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Three hot takes on the (wrong-headed) assumptions that incoming undergraduates and graduates have research skills

I have always considered myself a methodologist, and someone with a slight obsession with methods. I write about research methods here on my blog, I’ve edited a methods journal (International Journal of Qualitative Methods), I’ve published several scholarly pieces (book chapters and articles) on methods, and this fall, I taught several courses on research design, comparative methods, qualitative methods and thesis writing.

Writing while in Berlin

Along the same lines, since Fall of 2020, I joined a Methods Lab (led by the amazing Dr. Rodrigo Salazar Elena, dear colleague and friend of mine at FLACSO Mexico). Thus it should not come as a surprise that I have the following three hot takes:

I am seriously amazed at how many faculty assume their students know how to do a lot of things that they do not because they were not prepared nor taught. Neither my Twitter thread nor this blog post offer criticism of students, but more a concern with undergraduate and graduate programs where rigorous research desig and techniques are not taught or poorly developed.

Often times, we need to take students at their most raw and take them from zero to hero. Thus, I encourage all instructors to be KIND and GENEROUS with students admitted to graduate programs who may not have the research skills you may have expected them to have. Make graduate programs equalizers and skills developers. A gradual approach to teaching them how to do research may work best.

Even hotter take: you should NOT assume that graduate students who are doing their degrees in a foreign language know the rules and norms of conducting scholarly research in English.

There’s a hidden curriculum beyond what is new to first generation students. Never forget it. I find it super, super wild that scholars who discuss the hidden curriculum (about first-generation students in the United States of America and Canada) often do not seem to bring to the conversation the differences across cultures. There are hidden curricula all over the world.

Many students from countries or cultures where challenging the authority is not the norm may find it hard to enter “discussion groups” or to challenge a professor/doctoral supervisor. Also, writing norms and expectations (and grammar and structure) vary wildly across languages.

I have an even SPICIER take: By saying “send me/us your BEST students”, you are in fact reproducing the cycle of inequality and further marginalizing scholars who may have great potential but lack the training that others with more privilege have had.

Think about this.

… when I have to craft a new syllabus for research design or research methods.

I write my blog for my students, although I DO come back to my own posts for advice on how to do specific things. And I also write my blog for those who have not had the mentorship they deserved. Institutions and faculty need to do better by their students. It’s our job but also our duty.

Posted in academia, teaching.

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Getting the most out of writing groups (online and offline)

Writing while in BerlinI love writing groups, as you probably can guess from my raving about them on Twitter. I have also written on this blog about their benefits. Now, one of the questions people ask me frequently is: how can I get the most out of a writing group? Here are a few reflections regarding what works well for me. As always since these are based on my own experience, I strongly believe you can only know if it will work for you if you try it out. I also want to make something perfectly clear: I strongly believe that you get out of a writing group what you put in. If you are supportive of others in the group, you’ll definitely find support too. I don’t think one can get into a writing group in an extractive manner, expecting benefits but not providing support, help and encouragement as well.

For this blog post I have extracted some thoughts off my Twitter threads, which may appear disjointed when you read them online, but will make more sense when you read them on this blog post.

A few other elements of writing groups that help me (these are obviously online right now because of the pandemic).

– Having a 3 hour block gives me the flexibility of “investing” some of that time as “runway” (preparation) time.
– I need to block Twitter and Facebook while I write
– with the 2 hour block, if I invest some of that time in “runway” I feel frustrated.
– hearing how others work is also inspiring for me.
– seeing camaraderie online is also very inspiring – lots of people offering to help one another “once the Zoom is over”, makes me feel supported and cared for.
– The shared struggle: knowing that others are also struggling to think/work.

There are so many contingent faculty, academic parents (especially mothers, and even more acutely single mothers) for whom having the privilege of accessing an extended block of time is a real luxury. Every time I do one of these, I do recognise my privilege, and I do try to help.

A few other secrets on writing groups:

I have made INCREDIBLE friends in my writing groups. I have introduced childhood friends to my writing groups.


1) Communities develop through time and repeated contact. Don’t expect to be ultra chummy with your writing buddies immediately.

2) Different writing groups are run in various ways. Not every writing group will fit your style or expectations. Try a few ones first before “committing”.

3) Some people need the structure/support that a guided, facilitated (PAID) writing group gives them. THESE ARE GREAT.

Like with anything, if you want to have professional help you’ll need to hire a professional. So if you feel like this would be a service that would help you, there are academic coaches all around who provide this facilitated writing group service (a few that come to mind quickly: Dr. Lisa Munro, Dr. Michelle Dionne Thompson, Dr. Leanne C. Powner, and Dr. Jo Van Every).

