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My lecture slide deck preparation process

As with everything I do, I’m pretty old-fashioned. I read (in advance), write my lectures by hand, and then I prepare the Power Point slides. While I did have a presentation coach (Janice Tomich, an excellent coach I can recommend who is based out of Vancouver), I recognize I’ve fallen back into some of my old habits (one of them, write lots of words in the slide deck). I do this particularly for theory-heavy lectures, which is the case in the first few weeks of both of my courses. Whenever I feel I’ve mastered the theory (usually after two or three iterations of this course), I start removing text and use only photographs to prompt and support my presentation.

The first thing I do is read twice each reading I assign. The first reading (usually a quick skim) lets me decide which theoretical points need to be highlighted. And then the second reading, I find those theoretical points and highlight them. I use different color highlighters and I write on the margins the main points I want to stress.

The second thing I do is write in my notebook the main points I want the lecture slide to contain. Here is usually where I decide how wordy the lecture slide needs to be. But I also connect other readings across with each other. I can’t do that while having only the PDFs open on my screen. I need to see them (physically), write Post-Its that connect each reading with each other, etc. Usually I make sure the text is well distributed so that it’s not text-heavy.

How I prepare a lecture

The third thing I do is simplify the slide deck as much as I can, usually with side-by-side comparisons and tables. For example, Jenna Bednar’s writing on federalism theory and the robust federation tends to be VERY theory heavy. So what I do to simplify the theoretical contributions she make is create a table that then I can explain in detail in front of the class (see below for examples of my slides, the first one is Regional Development on Amy Glassmeier’s view of economic geography and public policy, the second one is a summary of Jenna Bednar’s 2011 piece on the political science of federalism).

boundary mechanisms

economic geography slide

Overall, I am well aware that my process is time-consuming, if you teach more than what I teach and want to maintain a rigorous research program. Since I teach only 2 courses in the fall, I do schedule enough time to prepare my lectures. Bear in mind that these two courses, while I already have taught them, are entirely new preparations because I completely rewrote the syllabi to include more female and under-represented scholars’ writings. So, I am prepared to spend the extra amount of time that it would take me as opposed to say, Comparative Public Policy or Policy Analysis, both courses I’ve taught already quite a few times and I’m well prepared to teach in whichever variation I do. The courses I teach this fall, State and Local Government (third year) and Regional Development (fourth year) are interdisciplinary, area courses. So, preparing lecture slide decks takes way more time than you would think.

Overall, I like my process and I hope it’s of use to other professors, lecturers, etc.

Posted in environmental policy.

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Productivity (task-scheduling) apps for academics (a summary)

Whiteboard and corkboardI think I’ve made it pretty clear that, while I am really adventurous when it comes to computer-aided anything, I am always willing to learn and use it (see my post on how I use Evernote in teaching and research). But my task-scheduling? It’s totally old-fashioned. I WRITE LISTS. By hand. And then I cross them off, delete them, or write a red check mark besides them. I know, it’s slightly embarrassing.

So I decided to throw the question to my Academic Twitter followers, and here are their responses:


I haven’t tried Wunderlist, but it seemed nice in that multiple lists can be shared with others, as per Megan Hatch’s note.


This one took me by surprise, as both Will Winecoff and Christopher Zorn recommended it for lists. I usually just use it to file notes, field notes, and for my teaching. But apparently I could extend it to To-Do lists.

Google Keep

Everything I do is synchronized with Google (Gmail, Google Calendar), so it would seem to make sense that I try Google Keep. Never done it, might try it.


I think it was Janni Aragon (University of Victoria) who said that she used Todoist first. But then I got a few responses in support from other academics:


Jennifer Victor (George Mason University) suggested Timeful, which I also haven’t tried. But I will, although it seems it will be removed from the App Store, as it’s paired now with Google.

Remember The Milk

Emilia Tjernström (University of Wisconsin Madison) suggested Remember The Milk, which is one of the most popular To-Do list apps I have ever seen, even before there was an explosion of apps, this was one of the most popular (in fact, it was first a website!)

Kanban Flow

While I took project management courses in undergrad and during my Masters, and I do have *some* idea of what the Kanban flow technique is, this is totally new. Emily Senefeld suggested it and I might have to try it.


This was suggested by Ana Isabel Canhoto and I am looking forward to trying it too. I like that it seems simple and that it’s for iOS (which I use on my mobile devices).

Other apps… (OmniFocus, Any.Do and Due)

Ryan Briggs (Virginia Tech) suggested OmniFocus, and I have used OmniGraffle before to design website mock-ups and wire-frames. So trying another Omni Group app doesn’t seem too much of a stretch. And in response, Chris Parsons (University of Toronto) suggested and Reminders (the app, although I think it’s been renamed to Due).

