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Bringing enough work along while travelling – a time-based approach to research

Even though I travel just about every week, I’m never very good at determining how many articles I can realistically read, or how many words I will be able to write. But I always use a time-based approach to my research. How much work can I do in the next hour? The next 30 minutes? The next 2 hours?

AcWri at the airport

So, for example, I’m currently sitting at the Atlanta Jackson-Hartfield airport, and I know I have about 15 minutes until we start boarding our plane headed to Portland (Maine). I know I can crank a blog post in less than 15 if I already know what I’m going to say.

Last night, I accompanied my Mom to a meeting. I drove and brought along enough work to keep me busy for about an hour, or 90 minutes. I figured I could skim an edited volume and write a couple of rows in my Conceptual Synthesis Excel dump. I did manage quite well.

I managed to write text for a few entries in a couple Excel dumps: the Bogartz et al 2016 sanitation for all edited volume and five articles on the anthropology of human waste.

On the Aguascalientes-Atlanta flight, I managed to finish reading the Walsh 2015 article, and write a 420 memorandum on the topic. It was a 3.5 hour flight, and I still managed to get a nap in. Then on the Atlanta-Portland, I managed to finish highlighting and reading and scribbling on the margins of the Kaplan 2007 article.

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Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of Caste (my reading notes)

Back in 2014, I corresponded with Dr. Diane Coffey (at the time, completing her PhD at Princeton) and discussed some of her work with Dr. Dean Spears (as well as some of my own work) on behavioural approaches to understanding sanitation governance. I was particularly puzzled by the fact that they had found that notions of purity and caste affected how rural people in Northern India ended up NOT using latrines even if they were available. This finding is puzzling because it goes against conventional wisdom in the sanitation governance community that “if you bring them, they will come”. That is, the assumption is that if you build latrines, people will use them. As Coffey and Spear show, this isn’t always the case.

public latrine (BORDA) in a slum near Bangalore

Photo credit: SuSanA (Sustainable Sanitation Alliance) on Flickr, CC-licensed

Coffey and Spears’ work is wonderful and now that they’ve synthesized the many years of research they’ve spent understanding sanitation in rural India, it’s really an absolute pleasure to read their cumulative insights from years on the field studying which factors drive the lack of adoption of latrines in the rural context of a country which faces huge rates of open defecation: India. I recently found their book on Amazon, and asked my brother to purchase it for me and send it (it doesn’t ship to Aguascalientes, Mexico). Coffey and Spears’ book, “Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of Caste” has already won an award in India, but I think the policy community should take note of their work and heed the excellent, empirically-based advice they offer in their book.

Coffey and Spears’ Where India Goes is a perfect example of “updating your priors”. To be perfectly honest, up to the point where I read Diane and Dean’s work, I was 100% convinced that the only way to change behaviour in regards to open defecation in just about every single country in the world was the use of Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS). Given my own work on urban sanitation, I thought that insights I had gained on adoption of toilets in urban contexts were basically translatable to the rural and peri-urban areas. This is, as Coffey and Spears show, not always the case. Each region has particular contextual elements that make creating policy prescriptions that are generalizable almost impossible. Thus trying to transfer some of these policy ideas from one place to another without taking into account contextual differences is a misguided strategy, at best.

Coffey and Spears wrote a compelling, insightful, captivating and delightful book where they summarized many years of their research work, where they actually took an unusual step: they moved to India and founded a non-governmental organisation. In doing so, Coffey and Spears gained insights that were both qualitative and quantitative. Experimental, community-based interventions and impact evaluations were combined with ethnographic observation and qualitative approaches, including in-depth interviews. The degree to which Coffey and Spears were able to insert themselves into the communities they studied in rural northern India gave them unique insights into the problem of open defecation and the factors that drive it, and unfettered access to communities and individuals that engage in this kind of behaviour.

As someone who has studied sanitation for over a decade, I always held a strong belief that latrine access was a key hindering factor of total sanitation. Coffey and Spears make a compelling, empirically-proven, theoretically-informed argument: at best, a latrine construction programme is insufficient to end open defecation. While their work is focused on India, Coffey and Spears make excellent points as to why and how we can translate what they found and which lessons we can draw from their research to apply them to other contexts.