I also have previously mentioned the importance of academic coaches. There are things that supervisory committees do not provide, and that’s why you hire external help. Dr. Powner does that kind of consulting (particularly social sciences, political science especially).

4) Like with anything that is social, writing groups aren’t just for you to “receive support”. They’re also there for you to GIVE support. The beauty of writing groups is that you get as much as you give. Generally speaking, they’re very reciprocal (that’s the basis for them).

Sometimes, institutions have the funding to bring someone in to start a writing group (for example, have someone teach a Master Class on Academic Writing and then the institution provides support to start a dairly, weekly, bi-weekly or monthly writing group). I myself have been (and continue to be) hired by several universities to teach these workshops for a long while now. It’s definitely a great strategy and a good investment to develop students and faculty.

I teach courses on academic writing and even *I* get writer’s block.

I struggle with producing text.

I sometimes feel overwhelmed with wanting to Do All The Things.

I am human, after all.

This is the beauty of writing groups: you can be an academic who is also a human.

To be 100% honest with you, I am writing so much right now because I AM HEALTHY. At the peak of my eczema/psoriasis/dermatitis/chronic fatigue/chronic pain, I could barely move, let alone write. AND I *had* to teach! So while I do feel slightly guilty for being more productive now than when moving would cause me pain, I feel relieved. These are very, very tough times, so let’s try to not guilt, shame or otherwise put pressure on others, or let anyone put pressure on ourselves. We do what we can with what we have, that’s all.

In the end, we make do with what we have. Dr. Loleen Berdahl has encouraged writing for 10 minutes, and I think that’s doable and worth doing, even if it’s literally what Dr. Meredith D. Clark calls “runway time”.

We are all in this together, and hopefully things will get better in the future.

Posted in academia, writing.

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Analog note-taking when highlighting is not possible (e.g. books)

Anybody who follows me on Twitter or reads my blog knows that I have quite a healthy stock of stationery. I have always loved stationery and office supplies. I love taking notes by hand, and this reflects in my methods for note-taking, active reading and writing.

Note-taking in the Everything Notebook

Recently, a relatively new follower of my blog and Twitter stream asked me a question (I am paraphrasing here):

How do you take notes when you cannot highlight?

I am assuming that people who ask me this are referring to note-taking of books. Personally, I don’t mark up my books, and obviously I am extremely careful with those from the library, so I interpreted this student’s question in this way.

In this blog post, I explain my method, integrating my Twitter thread with some additional thoughts.

… may or may not work in the same way.

Since I prefer analog systems and do not mark books up, here are a few ways in which I take notes that still retain some of the characteristics of my strategies for printed materials.




Obviously, as you can imagine, I’ve written a lot about Note-Taking Techniques on my website’s Resources page. I list those below.

Obvious question you surely will have:

When should I write in my Everything Notebook or when should I use Cornell Notes, or when is a good time to use Index Cards?

Every single student of mine and every person who has ever attended my workshops asks me this question. I don’t have a universal answer, although I do have a few suggestions. As it always happens with techniques and methods for note-taking, active reading, annotating, writing, etc., we all develop our own heuristics for when we should use one method over the other.

Here are my heuristics:

  1. If what I am reading cannot be marked up (I don’t write nor highlight my books, nor any library’s books), I use physical (analog) media. You can, easily, take notes in other programs (Evernote, Notion, etc.) Personally, I find that I need the tactile sensation of handwriting.
  2. I usually write summaries and quotations drawn from books and book chapters in my Everything Notebook if they’re directly related to a research project I am doing at the moment, or if I am doing something VERY specific with them (for example, write a book review).

Now, let’s go to another question I often get asked:

Do you take notes in your Everything Notebook, or on Index Cards or Cornell Notes of ARTICLES that you actually highlighted and scribbled on? Glad you asked.

The answer is YES, I DO. Why do I do this? (apparently redundantly)

My methods work for me, adaptations of my methods work for my students and research assistants and colleagues and also for thousands of people around the globe, but the only person who can really tell if a technique I suggest will work for you is YOU.

Hopefully this blog post can answer people’s questions!

Posted in academia, productivity, writing.

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On the benefits of online writing groups

My life changed right about March of 2020. Well, yes, there’s that pesky thing called a lethal global pandemic, SARS-CoV2, that also changed the lives of absolutely everyone on this planet.

But I also feel changed through the work I have been doing with two amazing writing groups: one led by Dr. Amanda Bittner (Memorial University of Newfoundland) and the other one organized and shepherded by Dr. Mirya Holman (Tulane University).

