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Different reading strategies III: Deep engagement

I’ve written before about reading strategies: how to extract relevant information from a journal article or a book chapter (the AIC method); I’ve also discussed how I engage when I can only skim a paper, and a meso-level type of engagement when I have *some* time to read (or I’m doing a preliminary survey of the literature). But there are times when you literally MUST engage with the readings on a very deep level. That’s what I call deep engagement (and what most professors and PhD supervisors expect from their students, be it undergraduate or graduate). In this post I’ll describe a little bit of the process that I use when I have to engage deeply with a specific set of scholarship.

Writing a rhetorical precis

Right now I’m writing a literature review on Elinor Ostrom and Sue Crawford’s grammar of institutions. This is a topic I know it’s relatively unexplored and I also know the authors who have used the grammar itself. So, I chose five articles (including the main one, Ostrom and Crawford 1995) and a few of those who have referenced that article. I knew I needed to really engage with the readings because this is a method that, while I’m very familiar with it, I have still yet to apply in a more systematic way in my own research.

The way I approach articles that I need to engage with rather deeply uses a three-pronged strategy: I book time to read (usually a couple of hours, but there are times when I book an entire day), open a Word file to write an in-depth memorandum, and open Excel so I can simultaneously dump quotations on my Conceptual Synthesis spreadsheet. Since I know I’ll be writing text that I will be using for a paper anyways, I do count this time as part of my 2-hours-per-day block.

Deep engagement (reading)

I also keep related papers on a similar topic physically close to me so that I can write on the connections that each one has. For example, in my reading on applications of the institutional grammar tool, I know four of the authors who have ran codifications of specific pieces of legislation (David P. Carter, Christopher Weible, Xavier Basurto and Saba Siddiki). So I printed out the papers where these authors applied the tool, and read them all within the same session. That way I am able to (a) discern the contributions of each one of the papers they wrote, (b) connect the different pieces of work that are associated with the core concept (Crawford and Ostrom’s institutional grammar tool) and (c) write an in-depth, detailed memorandum that can serve as one of the core components of the main body of a paper I am writing. I also keep Mendeley open as I often need to insert citations into the text of a memorandum, where I use Mendeley’s Cite-O-Matic function.

Highlighting and writing by hand

When I read, I use colour-coded highlighting techniques, where I mark the main ideas in a specific colour and I associate them with their corresponding concept. That way, I can recall, understand and memorize more easily. For example, the method uses a grammar with five different codes (ADICO). So I used five different colours for highlighting each one of the operators AND to scribble notes on the margins (and on my Everything Notebook) that would be cross-linked.

Reading Strategies and Colegio de Mexico and FLACSO Jan 2017 127

The example I show below isn’t specific to the grammar of institutions, but it shows how I cross-link my scribbles and highlighted sections with notes on my Everything Notebook. What I find hardest when engaging deeply with the literature is controlling the urge of jumping to a different topic or another paper (I’ve written before about how hard it is for me to concentrate and why I use a few strategies to regain focus). So when I know I need to engage deeply with the literature, I try to do it during my buffer day (the day I use to catch up on reading). That way, I don’t have any urgent meetings to attend to, any must-do administrative chores, or lectures to prepare. Engaging deeply requires, for better or worse, that we make the time to read, and that we also invest in writing memoranda, dumping quotations on the Conceptual Synthesis Excel Worksheet, and (if necessary) clean up references on Mendeley (as I normally do on a regular basis, as it’s part of the academic grunt work).

Following my three-pronged strategy to engage deeply with the literature generates 3 things, for me: A set of memorandums that I can use as input for a specific paper draft; a set of entries on my Excel Conceptual Synthesis worksheet that also include specific quotations that can help me with the literature review and with drafting the paper, and a set of handwritten notes on my Everything Notebook that I can also use for the paper I am writing. So I do not find engaging deeply with the literature to be a problem or a waste of time, but it is an investment that will pay off as it will be easier (and faster) for me to write a paper since I already have read in-depth and understood the literature that is associated with said paper.

Engaging deeply with readings is a time investment, that IS why I do it.

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Should you bring your Everything Notebook to conferences with you?

The short answer: NO, you shouldn’t.

Well, let me adjust that answer – no, you shouldn’t if you are planning on buying more books and adding weight to your backpack. I did, and it was PAINFUL. But I’ve also taken my Everything Notebook everywhere without any problems (I just need to control my desire to acquire books all the time).

Those of you who have adopted my “only use one single notebook for everything associated with research, students, fieldwork, To-Do lists, weekly plans, yearly plans” approach (aka The Everything Notebook) know that I carry it EVERYWHERE. As in, everywhere. I’ve taken it to conferences, workshops, to the beach (during my holidays). But this week, after travelling to Bloomington and Indiana for a full week, I have decided that I will no longer be recommending that my fellow academics bring their Everything Notebooks everywhere. I’ll explain why in the paragraphs below.

I’ve been thoroughly impressed that many fellow academics (students, professors, practitioners, folks who are adjacent to academia) have taken to adopt my Everything Notebook approach.

I am both grateful and excited that my method works for them. As a result, I have taken to analyzing my own behaviour with respect to how I use it and what changes need to be made to make it more efficient. I wrote this post in response to my own assessment of how I felt about bringing a rather heavy Everything Notebook everywhere. I noted on Twitter recently that I travel everywhere with my Everything Notebook and my writing kit (a set of 10 colours’ Staedtler 0.3mm fine liners and a set of plastic hard tabs).

