Thursday, March 14, 2013

On Research Strategies

I've been giving some thought to this set of research strategies from Marcus Arvan at Philosopher's Cocoon. I thought it was a very useful discussion, particularly given my own recent struggles with writing. I do a lot of this stuff already, but some of my habits represent a significant variation on the theme, and some of my habits are sort of like the opposite of its counterpart on Arvan's list. (To be clear, I'm not trying to argue with Arvan. I like his list. I'm just using the list as a way of thinking about my own work habits.) If you haven't read Arvan's post, go do it and then come back.

Arvan says,

2. Write first thing in the morning, without any form of self-censorship, setting a firm 3-5 page requirment for yourself, which you assiduously keep to and do not go over.

I kind of do this. I don't write in the morning, but I try to do a certain amount of writing-related work every day. However, I don't draft every day--some days I'm editing, revising, rewriting, or polishing; some days I'm researching and just making notes; some days I'm reorganizing. Sometimes I'm just not in a position to do any drafting. And on those non-drafting days it doesn't make much sense to think about my output in terms of pages. I just focus on doing as much as I can until it's time to go home.

3. Give yourself a couple hours a day of "alone time" outside away from the computer if you can.

I don't do this every day, but I try to do it a couple times a week.

 4. Send stuff out; don't sit on your work.

I like to sit on my work a little. I find that it really helps to let a paper rest for a little while and then come back to it with a fresh set of eyes. When I come back to it, I find that I notice things I wouldn't have noticed before--often, this is when I notice unclear or obscure passages, or places where something has been left implicit that needs to be made explicit, or places where the way things are organized or the order in which things are presented is messed up.

But I make an effort to send stuff out as soon as it's ready, and if I'm going to err, I err on the side of sending stuff out too soon.

5. When your work gets rejected, send it out again immediately.

I do this unless the rejection was accompanied by a set of helpful comments--which it generally is not. And if it's not, I try to send it back out that same day.

8. The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.

I try to do that, but I don't do the thing that Arvan does. I write an informal outline where I reconstruct the argument or view or whatever I'm engaging with, remind myself what the relevant literature is, and sketch out what my take is going to be. I do this whenever the need/desire arises. Then, when I finish a project and send it out, and am in a position to start something new, I go through these documents and see what jumps out.

I also try to read a lot, and go to conferences a lot, and when I do, I make an effort go to papers that are outside my immediate areas of interest. I find that a good way to get new ideas is to expose myself to other people's new ideas.

9. Only work on weekdays--take weekends off.

I generally do this. I try to devote my evenings and weekends to my family. Doesn't always happen, but I almost always try.

--Mr. Zero

40 comments:

Anonymous said...

I suspect some of this advice is easier followed when one has the time to not work on weekends, etc.

This is probably not helpful advice to someone who teaches a 5/5 load with lots of service commitments, or someone who is cobbling together adjunct work at 3 different schools.

Anonymous said...

I did a *lot* of that lit during my dissertating stage, and that's how I did it in 6 months. Now that the job season is over for me (*happy dance*), I'm really looking forward to getting back to my routine.

Doing a little every day is how I work best.

Anonymous said...

I like the list, even though I don't follow all of it. As Zero says, it's a good way to reflect on one's own work habits. I'm so busy with kids and non-research work that my motto has become: do research-work in almost every bit of free time. What, everyone left for a few hours? Work! What, the 3pm meeting was cancelled? Ok, work. I do a morning fresh energy work-session and write as much as I can until I have to go. Sometimes it's 10 minutes, sometimes a few hours. Weekends and evenings routinely get filled in with spots of work. All the other family stuff (including some leisure time with family members, which is itself kind of budgeted in) does the "reset" business for me. No matter what I do at least _some_ research stuff 5-6 days a week. But this whole "approach" of mine (really it just happened) is only a few years old. Before that I had more time (though I felt so busy even then) so I had to put some effort in to doing research on a regular basis. Being this busy just forces me to do research. Anyway I just invested 10 minutes in this.. back to the grind.

Anonymous said...

A lot of this advice seems to contradict itself. (Constantly sending out stuff for publication and still expecting to have one's weekends free, for example.) As Anon 3:45 points out, it also works only for the elites.

Marcus Arvan said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Zero. Glad you found the post interesting, and worth sharing. -M

Anonymous said...

If you *have* to work weekends, even at a 5/5, then I think you're generally doing things wrong. Sure, it's unsurprising that one would have to work some weekends, but if you're doing it regularly, then you're doing something wrong: you're assigning too much work, grading inefficiently, or your own work habits waste too much time.