Writing at my home office in Aguascalientes

Writing doesn’t need to be a lonely activity. Instead, it can be social. Even during this global COVID19 pandemic.

Around when we got into a global lockdown, Amanda and Mirya (both good friends of mine) decided to organize online writing groups. I had heard of them, but I never thought of joining one because well, I already had my writing schedule prepared.


I already had a writing practice of my own, waking up at 4 in the morning and writing from 4:30 to 6:30 Monday through Friday, as my schedule shows. However, joining Amanda’s and Mirya’s online writing groups really has boosted my writing capabilities and improved my ability to focus and concentrate in my research, even during a semester where I taught FOUR courses (how did I survive THAT is material for ANOTHER blog post).

writing calendar

It’s not only the actual writing commitment, the daily declaration of goals and check-ins. It’s the care, love and mutual respect, it’s the constant motivation and positivity. It’s the accountability. It’s the community-building aspect.

I love my writing groups, I really do.

I’m not the only one, though. I recently asked this question on Twitter.

I absolutely loved the responses. A sampler:

And obviously, I also adored Dr. Louise Seamster’s response in an article, as well as Dr. Nicole Janz’s post.

Posted in academia, writing.

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Expanding Detailed Outlines into Memorandums and those into Full Manuscripts

As most of you all know, I’ve been teaching research methods, research design and academic writing for a while now. My students ALWAYS, literally ALWAYS ask me the question:

“How do I go from having the Detailed Outline to actually writing a Memorandum (or a series of Memos) that I can then assemble into the full draft of the paper?”

This blog post answers this question, based on a Twitter thread I wrote a few days ago.

Writing at home

This is the process I outlined on Twitter. You can see the entire thread by clicking anywhere on the tweet below.

My first advice to students when writing outlines is ALWAYS FINISH THE INITIAL OUTLINE FIRST.


What is the reason for finishing the Detailed Outline first, you ask? Well, the rationale is that you will be able to see the overall argument, at a distance, from a vantage point, “bird’s eye”.

Now, another key question that my students ask me regularly:

“Professor, how do you decide what goes into your memorandum?”

Generally speaking, I try to write ONE memorandum per Triggering Question. For example, in this case: “what is ethnography?” would be an ideal Triggering Question based on which I could write a full, well developed Memorandum.

Now, for the “breaking down the big project into small pieces” part of this thread and blog post. Different people use different strategies for outlining. I teach most of them. One of them is outlining by hand (as I have been doing). Others outline directly on screen.

A few options:

Personally, I’m not tied to any model for outlining (directly in Scrivener, Word, or whichever word processor you use, by hand, or using mind maps). I find that combining both sets of techniques (digital and analog) really helps me refine and hone the final product.

Now, let’s move from the Detailed Outline to the Writing Memorandums stage.

Here’s what I do:

  1. I break down the Topic Sentence or Triggering Question into its elements.
  2. I begin a memorandum using heading-level Triggering Questions or Topic Sentences

Let’s grab the “What is Ethnography” Triggering Question, and the “Elements of Ethnography” Topic Sentence/Sub-Heading.

In my mind, there are three key elements to ethnography:

  • Observation
  • Fieldwork
  • Understanding culture.

I can use those categories and/or elements to start my Memorandum.

This is the moment when we need to READ AGAIN to make the argument and start writing the Memorandum. My students think that we read, read, read, read, and THEN WHAM BAM, there’s a paper.

No, writing requires us to think, mull over, reflect and write in smaller chunks.

The final product of the Detailed Outline can be shown below.

Now, here is the finalized Detailed-Outline-to-Memorandum product. This memo would not have been possible had I not thought of writing an Initial Outline, adding more thoughts and ideas to make it a Detailed Outline and then broken down each Triggering Question and Topic Sentence to craft a Memorandum.


Does using Triggering Questions and Topic Sentences work to stimulate thinking and help our students write?

I can 100% certify that this method works and has worked with my students (it also works for me, obviously). This method is an easy strategy to tackle Writer’s Block and the Blank Page.

I hope this blog post and the links associated are helpful to those battling papers, book chapters, theses and books!

Posted in academia, writing.

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How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers (my reading notes)

Index cardsAnybody who follows me on Twitter or reads my blog will know that I am absolutely smitten with index cards. I have taken notes in index cards for decades, and I still do it. I loved index cards as a grade-school student and I adore them as a professor. I have a number of boxes to store my index cards. A few of those are portable, so you can take them with you, others are intended to stay at home. Index cards have been an intimate part of my life since I was too young to even write on them, and will continue to be an important element of my teaching practice, as I strongly believe that my students benefit from learning how to take notes in index cards, and the various methods associated with their usage. In fact, this 2020 I taught note-taking techniques using Index Cards and all my students have loved it.