Everything Notebook and travel kit

But this week, I got five books, and I brought along my stainless steel travel mug and water bottle. Obviously, as you add more weight to your laptop bag, it starts creating a strain in your back. I am EXHAUSTED. It’s Saturday (I flew into Indianapolis on Monday, was in Bloomington Monday night, Tuesday and Wednesday and went to Indianapolis on Wednesday night, where I presented at a workshop Thursday and Friday, until I flew back today).


I wondered why this would be the case, and then I realized as I removed my travel mug, water bottle AND Everything Notebook, that my laptop bag all of a sudden felt MUCH lighter. This is one of the reasons why people seem to be unable to take up the Everything Notebook. If, like me, they chose a very thick notebook to assemble their Everything Notebook, with hard covers and all, it will become VERY cumbersome when bringing it along EVERYWHERE. And their back may suffer, as mine has, all this week.

I figured out something that might help.

As I suggested in this post, on the rare occasions when I have taken notes at conferences and I did not bring my Everything Notebook, I take the following approach: I staple the pages to a blank page within the section of my Everything Notebook where I have filed ideas about a specific project.

For example, as noted in the tweet above, last year I took notes when I was presenting at the Public Management Research Conference, and what I ended up doing was bringing those notes along with me and stapling them to my Bottled Water section in the 2016 Everything Notebook. I explained this idea in more detail in this post.

I still will try to carry my Everything Notebook everywhere if the travel doesn’t become too cumbersome. But right now I’m carrying 5 heavy books in my laptop bag, plus stainless steel water bottle and coffee travel mug, so my back is in pain. Thus, I’ll leave my Everything Notebook at home when I travel to conferences and workshops (where it’s likely that I will buy books) and then just staple the pages to the specific section where they go.

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Move Every Paper Forward Every Day (MEPFED) vs Work on One Project Each Day (WOPED)

For many years, I have advocated the Move Every Paper Forward Every Day (MEPFED) model of working. The MEPFED model basically says “every day, insert something related to each one of your research projects/papers on your To-Do list, so that collectively, every week you’ve moved most/all of your work forward“.


MEPFED has worked for me very well now that I am a professor, but it did even during my PhD days, because I also was working on two other side projects (my governance of wastewater analyses and my transnational environmental non-governmental organizations research) besides my doctoral dissertation work.

I have experimented before with the Work on One Project Each Day (WOPED) model before too. The WOPED model says, give or take, that “in order to keep your concentration, you should work on one single thing per day. That way, your focus on specific theories, data, models, will enable you to finish the paper/project/analysis more quickly“. In fact, my plan this 2017 was to do WOPED, and I basically had it all well laid out: Mondays, my bottled water work. Tuesdays, water and energy. Wednesdays, informal waste pickers. Thursdays, environmental NGOs. Fridays, human right to water.

You can guess how well that went.

The problem I have with the WOPED model is that I get bored quickly. There is a reason why I wrote about the techniques I use to regain focus when I am distracted. Remember, I am an interdisciplinary scholar, working on a variety of topics. I read broadly. I write on a diverse range of themes. I use different research methodologies. So, WOPED only works for me when I am about to finish a paper (usually, when I am on a strict deadline). At that point, I assign ONE DAY to finish a particular analysis, dataset or paper.

Workflow: Finishing a paper

When I was pondering about this blog post, I started thinking about other models of WOPED workflow that I’ve either used or advocated for. For example, I do have dedicated buffer days, reading days, administrative days. But even during my buffer day I catch up. The only way in which I would apply a WOPED workflow would be if I only read (and scribbled, annotated, wrote memorandums, rhetorical precis, or dumped quotations on my Citation Worksheet).

MEPFED works really well when you apply the Granular Planning and Rule of Threes and break down a project into smaller tasks that you can then drop into your daily To-Do lists. For example, my good friend Dr. Adriana Aguilar Rodriguez (Centro GEO) has adopted MEPFED for her own research (photo of her Weekly Project Whiteboard used with permission).

MEPFED model (Adriana Aguilar Rodriguez)

WOPED is very useful when you are able to focus an entire day on one task. For example, I used to only prepare lectures on Fridays, and that’s when I focused entirely on one (or in this case, two) topic(s) (public policy analysis and regional development). You can also apply WOPED by devoting one day to cleaning a dataset or running a particular analysis.

There are two instances where I find that WOPED is most valuable: when I have to finish compiling or cleaning a dataset, or writing a paper or when I have to do fieldwork. I use entire days for fieldwork (as I did a couple of weeks ago), and I usually visit one city per day.

I won’t advocate for one particular model, as I often combine them. But I do still believe that MEPFED allows you to finish projects more quickly, particularly when you are working with collaborators, because you can work on a component of a paper and then move on to another while they work on the stuff you sent them. I do find that WOPED is also useful when I don’t have to switch topics and they are somewhat related. For example, working on the human right to water and on bottled water and on privatization of public water supply is almost so interrelated that I could assign one day to “marketization of water” without any problems. Or for example, when I work on informal waste pickers and then switching to studying sanitation still feels as though I am dealing with related topics. But switching on the same day from polycentricity to the governance of informality in water feels a bit like too much of a jump.

