find out if someone in another department also has preschoolers. It is important for parents to meet people who have children the same age as their children so that they can share information about schools, activities, and events. If they get along, they may also organize playdates or become good friends.

To introduce the new faculty to others with children of the same age, you could just put them in email contact. It is important to do this before they move into town, such that they can share information about childcare and schools before they move. Once the new faculty member is in town, you could invite them all to lunch or coffee. Or, if you are going to organize a welcoming event for the new faculty, be sure to invite faculty from other departments who also have children. It is very helpful for new faculty to make connections with other faculty members who are also parents.

As I write this, I realize that this advice may be particular to people who live in college towns. However, even when I was in Chicago, it was helpful for me to meet other faculty who had children. We may not have had many playdates because we lived far apart, but we did share experiences and it was important for me to be connected to other parents.

Tip #2: Keep their schedules in mind when planning events or meetings

People who have children often have them in some sort of care arrangement that ends around 5pm or 6pm and is exclusive to weekdays. Keep this in mind and avoid scheduling meetings after this time or on the weekends.

If your department has an annual retreat on the first Saturday of the semester, consider moving it to a weekday. If that is not possible, make sure you talk to the new faculty member to help them figure out care options. Keep in mind that if they just moved to town, they likely do not know anyone they feel comfortable leaving their child with for an entire day. If they are a single parent or have a spouse who is traveling or working on that day, they may simply be unable to attend a Saturday event.

If your department has a tradition of evening or weekend events, think of ways to make those events family-friendly. Faculty members can seek out baby-sitters on occasion to evening attend events, but, we’d often prefer not to. Usually, we have children because we actually want to spend time with them. Therefore, if there are ways to make events family-friendly, think of ways to do so.

Some of your events may already be family-friendly, for example, if you have a yearly welcoming picnic, let new faculty members know they are welcome to bring their children.

If you have an annual faculty dinner, think of ways to make it family-friendly. One way to do this is to have the event at a faculty member’s home and hire a babysitter who keeps the small children in a separate room. Alternatively, have the event earlier in the day and have it in someone’s backyard where children can run freely. Be sure to note that children are welcome on the invitation.

Tip #3: Never Insinuate That Being a Parent Makes Professors Less Valuable or Productive

Having children does not automatically make a person a less valuable or productive professor. There may be a “motherhood penalty” but that is due to unfavorable policies and practices, not to the simple fact of having children.

Working mom

If your department is not family-friendly, then, yes, having children will make your colleagues less productive. But, that is because your department or university has failed to provide a structure that facilitates their success, not because they chose to have children.

It is true that parents of small children have to attend to their children. They need to pick up their kids from daycare at 6pm and they need and want to spend time with them on the weekends. However, if their children are in full-time care, which generally runs from 7am to 6pm, Monday to Friday, they have plenty of time to be productive during that time period. Some of us even do extra reading or other work in the evenings once the children go to bed. We may even respond to emails while holding a baby. It is certainly possible to be a parent and a productive academic, so never assume that it is not.

I have already written extensively about how academics can be productive by working forty hours a week. As parents, many of us have no choice but to figure out how to do this – to be productive within the time that we have.

So, remember to think of your new colleagues with children as a wonderful asset to your department. And, make them feel welcome. That way, the tremendous investment the university has put in them through their hire will be sure to pay off.

Professors who are parents: What are your ideas for things departments can do (or should not do) when welcoming new faculty who are parents?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Start the Semester off Right: Make a Weekly Template

How are you feeling about starting the semester?


One strategy I find useful to allay anxieties about the semester is to take some time and plan out how my workweek will look. Doing this allows me to feel as if I am in control of my semester and makes it clear that it is possible to have a cool and calm semester. (I explain the importance of taking control here.)

The end of summer usually involves a shift in the daily and weekly workflow for academics. During the summer, most of us have fewer commitments and many of us do not teach. Personally, I have always made a point to avoid the lure of extra income and not teach during the summer. As for administrative responsibilities, these accrue as one advances in one’s career. However, I try to keep those to a minimum during the summer months. Because of my research interests, I also usually spend nearly all of my summer outside the United States.

This past summer, I traveled to Guatemala and Mexico - which also explains why I have not been posting to this blog all summer.

This August, once again, I find myself looking towards the fall semester and thinking about how I am going to organize my time. My children start school on Monday, and I teach my first class on September 4. This gives me some time to get used to the rhythm before the semester starts in full force. During this time, I plan to try out a new schedule and see how it works for me.

