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On the need for empathy and kindness in academia

Due to personal problems (my parents have been ill for more than 6 weeks), I have been unable to participate in any of the international conferences of the social sciences’ disciplines I follow more closely (anthropology, geography, sociology and the upcoming political science one, the American Political Science Association, APSA 2014 meeting). However, I follow the Twitter streams with great interest, because I gain new insights on different methods, new theories, concepts and approaches to scholarship.

I recently followed the American Sociological Association (#ASA14) Twitter stream, and I have to admit that while I learned a lot, I was also flabbergasted at the amount of vitriol I saw a few academics spew at their colleagues. Even more disheartening, these criticisms were aimed at their colleagues’ personal traits rather than their scholarly pursuits. To be perfectly honest, I found this incredibly sad, particularly in a discipline focused on the study of social behavior, and sociality. The amount of snark I saw on the Twitter stream of #ASA14 prompted me to tweet the following, which apparently resonated with many, many fellow scholars.

Sometimes, I fear that academics forget that underneath that strong armour of scholarly insights, we are only humans. Personally, I’m neither afraid of criticism nor a wallflower. I was trained by one of the toughest scientists I’ve ever known, and I was educated under the tradition of direct criticism, sometimes punchy and incisive and not even couched in kind and gentle commentary. I take punches, online and offline. But that doesn’t mean that I approve of criticism that is vitriolic. I’m well aware that our job as academics is to challenge positions, criticize and (in doing so), making recommendations and advancing knowledge. But we don’t need to do so by spewing vitriol on other academics.

I sincerely hope that attendees at academic conferences, workshops and seminars never forget that they, too, will at some point demand kindness and gentle criticism. I would just hope that by then, they will also have given the empathy they demand.

Posted in academia.

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Using Evernote in academic research and teaching

While I’m still a fan of handwritten notes, and I do have a paper-based fieldwork notebook, I’m also someone who believes in how information technology can aid scholarly research and university-level teaching. This fall, I am teaching Regional Development (for fourth year undergraduate students) and State and Local Government (for third year undergraduate students). I decided to include an assignment where they send me analytic summaries of newspaper clippings related to their final project.

my evernote notebook on climate politics

To undertake this assignment, my students will be using Evernote. I have been using Evernote to file important documents, for fieldwork, to clip newspapers and save important research notes. I would LOVE to write a detailed blog post on how I use Evernote in my research, but that would take precious time. So what I’m going to do is to describe what my students’ assignment will be about, and share with you my public Evernote notebook on how other academics use Evernote in their own research and teaching and fieldwork.

So, on to the assignment. To do this assignment, I asked my students to download Evernote Desktop on their computers and the Chrome extension (it’s also functional on Safari, Opera and Firefox). My students will need to create a new Notebook where they will be saving the clippings they come across (or search). They can create this Notebook on the web version or on the Desktop. Usually I do it on the Desktop version. To use Evernote you need to create a user account, and the basic version is 100% free.

On top of each clipping, I’ve asked them to write a short analytic summary of what the article is about. Once a week, they can email their clippings or simply share their Evernote Notebook with me (as I show below). I shared my own Evernote notebook on how to use Evernote in academia as well.

sharing notebooks in evernote

Evernote allows you to “join” a Notebook (and you can contribute) or simply seeing it. The idea is that by doing this kind of systematic approach to gathering clippings they will also find it useful for their own thesis writing and research. And hopefully my blog’s readers will find this useful for their own fieldwork, teaching and research.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I have absolutely no financial stake on Evernote, I don’t get paid to promote it, I don’t get freebies. I just simply use it for my own research and teaching, and I find it enormously valuable. So far, I haven’t brought myself to pay for the premium version even though it’s super cheap.

Posted in academia, research.