I’ll be testing both models throughout the year and will report back on my experience.

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Different reading strategies II: Engaging at the meso-level

In my most recent Twitter poll, I asked what I could write about that would be most helpful to my readers (many of which are undergraduate and graduate students). I was asked to continue writing about reading strategies. The previous post I wrote on was what I think is the fastest technique you can use (and one of the most effective if all you have time for is to write a rhetorical precis on the paper/book chapter. I often use the “skimming, scanning and scribbling” strategy when I’m really, really pressed for time and when I’m looking to see if I can reach conceptual saturation within a literature review I might be writing (see my recent post on literature reviews, conceptual synthesis matrices and annotated bibliographies).

Because I HAVE to be strategic when I read, I choose carefully which articles I engage with more in-depth. Recently, I’ve been reading on the human right to water, on street vendors and waste pickers, on the water and energy nexus, on field experiments, and on environmental NGO mobilization. So when I use my buffer day to catch up on reading, I select a few particular pieces that need to be engaged with in more in-depth, what I call “meso level engagement“. This means, articles or book chapters I do not have the time to read in painstaking detail, but that I recognize may have some important ideas and that I shouldn’t discount. These pieces, almost invariably, end up motivating me me to write an in-depth memorandum.

My process for doing meso-level reading is quite simple. In addition to applying the 3 steps model (abstract, introduction, conclusion) I also choose one or two visible, particularly important ideas per page. I don’t fret over the fact that some articles may have many great ideas in the same page (I will discuss when this happens later).

Regardless of whether you’re doing meso-level engagement reading or skimming and scribbling, I believe you should always be cross-linking ideas and authors. When I was reading for my doctorate’s comprehensive examinations I realized I needed to demonstrate that I had mastered a field. In graduate school, I was even more old-fashioned than I am now, and more analog, so I would write index cards filled with notes, ideas and summaries of specific articles, books and book chapters. Then I would lay them out on a table and map how Author A’s ideas on Concept B would relate to Author C’s ideas on the same Concept B, and how Concept B and Concept C aren’t all that different from each other.

In the case I show above, I found a key idea in the paper (Hayward’s 2016 global right to water piece) where I can easily see how it relates and connects to other themes I’ve been studying (in this case, Risse’s 2014 philosophical piece on the right to water as a moral duty to our planet). Because I can easily see the connections across both articles and sets of ideas, I can now more easily summarize what this (Hayward 2016) article is about. Note that I also link to other literature I’ve read, such as the planetary boundaries body of works.

For me, the litmus test of whether a paper is relevant enough to write a memo about is finding myself at the point where my highlighting is going to go beyond one or two key ideas per piece (see my tweet below). At this point I either start writing the memorandum in my laptop or write by hand in my Everything Notebook, under the plastic tab associated with this specific project (in this case, my Human Right to Water project).

For me, this meso-level engagement often ends up giving me the five or ten key articles, books or book chapters on a specific topic from where I can build a literature review. That’s because when I feel that I must write the memorandum either by hand or computerized (aka when the number of solid ideas I’m highlighting surpasses 2-3 per page) I almost always find numerous connections across themes, authors and topics. I also check the reference list to see if there are cross-references to other key articles.

This method does require a deeper level of engagement than skimming and scribbling, but it also provides a faster route to a solid literature road-map and to reaching conceptual saturation relatively quickly. As far as book chapters and books (and physical copies of journals) I do NOT scribble on the margins, but I use a similar technique to the one shown here by Dr. Lisa Schweitzer, with Post-It notes (mine aren’t as vehement, though!)

Hopefully this series of blog posts on reading strategies will be useful. I am going to send them to my own students!

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Finding the most relevant information in a paper when reading: A three-step method

It occurred to me as I was writing my blog posts on reading strategies that some people may wonder how to find the most relevant information when reading. I had tweeted about it, but I hadn’t actually written about it. So, I thought I’d write about how I work to find the most relevant information when I’m reading a paper. This applies to articles, book chapters, reports and books. I use a three-step process (and I focus on 3 main elements of a paper)

First off, while many people will recommend reading the abstract first, I don’t necessarily agree that it should be the major source of information. I have found that many abstracts are so constrained by space (100-150 words) that they rarely relay exactly the content of the paper (which ends up being much richer than the abstract posited). I think we always should read abstracts, but be somewhat skeptic of whether they will provide us with the full description of what the paper is about. I wouldn’t write a rhetorical precis based on an abstract, for example!

I do, however, expect that the introduction to a paper will tell me, by the second or third paragraph, what the paper is about. For example, below I noted that the introductory paragraph of a paper on industrial restructuring in the beer industry in Canada tells us the context and the reason for the paper.

Note 3 explanatory elements within the paper:

  • What is the context of this research? Why are the authors doing it?
  • What explains the phenomenon they are studying?
  • The “BUT THIS IS WHY WE’RE DOING THIS” – the WHY that explains what the paper will tackle and the reasons for it.

Some authors will provide then a detailed description of what the paper is about (methodology, research methods, data description, etc.), as shown below.

Other papers will provide you with a summary of Context, Rationale, Method, and Findings within the first few paragraphs, as this paper on the nexus between voluntary and non-profit research and policy studies’ scholarship by Dr. David Carter and Dr. Chris Weible shows.