The idea is that I will create a weekly schedule that has my fixed appointments for the semester and also carves out time for things I need to do but could do at any time: prepare class, read, write, exercise, eat, and respond to emails.

Kerry Ann Rockqeumore calls this schedule your “skeleton.” She suggests making one each week. Mine does not look like a skeleton at all, so I prefer to refer to it as a template. I find it useful to make a template at the beginning of the semester and setting up repeating appointments in your calendar so that your template is ready each week when you decide on your specific goals.

How to make a weekly template

When making my weekly template for the semester, the first thing I think about is teaching, as teaching has a fixed schedule and I need to set aside time to teach and to prepare for class. I am fortunate to only be teaching one class this semester. Thus, I block out the time I will teach as well as a few hours to read and prepare for class. I am teaching a graduate seminar and we will be reading a book each week. Thus, I need to set aside time to ensure I finish reading the book. I will have time to read for this class in the evenings, after the kids go to bed, but, from experience, I know I also have to set aside time during the day to read and think about the books before class.

The next thing up is office hours. I have set those on Thursday afternoons.

Up next is writing. I know I write best in the mornings. My children will leave the house by 8:30am each morning. And, my goal is to write for two hours each morning. From experience, I know I need to set aside two and a half hours in order to get in two hours of writing, so I will set aside 8:30am to 11:00am each morning. Once I do that, I remember that I need to be more efficient on Wednesdays when I teach, so I cut Wednesdays back to 10:30 and give myself some extra time to prepare class.

I need to go up to campus on Wednesdays to teach and on Thursdays for office hours. I usually bike to campus, and it takes me about 45 minutes. So, I set aside an hour to get to campus on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Biking to and from campus also counts as exercise for those two days. Once I do that, I remember that I often don’t finish all of my administrative tasks during office hours on Thursdays. So, I decide I should go to campus on Fridays as well and take care of business. I can use Friday afternoons to write reports, submit receipts, review materials, and clean out my email inbox.

We all know how time-consuming email can be. So, I set aside another hour before lunch each day to take care of email. If I focus on email and avoid being sucked into the Internet vortex, this should be enough time.

Then, I remember I also need to set aside some time to read. As I mentioned earlier, I do find time to read in the evenings. However, I also need time during the day to download articles, order books, and select what I will read. So, I decide to set aside Monday afternoons to select readings and to read for the week.

I also need to get in my daily exercise. I will get in enough exercise from Wednesdays to Fridays by biking ten miles back and forth to work. So, on Mondays and Tuesdays, I set aside an hour for exercise each day.

I color-coded my schedule so that I can see at a glance how much time I am dedicating to writing (red), admin (green), teaching (orange), and self-care (purple).

The Weekly Template is a Model, not a Mandate

As I make this schedule, I know from experience that probably no week will go exactly like this. However, it helps me to have a structure. It also is a reminder that I am very busy and have lots of things to do, even though I am only teaching one course.

Inevitably, someone will ask to have a meeting with me during one of the times I have set aside for something else. That will be fine, though. Having this visualization of my ideal week will allow me to see what I need to move around in order to make time for a meeting.

If I need to have a one-on-one meeting, my first suggestion will be that the person come to my office hours. If that does not work, I have also set aside time on Thursday and Friday afternoons to meet. If neither of those times work, I will move things around. For example, if I need to meet on Tuesday afternoon, I will have to spend some time on Monday preparing for class. Or, if we meet on Friday at 11, I will have to get an early start on my writing and pack my lunch to take to the office. If the meeting is casual, I can suggest we meet for lunch any day of the week.

If I am asked to join a group meeting, I will suggest that the meeting happen on Thursday or Friday afternoon. My next preferred time will be a different afternoon. As usual, I will do my best not to schedule meetings during my writing time, as I know from experience that mornings are my most productive times for writing.

Student Biking

What about you? What will your ideal week look like? Do you find making this kind of schedule helpful?

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

How to Deliver an Outstanding Public Lecture

The public presentation of your ideas is an integral part of academia.

It also is a part of academic where we receive minimal training. For many of us, our training in public speaking consists in the opportunity to present research in graduate seminars, and, if we are lucky, the chance to have our “job talk” critiqued by esteemed members of our department.

In a previous post, I provided guidelines on how to deliver an effective presentation. In this post, I will focus on how to deliver an outstanding public lecture.

