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Organizing work/school-related digital files

A professor from the Global South emailed me to ask if I would consider writing a blog post on best practices to maintain an organized set of folders for students. To be perfectly honest with you, I was never taught how to do this. These practices, whether best or not, are the ones I have developed over the course of the years. Hopefully my process and strategies may be of use to scholars and students all over the world.

Diplomado ProDialogoCIDE  IMTA  MAPP 40 aniversario 203

I store PDFs in Mendeley, too!

Like anybody, I, too, get disorganized every so often. This is something that happens to me when I am overwhelmed and I just say “oh, I’ll dump my files in my main Dropbox folder” and then I have to take an entire day to re-organize my life. I use various cloud-based services. My Twitter thread explains with details and screenshots how I work.

You will notice I have a folder with the title “Vancouver Studies”. I’ve always wanted to write and publish a paper using my hometown as a case study. Sadly, a reviewer asked me to cut it from one of my papers so it’ll have to wait yet another year. I do have a few projects that use Vancouver as a case study and I am working on getting them out.

As anyone who reads my blog and follows me on Twitter will know, I’m a Virgo, an “Upholder”, a Type A and someone who thrives when having a clean and organized environment, both physically and mentally.

This means that I need to spend some time creating a folder called “Grant Writing Books” and moving it to OneDrive. But I seriously haven’t even had the time to do that (though I may just do that right after writing this blog post).

And, like anybody else, I also have a “To Organize” folder where I dump stuff. I set time aside every weekend to reorganize my files, but because I already have a system, it takes me SUBSTANTIALLY less time to do it nowadays. Some articles I’ve downloaded I want to read are there too.

Personally, I find it easier to work when my work has structure, order and organization. So I hope these suggestions will be useful to those who follow me and read my blog.

Posted in academia, organization, productivity, writing.

On the importance of routine in academic writing

Because of the pandemic, I am now shuttling between Aguascalientes (where I live) and Leon (where my parents live). Any kind of inter-city movement should be stressful enough. What keeps me more or less grounded is that wherever I am (and have been – including Paris, last year), I always have more or less the same routine. For life and for work.

Routines work for me.

They may not work for everyone, but they do work, for me.

Desk at my home office in Aguascalientes

Routines provide regularity and stability.

The idea I quote above is not something I invented or devised – it’s the very foundational concept of institutionalism and institutional theory. It’s also the very basic unit of analysis of evolutionary economic theory (Becker 2004, as per Nelson and Winter 1982)

During this pandemic, having stable routines has kept me relatively sane. Every morning, I wake up, make my coffee, make my bed, wash my face, brush my teeth, and organize my desk to start my day. I also set up my (or my Mom’s) dining table for whenever she wakes up, I can have breakfast set up already for her. My morning routine includes making coffee for my Mom and bringing it to her room when she wakes up, along with a copy of the day’s newspaper.

Routines have a stabilizing role, in the same way that institutions provide stability around human interaction.

I have been writing a lot lately. Out of excitement, on the one hand: I am healthy now, after 2.5 years of struggles with chronic pain, chronic fatigue, eczema/psoriasis/dermatitis. Out of fear, on the other hand: I am 9 months behind on ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING, and because I had agreed-upon writing commitments, I’m now cranking up the writing as much as I can.

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced me to stay at home (either at my house in Aguascalientes or my Mom’s in Leon). I have fully functional home offices in both homes, so I can write at leisure. I’ve got decent internet access, and can log on to my remote university library connection to download articles and books quite easily, for the most part.

Working in the dining table

The COVID-19 has reshaped my personal and collective dynamics

During the pandemic, I’ve joined two online writing groups: Dr Amanda Bittner‘s (Monday through Friday, 9-11 am Eastern Standard Time) and Dr. Mirya Holman‘s (Fridays, 2-5 pm Central Standard Time). What I have noticed by participating in both of these online writing groups is that routinely writing as part of a collective REALLY WORKS FOR ME.

As most of you who follow me on Twitter or read my blog know, my writing practice starts at 4:30am – from 4:30 am to 6:30 am – I know, it’s ridiculously early and well, what can I tell you, that’s how I am used to work – I am a morning person and I am not really functional past 3pm.