I always zoom in on the introduction because that’s where I expect that the paper authors’ will set up the entire manuscript. I look for a summary of the paper (again, looking at the context for why this research is needed, the gap in the literature, and what the contribution of the paper is).

One of the suggestions that many scholars and academic writing coaches offer is that one should read at least the following elements if one is in a rush.

  • The abstract.
  • The introduction.
  • The conclusion.

I tend to agree, which is why I suggested that this is a three elements/steps method, though in methodological papers, I tend to focus more on the actual application of the method. But I always expect that the abstract, introduction and conclusion will follow a storytelling model and that they will provide me with a broad overview of what the paper is about (this suggestion applies obviously to larger-size manuscripts, like books).

In the conclusion of a paper, I always expect to find a summary of what’s been done and how, as Dr. Veronica Crossa does in this paper on varying strategies that street vendors used in Mexico City’s Coyoacan to resist removal and eviction.

reading conclusions

Note that Dr. Crossa summarizes the entire paper in the first few sentences of one of the concluding paragraphs, but provides additional context and insights further down.

I find that applying this three-step method (Abstract, Introduction and Conclusion) gives me at least the bare bones of an understanding of a paper. I absolutely do NOT recommend skipping the middle of the paper (methods, data, results, argument), but at least these three elements may provide a tool to decide on whether to do a detailed memorandum on the paper, whether to simply write a rhetorical precis, and what kind of information to look for throughout the paper for your Conceptual Synthesis Excel Worksheet.

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Literature reviews, annotated bibliographies and conceptual synthetic tables

I was recently asked by one of my current students to write about how to write a literature review. I often get this request, but it’s always hard to fulfill it.

If I had been the only academic to ever write about how to write literature reviews, I probably would have written a sequential list of steps for how to do it. Admittedly, I have a full Resources sub-page for Literature Reviews, but I have not taken the time to write a full Protocol on how to go about the process (from selecting a topic to searching article databases to building the conceptual map for the literature review to actually writing it), but in this post I will also be linking to those who have in fact done that precise sequence of steps.

Writing a memorandum

Components of a Research PaperI do, however, want to emphasize the difference between a literature review, an annotated bibliography, and a conceptual synthesis, particularly because to me, all these can be scholarly outputs in and of itself, and all of them are intermediate steps between conducting a database search, writing a full literature review and completing an entire paper. The figure to the right shows what I consider are the main components of a traditional research paper. I am well aware that different people undertake research in various ways and that my model isn’t the gospel of truth. However, this is the way I have done it for a very long time (even before I did a graduate degree) and it makes a lot of sense to me.

Having a database of article and book chapter citations, a bank of rhetorical precis, an annotated bibliography and a literature review are all solid intermediate steps to writing a paper. What often happens (particularly because I’m not someone who can spend all this time generating the intermediate products) is that I create each one of these for a MACRO (larger) project, and then extract components for different papers.

For example, right now I’m conducting a literature review on street vendors and waste pickers. The first step I am taking in doing this review is to search databases for articles with specific keywords (this post of mine shows you how to do this citation tracing process until you reach conceptual saturation).

The second step I engage in is creating both a bank of rhetorical precis and an Excel worksheet (a database) of citations. You can create the database of citations simply by using Mendeley (or any other reference manager) and dumping all PDFs associated with a specific paper into a folder, as I do with my own papers. Mendeley can automatically generate a list of citations that can be exported as a .CSV

DO NOTE – this Excel worksheet or database of citations is NOT the same as my Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump. The citation database is only a list, with basically no processing.

Both the database of article and book chapter citations and the bank of rhetorical precis are project products, but since they don’t involve analysis (nor synthesis), I don’t count them as scholarly outputs. I often ask my research assistants to build a bank of rhetorical precis with summaries of articles and book chapters I ask them to read and synthesize. I also build my own rhetorical precis’ databases as I often use them in conjunction with my Excel Conceptual Synthesis Dump.

Excel dump sheet

From the figure I show here, you can see that creating the bank of rhetorical precis is often an intermediate step to building a Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump. What differentiates a simple database of citations from a conceptual synthesis is that I extract quotations and sort papers by theme, as I’ve shown on this Conceptual Synthesis for a paper on informality.

Once I have the bank of rhetorical precis and my Conceptual Synthesis, I am well positioned to write either an annotated bibliography (which is an organized set of summaries of articles, books, book chapters that follow each paper’s citation). I normally go from rhetorical precis to annotated bibliography, but you can also draw from your extensive, in-depth memorandums. You can read an example of an annotated bibliography on transboundary water governance here, by Dr. Emma Norman and Dr. Karen Bakker from UBC’s Program on Water Governance.

From the annotated bibliography, once you start stringing together thematic syntheses of ideas and citations, you can build a conceptual mind-map of the literature, and start writing full paragraphs of the literature review. For example, this is a literature review on street vending in three countries (Thailand, Cambodia and Mongolia) published by the ILO.

Again, the difference between scholarly output and project product is that anything you generate during the course of a project can be a product, but what you’ve already processed and put intellectual thought on is a scholarly output.

Literature reviews, annotated bibliographies, and conceptual synthetic tables all are valuable scholarly outputs that can help our own research or that of other scholars, which is why it is important to be able to generate them and do them well. Hopefully my post will be of use to you when you write your own scholarly outputs!


