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Processing a Paper Protocol – from PDF to memo

Clean office with new couchWhen people visit my campus office, they often admire the fact that I have a systematically organized library where my books and printed articles/book chapters/reports are all available (and ordered alphabetically, in the case of printouts, and by topic, in the case of books). For me, “processing” articles and books/book chapters is a systematic process that enables me to know where to find which piece of research. The “processing” entails finding the digital version, saving it, reading it, and then organizing it. I do this to avoid what Pat Thomson calls “PDF alibi”, that is, thinking that I have already processed an article or a book chapter when I simply downloaded it and stored it and I did not read it. Since I integrate reading with my academic writing, I am rarely victim of PDF alibi syndrome. But I have often said, I’m definitely not above doing long stretches of reading, particularly when I am preparing a literature review for a paper.

For me, processing a paper (or a piece of work) entails the following stages: First, I give it a very quick read. Then, I decide if this piece requires deeper engagement with it, be it through highlighting and scribbling on the margins, be it by writing a rhetorical precis, or be it by preparing a detailed memorandum.

Often times, the bunch of printed output that I need to process comes from a detailed citation tracing search. I am currently writing a literature review on the human right to water, so I had to catch up on everything that has been published since I last did one (e.g. in the last four months).

The process is as I’ve shown above: I download the PDF using Last Name, Year and Title of the document. I organize each file in a folder (I do have a folder for PDFs “To Be Organized”). I also print it out and sort it as indicated above (and in this post). I also upload the PDF on to my Mendeley database and clean up the reference.

I'm not convinced about reading on Mendeley.

When the paper is relevant but I don’t think I have the time to prepare a detailed memorandum, I simply write a rhetorical precis that I can then type and digitize and add into my Evernote library. This makes my database of rhetorical precis searchable and findable. I also save the file into my Dropbox in the folder for the paper I am currently writing.

When I have a good number of articles that are worth memo-ing, I dump the memorandum (or at least, the most relevant quotations) into my Excel conceptual synthesis worksheet. Even if I only write a rhetorical precis, I always keep it also in the literature review Excel worksheet, so that I know which articles to refer back to.

Often times, I’ll scribble notes in my Everything Notebook that are related to a specific piece of printed work. When that happens, I use the last name of the author and the year to prepare a plastic tab and use that tab to separate my scribbles on the Everything Notebook (and to ensure that I can find my notes easily!)

Again, the point of this post is: NEVER FILE A PAPER UNTIL YOU’VE READ IT.

In my case, I never file something until I’ve processed it. Hopefully my method is useful to you!

Posted in academia.

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Project Planning Protocol – From idea to paper in one swift sequence

A few months back, Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom (assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, and someone I consider a dear friend) tweeted she was looking forward to organizing her academic life using the methods I’ve posted on my blog on the topic of Organization and Time Management. She called them “Get Your Life Together Academic Protocols

People have asked me frequently if I have a series of posts that could help them from an idea to a paper, to managing their everyday academic and personal lives. The most recent request I received was from Glen Wright, from Academia Obscura fame.

I decided to post the sequence of blog posts I already have written that I think make most sense for someone to get organized using my methods.

Here are the 9 posts in tweet format. I posted them this way in case you want to retweet a specific one (clicking on the retweet icon will launch the Twitter page and enable you to retweet that specific post).

Posted in academia, productivity.

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On getting a good night of sleep and the biphasic 6 + 1.5 hours cycle

I was recently asked by Chris Birdsall on Twitter how my sleep cycle works.

This question came about, I believe, because (a) I appear to be on Twitter all the time (which I’m not, read my post on my Twitter strategies) and (b) I appear like I don’t sleep at all (I actually love sleeping and naps, generally speaking).

This is a myth.

I sleep 7.5 hours per day which is about what just about any person should sleep (please exclude parents and those suffering from chronic insomnia). Yes, I wake up at 4am to write, but trust me, I do love me some sleep. There are people who have attempted polyphasic sleep cycles (where they take naps in between long periods of work). Honestly, after having tried it during my PhD (and failed miserably), I don’t believe in polyphasic sleep cycles.

The thing is, I DO believe in the biphasic model.

Remember, I’m not a sleep expert (though I DO know someone who IS). So, I am just sharing my experience and what I read before deciding on my current sleep cycle model. I had read somewhere that for someone to experience actual rest, they had to achieve deep sleep, and that being rested meant that we got several deep sleep cycles where each one of these lasts 90 minutes.