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The behavioral determinants of change in sanitation governance

Clayburn Village B&B (Abbottsford)Thanks to Professor Tina Loo (Chair of the Department of History at The University of British Columbia, and an environmental historian), I was alerted to a feature in The Economist on sanitation in India, suggesting that changes in defecation practices and not only access to toilets was important. First of all. I think we all who study sanitation governance owe Rose George, author of The Big Necessity, TED speaker and a fantastic journalist who only writes books on topics that start with S (as per her own admission), a debt of gratitude. I think Rose George has contributed enormously to popularizing “Talking Shit” and bringing the world’s interest on sanitation. Not everybody has the dignity of a toilet, and more than a million people still defecate in the open and thus we need to focus on this as an actual environmental and humanitarian crisis.

I have to admit that when I read the piece, I thought that it was stating the obvious. I’ve written variants of this argument before. You can’t change sanitation if you only focus on one aspect of the problem. Along the same lines of reasoning, I’ve also explained how we can’t just focus on one component of sanitation. We have to look at the complexity of the sanitation issue, not simplify it.

In fact, the point of the piece from what I can read, is that in addition to mentioning how important it is to increase sanitation coverage by building more latrines and giving access to toilets to individuals in countries where open defecation is still practiced, it is even equally important to change behavior of individuals who practice open defecation (as a campaign in India is already doing).

The one caveat and what made me a bit squeamish is that Diane Coffey’s research (Coffey is a PhD student at Princeton whose paper is cited in the article) is not interpreted in The Economist’s piece the way it actually is intended toI had a chance to communicate with one of the author’s, Diane Coffey. Thus I am correcting my blog post to refer this conversation. In fact, the work I read from Coffey (linked above, on open defecation on hemoglobin) wasn’t the work the author of The Economist’s piece was referring to.

In our email conversation, Coffey indicated that

The basic notion is that rural India is a special case — that there are important pull factors that make people want to defecate in the open (notions of a wholesome rural life) and push factors (rooted in notions of ritual purity and pollution) that make people not want to use affordable latrines. The beginning makes the argument that north India is different from the rest of the world on rural sanitation — and the end shows that because of purity and pollution, people make very different latrines than in other parts of the world.

In the hemoglobin paper, which is the one I had read and wrongly linked to,Coffey’s paper argues that there is a direct (and potentially negative) relationship between open defecation and levels of hemoglobin (much like the relationship between stunting and lack of access to sanitation). Coffey calls attention to the need to focus randomized control trials (RCTs) efforts on this particular causal relationship. She also calls for policy makers to pay MORE attention to sanitation.

What I have called for, and Coffey’s work contributes to this request of mine, is for policy makers to understand that solving the global sanitation crisis requires us to look at ensuring better menstrual hygiene management, at toilet-building technologies, at increasing access to toilets and latrines, at improving the sanitary conditions in vulnerable communities and developing nations, and ALSO at changing individuals’ behaviors. Ensuring that those who defecate in the open “by tradition” or “by customary action” are also able to relieve themselves through the dignity of a toilet is important, because as several authors have discussed, having access to sanitation is one important (not the only one!) step towards solving the global sanitation crisis.

But what I fear people may forget is that open defecation is not solely a cultural practice (as The Economist piece would seemappeared to imply), but largely a practice undertaken for lack of access. Because not everyone has the dignity of a toilet. Because more than a billion people don’t have access to proper ways to deal with one of the most basic human needs. However, finding out more about Coffey and her coauthors’ work where cultural practices play a more central role in adoption of sanitation practices that stray away from open defecation has made me pause and think about how this case (rural north India) may indeed, as Coffey and her coauthors’ indicate, be an exception to the general rule. I argue, however, that generally speaking, cultural practices aren’t the only factor, and that we need to also consider access to latrines and toilets. Yet the work of Coffey and coauthors opens new avenues for research that consider the centrality of culture as the foundation for an explanatory framework on policies to address open defecation, at least in the region that they study.

Think about it.

Posted in academia, sanitation, wastewater.

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On writing every day for two hours #AcWri

Most people who know my schedule know that I wake up at the ungodly hour of 4:00am to write on an everyday basis (I was doing 4:45am for a while but then I realized I needed the additional 45 minutes as a buffer, so now I start anywhere between 4:00 and 4:45am). I also follow a lot of people who regularly write on academic writing (my research blog is focused on everything, including my own research agenda, even though I do write about academic life in general). While having a conversation with Jo Van Every and Theresa MacPhail on Twitter, we discussed writing every day of the work week.