There are all kinds of ways to streamline one's courses at a 4/4 or even a 5/5. We often let work expand to fill our available (or even unavailable) time. So the big task is not letting it. When I started protecting my evenings and weekends, it forced me to be much more efficient during the week, and I ended up getting *more* done in less time, and I had nights and weekends off.

Anonymous said...

On the theme of research advice, I'm wondering if any Smokers have tips on when to submit a paper for publication. Obviously aiming for perfection is not reasonable, and surely sometimes a paper is not ready. But how does one know when to submit beyond avoiding those two extremes?

Anonymous said...

7:04 is right. If you work on weekends, even with a 5/5 load, clearly you suck at time management.

Please, 7:04, tell us how you managed to keep your weekends free when you carried a 5/5 teaching load.

Anonymous said...

I don't know, guys, I have a 2-1 load and I'm pretty sure I've worked nearly every Saturday for the past four years. It might just be the way things are pre-tenure, for everyone. But happy to hear suggestions about how to change this!

Also, fyi, having a graduate program takes up a ton of time, and one's professional service increases the better known one is. So I'm not really sure I'm left with more research time than those of you with, say, 3-3's and no graduate programs. (I'm not totally sure, since I've never been in that position - just wanted to throw it out there in case it's heartening.)

Anonymous said...

Here's one:

Have a specific thesis that you want to argue before you do a huge literature search. It makes it easier to absorb the literature and you will also be more likely to end up with a paper that re-centers the debate or moves it forward significantly, and you won't spend time reading aimlessly and flailing around for ideas.

(Of course, if you find that someone has already argued for your thesis, move on to a different project!)

Mr. Zero said...

I have a 4/4 and I regularly teach an online class for extra money. I'm not an "elite"--if I was, I'd have a tenure-line job by now.

And sometimes I have to do work on the weekends or in the evening--if I have to get these exams graded, or I have to get these conference comments to the person, or there's a conference submission deadline, or I have job applications, or I've got to get this reading done, I've got to get this lecture prepared, or whatever. It's not like it's a sacred and inviolable rule.

But it's like Jack Torrance says: "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." It's also like the Don says: "a man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man." You have to spend time with the other people in your life if you want them to continue to be the people in your life. And you need to have other people in your life if you want your life to be good. And you owe it to those people to make yourself available to them. I want to be there for Junior. I want him to know me. I want to be a part of his life, in a real, tangible way. I want to maintain my marriage. I want my wife to know that I love her; I don't want to get a divorce. They are, it seems to me, entitled to a certain amount of my time.

People who teach a lot--like me--are going to have problems with fitting everything in. And if you carry a 5/5 load, it's going to be much more difficult for you to find time to write than it is for someone with a 2/2. But you dont' have to be some kind of elitist asshole to think that it's good advice to remember to regularly devote time to yourself and your family. You just need to have some recognition of what is important in life. And if your heavy workload literally makes it impossible for you to devote a certain amount of time to yourself and your family, it still doesn't make sense to get irritated or angry with me, or Arvan, or 7:04, when we suggest that this is important. It's not as though this idea, that people ought to be free to spend their evenings and weekends with their family, is some sort of indulgent luxury that is rightly denied to normal, workaday people. You should be irritated with the people who are exploiting you.

Anonymous said...

"A lot of this advice seems to contradict itself. (Constantly sending out stuff for publication and still expecting to have one's weekends free, for example.) As Anon 3:45 points out, it also works only for the elites."

Well, it seems to work for Arvan, and he's clearly not one of the elites in the profession. Also, where are the contradictions in the list? I don't see that your example involves one, since you can send out work for publication during weekdays.

Anonymous said...

Here thoughts by YFNA:

2. Write first thing in the morning, without any form of self-censorship, setting a firm 3-5 page requirment for yourself, which you assiduously keep to and do not go over.

I agree with writing 2-3 well written pages every morning, not just crap, and I do this every morning.

3. Give yourself a couple hours a day of "alone time" outside away from the computer if you can.

You betcha beer o clock here I come!

4. Send stuff out; don't sit on your work.

Only if it's not crapola -- duh.

5. When your work gets rejected, send it out again immediately.

Ummm...unless the referees find serious flaws, then fix them, and then send them out.


8. The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.

Check!

9. Only work on weekdays--take weekends off.

Impossible!

Anonymous said...

I'm on a 4/4, and I usually work a little on the weekends. Part of this is that I'm busy with teaching and committee work and student meetings during the week. Part of it is that I often need longer blocks of time to get writing done, and I prefer to have evenings to relax.

I do agree with 7:04, however, that one must protect one's time. Treat your writing time like your teaching time. No one gets to take it away or schedule meetings during it.