To calculate how much sleep I should get, I calculated the following: 1.5 hours times 4 is six hours, what some consider is the least amount of sleep you can get before suffering damage in your cognitive functions. Though apparently, sleeping more than seven hours may be non-optimal.

So I normally sleep 6 hours at night, and then I have a 1.5 hour nap at the “end of my day” (e.g. when I teach, this is normally at 3pm). Because I start working at 4 am, by noon I’m done with the day, and by 2:30pm I’m really exhausted. So I drive home and take a 90 minute nap, which usually leaves me recharged to do more stuff in the afternoon or evening. This also allows me to have some semblance of a social life, where my friends LOVE going out until 10pm (which is a total NO NO for me).

I try really hard to be in bed by 9pm so that if there’s some delay in how fast I fall asleep, I can be fully asleep by 10pm. Then, waking up at 4am is natural. My body is used to it. I’m also used to having a nap at 3pm or so. On weekends, I try as hard as I can to take as many naps as my body requires. During the week I only need one per day, but on weekends, for some reason, I need more sleep and I try hard to take as many naps as possible.

Sleeping well is a well-tried tool to improve academic performance, trust me (and the experts!)

My friend Melonie Fullick, who DOES study higher education, agrees that we need enough sleep.

I recognize that academic parents with toddlers and little children and scholarly people with chronic insomnia have a harder time to get enough sleep. I just hope we all could get enough sleep. It would make our academic lives much better. It’s dangerous and unhealthy to cheat ourselves of sleep.

Posted in academia.

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Getting writing done as a motivator to write more

Right now, as of November 11th, 2016, I have two journal articles under review, 3 accepted with changes, two book chapters in press, and I’m in the process of submitting one book chapter and two more articles that are ready for (thanks, #GetYourManuscriptOut and #AcWriMo for the additional motivation!). Strangely enough, I am really fired up to write more, even though I’m not doing AcWriMo.

#AcWri on the plane from Dallas to Leon

I am not 100% sure if my theory has any empirical evidence to back it up, but I have a hunch that getting writing done is an actual motivator to write more. Knowing that my stuff is out and that I’m crossing stuff off of my list is actually making me want to write, and to do more research. It may also be the fact that it’s the end of the year (or the end of the world as we know it, as of November 8th, 2016).

I also think my willingness to write more may also be correlated with the fact that the year (the actual year, not the academic one!) is ending, so I think I also want to have my work out for review. That’s the best advice I have ever gotten: to get my stuff out, and to have it reviewed and read.

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

My biggest frustration with myself has always been that I’m too much of a perfectionist, so sometimes putting words on paper worries me because I don’t know if they’re perfect of not. But as I’ve tweeted recently, the best advice I ever got was “get your stuff out for review”. And exactly that’s how the #GetYourManuscriptOut hashtag emerged.

Posted in academia.

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On doing the grunt work in academia

While I have pushed for reflection and slow scholarship in my blog, I have to admit that some of the less romantic and glamorous parts of academia don’t particularly excite me. I call that “the grunt work“.

Like many people in my profession (academia), I find it hard to motivate myself. Even with my own tricks and “hacks”, where I convince my brain that I can knock off a few Quick Wins by finishing simpler tasks in blocks of 30 minutes, where I do granular planning and break down each component of a project into thirds (the Rule of Three method), even though I focus on just ONE task at a time, it’s hard for me to get motivation. And doing the grunt work doesn’t excite me either.

Even worse, sometimes, writing IS grunt work, as writer Jodi Picoult emphasizes.

Writing memoranda, rhetorical precis and extracting quotations to fill your Excel conceptual synthesis dump sheet? Grunt work.

#Memorandum #AcWri

I would LOVE to say that as soon as I turn on my laptop, Word immediately launches and I can start typing sentences that are coherent, and that I write for 2 hours and that life is good and I have a solid 2,500 words by the end of my morning session. This isn’t the case.

Let me tell you a little story, just from the past couple of days. I am coauthoring a book chapter with a colleague in Germany. To work on this chapter, I needed to do the following:

  • Print out his email to me, and the chapter draft he sent me.
  • Read my coauthor’s requests and map out in my Drafts Review Matrix what I was going to do.
  • Start going through the table, all the while deciding what I could realistically finish in the time I was allocating for the edition of this chapter.
  • Search Mendeley for the right references I needed to insert to back up my argument.
  • Since I am not the lead author on this particular chapter, I had to make sure to insert the references and then create a bibliography from where he could copy the references he needed (he uses EndNote and I use Mendeley, which can make coauthoring a bit complicated).
  • Type an email responding with the changes I made.