Imagine Cup 2012 - Day 4 Finalist Presentations

Why, you might ask, would an academic want to learn to give a memorable public lecture? I can only speak for myself. From my perspective, I work hard at coming up with ideas that I hope will change the way people think about social issues. If these ideas are only shared with other academics, then my work will have limited value. In contrast, if I can learn to translate my ideas into more widely-read pieces, then, perhaps I will have a chance to actually change the way we talk about social issues I think are important. That is the reason I decided to learn how to write OpEds. (By the way, I have had some success this year publishing OpEds!!)

My desire to be relevant is also the reason I decided to work on becoming a better public speaker.

For me, becoming an outstanding public speaker is still a work in progress. I continue to hone my skills and to look for examples of ways to become exceptional. Along the way, I have learned a few things that I will share with you.

Becoming an Outstanding Public Speaker: Style and Content

First of all, I have learned that there are two separate areas you have to work on: 1) Learning to be an engaging speaker; and 2) Having something memorable to say.

I will deal with each of these separately.


Your presentation style is important. An excellent public lecture will have many of the following qualities.

  • Evocative images. One of the best presentations I ever saw was about social isolation in Chicago. I saw this presentation over ten years ago and can still remember the photos of children playing in empty lots.
  • Don’t read your paper. Or if you do read your paper, make sure no one can tell you are reading. It can be very difficult for audience members to listen to you read a paper.
  • Add in some humor. This can be difficult when you are talking about depressing topics, but a joke or two can do a lot to keep your audience listening.
  • Tell a story. This can be a story about yourself, about the data, or from anywhere else. The point is that stories are engaging and you should tell one or more. You can organize your whole talk as a story. You can begin with a story. You can use stories to demonstrate points.
  • Practice your presentation until you are completely comfortable with it.
  • When you go to public lectures yourself, take note of what works and what doesn’t work. And, emulate those talks you find most provocative.


Presentation style is important, but you will not impress an audience if you do not also have substance. This is a bit trickier to describe, but you should aim to make your presentation memorable. Here are a few ideas.

  • Your presentation must include information that no one in the audience already knows. If you are presenting based on a book you have already written and some people may have read, then include something extra that did not make it into the book. Or include a backstory. No one should leave the room and think they learned nothing.
  • Your presentation should make people think. The audience wants to be engaged. They want to know more. You have made them think about things in new ways. This is awesome.
  • Your presentation should have a clear argument. When people leave, they should be able to say: “I went to this outstanding public lecture, where the speaker argued ….”

Those are my thoughts on what makes an outstanding public lecture. I have given dozens of public lectures, yet I continue to hone my skills.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and seeing the resources you are aware of for giving great talks. Please let us know in the comments section.

PS: I recently came across this post on Lifehacker that has some great tips on giving a public lecture.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

How To Avoid Spending All of Your Time Teaching: Seven Tips for Efficient Teaching

Do you spend all of your time teaching?

For all professors, teaching is an important part of our job. However, for most professors, it is not the only important part of what we do. Most of us have other obligations and we risk putting those in jeopardy when we spend all of our time preparing for class and grading.

Me - teaching - in my first year on the tenure-track!

In a recent post, I explained that I spend about six hours a week preparing for each class I teach. As a caveat, I will say that number is a guesstimate, and the number of hours varies depending on the class.

When I teach a graduate-level seminar, I usually have to spend about four hours reading the book I assigned, another two hours taking notes on it, and another hour writing out discussion questions and reading students’ responses. In graduate seminars, I usually spend about five to ten minutes at the beginning of the class laying out the importance of the book to the field and then we spend the rest of the class engaging in discussion. Typically, I ask one student to lead class discussion each week.

When I teach an undergraduate class, the weekly readings usually only take me two hours or less, and I spend more time on grading and preparing PowerPoint slides. For undergraduate classes, I usually spend about 15 minutes of an hour-long class lecturing, and use the rest of the time for discussion and in-class activities.

I have been teaching university for about a decade, and usually teach classes on race, immigration, and sociological writing.

Here are a seven tips to avoid spending all of your time teaching.

Tip #1: Try to minimize new course preps.
Your ability to do this will vary by institution, but many administrators will find your suggestion that you teach no more than one new prep a year reasonable. Personally, I find one new course prep a year just enough to keep things interesting.