And sometimes as Lenore Newman (University of the Fraser Valley) suggested, good time management works.

Posted in academia.

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Bottled water: Commodifying the human right to water

Water created for a baby GerberWhile I was trying to desperately finish two book chapters and two articles, I saw heated discussions around Nestlé fly by. Nestlé is the global, multinational company whose claim to fame goes well beyond producing baby food, and is one of the top bottled water producers. Some say that Nestlé controls 70% of the global bottled water market. Many of the protests that Nestlé faced occurred in two currently drought-stricken areas: California, in the United States of America, and British Columbia, in Canada (actually pretty close to my hometown of Vancouver). Even more so, alarming figures around how much water Nestlé was extracting practically for free in both regions circulated on social media, news sites, and newspapers, giving rise to a series of online mobilizations to rally against the multinational.

Given that all these discussions occurred when I was trying to get some of my research work published, I couldn’t comment nor provide meaningful analysis and discussions around whether Nestlé is actually the devil incarnate or not. What I can say, however, is what I have said before (which is based on my research): every time you purchase a bottle of water, you are contributing to the commodification of a natural resource, which has now been approved as a human right.

Some practitioners and industry folks who don’t seem to agree with my view (the one I posited on the tweet above) argue that in reality, bottled water is not all that water consuming, and that “there are other industries that consume even more water and why is nobody complaining about those?” Well, for starters, one would need to have accurate data on water withdrawals from aquifers, recharge rates, and a number of other figures that are not so readily available and often are not all that trustworthy. These data would be necessary at least to comparatively discuss the negative impact that the bottled water industry has on aquifers. We don’t actually have those data. All those numbers you see reported? Most of them are SELF-reported. And as any good geohydrologist will tell you, knowing how much water is available in an aquifer is not as easy as one would make it seem. Data on groundwater availability are sparse and not all that accurate.

Bottled water vs tap waterMoreover, one of my biggest beefs with discussions on the actual global bottled water market is that, unless you pay a pretty hefty price, you won’t get accurate data. At least, data that you can potentially analyze and use. If I wanted to purchase a copy of the 2015 Market Research Report on Global Bottled Water Industry, I’d need to pay $2,800 dollars. Very few granting agencies would be happy for me to spend that much money just to know how much bottled water is being marketed, sold and distributed. Obviously, Nestlé will tell you that it is a very small bottled water user. But interestingly enough, it is one of the top three market share holders (reportedly at 7.3%). Danone was ranked second with a market share of 10.1 percent, and the global market was estimated at 200.3 billion U.S. dollars.

Just think about that for a second.

200 billion US dollars.

Moreover, the campaigns to promote bottled water now reach stupidity proportions that are bewildering. I have seen “Smart Water” marketed (see tweet above), I’ve also seen “Light Water” (Bonafont, a Mexican subsidiary of Danone), artisanal water (Fiji and San Pellegrino). Ironically, when I visited Milan for the International Conference on Public Policy 2015 (ICPP 2015), every single restaurant where I ate offered me bottled water FOR SALE. Italians seemed quite proud of selling their own water, and of consuming (and paying for) bottled water, even though I saw plenty of public water fountains across Milan.

Warsa (Eritrean Restaurant), Milan, ItalyIn my own research, I have been studying not only the global political dynamics of bottled water consumption, but also the factors that drive increased consumption, given that Mexico has been touted as one of (if not THE) top consumers (measured in consumption per capita) of bottled water worldwide. I have also been analyzing the relative successes that tap water promotion campaigns have been having on US and Canadian campuses. My recent fieldwork has enabled me to inquire from people what makes them drink bottled water, and the driving factors aren’t always the ones I expect. For example, I always believed that ease of access drove much of the local bottled water consumption. Not surprising, but public health concerns seem to be the major driving factor so far (I am conducting a large scale survey and also preparing a couple of field experiments on this topic).

What I have found so far is that most people don’t seem to be aware of just how little water is available for human consumption. In my interviews I have also found that many bottled water consumers are unaware that water has been named as a human right (and that there is actual legislation in Mexico on the human right to water, Article 4 of the Mexican Constitution was amended to include a provision to this effect, in April of 2012).

In sum, while industry folks may think I am against bottled water just out of ideology, I am deeply concerned about the commodification and marketization of a resource as valuable and important as water is. Because as I have argued elsewhere, water becomes not only a natural resource but a political (and politicized) one. And THAT, precisely, is what makes the politics of bottled water so interesting to me. But moreover, I am concerned about increased bottled water consumption because it poses an intrinsic threat to the full implementation of a human right to water.