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Different reading strategies I: Skimming, scribbling and crosslinking

While I took a course in speed reading when I was very, very young (probably 8 or 9 years old, at the most), and I can speed read, there are times when I, too, find myself overwhelmed by the sheer amount of reading I need to do. While I’ve written before on how you can be strategic about it and you don’t need to Read All The Things, even though I’ve written on 8 strategies to keep up with reading during teaching-heavy semesters, and how integrating your reading with your writing can help you out, I always find that there’s a lot I more need to read. There is always something else that needs to be read (and graduate students’ work actually takes a lot of time to read and provide feedback on!).

Reading strategies

During a conversation with Dr. Pat Thomson (who also writes about, and studies academic writing) on Twitter, she mentioned that there is always a repertoire of strategies, that no writing or reading or planning or organizing strategy can be applied to all cases, and that students and early-career scholars must learn how to create a repertoire.

I agree with Pat’s viewpoint, and in this set of blog posts I’m going to describe my own strategy to keep up with reading by using different reading strategies. I’ve written about how I always read the paper even if briefly (skimming) and THEN decide what to do with it. This is the Touch One Time rule that I describe in my Protocol “From PDF to Memorandum”.

The first strategy one needs to apply (and I’m definitely the first one to use it) is “skimming“. That is, you don’t need to read the full paper in detail, you can read *some* components of the paper in enough detail that you can either

  • (a) write a rhetorical precis,
  • (b) start drafting (and follow up, when you have more time) an in-depth memorandum, or
  • (c) write notes to yourself cross-linking with research you’ve done or you’ve seen.

Many people do this three-stages process (skimming, note-taking and cross-linking) on the reference manager of their choice (I use Mendeley). I don’t usually do that, however. What I do is that I write notes to myself on an adhesive piece of paper (Post-It notes) that I then locate on the margins of the physical journal volume (I don’t like highlighting or scribbling on my physical versions of journals – I treat them like my books) and/or on the margins of the journal article or book chapter, if it is printed.

Once I finish skimming the article/book chapter/document, I copy my comments on to my Everything Notebook (or, if I plan to write a full memorandum, on to the draft of my memorandum).

There is, I acknowledge, a solid advantage to doing the skimming, scribbling and cross-linking online (using a memorandum strategy): you already have the draft text that you could edit and then copy on to a manuscript’s literature review. But as I’ve written before often, I am very analog. I learn better when I write by hand. Plus, it’s easier and faster to do a mind-map when I need to link several different ideas.

Different authors will tell you how they skim (some people teach skimming and scanning simultaneously – where skimming is reading-superficially and scanning is reading-by-finding-a-key-element-throughout). Some of them will read only the abstract, others will read the abstract, the introduction and the conclusions. Others will do (as I recommend my own students) to read the first sentence of each paragraph of the article. Here’s a brief guide on how to skim and scan.

Regardless of the strategies you use to do fast reading (skimming or scanning), I always recommend that you always scan/skim, scribble and cross-link with the other stuff you are reading. That way, you can build a better conceptual map, more accurately, and you can also reach concept saturation in your literature review faster.

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Implementing Public Policy: An Introduction to the Study of Operational Governance (Hill & Hupe)

Most of the people who know my work in public policy theory and scholarship tend to call me what my good friend, Dr. Debora VanNijnatten (Wilfrid Laurier University) calls me, “The Policy Instruments Guy”. When I was about to start my PhD, I read the work of Dr. Kathryn Harrison (University of British Columbia) and Dr. Michael Howlett (Simon Fraser University). I loved their research, particularly because I was keen to understand why some governments would choose non-regulatory instruments (specifically, voluntary agreements and information disclosure policy instruments). Kathy had studied a few voluntary programs (eco-labeling, Canada’s Accelerated Reduction/Elimination of Toxics program with Dr. Werner Antweiler and the 33/50 program in what is one of Kathy’s most popular journal articles, “Talking with the Donkey“). Mike has done a hell of a lot of work on the design of policy instruments, on policy instrument choice and on the concept of policy portfolios. So, being mentored by Kathy and Mike, it should probably be unsurprising that I am a policy instruments kind of guy.


I am also very interested in, and have done work on the implementation of specific policy strategies, such as the river basin councils for water governance in Mexico, and before, the Mexican pollutant release and transfer registry project, the “Registro de Emisiones y Transferencia de Contaminantes”, RETC (you can read many of my publications here). I led a team helping INECC build the National Office for Climate Policy Evaluation in Mexico and am now following its implementation. So, I am always keen to go back to these works.

That’s why this past year, I decided I would go back to the public policy implementation literature. An additional incentive was the fact that I taught the Public Policy Analysis course both in the Spring of 2016 and the Fall of 2016 and therefore, I wanted to teach my students how to analyze the implementation of specific public policies. One of the texts that is touted as a classic now, beyond the traditional and well-read Sabatier and Mazmanian framework for the conditions of good policy implementation or the DeLeon and DeLeon canonical text on the resurgence of policy implementation studies. To be quite frank, I was kind of disappointed about how implementation seemed to be getting a lot of action. To me, policy instrument choice doesn’t really get as much publicity as it should. Why do governments choose to implement some programs over others? This seemed like a much more interesting question to ask. But reading Susan Barrett’s piece on 30 years of public policy implementation literature, and lately the work of Gemma Carey, I’ve come to realize that perhaps implementation theory hasn’t really gotten a lot of traction.