Tip #2: Teach classes as closely related to your research as possible.
If your research is on race, offer to teach a graduate seminar on race. When choosing the books, choose those texts you are grappling with in your own work. A graduate seminar should have the classics, of course, but students also need to be familiar with cutting-edge work in your field, and they will benefit immensely with hearing you talk about how you are engaging new ideas in your own work.

For undergraduate teaching, you also often can select readings that are closely related to your own work, and sometimes even pilot your own books or articles in class.

Tip #3: Keep lectures to a minimum.
I hope that all of your classes are not 300-student lectures – where lecturing may be the only option. However, if you have 60 students or less in the room, you should be able to engage students in discussion. For a 50-minute class, I usually lecture for about ten to fifteen minutes. I use this time to make it clear to students what topics they need to be paying attention to and what I hope to accomplish during the class period. Then, I move into discussion and group activities.

Tip #4: Find the schedule that works best for you and ask for it.
Some departments and universities are more flexible about scheduling than others. Knowing what teaching times are best for you is the first step towards getting an ideal teaching time. When works best for you?

In my first job, I was given a teaching schedule of 8am to 10am on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I taught at those times for the first year, and then asked to change. Over time, I have realized that the ideal teaching time for me is in the afternoon and that I prefer to teach my classes in three-hour blocks. Thus, I ask for this schedule, and, thus far, have been able to make a case for it.

Tip #5: Set aside specific times for class preparation and stick to them.
This semester, I am fortunate to have only one class that I teach on Wednesday afternoons. I read for class on Monday and Tuesday evenings. I prepare my PowerPoint slides from 10am to noon on Wednesdays, and finalize my notes and grade short papers between 2pm and 3pm when class starts. I use Thursday office hours to respond to student inquiries and to deal with other things related to teaching. Since I know I have time set aside for each of these activities, I rarely think about class outside of those times.

Tip #6: Engage the students in discussion from the first day of class.
As I said above, I rarely lecture, and when I do, my lectures are short. Once I have finished conveying information to students, I ask them a series of questions. My class preparation thus involves preparing a short lecture, and then preparing a list of questions to ask students. I go through the questions, asking them one by one. Sometimes it becomes clear that I need to clarify certain points, so I may move back into a brief lecture. Other times students may take class in a direction I had not anticipated, so I try and bring them around. Either way, a discussion-based class is more engaging and requires less preparation than preparing and practicing an hour-long lecture.

Tip #7: Use rubrics for grading.
Grading is another area that can be very field-specific. However, most fields allow for the use of rubrics to grade papers. I assign two five-page papers in each of my 45-student undergraduate classes, and use rubrics to grade them. The rubrics are straightforward and allow me to communicate effectively with students what points they are getting and what points they are missing. That way, I do not have to write extensive comments on their papers.

In fact, unless you are a language teacher, you should not line-edit your students’ work. And, even if you are a language teacher, this guide explains that you should only line-edit the first 20 percent and then let students do the rest of the editing themselves.

There you have it – my seven tips for being a more efficient teacher.

Although readers have often asked for this post, I have waited a long time to write it, in part because it seems a bit taboo to suggest that we try and minimize the amount of time we spend teaching. We are professors after all! On the other hand, I should say that I consistently get very high teaching evaluations and students regularly communicate to me that they learn a lot in my classes. On my most recent set of student evaluations, my teaching scores were an average of 6.7 out of 7. Student evaluations are only one measure of teaching success – but I thought I would share that with you as further evidence that you do not have to spend 40 hours each week preparing for one class for that class to be successful.

I recognize that these tips may be best suited to someone in a situation similar to mine – teaching in the social sciences at a large public institution. However, I imagine that any professor would find at least some of these suggestions helpful.

Let me know what works for you in your quest to be an effective and efficient teacher.

Friday, February 15, 2013

How to Overcome Writer’s Block: Seven Strategies that Work

It happens to the best of us. We wake up. We go to the computer. We intend to write. Two hours later, we have put 0 words on the page. What happened?

Writer's Block

You know what happened, so I won’t go into detail. Instead, let’s focus on a few ways to get words on the page (or the screen) even when it seems we’d rather do almost anything else. For many writers, the trick is to get started, because once we get started, there’s no stopping us!

If you are having trouble getting started with your writing, try one (or more) of these seven strategies to overcome your writer's block.