Coffey and Spears definitely make a fantastic job of translating their scholarly research into an understandable and easily digestible book. That Coffey and Spears went for a popular press instead of waiting for two years with an academic/university press also speaks to urgency. If I were in their shoes, knowing that my work is dispelling several myths on sanitation, would I wait for 2 years until my scholarly book is published? Probably not, I’d probably do the same and go for a popular press like Harper Collins.

For someone like me who studied policy sciences, Coffey and Spears offer excellent policy wisdom. As I have argued before, if you look at Anne Schneider and Helen Ingram’s work (Policy Design for Democracy, Behavioural Assumptions of Policy Tools, Systematically Pinching Ideas, Social Construction of Target Populations, etc.), policy design needs to take into account specific target populations’ characteristics. Much work on sanitation is pushed by international institutions and development/aid organizations, without regard for local context. This is problematic because not every single community either rural or urban can engage in CLTS and its effectiveness can vary depending on context.

Coffey and Spears make excellent discussions on the global-local connection particularly criticizing the way in which some international institutions ad development agencies want to impose CLTS. These institutions’ strategies are often driven by incorrect or inaccurate or badly collected and treated statistical data. I’ve always been skeptical of national-level and globally-reported statistics because government agencies have tricky definitions. For CONAGUA, the Mexican water agency, access to sewerage means “your house has a pipeline that connects outside of your home“. his figure (access to sewerage) doesn’t take into account that said pipeline can be clogged or unusable. That toilets may not actually work.

This book really changed the way in which I think about rural sanitation in India, and generally speaking, made me rethink the way in which I think about global sanitation and the role of CLTS in improving toilet access, usage and improvement of societal conditions and welfare. I’d recommend it any day of the week for anybody interested in international development, sanitation and informality.

DISCLOSURE: I buy all my books. This was also the case of this book. Nobody gave it to me so I could read it and review it. Everything I say in this blog post is my own opinion.

Posted in academia.

Strategies to read (and excerpt) an entire book II: Non-edited volumes (single/multiple authors)

While edited volumes present a relatively easy choice for a reader (”oh, I’ll just read the chapters that I like/need/want”), non-edited volumes (authored books, be it single-author or coauthored) are a much more different challenge. Skipping chapters may result in missing key parts of the manuscript and overall argument. Luckily, this isn’t always the case, and there are some strategies one can use to strategically read an entire book, and make time to come back and read the parts that we were unable to at that particular juncture (more importantly, if we are under time constraints).

I will use the example of Diane Coffey and Dean Spears’ recent book “Where India Goes” (I will also be posting my reading notes soon). I read this book recently, and live-tweeted my reading of the book (you can read the entire thread by clicking on the time stamp of the tweet, and a new window will open. Scroll down to the end).

As I was reading the book, I tweeted photographs of a few pages, key excerpts, and my thinking around what Coffey and Spears were saying. I do this because I then use my live-tweets of my reading process to complement my synthetic notes.

My strategy is similar to when I read edited volumes: introduction (generally, theoretical chapters, methodology chapters), conclusion, and key chapters.

In the Coffey and Spears case, even though I actually read the entire book, I first did Chapters 1 through 4, 8 and 9. I was lucky because Coffey and Spears’ writing style is extraordinarily fluid, so it was easy for me to digest those chapters quite quickly.

Obviously I aim to read the entire book, but if I don’t have the time, I focus on the key chapters. As I mentioned in my tweet, Coffey and Spears make it super easy to find the key chapters because they use a model that allows synthetic reading: they outline the problem, go deeply into each of the factors that impact how the problem is analyzed, and then offer solutions/in-depth analysis. Hence why it was so relatively easy to read the most important parts of the book without having to read from beginning to end.

Generally speaking, I read books from what I find should be the core chapters to the not-so-terribly-relevant ones (case studies, etc.) This might be a useful method for students who are preparing their comprehensive exams, or undergrads/grads who have to read full books.