Implementing public policyWhich is why I picked up Hill and Hupe’s “Implementing Public Policy: An Introduction to the Study of Operational Governance” published by SAGE in 2014. I had read the work of Michael Hill and Peter Hupe a while ago, specifically this particular book but in the previous versions, but this one seemed really interesting because it purported to combine implementation theory with the study of governance. For those of us who study governance and public policy theories, any publication with the word in the title becomes immediately interesting. I was particularly keen to see if Hill and Hupe would analyze the complex interactions that derive from applying governance theories to the implementation of public policy. I was also looking forward to seeing how Hill and Hupe distinguished operational governance from other models or modes of governance (strategic? tactical?)

Since governance (a la RAW Rhodes) implies in one way or another a multi-level approach to interactions across actors and a broad range of variations of institutional and organizational architectures, implementation of any sort of public policy in a context of a non-top-down type of political and policy regime becomes a challenge. How can you easily implement a bottom-up approach where street-level bureaucrats are able, through their day-to-day routines, put in place, run and maintain a specific public service delivery program, when the top-level politicians do not offer buy in?

I am definitely not disappointed in Hill and Hupe’s new version of their acclaimed book. I really enjoyed reading it (I read it early last year in preparation for my Public Policy Analysis class, then I re-read it over my holidays last December). I do have to say, though, that although the breadth of coverage of policy implementation research and theory is vast, I didn’t find many women or under-represented minorities represented in the literature that they covered. For me, the work of Renate Mayntz was fundamental in helping me understand bureaucracies and how policies were implemented. Not that Hill and Hupe overlooked her (they do cite her work), but Mayntz is definitely one of the main authors in the policy implementation theory, alongside Linda DeLeon (who also published with Peter DeLeon), and Susan Barrett. In my view, Mayntz is as much of an authority and key author as Sabatier and Mazmanian, or Hill and Hupe themselves. This over-representation of male, Western scholars is not a bit surprising to me, but it is kind of annoying because I make a concerted effort to include women and under-represented minorities in my syllabi and my citations.

The vast majority of the book is a macro literature review on implementation studies, which is nice and sort of re-summarizes their own previous research, plus Sabatier, Mazmanian, Mayntz, Barrett, Pressman, Wildavsky, etc. Chapter 1 is a nice explanation of why they examine governance and what it means for implementation studies. Chapter 2 and 3 summarize the state of the art in implementation studies and the top-down/bottom-up approach. It’s in Chapter 4 where Hill and Hupe examine policy implementation theories across the board and bring up the notion of policy networks, which is important to do if you think about the fact that governance is primarily concerned with networked, decentralized, non-hierarchical models of interactions across agents. Chapter 5 to me felt a bit like it was there as space filler, because I really didn’t think we needed yet another discussion on the role of the state. But then again, a number of my colleagues just published a series of editorials in the journal Governance on whether the public administration literature is neglecting the state, so maybe I am the one who is in the wrong here.

Chapter 7 summarizes how the policy process framework links to the governance literature and the role that implementation plays, as well as a discussion on studying implementation as governance research. Frankly, this section seemed to me overwrought but I think it’s worth having this kind of discussion. Chapter 7 gets to the nitty-gritty details of how we research implementation, where Chapter 8 focuses on how we actually implement implementation research (yes I know this sounds horrendous, but it’s pretty much what Hill and Hupe are discussing in this chapter). Finally, Chapter 9 on the future of implementation studies does something completely bizarre: goes back to the distinction between governance and implementation (e.g. “studying governance” and “studying implementation”) instead of a combined “studying implementation within an operational governance context”, which was the whole premise of the book.

Overall, I loved Hill and Hupe and it will be a book I will be referring back to, although I should also sing the praises of a book edited by Dr. Gemma Carey, and Professors Kathy Landvogt and Jo Barraket, Creating and Implementing Public Policy. I am really looking forward to reading this edited volume, because the cross-sectoral perspective sounds extraordinarily promising. Plus, it allows me to shift again the gender balance away from simply citing and including in my syllabus the works of white males. Again, Hill and Hupe remain a must-read book and I look forward to spending more time working with it and re-reading it for my future policy implementation projects.

Posted in academia, governance, policy analysis, policy instruments, public administration, public policy theories.

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6 strategies to focus on writing (or research)

If there’s a downside to being a polymath is that everything looks interesting. If I don’t control myself (and I have to be quite strict about this), I can easily spend hours down the rabbit hole of Twitter and Facebook, or the depths of the internet. Distractions come easy to me, sad as this may sound. However, there are a few things I do purposefully to be able to focus. I am going to share these in this post. But first, a bit of background.


Photo credit: Michael Dales, Creative-Commons-Licensed on Flickr

I was showing my Mom last night the gift I got from one of my administrative assistants (a collection of Herbert Von Karajan directing Mozart, Chopin, Brahms and a few other composers’ works). Normally, I use classical music to write, and other types of music to do different tasks. This conversation with Mom made me realize I need to engage in actual “hacks” or “tricks” to force myself to focus. Focusing isn’t something that comes naturally to me, I’ve developed it through hard work (so much so that last year, my Word of the Year was FOCUS)

Here are some hacks I use. Some of them may be quite obvious, and simple, but they do work for me.

