October 10, 2007

How to be an academic original

My newsletter for October 10 will be on "Six Steps to an Original Contribution."

Of course, the way to be original is to think creatively. In Barbara Lovitts' new book Making the Implicit Explicit: Creating Performance Expectations for the Dissertation, she clarifies what the 270 faculty members who took part in her focus groups indicated went into an original contribution.

So what is an original contribution? The description starts out: "Something that has not been done, found, known, proved, said, or seen before that results from:" I won't write out the rest of her description -- the book is worth reading in its entirety, plus I don't have permission! But I want to note the actions that cause the "something new" to be created:
  • Asking or identifying
  • Applying
  • Developing
  • Inventing
  • Creating
  • Finding
  • Coming up with
  • Producing
  • Combining
  • Synthesizing
Clearly these are all actions that demand creativity.

Let's assume that you are trying to think up a research topic in a relatively new area. Here are some tricks for launching creative thinking. These ideas all relate to the idea of jarring your thinking loose from its old associational pathways, in order to allow yourself to perceive in fresh new ways.
  • Identify one area you might be interested in exploring. Force yourself to ask 5 questions about this area. Write them down quickly and don't be critical.
    • Try "what if" questions. If your questions seem silly or dull, don't worry; just write them down. For example:
      • "What if they did this research on children?" or
      • "What if I applied this to countries with socialist policies?"
      • Often it helps to come up with truly wacky questions
  • Try repeated "why" questions, asking and then answering "Why."
    • "I'd like to study the history of quilting in Ohio." "Why?"
    • "Because it will show how pioneer women in this area differed from those in the South." "Why?"
    • "Because..."
  • Try "who, what, when, where, how" questions. For example:
    • "Who else could I study using this method?"
    • "What would I gain from examining this?"
  • Write down 10 facts or problems associated with the area of interest on small pieces of paper. Move the pieces of paper around and notice if new associations come up.
  • Create a mind map with the possible topic or area of interest in the middle. Draw a circle around it.
    • Think of a word that you associate to it, and draw it on a line radiating out from that circle
    • Repeat with as many words as you can
    • Then draw word associates to that word.
    • Try using colors and pictures
  • Make a storyboard of your ideas or thoughts (again, don't be self critical at this stage) by writing them on post-it notes and putting them on the wall, either in radiating patterns as in a mind map, or in columns.
I've got a lot more ideas to spark your creativity -- for later posts.

October 7, 2007

Jerry Seinfeld's Productivity Secret

A tenure coaching client just sent me this link describing Jerry Seinfeld's advice on how to become a successful comedian. It is remarkably similar to my advice on how to become a productive academic.

The secret to his success was that he put a big red "X" on his wall calendar each day that he worked on writing his jokes. This is just like our Writing Club format, only we use little green checkmarks. It's amazing how reinforcing it can be to have your row of x's or checkmarks, especially if you're sharing your data with someone else, as we do in the club.

So if you don't believe me, listen to Jerry. He knows how to be successful.

October 6, 2007

Write your dissertation faster or I'll take away your funding

Graduate schools are always looking for ways to help their graduate students finish their dissertations in a timely manner. In a recent N.Y. Times article, "Exploring Ways to Shorten the Ascent to a Ph.D.," by Joseph Berger, one method is emphasized -- taking away the students' money.

What bothers me about this article is that he concludes that the main reason that Princeton supposedly has a faster rate of graduate is that the students' funding is cut off at five years. As a secondary note they mention that it "has developed a culture where professors keep after students." Hopefully, they do more than "keep after" students, although the example given is in the lab sciences, where the exigencies of grants demands that there is adequate oversight of progress.

I wish that graduate schools and departments would realize that it is the frequency and type of attention that advisors and departments give to graduate students that is an incredibly important factor in determining both time to degree and graduate student attrition. Barbara Lovitts documented this in her book Leaving the Ivory Tower.

The article mentions almost as an afterthought at the end that isolation in academia, especially in the non-lab sciences slows the progress of dissertation writing. This is the reason that I've developed the Academic Writing Club.

I don't mean to be critical of the article, because I'm glad to see the plight of graduate students being written about in the press. I just wish people understood the real factors that make dissertation writing such a painful, slow process.


October 5, 2007

Don’t Borrow Time

Do you procrastinate? I do. We all do. Procrastinating is especially common for academics when it comes to working on their long term writing projects. It's probably the main reason that people contact Academic Ladder about dissertation coaching or tenure coaching.

If you procrastinate, it’s like living on credit, way above your means. You can buy and buy, but eventually you’ll have to pay up, with interest. And it won’t be any easier to pay it later, if you’re living above your means.

The same is true of time. When you procrastinate, you’re borrowing time from the future. You’ll still have to do the dreaded chore eventually, when you’re less fresh, less able and more miserable. That misery is the interest payment for having borrowed time.

If, on the other hand, you live within your means, you don’t assume that tomorrow will have 25 hours, or that there is a magical hour in the day that is more pain-free on Tuesday, and you’ll wait until then to do your dreaded work. You will use a reasonable amount of time for your work today, and not borrow fun time from tomorrow.

The great thing about living within your means when it comes to time is that you don’t have those horrible days when the interest comes due, and you have to write for hours on end in order to finish on time.