There are numerous strategies to take notes with index cards, but perhaps the most famous is Niklas Luhman’s Zettelkasten, which has recently been made popular again by Dr. Sönke Ahrens, who wrote one of the most authoritative texts on the method. Full disclosure: though I bought and paid for Ahres’ book on my own dime, I actually do NOT use Zettelkasten, as my Twitter thread explains.

Bottom line: I DID enjoy this book and recommend it though I really do not like the Zettelkasten method as is. Hope my reading notes are helpful to someone.

As someone who LOVES index cards, and who is a Virgo, Type A, Upholder (Gretchen Rubin) you might wonder what I do NOT like about Zettelkasten.

I do not like the sequencing approach, nor the “unique key”.


I think reading Ahrens’ book is EXTREMELY VALUABLE/HELPFUL.

DISCLOSURE: I bought and paid for this book on my own dime, as I do with ALL my books.

Posted in academia, research methods, writing.

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Writing papers using Initial Outlines and Detailed Outlines

Because of the COVID19 pandemic, I’ve had more time (and concentration) to write despite my heavy teaching load (which I hope will not repeat itself ever in my entire life). This Fall term (and this past summer 2020) I’ve also taught a metric tonne of workshops and given a number of talks on academic writing. On top of my traditional courses on research methods and research design, I’ve had to think a lot about writing, academic writing and keeping my writing practice alive despite the pandemic.

Desk in my room (Malakoff, France)

I’ve also made my courses a lot more applied by teaching my students in a hands-on way. I’ve taught them to do research, by actually doing it and writing it. One of the concepts I’ve re-emphasized my students is the notion of outlines, specifically Initial Outlines (the ones we prepare at the beginning of the writing process) and Detailed Outlines (which we develop to help us “flesh out” our arguments and write full papers).

This is the process I use to develop my outlines and the one I teach my students.

This blog post is specific to Detailed Outlines, but I’ve also written other posts on Outlines that you might find useful (see below).

Posted in academia, writing.

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Reconsidering the Zoom University, synchronic/asynchronic and online teaching and learning

I am absolutely exhausted. And it’s only late October 2020.

face I want to preface this blog post by saying that I love teaching, and that I know that part of the reason why I am tired is that I am honoring all the commitments to my previous institution (CIDE) and my current one (FLACSO Mexico) so I am teaching more courses than I am used to. I am definitely not a stranger to online teaching, did it over the summer with wild success and I have enough technological literacy.

I also have a passion and interest in pedagogy so I have taken courses over the summer, experimented with sample classes, etc.


My good friend, Dr. Juliette Levy, sums it up:

I have been an educator since I was eleven years old. I love teaching, mentoring, tutoring, educating. But doing this online thing via synchronic (and I would say even asynchronic) delivery is not sustainable, at least in the way we seem to be doing it right now.

I do miss being physically in the classroom, surrounded by brilliant students.

I draw energy from my students. I also can walk throughout the room. I can also scribble on the whiteboard.

A lot of proponents of asynchronous delivery suggest recording short segments so students can watch them on their own time. I have seen great lectures that are recorded in a way that puts much less stress on the speaker by using a camera and recording the lecturer as they walk students through whiteboarded ideas.

But the kind of applied, hands-on stuff I teach is not really very easy to deliver in the YouTube lecture kind of model. I also wonder about spending so much time physically sitting in front of a computer – to take classes, to do homework, to email, to coordinate with friends and colleagues for group work. This is very concerning.

I know that online teaching works. It’s been working for ages. The problem is that we have multiple compounding factors making online teaching harder. Students are worried about funding, worried about their parents’ and loved ones’ health (hoping they won’t catch COVID19), frantic about their own health. Can they really take online classes and just focus on that? No, I don’t think so. Because if they are parents, they don’t have daycare (because they’re closed in most countries).

Perhaps we need to just keep the sound for some classes, or record short segments (VERY short) with quick online meetings with students. I don’t know, but this is getting very tiring. I wrote a Twitter thread reflecting on this that might be of interest to my readers:

Here, I explain my new model for 3 hour classes:

And I added one last bit: perhaps just listening into some classes would be better? Others won’t work, of course, but maybe this is a thought.

At any rate, I really hope we can control the COVID19 pandemic because this is getting really out of hand.

Posted in academia, teaching.