1. I physically close my laptop for at least 30 minutes every morning.

As anybody who reads my blog or follows me on Twitter knows, I wake up every single morning at 4 am to start working (usually, writing). Most of the time, I write in an uninterrupted 2 hour block. I have been doing this for quite a few years now, and this strategy works well for me. Obviously, I am as tempted as anyone else to check my email or Twitter as soon as I wake up. I fight this urge with all my might. So I use a simple trick: I close my laptop and leave my working materials on a clean working surface every morning. Doing this allows me to free-write by hand, or read a journal article, a book or a book chapter, and highlight and scribble notes on paper (be it on the margins of the paper or in my Everything Notebook).

Closing my laptop and clearing my desk forces me to do something that is NOT reading Twitter, Facebook or sending emails. 30 minutes of focus on non-computer-related tasks does wonders for my concentration. This effort often pays off by actually helping me concentrate further.

2. Once I start a piece of work, I force myself to concentrate for AT LEAST 30 minutes

I know that if I allow myself to be interrupted during a task, I will always be interrupted. So I set up a timer and I set it at 30 minutes. Contrary to the Pomodoro method, which establishes that you should work for 25 minutes and force yourself to take a break of 5 minutes, I let my brain continue working if I’m still concentrated. From my own experience, my brain starts to wander after 90 minutes, so if I can concentrate for 30 minutes, chances are I’ll be able to go for 45, 60, 75 or 90 minutes non-stop. The lower limit for me is always 30 minutes, though.

I’ve always advocated that even 15 minutes helps, so you can do the same as well (e.g. concentrate for at least 15 minutes). This focused, concentrated time is what Cal Newport calls “deep work”, and Srinivas Rao calls “uninterrupted creation time“.

I find that it is particularly easy for me to concentrate if I follow the PDF-to-Memo-or-Rhetorical-Precis Protocol. Touch One Time rule, academic’s edition.

3. I only write listening to classical music

I love 80s, 90s and 2000s music, as well as jazz, acid jazz, soft rock and chill-out music. I can work listening to all of these. HOWEVER, if I am writing, I ONLY listen to classical music. That way I can focus easily because I’m not even listening to rhythm (and there are no vocals). I do NOT use opera, because I associate opera with my Mom and my brother, and my mind wanders to happy occasions when we’ve gone to concerts together. I primarily listen to piano concerts, though I’m open to violin and other orchestral arrangements. But for example, when I am writing a blog post, I usually listen to acid jazz or chill/house music. This kind of music is also instrumental but allows me to focus on another type of writing. I’ve also associated classical music with writing in such a strong way that when I am driving to campus and I start listening to this type of music, my first instinct is to want to stop and open my laptop and start writing! (yes, a bit Pavlovian).

#AcWri at the Radisson Paraiso Ajusco Hotel

4. I tackle a couple of easy Quick Wins, then a more complex/tedious/involved task.

This is something I learned when I was playing competitive volleyball. My trainer would always start us off with drills that would be enjoyable for us, and where we would perform well (for me, this was hitting from the 4th position, and receiving when balls were served against me – I have always been very competent at both tasks). Then he would ask us to focus on a less-exciting task, but one we needed to get competent at. I would usually choose blocking, because that was what I wasn’t really good at at the time. Believe it or not (and I know it’s just anecdata and N=1) but it worked, and my performance with regards to how many blocks I could perform would increase.

My research process (highlighting - making notes)

I do the same now. Usually, a Quick Win for me is writing a couple of rhetorical precis on a couple of articles, or 500 words of a memorandum of a paper I’ve already highlighted, plus highlighting another article. I love reading and I love highlighting and summarizing articles, those are some of the strong, easy things-to-do that I can assign as Quick Wins, before engaging in a more involved process.

Another Quick Win I use is dumping quotations from one article into my Excel conceptual synthesis worksheet. So, I schedule a couple of Quick Wins, THEN one annoying or more engaging task. That usually engages me for the rest of the 2 hours block (and even if it’s just re-arranging or line-editing or free-writing, that one task feels a lot more rewarding).

5. I set specific deadlines throughout the week (by day) and throughout the day (by the hour), and reward myself when I comply with them.

For example, if I know that a student of mine needs a letter of reference, and I know for a fact that the deadline is a specific day, I set myself up to finish writing the letter BY 4PM OF 24 HOURS BEFORE THE LETTER’S DEADLINE. Or for example, if I’m feeling unfocused but I know that I have a meeting with a colleague, I read everything they expect me to read and/or finish whichever task we agreed upon by at least 3 HOURS BEFORE the meeting. That way, I feel like I accomplished stuff, and I don’t let myself feel overwhelmed. I think to myself “well, if I finish reading this piece by 11am, I can go for a quick walk around campus, and be ready for my 2pm meeting“.

6. I set the menial tasks for when I’m low on energy or focus.

My workflow at my CIDE office

For example, I know it’s hard for me to concentrate right after lunch (and I try hard to eat a small amount of food every 2-3 hours). Thus, I normally set my To-Do list to finish menial tasks (what I call, The Grunt Work). Cleaning references in Mendeley. Sending emails to set up meetings. Clearing my desk and sorting and filing (using the Four Tray Method I wrote about a few weeks back).

As I’ve said, concentrating and focusing is hard for me too, so hopefully the strategies I use will be also useful for you if you, like me, have a hard time with concentration and focus!

Posted in academia.

