March 18, 2009

10 Steps for Growing a Backbone

This is the continuation of my March 18 newsletter. If you're not a subscriber, sign up now! (Go here to see the first part of this article.)

Here are suggestions culled from How to Grow a Backbone by Susan Marshall, along with examples that I’ve inserted to help you relate it to the academic environment.

  1. Observe and assess your environment. Know the lay of the land.
    1. If you’re a graduate student, take an active role in finding out what it takes to get your degree. Talk to more experienced students and to all the professors that have time for you, in order to develop a cognitive map. What is the power structure in your department? Who will be most supportive of you? What professor has a reputation as a good advisor? Don’t wait for others to share this kind of information with you, and don’t assume you know it all. Wendy Carter’s Ta-Da software (see right hand column) is excellent for giving new students a mental map of the dissertation process.

    2. Professors: find out exactly what it takes in order to get tenure, understand how decisions get made in your department, who are the people in power and what are their typical behaviors in meetings, and how this compares to what occurs at other schools like yours.

  2. Observe others and yourself. Listen carefully to the language that others use, and work on making your own as specific as possible. Watch body language for hints of what’s really going on. Be aware that the nastiest people are often the most spineless. They know that it works in the short run to go with the low blow, and that it makes them look good, at least to other spineless people.

  3. Take notes. I love that Marshall included this, because I’m an obsessive note taker myself. I believe in the power of the written word in sharpening your thoughts and helping you clarify and remember what matters. Here are examples of where taking notes could make a difference.
    1. You meet with your advisor, who mentions three changes s/he’d like to see in your chapter. You take notes and write her/him a brief email afterwards, thanking him/her for the meeting and summarizing those suggestions, asking her/him to let you know if you didn’t understand them correctly. This is helpful later when your advisor asks you why you made those ridiculous changes.

    2. You’re in a boring departmental meeting when two colleagues suddenly go at it with each other. Everyone is emotional. You write down your observations and read your notes later to help you assess what happened. You keep these notes as a record, when others have played the telephone game and changed the truth. This will help you keep yourself level and be more aware of what’s happening in your environment.

  4. Mind map. As many of you know, I love mind mapping as way to organize content that you are trying to write about. But it also works well as you navigate through the thornier or more complex issues in life. As Marshall points out, “it helps to empty out what’s crammed into your cranium,” to “enhance the information you want to keep after you’ve sorted and organized it,” (p. 86), and to allow “for unhampered and undisciplined free association of thought, with the assurance that by writing everything down, you can go back to sort, categorize, and make sense of what you produced” (p. 88).
    1. Use mind mapping to plan what you want to accomplish in the next month or three-month period. When you’re done, you can then list and rank your priorities.

    2. Make a mind map of your 5-year career plan.

  5. Become clear on decisions you need to make, and then make them. This can be scary because choosing one step in favor of another always carries some risk. Learn to deal with the anxiety that this brings. In the long run you’ll find that making a decision feels better than not making one. Be aware that your day is filled with decisions, big and small. Often the small ones determine the trajectory of your day. (“Should I play this computer game or write during this free half hour?”) And keep in mind that in some cases there is no right or wrong decision. There is just the necessity of making a decision. So flip a coin and move on.

  6. Extract unimportant thoughts or issues from your priority list. “Have a purpose for your thinking. Any information that doesn’t work toward your purpose is, at least for the moment, extraneous” (p. 93) Once you’ve separated these issues out, throw them out, either physically or mentally.

  7. Advance with a purpose in mind. Always ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” When you meet with your advisor or a mentor for a specific purpose, make sure that the goal of the meeting is met. Come prepared with specific questions and make sure they get answered.

  8. Seek out people who are functioning successfully, who get the results that you would like to get. Role models will influence you and inspire you.

  9. Ask purposeful, targeted, direct questions in a respectful way.
    1. In a job interview, don’t just worry about what they think of you. Ask about things that matter to you, such as, “How do people in this department settle differences?” Don’t accept facile answers; probe or re-ask your question when needed.

    2. Ask your advisor, “Could you be more specific about what you don’t like about this chapter?”

    3. Ask the departmental chair, “Could you put that in writing?”

    4. Ask yourself questions, too. Some examples are “What am I afraid of?” and “What do I want?”

  10. Don’t succumb to intimidation techniques from others. This includes “killer phrases," such as “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Marshall goes into detail about this, and I recommend that you read her book if you are dealing with people who cope by using intimidation.

And one more note: Academic leaders, such as department chairs, DGSs, and deans, should be motivated to create an environment that fosters backbone in everyone. I say this because backboneless environments cause “ideas to be lost, thoughts to go unspoken, frustrations to pile up, and consensus building to become a core competency” (p. 25). That doesn’t sound like a very good place to work or attend university, does it?