Strategy #1) Meditate for five minutes

As soon as you realize it is your writing time and you are not writing, stop whatever you are doing, set a timer for five minutes and meditate. I am not an expert on meditation, but I can say that you don’t have to be to do a five-minute meditation. Simply set a timer for five minutes, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing for five minutes. Pay attention to the thoughts that come to your mind, and bid them farewell as you focus on your breathing. I find it easy to bid thoughts farewell as I breathe out, as it feels cleansing.

Strategy #2) Cut off the Internet.

Unplug. Open up your Word Processing program. Don’t allow yourself to turn it back on until you have 500 new words on the page. The Internet can be an amazing tool. However, no matter what writing project you are working on, once you have your document in front of you, I am sure there is something you can do to move the document forward without the Internet.

Strategy #3) Call a friend.

Tell her you are having trouble writing, but promise to spend the next 60 minutes writing. Ask her to call you back in 60 minutes to tell her how many words you have written. It is amazing what accountability can do.

Strategy #4) Do some exercise.

Do 100 jumping jacks or 20 pushups. Walk around the block. My personal favorite is to power up my Xbox and put on a zumba song. I rock out to one song, which takes just five minutes (and burns about 100 calories) and then get back to writing.

Strategy #5) Go old school.

Turn off the computer. Pull out a pad of paper and a pen and get to writing. Draw figures to conceptualize your project. Write about why you don’t feel like writing. Write and think through a theoretical puzzle. Write up your methods section. Whatever you do, spend at least 20 minutes with a pen and paper and watch how your writing is reinvigorated.

Strategy #6) Have a healthy snack.

Go to the kitchen. Grab an apple. Do something fancy to it, like peel it and cut it into pieces. Or, taken a mango and cut it restaurant-style. Do something methodical and creative with a healthy snack and then eat it. You will be amazed at how that little bit of left-brain activity and a sweet reward can fuel your writing.

Strategy #7) Change your location.

If you are working on a laptop or with a pen and paper, move yourself to another room. If you work at a university, try going to the library or a study room. If you are at home, try out the dining room table or the living room. If you live in a studio, try facing a different window. Move yourself to a new location and tell yourself that this is your writing spot for the day.

I hope one of these seven strategies works for you. I wouldn’t be surprised if you found it useful to work one or two of these strategies into your everyday writing routine.

Just imagine yourself getting up, preparing a quick, but artful breakfast, then meditating for five minutes, sitting down and writing for 30 minutes before getting up and doing 25 pushups and writing for another 30 minutes. What a rocking morning that would be!

Writer's block - 2010-10-12

Best of luck with your writing, and let me know which of these (or other) strategies help you move through writer’s block.

Monday, February 11, 2013

How Are You Spending Your Time?

Time is our most valuable resource, and we must be careful with how we spend it. This is particularly true when you are on the tenure track and have a set amount of time to reach specific goals.

How are you spending your time? Are you making the best use of your time to reach your goals?

I recently met two Assistant Professors who told me that they had not written anything this year. Both of these Assistant Professors work at research-intensive institutions. One told me she spent all her time preparing for two new courses. The other told me he was spending all of his time working on several major committees.

Both of these professors seem to have their priorities out of balance. As faculty, our job includes research, teaching, and service. At a research institution, you will be evaluated primarily on the basis of your research, although you also have to engage in teaching and service to meet your job requirements. I think that the best way to ensure balance is to engage in all three of these activities each week.

Let’s presume for now that you are working a 40-hour week – although I know many of you insist you are not. How should you be spending your work week?

When I worked at the University of Kansas, my department made it clear that I would be evaluated based on my research, teaching, and service. My chair also told me specifically that I would be evaluated with the following formula: 40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% service. At the end of each year, we had to fill out merit forms that used this same formula.

It became clear to me that I needed to align my time with my priorities. Thus, I made a little chart for myself and decided that I would spend my time according to those priorities. I would spend at least 16 hours a week on research, 16 on teaching, and no more than 8 on service.

Let’s look at 16 hours on teaching. With two courses, I was spending 6 hours in the classroom, and had 2 hours of office hours a week. That left me with 8 hours to prepare class and grade. Thus, I scheduled that amount of time into my week to accomplish those tasks.

Next up was 16 hours of research. For me, that translated into 2 hours a day of writing and one hour a day of reading, searching for literature, and other tasks related to research.

I had 8 hours a week left over for service. As an Assistant Professor, I rarely spent 8 hours a week on service. I often had about 3-4 hours a week in meetings. Some weeks I had to spend extra hours outside of meetings reading files. But, usually, I used that time to respond to emails.