And that’s something I am not about to keep silent about.

Posted in academia, water governance, water stress.

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Highlighting and note-taking on journal articles as engagement

As I’ve made it clear in most of my academic writing blog posts, I do things the old-fashioned way. This means that I’m a fan of printing out journal articles and writing on the margins, or making photocopies of book chapters, and highlighting passages that I think are important. I’m not a cognitive scientist so I don’t actually know whether highlighting is good or bad for students and scholars alike, and whether it has any impact on our cognitive ability to learn. Nevertheless, I almost always have encountered folks who believe highlighting is good and practice it often. I love providing my students with resources on how to do their work more seamlessly.

Recently I found three blog posts that made me rethink my approach, and wonder why other scholars may not recommend that students (and fellow academics) highlight their notes: because it may make the student believe they are engaging the material while they are not. This is a point made in various ways by other authors. First, by John McMahon in his handout on Writing Summaries of Journal Articles and Critical Reviews. Second, not precisely related to highlighting but to the accumulation of photocopies, by Umberto Eco via Stephen Taylor. And related to the previous point, accumulating PDFs (the PDF alibi) may make us believe that we are actually doing the research, reading them and engaging with the work, as posited by Pat Thomson.

I promised John I would write a blog post on how I highlight and write on the margins to really engage with the reading. The first thing I do is that I use different colors of highlighters. In the example I am providing here I didn’t have my other colored highlighters available, but I had my colored pens, so I have used them in the example. I highlight important passages that then I spell out on the margins. For example, in this summary of Craig Jenkin’s 1983 piece, I analyze the section on how resource mobilization theories differ from other ones.

Summary and highlighting

The first paragraph of the page describes what are the contributions of this journal article, which I then summarize on the margins. Then I highlight the main ideas in the following paragraphs and spell them out on the margins. Notice how I don’t believe that the first sentence of a paragraph is the one that contains the main idea. I outline what I believe are the main ideas on the margins, with different colors (notice how I use red in some instances and purple in others). Where I think a table could make the ideas clearer, I posit them.

Here is my article summary of that section.



As you can see, from the second table, I could even make a simpler table out of Table 2, which would contrast both approaches based on Goal Design, Mode of Organizational Control, Outcomes and Role of Leadership. And this table would be a contribution in itself as it would require me to reorganize how Jenkins thinks about social movements and resource mobilization and then I could apply it to specific empirical case studies.

So, as you can see, I don’t highlight the entirety of the article, but solely I use highlighting to remind me of important passages and to help me break down the ideas I want to engage with. Hopefully this approach to reading and highlighting and writing on the margin is useful to others when writing their summaries!

Posted in academia, writing.

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Organizing child-friendly academic conferences and workshops

I’m not a parent, but both my brothers who are PhD holders have children (in fact, one of them went through the PhD already having two small girls, aged 7 and 3), and my Mom is also an academic, so I’m quite sensitive to the challenges that academic parents face. I just participated in the annual meeting of the Mexican Association for Labor Studies (don’t ask, a very good friend of mine asked me to help him moderate a few panels, and I never say no to good friends) and noticed a sizeable number of female academics bringing their kids to the conference. I made a comment on Twitter as to how important it was to enable parents who are academics to bring their children to the conference.

But some of the responses to my tweet really impressed me, particularly some professors who had the smarts to PLAN beforehand and make sure to make the workshop/conference children-friendly.

This is important, because the opposite (e.g. having someone escort you out because your child became slightly unruly) also happens (see tweet below by my friend Rachel Tiller).

While it’s hard for me to really understand all the challenges associated with balancing parenthood and academic life, I am well aware of them and I strongly advocate for those whose voices we often don’t hear enough.

I advocate for a kinder academia, and part of this advocacy includes, in my view, a children-friendly atmosphere at conferences. Luckily, it appears as though major learned societies like the Association of American Geographers (AAG) and the International Studies Association (ISA) are also responding too.

And my good friend Amanda Bittner has now put forth the challenge to the organizers of Congress 2016 in Calgary (I will be going, as it’s Canadian Political Science Association, CPSA, and it’s where my brother lives so I have plenty of reasons to come visit, including my two little nephews!). In fact, I may bring my nephews one of the days to CPSA.

EDIT – Amanda makes an important point: the challenge that not having “on-site” child-minding presents for academics who are nervous about leaving their children with someone else.

Posted in academia.