Of the list of activities I show above, only ONE would count ordinarily as “writing” (e.g. producing text). But as I have argued before, typing the email response, creating the Draft Review Matrix, writing the list of items I had to edit, all of this was grunt work, and therefore, it should also count as writing.

What counts as grunt work?

I wish the grunt work were valued as much as the actual production of words. But all academic activity includes a certain amount of this type of activity. I hope we can find a way to value it as much as we do other research-related activities.

Posted in academia, productivity, research, writing.

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3 quick intermediate Twitter user tips for academics

I have always wanted to write an extensive “Twitter Guide for Academics”, but I actually don’t have the time, so I’m just going to quickly point out to three things that may make your Twitter experience better if you’re an academic.

1) Threading conversations.

Twitter is an ever-evolving platform. It’s really annoying that whenever one seems to master a feature that this social network provides, it screws up again. One good thing I’ve noticed, lately, is it’s ability to thread conversations. To thread a conversation (specifically, to make sure that your tweetstorm actually makes sense and follows a logical thread) you need to tweet, then respond to that tweet, erase your Twitter ID, then continue typing. Here’s a thread of mine:

If you click on the date that the tweet was posted, a Twitter window will open showing my original tweet with the continuing tweets in the thread.

2) Muting people

I am a heavy-volume tweeter. I know that for many people, I’m the person to go to with questions about whom to contact in different fields. I also find a lot of interesting stuff that I may not be working on, but that my followers might. Or I simply want to amplify the voices of marginalized academics. So, because I’m a heavy-volume tweeter, I tell people they can mute me. Yes, if you click the little nut icon besides the “Follow” button (or if you’re following the person, the button indicating “Following” all filled with blue), you will find a host of things you can do to that profile’s Twitter ID. One of them, most effective, is muting them. You can’t tell what they’re saying because they’re muted and you can’t see them.

3) Customize your experience, don’t let Twitter customize it for you.

Because Twitter aren’t stupid (and they love changing their interface until they find a way to make money off of you), they make it horrendously hard for you to find an easy way to edit your settings and personalize your experience. Luckily, if you just go to, you can easily access them and personalize your account. First, you can decide if you want to read all your tweets, or just the Top Tweets that Twitter’s algorithm decides they want to show you.

Twitter automatically sets these, and it will ask you for your password to make any changes and validate them. Hmmhmm, that’s right. You’re basically hostage to whatever THEY want to set your account. Except, you CAN make changes. Here’s another change I made. Under the Notifications tab, I removed the possibility that Twitter sends me emails for everything, except new follows and DMs.

By turning off (under Notifications) the “Quality Filter”, you allow yourself to actually see who interacts with your tweets instead of letting Twitter’s algorithm decide for you.

I wish I had tricks to hide promoted tweets and those “in case you missed these” and “So-and-So liked this tweet so we thought you might like them too” but I don’t know them. If anybody does, I’m all ears!

Posted in social media for teaching.

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On the value of urban ethnography in understanding contemporary society

I recently came across an article in The Guardian on McDonald’s (yes, the transnational corporate chain that has been at times criticized for the negative impact that fast food may have on human nutrition) and was astonished to find described a phenomenon I’ve seen throughout the many years I’ve undertaken urban ethnographic work: marginalized populations building community inside a McDonald’s branch.

Surprising as this may sound to people who don’t do urban ethnography (or haven’t experienced this phenomenon either by observing it or living it), many low-income people can only afford to eat a McDonald’s combo meal. As low in nutritious content as its food may be, McDonald’s offers something more than just the food: a space to gather and interact with other people who may be in the same position as yours.

I’ve observed this phenomenon in dozens of cities. I have, myself, eaten at McDonald’s (because it’s the cheapest food you can get in many places, and because it gives me a sense of the neighbourhood). I’ve been inside McD’s branches in Dublin (Ireland), Aarhus (Copenhagen), Chicago, Washington DC, Milwaukee, San Francisco (USA), Madrid (Spain), Mexico City, Aguascalientes, Leon (Mexico), Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Victoria (Canada), just to name a few. The phenomenon is pretty much the same. I don’t study food anthropology nor the urban geography of foodways, but somehow this topic seems fascinating, because as I commented on Twitter, my experience mirrors the comments by The Guardian’s journalist. I quote:

When many lower-income Americans are feeling isolated by the deadening uniformity of things, by the emptiness of many jobs, by the media, they still yearn for physical social networks. They are not doing this by going to government-run community service centers. They are not always doing this by utilizing the endless array of well-intentioned not-for-profit outreach programs. They are doing this on their own, organically across the country, in McDonald’s.