Since joining these two wonderful writing groups, I now have 23 hours worth of writing on my calendar and in my schedule.

This does not mean that I can actually write that much (I would love if I could do it all the time, and when I am not teaching, nor travelling, I can often achieve this goal). But at least I have the time slots (and I can use that time to write, or it can also be runway time or grunt work time).

I have always had a writing routine. But what I have noticed by participating in Amanda’s and Mirya’s writing groups is that repeatedly joining writing groups (on a regular basis, trying not to miss any meetings) actually is very helpful in strenghtening my writing practice.

I wrote a Twitter thread on this very issue a few days ago. Having a structured routine and routinely writing and responding to Revise-And-Resubmits (R&R) or edits from book editors does help me because now I write responses-to-reviewers-and-editors much, much, much faster than before.

I always tell my students and research assistants that it might be helpful for them to develop and maintain a structured daily routine. I know this is hard to do even more so during these pandemic times, but I find that structure makes my life much easier.

Hopefully you’ll find value in routines too.

Posted in academia, organization, productivity, writing.

Writing the dissertation (thesis) II: Getting started and progress/project planning

As I write this series of blog posts on writing the thesis/dissertation, I get serious flashbacks of the period when I had to write my doctoral dissertation. The funny thing is, I have also had flashbacks from when I wrote my Masters’ and my undergraduate theses. Despite the fact that one was in chemical engineering, one was in economics of technical change and the doctoral dissertation was multidisciplinary (though primarily comparative politics, public policy and human geography), I think I’ve approached writing my theses in the very same way: get all data first, then analyze, then write.

Reading outlining and calendar cross-posting

I am writing this post from the viewpoint of someone who has supervised theses and dissertations, though in the future I think I will write one for advisors. I’ll start from the baseline that you (undergraduate, Masters student/doctoral candidate) have already done everything except the thesis. This implies that you’ve conducted fieldwork, done laboratory experiments, conducted archival work, etc.

In my thread, I also discussed the process I underwent (writing comprehensive exams AND also developing and defending a dissertation proposal). I explain this because the process that helped me develop my dissertation’s theoretical underpinnings and find the gap in the literature I was filling was not the reading and synthesizing I did for my comprehensives (comps) but rather the one I did for my dissertation proposal.

First, I want to list resources written by a few other scholars who discuss this very topic.

Obviously, I recommend that you also read everything I’ve written on topics related to the PhD thesis writing, including my previous post in this series on thesis writing, timing and structure. I also recommend looking at my own set of Reading Notes of books I’ve read on how to do a PhD. On Twitter, I explained why I buy and read books on the PhD process given that I already have my own PhD. Obviously I don’t need any of these books, but I purchased over a dozen volumes with my own money so that I could read them, draw insights from them, and improve my supervisory style therefore becoming a better thesis advisor.


Establishing how much work is necessary to obtain a specific degree (undergraduate, Masters, PhD) is necessarily something students and doctoral candidates should discuss and agree upon with the supervisory committee. I have written before on how I define a doctoral degree and what a PhD entails. I’ve also written on the differences between an undergraduate (honors) thesis, a Masters’ and a PhD dissertation (see link in the tweet below). By the time you want to start the thesis or dissertation, you should have agreed with your committee on the scope, breadth and depth of the thesis and dissertation. I assume in this blog post that you’ve already had this conversation (if you have not, this would be a good time to have it!)

Literature Road Mapping


In my Twitter thread, I explained that there was an intermediate step between doing comprehensive exams and writing the thesis. I think it’s important to mention that processes vary by degree (undergraduate, Masters and PhD) and by country/region/discipline, etc. I am mostly familiar with social science and humanities theses, but I also understand how STEM theses are written.

Because I did my PhD in Canada and I’ve supervised students there and in Mexico, I am most familiar with the processes that universities in these countries follow. I WAS going to do my PhD in England, though, and I’m aware that many programs in the UK and Australia do not have qualifying/comprehensive exams nor coursework and thus go direct to thesis.