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Those who can, DO *AND* TEACH – on what teaching entails

Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega at CIESAS workshopOne of the sayings that irks me the most is that old one: “those who can’t do, teach”. As a professor, a teacher, an educator and someone who has spent basically his entire life minus 10 years teaching, educating and mentoring students, I cannot stand the systematic devaluing of the teaching profession, and of educating as an activity. This lack of proper valuation is both systematic and widespread. The saying “those who can’t do, teach” assumes that there are other activities that are more complex, technical and sophisticated than teaching. This is a fallacy, and a grave one that has led to the defunding of teaching and education from kindergarten to post-graduate education. Because I am a professor, I know that my job entails research, teaching, service to my university and to the discipline(s) I work within, to my field and to academia.

Within the job, mentoring students is one often forgotten element of what we do. Research is underfunded. But frequently the most devalued of all the activities we engage in is teaching. This devaluation also can come from evaluation committees where publication and research are the most revered activities of what professoring entails. Nevertheless, within the educational system, teaching is perhaps the most key activity of them all. We transmit our knowledge and open students’ eyes to a new way of viewing the world.

Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega at CIGA-UNAM (Morelia)

I love teaching, I really do. It exhausts me, it drains me, it requires a lot of work from me, but I really, really love teaching. I’m definitely in love with my research, but I adore being able to shape students’ minds and transmit knowledge. This love prompted me to reflect on everything that teaching entails, and that is definitely undervalued. My Twitter thread shares some of these thoughts below.

I believe that one of the reasons why teaching is so undervalued is that we make ideas, concepts and subject matter look easy.


After I wrote this component of the Twitter thread, I remembered that there were MANY other parts of this job that people don’t/can’t see.

As readers reacted to my thread, many of them added other parts of the job that I might have missed (I was rage-tweeting, to be quite honest, and I wrote these ideas just off the top of my head). I really hope that after reading my thread and responses, quote tweets and conversation, we get a better understanding of just how hard it is to be an educator. Worth it? Definitely, yes. But nevertheless, very, very hard.

Even more so during COVID times.

Posted in academia, teaching.

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Teaching and pedagogy in the Zoom COVID19 pandemic times: Reducing reading workload and making my courses more practical and pragmatic

I have news about online teaching and reading workload, friends.


Me, teaching via Zoom.

I have experimented with DRASTICALLY REDUCING the number of readings I assign for a class. This is sometimes perceived as hard in overview courses because you always feel like they should have “the lay of the land” and master all that there is available to learn.


My students have performed BETTER with reduced reading workloads.

Undergrads focus on ONE reading per week, while having 3 more available “if they so happen to have the time to read them” (they often do try to read these extra readings). Masters’ level students have appreciated taking a “let’s just take things more slowly” approach. Doctoral level students felt somewhat weirded out that I wasn’t assigning three books a week. Though they appreciated it.

What I have drawn from my experiences:
Workshops work. Having a section of the class that is “hands-on, let’s get writing/analyzing/thinking/reading” as a workshop fulfills two goals, for me:

1) Cements my students’ understanding of the method.

2) Helps them have actual time to think and read and write rather than rush through.

Depth and breadth are issues we need to compromise on.

– Do I want them to read more broadly or more deeply?
– Do I want them to become more expert in a few things or become more generalist-type people?

These choices are malleable, as is our context.

What is NOT malleable: Time is NOT malleable.

Students and faculty and staff all have 24 hours per day.

Zoom University exhausts people because we miss physical interaction, social interaction. We don’t draw the same energy from performing inside a classroom. Staff are exhausted all the same.

I am someone who studies scarcity and decision-making under uncertainty. When time and energy are scarce, I prefer that my students make the choices that are more efficient, in my view: choose to read ONE reading deeply, practice what I teach you, become proficient in the method.

When all this *gestures broadly* passess, my students (then probably graduates!) will have again the time to read broadly, BUT they will also have the skills to engage with the material DEEPLY and PRACTICALLY, PRAGMATICALLY.

So, to me, reducing reading load actually worked.

The pedagogy that I use now is still much along the lines of how I taught: with kindness and understanding. But I now vary instructional techniques and strategies in a way that even when taught through Zoom, my courses can still be enjoyable.

Also, I err on the side of kindness.

Moreover, I have experimented with bringing in several guest speakers as guest lecturers. I am ever so grateful to everyone I have invited who has had an opportunity to accept and give a talk to my students.

This guest speakers pedagogical strategy has several benefits:

1) Students don’t keep hearing my own voice all the time.
2) They hear from experts in the field
3) While my students may hear the same or similar ideas as I have shared they hear them from SOMEONE ELSE.

I have always used workshops in my social science courses. I am trained as a chemical engineer (undergrad). EVERYTHING I learned had its own lab. I do the same thing: “here is the technique and how I use it, now, here: do it yourself”.

Posted in academia, teaching.

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