There are many scholarly ways to examine this community-building phenomenon. One could invoke the social capital thesis of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, or theories of racial segregation as driving factors in the growth of fast food chain branches in marginalized neighbourhood. But regardless of the theoretical framework invoked, I strongly believe ethnography is the right method to answer questions prompted by this phenomenon. I’m not alone in thinking this, as this 1979 ethnography of a Burger King franchise shows.

As Dr. Malini Ranganathan indicates, it is fundamentally important that we recognise that sometimes in our studies we have assumptions about the linkages between different elements of the social system (in this case, as Dr. Ranganathan shows, space, food and culture).

And on that note, I would like to point people out to the latest issue of Food and Foodways, where you’ll find discussions of eating in semi-public spaces. From what I could read in the introductory essay, this collection is written by ethnographers, and I believe that this methodological slant will definitely enrich the conversation.

Posted in academia, ethnography, research methods.

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Using #AcWriMo to develop a daily writing practice

My relationship with #AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month, which happens at the same time as National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo, in November) has always been a bit of love and hate.


In 2012, I joined thousands of fellow academics in #AcWriMo, and as expected, it was a bit too overwhelming for me, BUT I did achieve a lot. In hindsight, I think I was trying to write A LOT every single day (at a time when it was not something I did in a structured way), and despite the fact that I wasn’t teaching at the time, I had just left Canada and settled in Mexico and it wasn’t the best idea. But I did produce lots, and lots of text.

In 2013, I didn’t join #AcWriMo, for several reasons. I was teaching (only one class, but it was a new course, and it was really overwhelming), and I travelled to Europe three times during a teaching semester (not the best idea). Plus I am not a big believer in writing in long sprees.

In 2014, I encouraged OTHER academics to join #AcWriMo although I didn’t do it myself. By then, I was already teaching 2 courses in the fall, which basically makes writing for extended periods of time basically impossible for me. 2014 was also the year I almost died twice, from overwork. And my daily writing practice (2 hours a day) was already very well established. So I decided to encourage other people to do it if it works for them.

In 2015, I was so busy that I didn’t even *think* of #AcWriMo. Again, teaching 2 courses and stressed about the results of my three-year reappointment (which I passed, with flying colours if I may be so bold to add).

And in 2016, I am going to encourage people to join #AcWriMo at their own pace so that they can develop a writing practice.

Cleaning up Mendeley citations

The model of #AcWriMo (at least, the original version that I read) is simple (I’m quoting from the PhD2Published page):

  1. Decide on your goal.
  2. Declare it!
  3. Draft a strategy.
  4. Discuss your progress.
  5. Don’t slack off.
  6. Declare your results.

As I’ve suggested before (and I’m not the only one, Dr. Aimee Morrison and Dr. Jo Van Every have also argued similarly), you can do a lot with 15-30 minutes a day. If you need some advice on academic writing, you might want to read some of my own blog posts on the topic.

Literature Road Mapping

To discuss your progress and declare it, you may want to join the #GetYourManuscriptOut crowd.

There are lots of things you can do during #AcWriMo (November):

This year, I won’t be doing #AcWriMo because we are nearing the end of the semester, and I am overwhelmed with a few deadlines. BUT, I will be monitoring the #AcWriMo hashtag and the #GetYourManuscriptOut hashtag to provide encouragement on a regular basis!

Posted in academia, writing.

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Using the rhetorical precis for literature reviews and conceptual syntheses

An important component of writing is reading and summarizing the literature. This exercise helps the author situate his/her work within the broader set of related works. I maintain a systematic process of reading and writing article summaries, but I normally do so in the form of long-form memoranda. Earlier this year, I had a conversation earlier in the year with my friend Dr. Theresa MacPhail, we discussed the precis (what many call, the rhetorical precis), a brief and systematic summary of journal articles. We talked about how they differ from a memo.

For me, a rhetorical precis in the way it is normally taught wouldn’t be long enough and wouldn’t have the level of reflection I need. I write extended, extensive, detailed, in-depth memorandums full with the article’s citation and entire paragraphs or sentences extracted for in-manuscript quotations.

#AcWri on the plane from Dallas to Leon

But it then occurred to me that I have pretty much never experimented with writing simple rhetorical precis. I did a bit of research on different formats for the rhetorical precis and found this particular model(from this website) very useful.