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Strategies to read (and excerpt) an entire book I: Edited volumes

Frequently, academics and students alike have to read entire books. To review, to prepare for doctoral comprehensive examinations, as part of a course, etc. I am well aware that our time is terribly scarce, and we are often overbooked. Yet we still need to read those full books for course preparation, literature reviews, and even for our own research. When I was a child, my parents sent me to a speed reading class (and yes, weirdly, those courses I took did actually work! Recent research in the American Journal of Psychology shows that newer computer applications do not work as we think they do). At any rate, I am well aware that people have varying speeds, so when I was asked to share how to prepare for comprehensive exams, I figured I’d write about how I read books. You can read my entire Twitter thread by clicking on the date and time of my tweet (a new window will open, showing the full thread – scroll down until the end to read it in its entirety)

Obviously, and ideally, if we had the time, we would simply read the entire book as we go along. Sadly, we don’t often have enough time. So we’re often reduced to skimming, or just reading the parts that necessarily we must work on. What I’ve chosen to do, ever since I was in graduate school, is to excerpt and strategically decide which components of a book are most important for me to gain a general sense of the entire volume.

I use a similar strategy to the AIC (Abstract, Introduction, Conclusion) method I described in a previous post. I choose the introductory chapters (where the framework, theories, methods can be shown), and any specific chapters that are either written by authors I know and whose work relates to mine, or that cover topics that are key for the type of literature review or paper I am writing. My own work has been on commodification and decommodification of water. So while the entire book on decommodification is valuable, I really prefer to focus on chapters that deal with water. I do know four of the book authors (Karen Bakker, Teresina Gutierrez-Haces, Gerardo Otero and Anita Krajnc). Knowing their work made me think about the value of reading what they had to say. So I chose the introduction (which sets the theoretical chapter) and the conclusion, plus the chapters by each of the four authors I mentioned above. Six chapters in total.

Since I had to engage deeply with all six chapters, what I did was that I created memorandums from synthetic notes I took at the beginning, when I started reading the book. I also constructed a conceptual synthesis Excel dump with six rows, one entry per chapter.

One important item that I think is key to remember is that when writing a memorandum on a book, or book chapter, or set of excerpted book chapters, we need to link what we’ve already studied and learned with what is presented in the excerpts. This way, even if we haven’t read the entire book, we still can have a better and deeper understanding of what the book discusses and link it to the broader literature.

I’ll probably read the rest of the Laxer and Soron book when I have more time, but at least, by reading 6 of the book chapters, I now have a solid idea of what the book is about and how to apply it to my own research. Hopefully my strategy can help students and time-constrained scholars read more strategically and invest their time more efficiently.

Posted in academia, reading strategies, research, research methods.

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On the fine balance between crafting new ideas and fighting writers’ block

There’s an article making the rounds on the academic circuit on the importance of writing good sentences: HOW ACADEMICS SURVIVE THE WRITING GRIND: SOME ANECDOTAL ADVICE. In the article, Helen Sword encourages the reader to improve academic writing by recognizing that writing involves editing, and rewriting. I have previously blogged about the importance of valuing ALL writing, including drafting, line-editing, etc.

Handwritten notes in academic research

Before I delve into the article, full disclosure: I loved Dr. Sword’s book “Stylish Academic Writing“. And if you read my notes, you’ll know that I did NOT love her latest book, “Air, Light, Time, and Space“. This happens, and it’s happened to me with two excellent authors (Paul Silvia and Helen Sword) who have published great books on academic writing (I loved Silvia’s How to Write a Lot). I don’t claim to be a guru of academic writing. But I do have graduate students, and part of my job is mentoring and training them, and teaching them best practices.

One of the practices I encourage (and fellow academics like Dr. Tanya Boza, Dr. Wendy Belcher, and Dr. Robert Boice do so too) is daily writing. A lot of people tell me “I am not a daily writing kind of academic”. You do you, of course. But my students need to be trained to get a certain number of words out by a specific deadline (this is called THESIS or DISSERTATION), and if the only mechanism to do that is to teach them how to do daily writing, that’s exactly what I am going to do.