I’ve written and talked about the harshness of the academic environment before (see “How Academia Messes With Your Mind (and what to do about it)” – you can still get the MP3.) Therefore it’s the ideal place to practice backbone-building skills. I’m sure your backbone will be put to the test any day now – try one of these suggestions and let me know how it goes!

March 15, 2009

How many of you can relate to this dissertation writer?

Every once in a while I come across someone who describes the agony of dissertation writing so well, that I ask for permission to use their words. I know that when other academic writers read what others are going through, it helps them feel that they are not alone, and makes it a little easier for them to tackle their writing.

I received an email today with just such a well-written description of the dissertation-writing struggle. In this case, the writer is also the mother of a young child. Here are her words, with permission.

But really I'm not sure HOW to make my argument make sense and I have TOO MANY tacks to take in making my argument. I know no one has written what I plan to write in just the way I'm thinking about it--so there I feel okay. I think what holds me back really is the fear of the enormity of the thing. Each time I have written a paper in the past it has taken such incredible spiritual, emotional, psychological, mental/intellectual, and physical energy out of me. The feeling while I'm in it (in the writing) is good--there's such an energy flow; such a rush of energy--but because it is so exhausting and because I know it takes enormous commitment in the moments of the writing--for the whole project too--I fear going in there. And it feels like a "going in there" kind of thing. It's a cave of some sort but with intellectual comforts, none of which exist outside of this cave. So the going in is a singular experience and resurfacing is hard; decompression is near impossible. In fact, when I'm in the middle of a writing project, it's all I can think about and I wake up early rushing to thought, to type; I wake up with thought. And then my daughter needs her hair brushed and a push out the door for school, and then . . . Often it takes days and days of writing and scouring the research as I write, to finally and suddenly wake up with THE idea, THE argument. I wake up one morning in the middle of all the writing days and I feel like screaming: I'VE GOT IT! I have THE seminal argument. And I do "have it." And I'm proud, etc. But this entire process is absolutely exhausting and I just can't seem to muster up the strength and resilience to "go in" again--not for this article and not for the diss, an arena in which we can only afford for me to dwindle in for one more year.

I definitely want to finish this diss. Definitely. But, right now, I think my bigger battle is fighting off this mental, emotional, physical (e.g., like I just can't get to the typing of dissertation material but can type emails, surf for academic software, and other inane, un-related computer activities), demonic enemy. I need to see myself with a sword hacking away at the evil two-faced specter always with guard up. I have been cowering--and relying too heavily on--the safety of the cover of darkness for fear of exposure to the bright light of the dissertation.

March 10, 2009

Interview with a productive professor

This interview with a well-respected, productive professor of information and process management illustrates that the principles of writing and research that we suggest at Academic Ladder apply to academics at all levels. To top it all off, Professor M. Lynne Markus seems like a nice person. I like how she forgives herself for the days that she's not as productive as she'd like to be, and the flexibility with which she adapts to changing circumstances.

March 3, 2009

A sample (fun?) writing microschedule


You might like to experiment with how to schedule your writing sessions within each day (that's why I called it a "microschedule"). I always recommend relatively shorter sessions, alternating with breaks if you want to write more. Of course, you will need to read and research also at some point. For many, it works to research later in the day, since this more passive activity is easier for most than is writing. But reading sessions could also be scheduled alternately with writing sessions.

A current client was trying to figure this out, plus struggling with anxiety and resulting writer's block. We had her free writing where she wrote about her fears and confusion about the work, then we had her moving into very short "focused writing" sessions. Here is how she scheduled her sessions recently:

1. 8-min block freewriting
2. 18-min focused writing
3. 15-min background research
4. 18-min focused writing
5. 15-min background research
7. 8-min freewriting/reflection

She did this all before noon, felt she had accomplished a lot, and even ended with the comment, "This was fun!" How often do you feel that way about the writing process?

Here is what she added:
I find it works quite well for me because it provides different, equally legitimate opportunities for different kinds of activities (and associated anxieties/gratifications that balance each other out to some extent), all related to the project. In a way, the research is almost like a reward for me, because I like looking things up and learning them. I'd be surprised if this isn't also true for lots of other blocked writers. I guess the trick is to give it some defined boundaries, like we give other treats and like we give the anxiety-inducing activities. I then find that, having done a bit of research, I have a couple of extra things to add to my notes or to my focused writing pages, and that is gratifying.

Play around with your writing scheduling. Using a timer, as always, is key. Maybe at some point you'll find it fun. But you'll probably accept "not so bad."