Anonymous said...

2. Write first thing in the morning, without any form of self-censorship, setting a firm 3-5 page requirement for yourself, which you assiduously keep to and do not go over.

I don't get this at all. 3-5 pages per day no matter what? Seriously? "never deviate"?!

I *never* sit down to write unless I already know pretty much exactly what I'm going to say. I hash out detailed arguments in outlines first. If I stumble onto a problem while drafting, then I stop writing immediately, go to the whiteboard and spent a bunch of time working it out in detail (which can easily take a whole morning or more). There's no reason to just plow through and keep writing to `meet your quota' if it's crap or you don't know what you're saying.

Writing 3-5 pages worth of useless uncensored unedited words that I'm just going to cut later? No thanks. I get trying to foster a "positive attitude", but this quota system simply would not work for me.

Anonymous said...

Most of this advice exaggerates the amount of time you need to work, and thus creates unhealthy expectations that no one could possibly live up to.

If you are writing a paper, spend 45 minutes a day, every single day, on that paper. Do not spend any more time than that. By the end of 4-5 months you will have the most sophisticated paper you've ever written. If you are writing two papers at a time, spend a maximum of 1.5 hours writing every day.

Don't believe what most people say about writing. Spend 2 hours a day AWAY from the computer? Seriously? That's probably more than the amount of time you should spend on the computer writing. 3-5 pages A DAY? If you write slighly less than 100 good words a day, at the end of three months you will have 8000-9000 words. If you revise it for another month after that it will probably be a really solid paper. You could do three solid papers a year this way.

Do very little, but do it every day. Don't believe the hype about writing so much every day. It will just make you feel like you aren't good enough, and you will end up not writing anything.

Anonymous said...

The general idea is good, provided you don't think that everyone needs to follow the specifics. Carve out time, yes. But find the specifics that work for you.

I devote time to research on Tuesdays and Thursdays (my non-teaching days). I go to the gym in the morning, and work on my research in the afternoon. If I'm trying to finish something, I'll devote my weekends to it. (Usually, when I'm finishing something up, I give one or two weekends to the final push.)

What's important is not following someone else's schedule; I'm sure Arvan's list works just fine for him. But it certainly doesn't work for me.

Another point: devote some time to reading. And no, I don't just mean reading for your research. I find that sometimes I find ways through tough spots by getting my head into something else for a while. For instance, when I was in grad school, I spent every Friday afternoon in the library, reading up in recent journals, or diving into archives to see what was there. It was a way to keep up with non-dissertation related interests, and it'sa habit I try to keep up during the semester.

Personally, I'd much rather read something new than write something new. And if I have to choose, I'll choose to read something. But my work gets done, and I'm generally happy with it.

Anonymous said...

My method is as follows: I pile on book review commitments, sometimes agreeing to do as many as eight per year. Philosophy in Review, the online book review only journal, is very helpful for this. This way I'm always under the gun to read new literature and write reviews. Reading and writing these reviews gets my philosophical juices flowing. Before long, I come up with a novel paper idea or two. Sometimes I even reuse parts of my book reviews in the literature review section of my papers.

Anonymous said...

"I think you're generally doing things wrong."

Maybe he or she is, but it seems to me that working conditions and expectations vary so dramatically from department to department and school to school, that I don't see how I could safely make such a judgment based merely on the knowledge that someone has a 5/5 load and what they think counts as having "lots of service commitments."




Anonymous said...


I think we have a duty to the profession not to clog up the system with second rate papers. If in future every grad students and member of staff has three or four papers constantly out for review then it will take even longer than it currently does for papers to be referred.

If a paper of yours is rejected by a journal without comments this may be because the person reading it has thought it was so bad that it was not worth wasting time commenting on it, or not worth sending for review. One should at least consider this possibility when a paper comes back. Usually one will not have looked at the paper for 3 months or so, meaning that one can approach it again with fresh eyes, and try to see it through from the perspective of a sceptical stranger. One may then see some faults in it, objections to it, ways of clarifying and improving it, which one previously did not. Or may simply see that the point it makes is not very important. Thus sending it out again straight away without considering whether you can improve it is not fair on the other members of the profession.

If a paper comes back with comments then one should (contrary to what Marcus says) take those comments into consideration with a view to revising the paper, before sending it off. Even if the reviewer is a bit of a jerk. Why send off a paper that you are in a position to improve? It is just making unnecessary work for everyone in the system.

Anonymous said...

I do think that some of you should try to read Avran's papers before deciding whether his advice is good. I did.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with 2:12.

Anonymous said...