My schedule looked something like this:

To keep to this schedule, I do my best to avoid scheduling meetings in the morning – time I have set aside for research and writing. These activities are an important part of my job and I do them best in the morning. Thus, I don’t schedule any other activities during this time.

When students ask to meet with me, I encourage them to come to my office hours. If they can’t make that time, I schedule a time with them that fits into my teaching time.

When I get Doodle polls about meeting, I try and schedule those in the afternoon – when I have set aside time for service and email.

Of course, I often have to rearrange my schedule. However, when that happens, I just move things around. Let’s say someone wants to schedule a meeting during my teaching prep time. I simply switch those two times around. The most important thing is that I am spending the appropriate amount of time on each aspect of my job.

What about you? How much time do you spend on research, teaching, and service each week? Is the amount of time you spend in line with the priorities of your institution?

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Do you have an overwork problem?

Are you an academic who works more than 40 hours a week? Would you like to work fewer hours? If you answered “yes” to both of these questions, this post is for you.

kill me now

In this post, I am trying to be as practical as possible. I am also responding to the omnipresent myth that all academics work 80 hours a week. I am committed to working 40 hours myself and to helping those who wish to do the same be able to do so.

I understand that there are both individual and structural barriers to academics being able to lead healthy, balanced lives. In this post, I will focus on the individual barriers, because we need to work through those in order to get to the structural issues.

There are three possible reasons you are working more than 40 hours a week:

  1. You have too many tasks you need to complete each week and it is impossible to complete them within 40 hours.
  2. You spend more time than you need to on each task.
  3. You are less efficient than you could be with your work hours and spend too much time doing non-work related things during your work day, thus stretching out the time you think you are working.

It may be difficult for you to figure out which of these three reasons is your primary problem. But, a careful, non-judgmental evaluation might be helpful.

Let’s work backwards – starting with the third possibility: Are you inefficient with your work time? The best way to figure this out is to track your time for a week. Kerry Ann Rockquemore explains how to do this here. Track every waking hour that includes some work. If you begin your day by checking your email, start then. If you end your day grading papers, end then. Track your time in 15-minute increments. If, at the end of the week, you find that you only actually “worked” – responded to emails, graded papers, read manuscripts, wrote, ran experiments, attended meetings – for 40 hours, then you have found your answer. In this case, it may be helpful to work on improving your focus so that you can have conscious work and non-work time that will permit you to both work 40 hour and not feel overworked. (Here is one strategy you may find useful.)

If, however, you tracked every minute and are still coming in at over 40 hours, move on to the next question: Are you spending more time than you should on each task? How long do you spend reviewing articles for journals? How many hours do you spend preparing class? How long does it take you to grade papers? How much time do you spend reading each job application? There are no set-in-stone answers to these questions, but there are ways to figure it out. You can ask your colleagues how long they spend on each of these tasks and figure out what expectations are. You can post the question on Facebook. I asked people on Facebook how long they spend reviewing articles and the answers varied between 2 and 6 hours – you can decide if you want to be on the higher or lower end of the spectrum. And, Robert Boice recommends that you spend no more than 1 to 2 hours preparing per hour of class.

Once you do all of this, and you still realize that you are coming in at over 40 hours, then it is time to move on to the next step: What tasks are you going to cut? To figure out what to cut, you have to figure out what the norms are and whether you are in the low or high range compared to your colleagues. Do you have 55 advisees when all of your colleagues have 10 each? Are you reviewing 16 articles for journals a year when most people in your field review 6? Are you directing ten dissertations when your colleagues each have no more than five students? Are you on every single grant panel you have been asked to be on? Are there committee responsibilities you can let go of? Are you assigning five papers a semester in your class when all of your colleagues have multiple-choice exams?

I don’t know what would happen if all academics insisted on working only 40 hours a week. But, we can’t find out until academics make it a priority to try working reasonable hours instead of working hard to convince everyone that we actually work 80 hours a week and thus deserve our median salary of $62,000.

I am posting this article with a bit of trepidation because I am wary of blaming faculty woes on faculty. However, I am also aware of the fact that all academic jobs are not created equally. I am completely certain that some faculty are unable to accomplish everything expected of them in a 40-hour week. I am equally certain that there are many academics who could have healthy, balanced lives if they implemented a few of the strategies suggested by the myriad of academic productivity experts out there.