The way I did my PhD was slightly complicated. I did comprehensive exams (written questions and oral defense) and THEN I defended a dissertation proposal. The work I did for the latter (review of the literature, mostly, and preliminary fieldwork) basically set the stage for my PhD dissertation. The reading (and systematizing) I did for my comprehensive exams helped me with my dissertation insofar I demonstrated I knew the literature in my fields, but they were much broader. After I passed, I still had to go and delve into different sets of literature because I cross disciplinary boundaries to prepare my dissertation proposal.


I started writing my PhD dissertation in earnest when I returned from my fieldwork. My PhD students started writing as soon as they returned from the field. This was because most of them have done their dissertation as a set of 3 papers. The only one of my PhD students who did a book manuscript ALSO started writing AFTER he had done fieldwork.

Because my doctoral students writing 3 papers did fieldwork in 3 different places, what I recommended to them was to start writing the results sections of all three papers (and the methods and data sections). THEN I asked them to write each paper separately.

To summarize: I believe the best moment to start writing the thesis/dissertation is when you are entirely sure you’ve collected enough data/archival material and thus you can write then the full manuscript in earnest.

Literature Road Mapping


Now, if you’re going to write an entire thesis, you need to have a plan. I have written before about the importance of planning your thesis/semester/year (you can read all my posts on organization and time management here and on planning here). While I started writing the Twitter thread assuming that the student had already done the work of planning their progress, as I wrote the thread, I realized that it was important to outline the steps necessary to plan, particularly under conditions of uncertainty (like our current COVID-19 pandemic)

Several institutions have automatically added one year of funding for graduate students given the pandemic, but this concession isn’t universal. So I think that we ought to be realistic and consider the worst case scenario (potential derailing, no additional funding) and plan for this. I’m always a worrier.

I always tell my students to plan for “When Shit Hits The Fan”. Because shit will ALWAYS hit the fan (trust me on this one: I broke up with my former partner as I was about to defend). For me, the best planning technique is the Gantt Chart. I also recommend that all your Overview Devices (Dissertation Two Pager, Dissertation Analytical Table, Global Dissertation Narrative, and Thesis Project Gantt Chart are all consistent with each other).

The one thing that I don’t think we say frequently enough in our conversations with students is that EVERYTHING EVOLVES. I have changed my priors around many things. Fieldwork, new reading, delving into other literatures changes the way I think. My writing evolves, my thinking does too. An example:

Paris (March 2017)

I’ve done fieldwork in Paris many times over the years, but it wasn’t until last year that I lived there for a semester that I realized a lot of things that reading the literature didn’t reveal. Conducting interviews in French, reading French scholarship really changed how I think.

I say this because, if you are thinking that you’ve collected all the literature, data, etc. and now you’re just going to sit down and write the thesis and it’s going to feel like a linear process, you’re deluding yourself.


As you write, you’re going to realize new insights, develop new ideas. Refine your argument. Redraft text. Revise it. And then you’re going to find out that the final abstract, introduction and conclusion of your dissertation aren’t going to be exactly the ones you first thought they would.

Now, on to the other key question that another PhD student asked me:


The previous paragraphs showed the pre-requisite conditions to start writing. Now, on to the actual process of “starting to write the thesis/dissertation”. Here’s how I think of the process, how I wrote my theses, and how I tell my students to write their theses.

1) Write a suggested table of contents.

In my Twitter thread I said that I did not remember if I had written a blog post on how to develop suggested tables of contents for theses or books. As a matter of fact, I did! Here is the first post of this series, which focuses on structure, content and timing of the thesis..

Suggested table of contents for a thesis/dissertation off the top of my head, and based on my Dissertation Analytical Table (DAT) and on my Dissertation Two Pager (DTP) devices

1. Introduction
2. Literature Review
3. Paper 1.
4. Paper 2.
5. Paper 3.
6. Concluding chapter

Maximum 2-3 items.

Studying for a degree is overwhelming enough, so you don’t need to add more stress to your life (we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, living at home, there is social unrest and worry, there’s more than enough worry in our lives). I always recommend that my students develop a structured working routine. Obviously, current conditions require a lot of flexibility and transitioning and that’s where the conversation with professors and supervisors is important (and the empathy and kindness of those advisors is FUNDAMENTAL).