I, too, read Sword’s blog post. But when I read it I became worried. Not for me. For students, and ECRs, and people who face writers’ block on a regular basis. I write every day. I don’t face writers’ block. I have specific routines (which include using prompts) to fight against those “demons” that convince me that my writing is terrible (I don’t claim to have perfect writing either – I just do it because I know it’s the vehicle I use to learn and share what I’ve learned too). You need to get the words out first, and THEN you can worry about editing.

As I read Sword’s post, I became worried, partly because she listed all the characteristics of a writers’ activities. What they think about. Like a laundry list. And the risk with laundry lists and graduate students or early career scholars or novice writers is that they may end up doubting their own writing for too long, thus procrastinating instead of actually getting words out. This is a real risk (and that’s why I preferred Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing much more rather than her latest book) when grad students read this.

As someone who has used thematic coding, and is familiar with qualitative research strategies, I can tell by reading the article that Sword is describing the empirical findings of her research coded in themes: “writers think about CLARITY, they think about VOICE“… etc. This is a particular data analysis reporting strategy, and one that Sword uses in a superbly apt manner in her Stylish Academic Writing book. HOWEVER… this list is not a laundry lists of things that graduate students, early career scholars and blocked writers MUST put their writing through and attempt to check all the boxes. This is not a list of pre-requisites, this is a list of things that successful academic writers (as interviewed by Sword and belonging to her specific sample) do.

I think there’s enormous value to Helen Sword’s ALTS book, BUT, as I have mentioned before, these books which are more complex must be read alongside (or taught by) an experienced writer, so that the nuances can be clearly exposed. I definitely will use Sword’s ALTS in my teaching, with the proviso that I believe Sword’s article is trying to push: you must value ALL writing, which includes editing and polishing your words. It takes time. Writing also includes throwing words out and THEN polishing them, creating stylish and well-articulated sentences, etc. But first, GET THOSE WORDS OUT.

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Pushing against Taylorism in academia: Say no to the “billable hours” concept

Before I became an academic, I worked for a consultancy company. As you may know, you bill your time (much like lawyers) by the hour. The main currency of work in consulting is your hourly rate and the number of hours you work. I didn’t really like that approach, but I ended up continuing as I wanted to gain experience in the consulting world.


Later I got a job as a researcher at a research centre that behaved itself more like a consultancy. My boss, and the institution wanted BILLABLE HOURS. Look at the contradiction: a research centre, where you do R&D, asking you to put in BILLABLE HOURS, like a lawyer). So, we all worked really long hours. We worked insanely long hours, because time we spent reading, preparing lab materials, setting up analyses, writing up reports was considered NOT BILLABLE.

The industry that this R&D centre served didn’t really want to pay what real R&D costs, so they only wanted to pay “what was fair”. Obviously, when a client is price-sensitive, you have two choices: either you find new markets (and new clients) or you go with the flow and accept the price point that the market sets (which is often very, very low). This is the case as well in many academic contexts, where tenure-track professors are paid much better than contingent faculty who are paid very low wages. While that discussion is extraordinarily important, it’s not the focus of this post. I’m referring right now to the attitude that when we read, or reflect, this is considered or perceived as though we are not working.

My workflow at my CIDE office

Continuing with my anecdote, one of the services I offered that was very popular was analyzing chemical compounds and creating Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). Because clients were extremely price sensitive I charged the equivalent of, say $25 dollars per. This wasn’t the cost. My (arbitrarily assigned by the R&D centre) hourly rate was MUCH higher. So I had to work SUPER LONG HOURS to achieve the target number of billable hours. Basically, I had to under-sell myself and work long hours to ensure I could sell the service (writing an MSDS) to a price-sensitive buyer. I did this to keep my (then) bosses happy and be able to bill lots of hours, so that a “large percentage of my time (preferably, the majority) were billable“. But my thinking time, my reading-and-learning time wasn’t considered billable. The time I spent doing what I was supposed to be doing the best (thinking, learning, upgrading my skills) wasn’t “client-centred work time“.