Academic writing (working from home)

This makes sense, although I will admit I often write every single day of the week, not only the 5 days of the work week (I’m trying to go back to just every day of the work week). This happens often when my schedule is derailed by academic conferences, when I travel to give a seminar or workshop, or when I am doing fieldwork (although some people could argue that writing field notes is, in fact, academic writing and should be included in the 2 hours every day).

To avoid self-loathing and punishing myself, I set a weekly goal of 10 hours a week of writing, or 20 blocks of 30 minutes every week. This makes writing a manageable task, because I always do have 30 minutes to write when I am at an airport waiting for a flight, or when I travel by bus, or when I’m on the plane. I also have 30 minutes to write in between meetings with students or colleagues. Most people who write about academic writing will in fact recommend using the Pomodoro technique of writing for 25 minutes and resting for 5 (you can see Inger Weiburn’s post on just Shut Up and Write).

My office at CIDE Region Centro during and after writing a paper

The thing is, I write every day because I follow what Rachael Cayley suggests: writing as a self-reflective process. I write to clarify what the hell I’m thinking. And most of the time, my thinking is refined by putting it into words. I also should note that I follow the advice of Tanya Golash-Boza on 10 ways in which you can write every day. I don’t necessarily TYPE for 2 hours (if I could, I would, but I can’t just vomit words that way). I rearrange drafts, rewrite text, etc. Because writing isn’t easy, as Pat Thomson very aptly indicates. I write every day because if I don’t, I lose practice and my writing becomes unwieldy. Pat’s post suggests that we need to write as practice.

It’s like a muscle: you use it or you lose it.

Whether you write as a binge-writer (e.g. in long spurts) or on a daily basis, you do need the focus to accomplish your goals. And maybe the motivation. So hopefully you will also be willing to join #GetYourManuscriptOut.

Posted in academia, writing.

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#GetYourManuscriptOut or “how to fight procrastination in academic writing through crowdsourcing”

AcWri at the home office

Most people who read my blog on a regular basis know that I write every single day of the week, either 2 hours in a row (from 4:00am to 6:00am), or in 4 blocks of 30 minutes every day, to ensure at least 10 hours of solid writing per week. What most people DON’T know is that most of this writing is generative. That is, I generate new text, I write new papers, but I am horrendous at editing, or at getting out manuscripts that are languishing.

In my terminology, “languishing” means that conference paper that I wrote, that was very well received, but that somehow, in the past two years, has been slipping through the cracks. Or a paper that is THIS CLOSE to being complete, but only needs a bit of editing or polishing, or adding a few interviews, or cranking out a few equations or rewriting the analysis. So, it’s a paper mostly done, but that is there, sitting in my hard drive, alone and waiting to be submitted to a journal.

I’m tired of this. I’m tired of only writing generative text and I’ve decided to simply start polishing those manuscripts that are ALMOST done, but that for some reason, I left behind after conferences or workshops. So, in a conversation with Steven Shaw from McGill University in Montreal and Mireya Marquez from Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, we decided that we wanted to find an accountability mechanism to bring us to completion and submission of manuscripts.

So that’s how #GetYourManuscriptOut started. Mireya, Steven and I collectively are inviting all academic writers to use the hashtag in the way many use #AcWri (Academic Writing), to share frustrations, ideas but most importantly, progress about a manuscript that needs to get out. In turn, we’d probably appreciate words/tweets of encouragement along our journey.

My own accountability goals for this summer:
- The manuscript on wastewater governance I wrote for my job talk needs to be submitted. It’s almost 100% ready and I just need to polish it.
- The paper on remunicipalization needs to be polished with additional interview material from the case study. It’s also almost done, and just needs to be reworked with the interviews and submitted.
- The design for my water culture experiment needs to be written up.
- My paper on bottled water needs to be submitted, as it needs to be reworked to use the citation style of the journal I’m planning to submit.