TO RECAP: How to start writing a thesis (I assume you have been in conversations with your supervisory committee):

1) Write a draft of your thesis outline/table of contents.
2) Apply backcasting techniques from the date you need to submit the thesis and plan backwards.
3) Build a Gantt Chart with enough buffers to account for everything that is going on right now (potential factors that may derail your progress)
4) From your Gantt Chart, break down the tasks that you need to do and realistically can do, and schedule those throughout weeks/days.


I am sure many of you who read this blog post will be asking yourselves, but what about us, who are not doing a PhD dissertation, and instead are doing an undergraduate or Masters’ thesis?. The answer is simple: this process works for EVERY SINGLE LEVEL OF STUDY (undergraduate, Masters, PhD). What you need to adjust, obviously, is the SCOPE, DEPTH AND BREADTH of the thesis. This adjustment comes from a series of conversations between the supervisory committee and the student. How much fieldwork, how many experiments, how many journal articles are expected from the thesis, or what kind of analyses are expected from the undergraduate honors thesis, are all questions that need to be answered through dialogues between the supervisor, all committee members and the student.

The process is the same across all degrees: collect all data, backcast from your desired date for defense/submission, develop a daily work routine, work on bits and pieces of the thesis, assemble towards the end, review and revise and ensure consistency across all thesis chapters.

I hope this post is useful to you all (supervisors and students). Though it’s written to help a student/doctoral candidate, I hope supervisors might find it useful to provide guidance.

Read my other blog posts on this topic:

Posted in academia, writing.

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How to write the introductory chapter to a thesis or doctoral dissertation

This 2020 is weird in many ways. Several of my students are finishing up their degrees within the context of a global pandemic (COVID-19). But because the world was set up for degree and thesis completion before we knew our world would be changed forever, my students’ degrees have continuex and time passes inexorably. Therefore, I have continued to supervise theses normally.

One of my PhD students is on the road to finishing up her doctoral dissertation. When we sat down to discuss her progress, I realized I did not have a handy resource for her to consult how to write her introductory chapter. So I wrote a Twitter thread from where this blog post derives.

Reading writing working

Over the course of the years I’ve developed resources for graduate and undergraduate students to help them prepare for their dissertation proposal stage and the final defense. These posts are linked in the tweets below.

Based on these posts, I wrote (off-the-cuff, quickly) a draft table of contents for the introductory chapter of a thesis or doctoral dissertation (you can see these below). I want to note that in the case of doctoral candidates, I believe that it is FUNDAMENTAL to emphasize the ORIGINAL theoretical and empirical contributions of the dissertation. Whereas Masters and undergraduate theses aren’t as focused on contributions, for the PhD these are fundamental.

Desk in my room (Malakoff, France)

You can find my templates on Google Drive and Dropbox (click on the hyperlinks) or click on the Twitter links below.

Hopefully this template will help students across the board (undergraduate, Masters and PhD, obviously adjusting for specific degrees).

Posted in academia, writing.

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A typology of academic (daily) work: “runway work”, “grunt work” and “writing/research” work

The other day, on Twitter I wrote a thread trying to think through my own ideas about a potential classification or typology of work. Like I normally do with anything that is scholarly, I write about it because I’m trying to clarify my thoughts in my own head. This typology of work should be generalizable enough to apply, obviously, to life before, during and AFTER the COVID-19 pandemic.

I think sometimes, in our institutionally-induced anxiety to “produce more, more, more” we devalue other kinds of work we do. In another thread, I distinguished 3 types of work:

  • “runway” work (hat tips to Dr. Meredith Clark who coined this “runway work” term) – this is work we need to get done even before we start “producing” (creating slides requires runway work that involves researching/reading).

Annotating reading Everything Notebook etc

  • “grunt” work – this is work that does not “appear” like it leads to getting the “most valued” work, “writing/teaching/researching”, but that we need to do. Transcribing interviews and field notes (though this could be considered “runway” work). Cleaning Mendeley/Zotero fields.

Dropping and cleaning references in Mendeley

  • “writing/researching work” – the one where we sit down and produce words on the page, edit them, produce/insert graphs, run models, etc.