We can’t, we should not let this approach creep on to academia. The time we spend reading, thinking, mulling over, meditating IS IMPORTANT. If I’m reading in my office (or my cubicle, as I used to when I worked in consulting), I’M NOT RELAXING. I AM DOING MY JOB. aylorism in academia is stupid. Efficiency, understood that way, is stupid. That’s what we ought to fight. We. Produce. Ideas. Academic work is not about the billable hours. It’s about being able to make an intellectual contribution and learn so we can teach what we learned. To be able to make this contribution we need to spend time reading, thinking, analyzing data, learning. That’s not wasted time. That’s INVESTED time. So, if you spent 3 hours reading an article, YOU DID NOT WASTE YOUR TIME. You are not billing hours. You are learning, reflecting.

I’m a professor of public policy. Public policy requires you 2 make hard choices on which policies to implement under resource constraints. I KNOW the trade-off between “writing” generative writing and writing notes on the margins of papers as I read. I don’t take it lightly. I know that the time I am spending reading is time I am not answering emails, or grading, or preparing class, or meeting with my research team. But it’s time I NEED to spend on that specific activity: learning, engaging with the literature, reading, thinking. Analyzing data works the same way.

To me, being able to spend the time to read and reflect and really craft an argument, understand the data, run a model, is VITAL. So the next time you book 30 minutes to read an article to catch up on the literature, don’t beat yourself up. THAT’S WORK TIME. I have spent entire mornings reading, and writing on the margins of the papers I read, and writing memorandums. All of that time, IS WORK TIME.

One reason why I don’t want to come back to consulting is because of the billable hours. My roommate in grad school almost died. She was a lawyer. She slept (no word of a lie) 3.5 hours every night. THREE HOURS. Because she needed to keep a certain quota of B. H. She then had to go on medical leave for a very long time because she had neglected sleep for so long.

I don’t want that life. EVER. I don’t think anyone should either.

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Professors as Writers (Robert Boice) – my reading notes

As I went through the first few pages, I realized that I had read Boice’s book at some point in my doctoral degree, but never paid much attention to the book, to be perfectly honest. It wasn’t until I decided that I would write up my experiences as a faculty member on the tenure-track that I realized I also needed to read books on academic writing. So, I decided to buy my own copy of Robert Boice’s Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing.

The first thing that I noticed with Robert Boice is that he speaks about writing from the perspective of someone who studies academic writing, and as he himself said, from the vantage point of someone who writes about writing because he actually enjoys the activity itself. I love writing too, as you can tell if you follow me on Twitter, but it’s funny how I’ve actually become more interested in writing about writing

Like Helen Sword’s books, Boice’s books are grounded on research he’s undertaken on blocked academic writers.

It’s clear that Robert Boice’s Professors as Writers has had enormous influence on everybody who writes about academic writing, as I note below.

Basically, and in a rough summary of the entire book, Robert Boice says that you can become a better academic writer and overcome your blocks if you are able to provide yourself with the right conditions and train yourself to make writing automatic. I have done that for myself even though it’s super easy for me to get distracted, so I can assure you that there is science to the method that Boice proposes.

One reason why I love the idea of sharing writing advice is because it helps me push myself to continue writing.

My final verdict is that it’s required reading:

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Air & Light & Time & Space – How Successful Academics Write (Helen Sword) – my reading notes

I’ll be the first one to confess that, after having loved Helen Sword’s “Stylish Academic Writing”, I was very much looking forward to reading Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write (also published, like her previous book, by Harvard University Press).

Literature Road Mapping

And I’ll also be honest in voicing (like with Paul Silvia’s “Write It Up!”) my disappointment. I expected more from this book. As I have said, it’s NOT a bad book. On the contrary, it’s definitely worth buying, reading and keeping on your shelf. I just wish Sword’s book had been as good as her previous one, Stylish Academic Writing.