If you have manuscripts waiting to be submitted, that are ALMOST done, and you need collective encouragement, do feel free to join in. We won’t be tweeting on a particular day or at a particular hour of the day, we’ll just be citing our progress and asking you to keep us accountable and encourage us.

Wish us luck!

Posted in environmental policy.

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The 5th Workshop on the Ostrom Workshop (WOW5)

The 5th Workshop on the Ostrom Workshop #WOW5OstromThis week I have been participating in the 5th Workshop on the Ostrom Workshop (WOW5). I co-organized two panels in a Working Group on polycentric water governance, presented a paper on polycentric water governance in Mexico, and then co-presented the summary of our findings to a larger Working Group on polycentricity. I presented on my cumulative research on the governance of wastewater and sanitation, and recent work on polycentricity theory in water resources governance.

Even though this week was incredibly busy (I was finishing a report along with my team for a consultancy we’re doing to the Mexican government), I didn’t want to miss WOW5, even though it was bittersweet being at Indiana University Bloomington and the Workshop without Elinor Ostrom and Vincent Ostrom (both of whom passed away in 2012).

The 5th Workshop on the Ostrom Workshop #WOW5Ostrom As someone who was privileged to learn from Lin and Vince directly, and whose research was inspired by (in fact, semi-ordered by!) their own work, participating in WOW5 was definitely something I needed to do. It was also necessary because as I mentioned before, my interest is to remain competitive in the international academic community, not only in Mexican academia. It was also great to reconnect with former students of Lin and Vincent, with scholars with whom I have shared scholarly interests for a long time now.

More importantly, participating in WOW5 allowed me to form new networks and relationships of scholarly collaboration. Given how generous Lin and Vince were with their time, their humanity and kindness and with their intellectual power, it’s amazing how those who carry their scholarly legacy are equally generous and kind. I also enjoyed this conference as much as I did the International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) 2013 in Fujiyoshida-shi, Japan. Many of the folks I saw here at WOW5 were at IASC 2013.

And more importantly, it appears as though I have finally learned the lessson: I need to spend a full week at the conference site so that I can (a) do some fieldwork (b) meet scholars who are located where the conference is taking place and (c) really build the long-term, lasting relationships that build collaboration.

It is indeed sad to be at IU Bloomington without Lin and Vince, but I’m sure they’d be happy I’m here. And I’ll continue to be here on a regular basis, linked and associated with the Ostrom Workshop and with the activities that were established by the Ostroms.

You can check my Flickr photo set and all the Twitter stream for #WOW5Ostrom. Thanks to Gayle Higgins, Emily Castle, Mike McGinnis, Burney Fischer, David Price, the entire staff of the Ostrom Workshop, volunteers, participants and organizers for a most wonderful WOW5.

Posted in academia.

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On the importance and relevance of fieldwork

When I was doing my doctorate, I took a variety of methods courses. Seeing as I had taken economics during my Masters and that I was originally a chemical engineer, I thought it was advisable to do coursework that would actually help me in a variety of situations. I took quantitative methods, qualitative methods, spatial analysis and GIS, etc. My PhD advisor never once questioned my intention to undertake fieldwork in order to validate what the quantitative datasets and spatial analyses were telling me. I do not think for a second he wanted me to be a “one trick pony”.

Mishima (water and river restoration fieldwork for IASC 2013)

Me during fieldwork last year (2013) in Mishima, in Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan

To me, field research is fundamental to understanding social phenomena, and many natural phenomena. In particular, for the kind of research I do (wastewater governance, water privatization, informal waste recycling), much of what I have to do to understand how waste and water governance processes work is to observe, interview, dialogue with stakeholders. While I am fond of quantitative datasets that one can download from the internet, many of the databases I have created have been obtained from undertaking archival research and fieldwork. Much of what I know about wastewater treatment plants in Mexico comes from actually visiting them, and seeing them operate (i.e., from doing fieldwork).

I tweeted a few weeks ago that I wasn’t sure why people were searching on my blog for answers to the importance and relevance of fieldwork. I think that there are at least 3 reasons why doing fieldwork in my area (comparative public policy) is important (and why my own graduate and undergraduate students are required to go on the field for their research).