As I said on Twitter, I’m trying to clarify this typology in my own head too. But basically, the point I’m trying to make is that there’s a lot of invisible work involved in getting even 10 minutes of writing done.


And don’t even get me started on care work. Writing while homeschooling 3 kids? Impossible or next to impossible (I salute you, academic parents).

In academia, contrary to this view from outside, we work A LOT and do a lot of stuff “behind the scenes”. Stuff that is not visible to a lot of people. Work that those who have systematically devalued higher education and academia are not seeing.

We should make this work visible.

Posted in academia, productivity, writing.

Time spent “on the runway” is time well spent

A week or so ago, I discussed how much time I spent every morning just “getting warmed up”. I love how Dr. Meredith Clark put it “3 hours of runway”.

There is A LOT of preparation work that goes into doing stuff. For example: earlier last week, I was part of a panel. We met at my 4:30am (11:30am Paris time), via Zoom, but I had to wake up at 3:30 am to shower, read again the questions we would be discussing, write up a few notes about what I wanted to say, etc.

I finished a paper last week, yes. BUT I spent hours creating the dataset. I also spent hours cleaning up the references of everything I downloaded and read. I uploaded hundreds of articles on to Mendeley and cleaned the fields so citations would turn out ok. I also invested a lot of time coding the articles I read. HOURS reading and re-reading.

Yes, I am a proponent of the “write every day” mantra. But if the “runway” time is way more than the time we actually have to write, then it’s obvious we’re not going to get any work done. I did not realize how much runway time *I* needed until I had to do dishes, cook, wash, much more regularly.

Posvar Hall (University of Pittsburgh) desks

Under normal circumstances (when I am able to pay a house cleaner, laundry, buy food, etc.) OBVIOUSLY I get more work done. Right now I spend a lot of time in the “runway”. I always knew I was privileged, but right now it’s sinking in even more.

As I have written before, sad as this sounds, we DO have to do The Grunt Work.

Posted in academia, productivity.

Writing to understand: A personal tale of my journey to become an academic writer and overcome impostor syndrome

I really love writing. I absolutely do. But hasn’t always been like this.

Writing on campus

As a child, I actually did not like writing very much. Two factors influenced my enjoyment for the actual process. First, my Dad used to have a column in the local newspaper. Because his child was a book worm, he thought to himself, “why not develop Raul’s writing abilities?”. So he asked me to write columns about stuff I was curious about, and he would ask the newspaper editor to publish my op-eds.

Ironically, I ALWAYS felt impostor syndrome.

My older brother (Juan) had a natural talent for writing, specifically for novels, short stories, and fiction. I was jealous of the fact that he had filled notebook after notebook with his amazing short stories. He was, and remains, an excellent fiction writer.

At the time, at about the tender age of 10 years old, I felt like an impostor. As absurd as this may sound. I never saw myself as a writer despite having published many newspaper op-eds, whereas I felt that Juan was an accomplished one because he wrote fascinating, captivating, riveting stories.

Writing laptop at home

Until I realized I had a talent not for writing fiction and stories, but for reading, analyzing, and understanding. What I wrote was different from what my brother wrote. I was, and remain interested in writing TO UNDERSTAND and make sense of the world.

Library Cubicles at El Colegio de Mexico

To this day, that’s why I write. And now I actually enjoy the process of researching, analyzing data, synthesizing the literature and writing up what I find. I love writing, AND I love MY writing.

This “enjoying academia and writing” facet of mine is most prevalent when I’m writing about something I deeply care about. Obviously, I also feel…

That’s why you see me writing bits and pieces every day, and then three weeks in a row, WHAM BAM THANK YOU SIR and there you go, three journal articles out for review and a book chapter back to the editor.

Anyway, I think that the best piece of advice I can give my students and anybody who follows me on Twitter, or reads my blog, is to just relax. The big break, the “a-ha” moment, the “eureka” instant will come.

In the mean time, we need to keep the gears grinding. And under these circumstances, with great care, compassion and without stressing out. Work is and will always be there. Let’s just survive.

Posted in academia, writing.

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On why I love libraries so much (an ode to librarians, libraries, and library science)

I love books, I love reading, and I absolutely, completely, entirely adore libraries. I would have become a librarian had this been much more of an option for me at the time I was choosing careers.