When I'm in a certain sort of writing phase, I aim for 500 words/day. Sometimes I get a lot more. At this stage, I'm just trying to put whatever I can on paper. The idea of a time or word ceiling for writing is silly, but the core idea of not overdoing it on a day to keep yourself fresh for the next day has been very important for me.

I'm sometimes in another kind of writing phase, maybe more like an editing phase, in which my goal is to tighten and organize. At this stage, adding words is tempting, but I try to avoid it. Indeed, I force myself to avoid adding to the word total during this phase.

So much of my writing is really editing. It's easy for me to get a ton of words on the page and my hard work comes in organizing and streamlining and trying to avoid saying the same thing three times over.

I wrote two 8000-10000 word papers last month, from scratch. Sounds good, huh? But I spend the previous two and a half months reading and taking notes (and not writing a little every day).

It's good to hear these various strategies. And it's important sometimes to force yourself to try different work habits. But it's also important to find what works for you and to vary your approach with the case.

Nice topic.

Dan Dennis said...

I feel like I have a certain amount of creativity in me each day. So any day that I do not have a couple of hours to myself to think deeply and jot down some ideas, is a day where one quantum of creativity is lost forever.

Plus I *enjoy* thinking creatively about philosophy. And I don’t feel sociable until I have. So I prefer never to take a complete day off. But spending a couple of hours thinking creatively leaves plenty of time in the rest of the day for other things.

(Of course sometimes circumstances force me to take a day off).

Anonymous said...

Kind of a douchey comment by 11:11pm.

As others have pointed out, there isn't going to be one set of practices that will always work for every person. People should experiment and do what works for them.

Dan Dennis said...

11.11pm's comment is quite funny really. It is ambiguous - he/she does not say whether he/she thought his writing good. And as 5.26 and others say, it is irrelevant anyway. Regardless of how good Marcus' essays are, who is to say whether they would be better or worse if he had different habits; and these habits might or might not suit others...

Anonymous said...

Here are some books that have helped me. They often echo M.Arvan's list of tips.

_Professors as Writers_ by Robert Boice. (An absolute favorite. He uses *gasp* empirical research to support his recommendations).

_Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks_ by Wendy Belcher. (No-nonsense, down to earth advice about the realities of publishing academic journal articles, including how to deal with editors).

_Demystifying Dissertation Writing_ by Peg Boyle Single. (She was one of Boice's students).

_The Writer's Home Companion_, ed. Joan Bolker. (an anthology of tips on writing. not just by or for academic writers).

There is no one-size-fits-all magic list of instructions, naturally. But if you're dissatisfied with your writing process, it can be helpful to get some advice and ideas from people who have some expertise on the subject.

Anonymous said...

@ March 15, 2013 at 8:59 AM

That's where the "streamlining" comes in. You know...no writing assignments, all true/false and multiple choice exams, little to no variation of course materials from term to term, etc.

Anonymous said...

Regarding point 5 on sending work out again immediately (or with as little turnaround time as possible): this point has come up at other times on this blog. The danger with being too hasty with turnaround is that that there is a significant chance that your paper will go to the same referee, even if you send it to a different journal. If your referee sees that you did not change your paper at all from the first time the referee read it, the paper will be rejected. If the referee did give substantial comments that haven't been taken into account, that will obviously be a disaster. But even if the referee gave minimal comments, the mere fact that the paper is unchanged will often alienate the referee (even aside from the fact that the referee didn't like the paper the first time around).

Anonymous said...

9:42 and others on that thread:

I'm an old-timer and experience begs you to conduct an experiment.

As your first evaluation in a course, give a good, fair (that means clear), comprehensive coverage T/F exam (20 questions or more at least).

Then use other writing/objective evals.

If your experience tracks mine, your final grades will match the results of that first exam very closely.

We fill in blanks that our students need to become better educated. We do not improve their native capacities for education.

Anonymous said...

I second Demystifying Dissertation Writing by Peggy Single, both for dissertation writing and any research in general.
She gives it to you straight, with empirical data, and without patronizing you.

Anonymous said...

@ March 19, 2013 at 7:21 PM

I'm not an old-timer, but I've been teaching for several years. In all of the courses in which I give essay exams (all except Intro. to Logic), the students are given a 15-20 question quiz prior to their first exam. This quiz consists of true/false and multiple choice questions.

My experience doesn't track yours, since the final grades in my classes do not track the results of the first quiz "very closely". Perhaps this lack of very close tracking is due to the fact that I give quizzes of 15-20 questions and not exams of at least 20 questions. Perhaps the quizzes are not comprehensive, good, fair, or clear. Or, perhaps, there are other reasons.