1. Fieldwork gives the researcher an “on-the-ground”, more realistic perspective than any second-hand, pre-digested/analyzed account.

2. Fieldwork enables the researcher to create networks of similarly-minded scholars, and to share insights about the same field site.

3. Fieldwork allows the researcher to examine political and policy processes as they occur, giving a complementary perspective to historical or diachronic analyses.

There are, of course, all sorts of drawbacks to engaging in fieldwork, particularly when it is on potentially triggering and painful subjects (violence against women or children both come to mind, but even my own field, the social science of sanitation, provides ample opportunity to witness a lot of pain and therefore, to create emotional pain from being witness). Thus the importance of self-care when undertaking fieldwork in dangerous places or areas where there is a lot of violence or emotional pain. Dr. Kimberly Theidon wrote about this subject for a recently published DSD working paper.

Overall, I love fieldwork and find that it is important and relevant for my own work and my students’ work. Even if I find it very challenging (particularly because I work with and study vulnerable populations and thus I need to be extra careful about ethical considerations), and sometimes not particularly pleasant, I gain insights I would not be able to otherwise.

If you have additional insights on why fieldwork is important and relevant, I’d appreciate it if you left them in the comments section.

UPDATE: Several colleagues chimed in, here are their insights.

Posted in academia.

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On misguided policy decisions and complex choices

A few weeks ago, the Information Bank for Applied Social Science Research at CIDE (BIIACS or Banco de Información para la Investigación Aplicada en Ciencias Sociales, in Spanish) invited me and a few other colleagues to give a talk about how I use spatial analysis in my public policy research. The event took place last Thursday, and I was joined by my colleagues Carlos Vilalta (who studies the spatial and temporal elements of crime), Jaime Sainz (who does spatial analysis in environmental justice and urban expansion issues), and Alfredo Ramirez (who studies urban pricing and rent/buy choices).

Something that struck me very strongly (particularly because I have a very big beef with the way Mexican public policies are designed and implemented) was how Carlos emphasized policy choices in his presentation. He spoke on the beginnings of a macro-theory of crime, and he emphasized something that really hit home with me:

Crime and fear of crime caused costs and damages for 25.4 billion USD in 2012. Yet, the federal government will spend this 2014, approximately 190 million USD in social crime prevention policy versus almost 1 billion USD for the functioning of the National Institute of Elections (INE) and the financing of political parties – in a year with no federal elections.

What Carlos highlights here is something that has made my blood boil for decades, ever since I decided that I wanted to be a public policy scholar. The absolute mismatch between policy objectives and the sheer idiocy behind policy decisions. As Carlos indicates, why on Earth do you want to spend 1 billion USD for an institute that coordinates elections in a non-electoral year? Why not focus on, oh well say, poverty alleviation? Or crime prevention strategies? Or water infrastructure?

That stupid policy decisions are made in Mexico just as much as in other countries is true. In Canada, in my former province, Christy Clark (the Premier of British Columbia and someone whose policy decisions I’ve criticized for a long time now) increased her cabinet’s salaries (already hefty) by 18% while getting into stupid fights with BC teachers on issues of salaries and educational infrastructure.

But this doesn’t make me happy. I am not happy that misguided policy decisions occur worldwide. I’m appalled that we have so many talented scholars of corruption, of public policy analysis, and yet governments keep doing what they do without any regard for whether their policies are sound and whether their analyses are robust. It’s frustrating and I have no idea how to change this. I have always set my faith in the third sector, civil society, to correct governmental failures. But we need a galvanized, active civil society AND perhaps it’s high time we, academics who know how to design proper policy, get involved in activism.

Posted in comparative public policy.

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Towards a holistic understanding of sanitation: The links between menstrual hygiene management, open defecation and violence against women

When analyzing complex phenomena, such as the lack of access to proper water supply and sanitation that more than 2.1 billion people in this world face, we tend to isolate components of the problem, without regard for other compounding factors that also influence how policy decisions are constructed. Thus, we often find ourselves blinded by one sole policy goal without trying to map out the complex interrelationships that affect that particular phenomenon.