CIDE's library building

One of the libraries I love the most in the entire world: CIDE Region Centro’s in the city of Aguascalientes. I was the library representative for 7 years and I still miss working with librarians to develop collections.

There are few things that lift my spirits as much as seeing photographs of libraries across the globe. Probably just as much as actually being in one, or reading a book. Over on the Twitterz, I requested that my followers send me photos of libraries they might possibly have in their archives.

I am a polymath because my parents always instilled in my a love for reading and knowledge. We always said that the family’s guild was going to be “education”.

And it definitely is.

My late auntie was a teacher. My Dad is a lawyer who taught in law school. My brothers and I all tutored learners since we were very young. I was 11 when I started teaching literacy programs in gang-riddled territories. How my parents gave me permission is beyond me.

My parents and auntie were always avid readers so their personal libraries have always been huge. When I was 12 I learned Dewey and Library of Congress classification schemes. I know how to calculate Cutter numbers. I’ve had a library card since I was 6 years old.

I classified my parents library and set up a home loan system. At 13. I have always loved reading and learning. Anybody who has been to my house and/or my CIDE office knows how much I love books (and reading them). I dreamed of becoming a librarian, studying library science.

Koerner Library at UBC

The University of British Columbia’s Koerner Library in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. I owe them a big “thank you” for helping me track down sources, articles, etc. for my PhD dissertation.

I quite clearly remember my parents’ face when I said I wanted to be a librarian:

“Will there be enough jobs in the world of libraries and will there be enough libraries to give you a job?”

I became a chemical engineer instead. But my love of libraries has never even remotely faded. Because I’m a professor now (and I’m single and childless with no pets) I can now buy books with abandon. Sometimes book publishers send me free books. I give them away to libraries. Many books of mine have ended in the CIDE library collection. I also support public libraries and regularly donate books to the several ones I frequent here in Mexico.

Because I study comparative public policy using ethnographic methods (and I get invited to give talks and workshops across the globe), I get to visit hundreds of libraries.

Fish Creek Library (Calgary)

The Reader’s Nook at Fish Creek Library in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Being inside a library is a huge balm for my soul. I love teaching, I love educating, I love learning. And I love books and libraries. Because we are all house-bound, I needed an emotional pick me up by looking at libraries across the globe (many of which I’ve visited already). Thanks to my Twitter followers for feeding my soul.

May I be able (when this is all over) to come back to my hometown (Vancouver) and give away physical copies of my books as a token of gratitude for all your help. Thanks, librarians across the globe. I’m sure you miss your collections & your readers too. Sending love.

Posted in academia.

Writing by memorandums

Thanks to a relatively extended bout of health, I have been writing a lot. Even more exciting than that, I’ve been FINISHING UP a lot of papers. This afternoon, I managed to finish a journal article that I had long overdue. I consider this achievement a major victory. Most of the stuff I’ve been writing and finishing up is part of a package of papers, books and articles I had to put in the back burner because of my poor health.

AcWri at my Mom's home office

Yes, I have submitted one revise-and-resubmit back to the editor, two journal article manuscripts for peer review, one book chapter. I have completed all of these under the current trying circumstances of a global pandemic of a coronavirus and shelter-at-home orders. Admittedly, I’ve been productive, and my feeling healthy is probably the major factor, plus the fact that I am not teaching this semester, and because of the pandemic, I am also not travelling at all.

But people still seem to think that I write extraordinarily fast. The truth is that whenever people think I am a super fast writer, they’re probably thinking I literally *just* started a paper 24 hours before submitting it.

Reading highlighting scribbling and Everything Notebook

This process doesn’t work well for me.

The truth is, whenever you see me finishing something up, I probably already had a huge chunk of the manuscript pre-written in small bits and pieces.

I write by memorandums.

I learned to write memoranda (memorandums?) in graduate school, and like many of the things I do now as a professor, I still write memos.

As you can see from my Twitter thread, my process is very similar to the one championed by David Sternberg and Joli Jensen: having a Project Box. The only difference is that my Project Box is digital: I open a folder in Dropbox for each paper and a sub-folder for the PDFs associated with that particular manuscript.