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Recognizing heterogeneity in academia: There is no magic bullet for anything

While I write about ways in which I have improved my academic writing, or become more systematic and organized in the way I develop my literature reviews, and my own workflow, I am keenly aware that the techniques I use, the hacks I implement and the suggestions I provide can’t be implemented by every single scholar under the sun. If you have ever taken a class with me, that’s basically what I tell you on the first day and what I hope all my students will learn throughout the course of my lectures: Your Mileage May Vary (YMMV). Or in more academic terms: we ought to recognize the heterogeneity of our target populations.

I teach and research on public policy analysis, implementation, evaluation and public policy theories (what is called the policy sciences field). I more than anyone am aware of the need to recognize that we can’t offer blanket advice for everyone, simply because we are all members of different target populations. I wake up every single day at 4 am so that I can start working. Academic mothers, and some academic fathers who may share in baby care duties, will find it next to impossible to wake up at 4 am when they have been basically unable to sleep.

While I have shown symptoms of chronic fatigue, I am in no way afflicted by any type of chronic illness or disability that impedes my working progress. I have no learning disabilities, and while I have several allergies and my visual acuity is reduced, I am for all practical purposes an able-bodied scholar. I am afflicted with Seasonal Affective Disorder when it’s rainy and dark and during those times I will experience some very minor symptoms of depression, but I have never been clinically depressed, nor have I faced anxiety as a clinical condition. Thus, I can’t claim to know what a scholar with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, etc. can feel.

I am keenly aware of the fact that we (academics) all belong to different populations, and each individual is unique. Therefore, I really try hard to make sure that everyone who reads my blog post is well aware of the privileged circumstances from where I write. I have smart, hard-working, reliable and dependable research assistants and sometimes teaching assistants. My teaching load is low (2-0 or 2-1, depending on the year). I have been able to win extramural and internal grants and obtain generous funding to do the research I do. I’m on a tenure line position. Not everyone is as lucky and privileged as I am, and I am the first to recognize it. I try to use my privilege to champion for and help those at the margins and disadvantage.

Which brings me to the main point of this blog post, which focuses on the notion of deep work as championed by Cal Newport, and the idea of the slow professor. I am very much sympathetic to, and champion the idea of slow scholarship. But it’s true that not everybody can afford to do “deep work”, not everyone can afford to sit down, think through ideas, relax and publish fewer pieces more well-though-out. Therefore, it is fundamental that we recognize that there is enormous heterogeneity within academia. That those of us who are privileged enough to be able to engage in slow scholarship champion those who aren’t as privileged. That those of us who are able-bodied academics also work to help those who aren’t. Not only do we owe it to ourselves and to our disciplines and profession to use our privilege to help those at the margins, those disadvantaged and marginalized, we also owe it to our society as a whole. We also ought to recognize this inherent heterogeneity and in doing so, accept that not everyone can follow the advice that we so joyfully (and earnestly) offer.

Sometimes, the best advice is NOT giving any advice. Lend an ear, offer syllabi, reading materials, lecture slides to contingent faculty, ask faculty facing challenges such as chronic illness, or mental health issues, or disability – how can I help you? How can I help create better conditions for your work? I have found that sometimes even just listening and educating ourselves on the challenges that these populations face is helpful.

I try to do this online by supporting a few excellent initiatives, such as Chronically Academic, Conditionally Accepted, The Academic Mental Health Collective (AMHC 2016) and the PhDisabled blog. I regularly promote their Twitter accounts and their blog posts. I also run my syllabi through intersectionality tests, and actively promote, cite and teach with the work of women and scholars of color. And whenever anyone who is a member of a marginalized or disadvantaged population reaches out to me, I try really hard to listen, understand and offer whichever help I can.

Moreover, one element that was pointed out to me by a fellow tenure-line assistant professor, Sarah Shulist (who is Mom to two toddlers) is that we need to restructure the conditions of academia in a way that is more accessible to marginalized, under-represented and non-traditional groups. That the set of goals and requirements that we ought to fill (service, teaching, research, and actually having a personal life, fulfilling for us and for our loved ones, and our families) are rather incompatible. Can we actually have it all within academia as it is structured right now? With competing demands for our time and energy, and the large degree of heterogeneity that exists within academic individuals and groups, each one of these demands affects each academic (student, professor, contingent faculty) in differentiated ways.

Only recognizing that yes, we are all part of the same academic community, but that we are all different and that there is inherent heterogeneity in our profession, we may be able to begin outlining different, focalized strategies that can help those at the margins, chronically ill, suffering from mental health issues and facing challenges as disabled people, we will be able to create ways to make our society more equitable. We also ought to recognize that academia itself as a profession and a guild needs to change substantially to offer ways to make those often impossibly hard-to-fulfill tasks more amenable to families and individuals, even more so those facing hardship and health challenges.

Basically, as my friend KJ Shepherd said to me (in a read of a draft of this post), I am “advocating that people who have the privilege to talk about their best practices not unduly center their experiences. And I think that’s important to mention when, on the one hand, we have an extraordinarily hierarchical academic labor system–and, on the other hand, we have social media and blog networks that value the ‘approachable expert.’ It’s easy for those blessed to have status in both environments not to see the systems as they are.”

We need a more human, and humane academia. Let’s work towards that goal.

With thanks to Tressie McMillan Cottom, KJ Shepherd and Sarah Shulist for a very generous and kind read of this post, your insight was very useful!

Posted in academia.

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