Wanted: Sanitation Revolution 2.0

Photo credit: Gates Foundation on Flickr

While I’m not a scholar of violence against women, I’m keenly aware of the fact that lack of access to proper sanitation facilities has a profound and disproportionately negative effect on women and girls. Not only do they need proper facilities during menstruation, but also to relieve themselves. Countries where open defecation rates are disproportionately high, such as India, often are also countries where violence against women is also high. But the linkages aren’t visible to everyone, all the time. Much of the work on sanitation, water and gender has focused on the distance that girls and women need to travel to fetch water, with lesser attention paid to issues of menstrual hygiene management and open defecation.

Open defecation along the river bank

Photo credit: Sustainable Sanitation Alliance on Flickr

Situations like the one described in this article (trigger warning: violence against women) are not rare in countries where rates of open defecation are high.

The international charity Water Aid said around 300 million women and girls in India were still obliged to practise open defecation, exposing them to risk of harassment and assault. Lower caste women were especially at risk, it said.

When looking for a place to relieve themselves, girls and women often need to hide with the consequent heightened probability of being attacked.

Globally, India continues to be the country with the highest number of people (597 million people) practising open defecation

Open defecation is said to cost about $260 billion globally. Maybe it is high time that we start investing money in building low-cost, highly-accessible toilets rather than skyscrapers.

Additional reading:

- A good briefing note by the charity Water Aid on the social dynamics of abandoning open defecation in Ghana.
- May 28th was just announced as Menstrual Hygiene Management Day. Read some good facts on MHM here.

Posted in academia, research, sanitation.

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The fallacy of “efficiency” in water privatization discourse

My current project on the politics of water privatization in Mexico has yielded three interesting sub-strands. The first one is an analysis of global trends in remunicipalization (the process whereby municipalities take back public water supply from private concession holders). The second one is a study of social struggles around water privatization in several Mexican municipalities. The third one (and the most related to my career-long interest in wastewater and sanitation governance) is a study of privatization of sanitation and wastewater treatment plants. These projects are part of my overarching research programme on the spatial, political, environmental and human dimensions of public service infrastructure.

Mishima (water and river restoration fieldwork for IASC 2013)Given what I have found in my survey of the literature on why local governments choose to privatize their public service delivery, I’m really puzzled as to why would municipalities want to continue going ahead with this process. Several Mexican sub-national governments like the metropolitan zones of Puebla and Guadalajara have started the process of privatizing their public water supply.

This is disheartening, particularly because the global discourse of efficiency gains of water privatization has been thoroughly debunked. I have a piece currently under review where I discuss findings by Mildred Warner, David Hall, Emanuele Lobina, Germa Bel, Naren Prasad and other scholars who have found that those alleged efficiency gains are countered by numerous problems, including exacerbating social inequities, increasing social welfare gaps and raising concerns about intergenerational (and intra-regional) injustices.

Parque Explora (Leon, Guanajuato)Properly implementing a right to water (a very challenging process, indeed) will require policy makers to change their paradigmatic stance on “passing the buck” and wanting to get out of sub-national, municipal public service delivery. Privatizing water supply is an easy way out to avoid being accountable to the public, beyond the alleged efficiency gains. I remain skeptical of private water supply.

Given what I have found in my research, I sincerely doubt that private concession of water utilities is actually a workable solution for public service delivery. However, it appears that it will be up to civil society to challenge politicians to change their stance and face the reality: governments are elected to service the public, whether they like it or not. This will be an interesting challenge. Recent media rhetoric around social protest towards water privatization has stigmatized and portrayed local residents of Mexican towns who mobilize to prevent private intervention in water delivery.

I also think reversing the current trend towards water privatization in Mexico will require the mobilization of scholarly knowledge (maybe in the form of public intellectualism) to educate policy makers in Mexico on why yielding to private interests isn’t always in the best interest of the public, and a smart use of scarce resources. New alternatives to water privatization include of course public-public partnerships, and co-production of public service delivery (Ostrom 1996)

Posted in academia, water governance, water policy.

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