I write at 4 or 4:30 in the morning, but not everyone can do that, nor are they efficient doing that. Some people are (as I used to be) night owls.

This is my final assessment of ALTS and SAW.

Hopefully my reading notes will be useful to my readers!

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Write It Up! (Paul Silvia) – my reading notes

So, since I had already read Paul Silvia’s first book (How To Write A Lot) and devoured it within like an hour, and spent said hour basically yelling “YES, YES, YES, AGREED!”, I was very eager to read Paul Silvia’s second book (Write It Up!).

#AcWri while travelling

Given that I’m leading a mega research project now, it’s important to me that my PhD students and my postdoctoral research associates can have some resources on academic writing beyond my own blog. That’s also one of the motivations for me in buying books on academic writing (beyond, well, comparing my own contributions to the genre to theirs).

#AcWri while travelling

Well, I have to admit I was disappointed in the second book (which is not unsurprising – there’s a saying in Spanish “segundas partes nunca fueron buenas” (sequels have never been good). This happens with movies, and also with books (you’ll notice I didn’t love Helen Sword’s latest book either). I am not saying either of the books (Silvia’s Write It Up and Sword’s Air, Light, Time and Space) aren’t good. They are. They are VERY good. But I expected so much more from them because I was so in love with the writing they presented in their first books. At any rate, here are some of my notes from reading Silvia’s Write It Up.

I disagree with Paul Silvia that you should think about the journal before you even do the research. This is where I struggle with following anybody’s academic writing advice: what works for you and your scholarly discipline doesn’t necessarily work for me.

While I loved Silvia’s first book, I was disappointed in his second one. I think the problem I found with it is that many of the suggestions he offers are discipline-oriented (psychology) and very specific. I think it’s definitely a good book to read and have on your shelf, but not to read on your own if you’re not experienced in the craft of doing academic research and writing scholarly prose.

Paul Silvia is an excellent writer and his books are agile and easy to read. But I would definitely encourage graduate students to read the first one, and then when they read the second one, approach a senior scholar or mentor and ask for advice, particularly when it comes to responding to referee reports and prioritizing where you submit your scholarly research output.

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How to Write A Lot (Paul Silvia) – my reading notes

As I’ve said repeatedly in my other blog posts with reading notes of academic writing books, it’s only been since early this year that I started reading books about academic writing. Not even during my PhD did I read a book that would help me write more or less, or better (or worse, as the case may be!)

#AcWri at the SFO airport

Nevertheless, given the way in which many readers of my blog use it, I decided to read more books about academic writing to see if there was anything that I could contribute to the genre (I am writing a book, myself, on academic life, writing, literature reviews, reading strategies, time management, organization, and surviving academia without selling my soul to the Devil – but that’s something that I’ll discuss another time). Also, I am hopeful my reading notes can help readers decide which books to read and use.

In the past month, I’ve bought five or so books on academic writing. Two of them came very well recommended, specifically Zinsser’s On Writing Well and Paul Silvia’s How To Write A Lot. I picked up Silvia’s book first and then ordered his second one, Write It Up.

Paul Silvia is an associate professor of psychology, and someone whose writing sounds youthful. His prose is agile and easy to read, and I found myself enthralled with trying to finish the damn book and thinking to myself “yes, yes, absolutely yes, of course, damn I already have said this on my blog and in my tweets for like, forever and ever“.

I’m definitely not the only one who loved it (Silvia has two books, and as you’ll find out from my reading notes from the other book, I didn’t love it as much as this one). “How To Write A Lot” provides numerous good, actionable and practical tips on how to crank words out.

I think what I loved most about this book was that it was (a) inexpensive (b) pragmatic (c) written from the viewpoint of someone who is an academic who writes a lot. I don’t write about #AcWri because I *study* #AcWri, but because I write a lot, and in a very broad range of fields. I also use my writing tips for my own PhD and Masters and undergraduate students, and to help my colleagues.

I have also read Silvia’s Write It Up, and as my tweet mentions, I think the latter volume (and possibly this one) are best read with the help and guidance of a mentor (like a PhD advisor, for example).

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