The Rhetorical Précis Format

a) In a single coherent sentence give the following:
-name of the author, title of the work, date in parenthesis;
-a rhetorically accurate verb (such as “assert,” “argue,” “deny,” “refute,” “prove,” disprove,” “explain,” etc.);
-a that clause containing the major claim (thesis statement) of the work.
b) In a single coherent sentence give an explanation of how the author develops and supports the major claim (thesis statement).

c) In a single coherent sentence give a statement of the author’s purpose, followed by an “in order” phrase.

d) In a single coherent sentence give a description of the intended audience and/or the relationship the author establishes with the audience.

Most websites I checked use a similar format, like this one and this one. I plan to test this model for a week with the new literature I need to review and see how it works. I can see this model being useful for a busy professor who asks his/her research assistant for rhetorical precis from a set of articles, and then upon reading them, chooses a specific sub-set for memo-ing. This process enables the researcher to be strategic about what he/she chooses to read more in-depth. Also, having a full set of rhetorical precis available may help the researcher decide whether they have reached concept saturation. I also suppose you could dump all your rhetorical precis in an Excel concept worksheet (modifying the columns, obviously!)

I’ll be reporting back on how this model works for me and my own literature review processes.

Posted in academia, writing.

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Granular planning and The Rule of Three

One of the things I’m an expert on is overwhelming myself with the sheer amount of work I have to do. In the past decade, I have slowly become better at simply reducing the size of my To-Do list and breaking down my workload into manageable tasks, at focusing on just one thing at a time, at ensuring that I have a Completed Tasks list (what Dr. Katherine Firth calls, “the Done List”), at building flexibility into my calendar and inserting buffers into my daily activity and not assuming that I can finish everything on the same day, and that I can knock a few Quick Wins off my To-Do list every single day.

The way in which I try to tackle my ever-growing to-do list is to use a method that I call “granular planning and the Rule of Three“. Granular planning refers to breaking down the work in accomplishable tasks, and then scheduling them throughout the week/month.

It’s granular because it is refined at the micro-scale, as opposed to grand-vision planning at the macro-scale. I adopted this method of granular planning from my Masters’ degree courses on Project Management (I took several courses in the Civil Engineering department at UBC, and my brother is a civil engineer and an expert on project management — by the way, you can read and buy his book here).

The Rule of Three is quite simple, as Professor Stephanie Wheatley mentions in her tweet below.

I don’t list 3 things I need to accomplish every day (which is a very sensible approach), but I break down each paper revision or piece of research into 3 components (hence The Rule of Three). If the list of components I need to fix (or research or write) is much longer than 3 items, then we have a bit of a problem, but as long as it’s just 3-5 things, I can deal with it. Then I insert one item per day (or two, if I have a particularly lax day where I can just write or do research). This is important, because I need to know that when I budget time for a specific task, I can actually accomplish it on that day. If I can’t, for some reason, I migrate the task to the following day.

Granular planningAs an example, you can see my To-Do list for this week (my Weekly Plan, as written in my Everything Notebook). This plan is mirrored both in my Google Calendar (particularly talks I need to give, and meetings I’m supposed to be attending), and my Weekly Activity Whiteboard (you may have seen those in this post). As you can see, I have two days off campus this week (I’m giving a talk on Thursday at the Mexican Institute of Water Technology, and a guest lecture on Friday with the PRODIALOGO-CIDE programme). This means I need to plan my travel accordingly. I also have four meetings (one with students, one with my PhD student, one with my colleagues on campus, and one with my coauthor Dr. Kate O’Neill), and one event (the 40th anniversary of our Masters programme) to attend. But I also want to finish a paper on remunicipalization that I have almost ready, and that I know I basically can finish this week because the changes are pretty minor.

Granular planningAs you can see, I broke down the edits I need to make to the paper into four different pieces of work. This is important, because writing on my To Do list “I have to finish the remunicipalization paper” doesn’t help. What tasks do I actually, honestly, clearly need to finish? I re-read my paper, and found the four spots where I can see the document is still weak. So I planned to finish those four tasks (do note that here, I am breaking The Rule of Three and actually making four edits, but that’s beside the point). I broke down the work of editing a paper for final submission into a set of four manageable tasks. That’s granular planning, combined with the Rule of Three (again, in this particular case, the rule of four). You can see, for example, that one of my four items is editing a concluding paragraph. I can do that in 2 hours!

The important thing about granular planning is deciding the size of the three tasks. For me, a task is manageable, it’s of decent size and it will make me feel like I accomplished something. One of the great things about granular planning and the Rule of Three is that you can break down any task into three pieces of work and then apply the method to any process. A few examples:

A very close friend of mine, and colleague, has already implemented this granular planning and Rule of Three method and it’s been working for her. It works for me, and hopefully it will work for my blog readers!

Posted in academia, research, writing.

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