What I find is that memorandums can be part of a global strategy that is much chiller and less stressful than trying to remain focused on the big picture. Memos can be simply quick “notes-to-self” written in adhesive Post-It notes, or scribbles on the margins of a paper.

What I did this morning was to assemble all the memos I had already written for this particular paper. To note: I did not have written 10,000 words in memos. I probably did have about 7,000 which means that yes, I did write 3,000 words in one day. But that’s because I had he mental space, the physical space, the time (and an impending deadline that I cannot avoid because it means letting someone down that has been incredibly kind to me).

Now, all I have to do is edit, cut words/add words, move stuff around, re-read and format the paper. But again, I insist: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO WRITE 3,000 WORDS PER DAY.


Whatever you can add to a memorandum is good enough (yes, 15 words IS good enough).

Whatever time you can devote to your work is good (yes, 10 minutes is enough).


There’s enough pressure on us to take what I just wrote as 1 more reason to feel pressure. On the contrary. If I share my process (and my life) is to remind you that less than 6 months ago, I almost died of chronic pain and chronic fatigue.

I am writing now because I’m healthy.


Don’t listen to your inner demons or the external pressures. Right now the goal is to survive this !@#% pandemic. If my process helps you in any way, take it (or adopt parts of it). Don’t feel pressured by it. Or by academia, writ large.

Posted in academia, research, research methods, writing.

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Toilet paper hoarding, reverse quarantining and individual responses to governmental inaction

This morning I wrote a Twitter thread about how my research on the politics of bottled water can help us understand why individuals hoard toilet paper, N95 masks, gloves and other protective equipment. I think I can get something more scholarly out of this, but at least, I wanted to get some thoughts down on paper.

Some people (particularly those fond of specific governments and parties) seem to be upset and/or surprised about the fact that certain populations have taken steps to protect themselves from the COVID-19 pandemic well before governments started visibily proactive measures.

Hoarding toilet paper, face masks, and important protective products for health care workers is rightfully seen as “doing something wrong” (it IS wrong considering that so many health care workers, immunocompromised individuals and vulnerable communities are unable to access protective equipment right now). Using my research on the politics of bottled water, let me explain to you why people are doing this, and why they were anticipating that their governments would not be able to provide protection for them so they had to take it upon themselves to protect their loved ones and their own well-being.

Swedish bottled waterMexico is the world’s top per capita consumer of bottled water. One of the key factors that drove this phenomenon is the government’s absolute dereliction of duty. After the 1985 Mexico City earth quake which left much of the city’s water delivery infrastructure network destroyed, the National Water Commission started PROMOTING bottled water consumption as a strategy for self-protection. or the Mexican government (and for many others across the globe) it’s much easier to transfer the responsibility of self-protection to the individual citizen. This is what I call an abdication of duty.

Individuals do this based on what Andrew Szasz calls “inverse quarantine” (or reverse quarantine). Szasz notes a peculiar phenomenon in the consumption of bottled water, organic food, and individual oxygen tanks.

These are self-protective strategies where citizens realize that government is not going to protect them, so they need to protect themselves.

You (broadly construed you) may be able to protect yourself by buying bottled water (or organic food, or individual oxygen tanks, or your own N95 masks, gloves, etc.) But inequality means that not everyone can do what you can, i.e. protect themselves. So that’s where government needs to step in. If we stop demanding public services from government, those who are most vulnerable won’t be able to access those services. It doesn’t matter if we don’t use them (i.e. if you go to a private hospital).

We still need a functioning health system. Same with my other two loves and research interests, water and waste. We need a functioning government that is able to adapt fast to the rapidly changing needs of a heterogeneous set of populations with diverging and wildly varying needs. Reverse quarantine only gets us so far.

This reverse quarantine lens can also be transferred to understanding why sub-national units have gone against the federal government in their policy responses: They’re reverse quarantining their populations. If the federal government won’t provide for their citizens, then heir subnational counterparts (states, cities, municipalities, provinces, autonomous communities) will do it instead of the federal government.

And that’s just one aspect where studying the politics of bottled water can give us great insight into how policy responses to a pandemic can emerge from civil society groups or subnational units.

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