Regardless, even if the first quiz (or exam) tracked the final grades exactly, that still wouldn't be a very good reason for not giving essay exams (or other writing assignments).

Also, I have no idea why this is supposedly relevant: "We do not improve their native capacities for education". Of course we don't improve students' native capacities. They're native after all.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the final exam results of the students taught bythe person who posted 'March 19, 2013 at 7:21 PM' track the first exam results because he/she does not teach them much...

Anonymous said...

Or: may have won national and state teaching awards.

Oh--scratch the "may have".

Anonymous said...

Personally, I (almost) always think that if their first grades track their later grades (that is, if there isn't an upward trend), I haven't done my job correctly...

YFNA

Anonymous said...

I'm not the poster who claimed that his/her students' final grades tracked their initial grades, but if I am interpreting the post correctly, it's not evidence that s/he is doing her job poorly.

Smarter, more prepared students will perform better on a pretest. At the end of the course, smarter, better prepared students are likely to have earned higher grades all other things being equal. By similar reasoning, one might expect under-prepared students to perform poorly both on the pretest and to struggle in meeting instructor expectations. So it's not surprising that pretest scores are correlated with final grades.

What I think people find objectionable is that the poster's tone suggests s/he might, due to a sort of "implicit bias", (i) assign harsher grades (on papers, say) to students who performed poorly on a pretest, and (ii) do the opposite for students who performed well. This is, of course, one reason to grade assignments blindly. I hope the poster does so.

The controversy also might be a result of different attitudes towards grades. Some instructors grade on an "absolute" scale: if students acquire skills X, Y, and Z, then they earn an "A"; if they only acquire X and Y, they get a "B", and so on. Other instructors grade student performance relatively. "A" means "outstanding work", where "outstanding" means "better than her peers."

I imagine the original poster does the latter. Smarter, better prepared students will likely perform better than less intelligent, less well prepared students both at the beginning and end of a course.

I also conjecture that the objectors to the original poster use a more "absolute" grading scale. If so, under-prepared students can close the gap by the end of a course more easily. I would, however, still be surprised if pretest scores and final grades were not correlated even in these cases.

Anonymous said...

11:20--Good, thoughtful analysis; I am the original poster.

And yes, the grading system I have used for years is blinded.

You are also correct that I use a relative scale (I despaired early in my career using an absolute one). And I bend over backwards to allow improvement.

Do some students improve? Of course. But my point is that against those few cases, most instances of final grades track strongly with initial evaluations.

I do not know what this means as applied to any given student; I do not know what it means as to the wide-ranging matter of the content and purposes of particular courses. I can say that my experience is that your chances overall of inspiring already well-equipped students to greater achievement are better than inspiring poorly prepared students to achieve significantly more than they have in the past (as you say). The odds of the latter improve with returning-adult students however; real world experience has an effect on some to acquire focus about learning in returning to education.

So thank you 11:20. It's reassuring for anonymity in blogging to be used for purposes of posting substance rather than knee-jerk sarcasm and self-assuring bluster.

Anonymous said...

March 27, 2013 at 7:06 PM wrote:

"So thank you 11:20. It's reassuring for anonymity in blogging to be used for purposes of posting substance rather than knee-jerk sarcasm and self-assuring bluster."

What's not reassuring for anonymity is when one criticizes another's supposed "knee-jerk sarcasm and self-assuring bluster" while failing to recognize one's own self-assuring bluster (which prompted the "knee-jerk sarcasm"), and when one makes unwarranted assumptions about what another has or has not tried in the classroom.

It also isn't reassuring when one introduces information that is of little or no relevance while attempting to make one's point.

Dan Dennis said...

Back on the original topic: I appreciated Marcus’ original post and zero’s follow up. It is helpful seeing what works for other people. One can then take into account their ideas and experience when trying to figure out what works for oneself.

(Their posts do not offer ‘advice’ as such [contra how 11.11pm' terms it] rather they are sharing something which might be helpful to others, which others can then choose to employ as they see fit.

I should add that having read some of Marcus’s posts and work, I have a positive view of Marcus and his work, so take what he says seriously.)

Anonymous said...

Hey Smokers,

I am beginning the first phase of my dissertation research (the topical), and I was wondering if anyone had any specific tips about how to keep track and organize articles, reading notes, etc. and perhaps any tips on how to go about working through a large body of literature. Do you take notes on every article? If so, how much time do you spend summarizing an article? How many articles/chapters do you read per day?

Thus far, I have been logging everything in a word document, but it's getting out of control...I really need a better (and hopefully less stressful) system

I really appreciate any advice.