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Online resources to help students summarize journal articles and write critical reviews

The courses I teach tend to be very practical and applied. My teaching philosophy is founded on helping my students acquire employable skills. Writing solid, robust, concise and easy-to-read analytical summaries should be an acquired tool that they then can transfer to other fields. Politicians, bureaucrats and high-level people in government that I’ve talked to have always considered summarizing information a great tool that undergraduate and graduate education should provide. Yet, the online resources I found to help students summarize journal articles and write critical reviews left me wanting.

AcWri handwritten notes and journal article reading

There are, of course, plenty of resources. But reading a vast majority of them always left me with a feeling that either they were too long for students to get through (in addition to the relatively high reading load I am assigning for each of my courses), or too focused on the mechanics and too little on the routine-building strategy. So I took to Twitter and Facebook to ask whether someone had found an online resource that would help my students learn how to summarize journal articles. Here are a few suggestions:

a) Dr. Karen Beckwith (Case Western Reserve University) shared with me her handouts on critical reading. Professor Beckwith is incredibly generous and I’m sure she would share them with you if you requested them. They are very useful because they are tailored to each specific course she teaches. She also has a guideline on how to learn from movies.

b) John McMahon (CUNY) shared with me some of his handouts, which are posted online, including this one on critical reading and note-taking. John and I have a different view on highlighting journal articles, and I will write a blog post on this soon.

c) Tressie McMillan Cottom (Virginia Commonwealth University) shared with me her notes from a grad seminar with Regina Werum at Emory University. Professor McMillan Cottom’s notes are a summary of how to read a sociology article.

d) Dr. Neenah Luna-Estrella (NEU) suggested the following books to help students learn how to read and summarize scholarly (and not so scholarly) works. Not online resources, but still, very good ones.

Pyrczak, F. (2014). Evaluating research in academic journals (6th ed.). Glendale, CA: Pyrczak Publishing.

Harris, R. A. (2011). Using Sources Effectively (3rd ed.). Glendale, CA: Pyrzak Publishing.

e) Online resources that I found valuable:
- University of the Fraser Valley Writing Centre’s guide to summarizing an article – this is particularly good because UFV is primarily undergraduate teaching.
- Donna Vandergrift ’s handout actually gives a guideline for students on which content should be written in each paragraph. This kind of detailed guidance is fundamental.
- This guide on how to read a journal article is a bit long, but it does have some additional references that you can look at.

f) Karra Kshimabukuro shared the guide to writing a Rhetorical Precis, which is a tool that others had suggested we should look at, and apparently, (what I call “analytical summaries” may be rhetorical precis too :) (thanks Theresa MacPhail for reminding me of this!)

I’m happy to continue compiling resources if you want to drop a comment on this post or send me an email (sometimes my commenting system isn’t the best).

Posted in academia, teaching, writing.

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My Fall 2015 weekly schedule

If you’ve followed me on Twitter or read my blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I’m pretty rigid in my schedule. Ever since I was a child I have done everything adhering to strict deadlines and I started using calendars perhaps in my very early years. A lot of people think I have a very regimented schedule (this is the previous post where I shared mine), but this term, I built a lot more flexibility, particularly because I do want to do some fieldwork still. As you can see, I can’t write for 2 hours every day (because I need to exercise, have breakfast and shower and drive to campus), but I still can definitely squeeze 10 hours per week of writing. I NEED to protect my research and writing time even during teaching semesters (I only teach one semester per year).

Calendar with 10 hours of #AcWri

You will notice two things: First, that I still have 10 hours worth of writing time, but I have distributed them unevenly. I still wake up at 4:30am, and I still exercise, and spend time out with my friends. But all the white gaps you see? Those are for the things that I need to do at some point, including fieldwork. So if I need to go on the field on Friday, I’ll prepare my lecture on the Tuesday. And second, that I have not scheduled EVERY SINGLE MINUTE of my day. I have left ample time for contingencies. I still protect my time, particularly writing and class preparation, and self-care, but the rest of the time? I leave room for contingencies and potential fieldwork.

I teach 2 courses this fall, plus a lot of continuing education diploma sessions, so it will be intense, but I also believe it will be rewarding. If I need to change something, it probably will be writing in the very early morning because I still want to make it to the gym before I go to campus. I also put class preparation on the Friday so that I can clear my docket before the weekend. But if I need to do fieldwork, I’ll move it earlier in the week.

Posted in environmental policy.

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On the need of slow scholarship: Towards a new paradigm of research

The “slow everything” movements (slow water, slow food, slow blogging) have become popular in recent years, largely as a response to the excessive speed at which we lead our lives nowadays. Given that one of my claims to fame has always been how fast I am at doing everything I do, my own response to the slow movement seems to have been, aptly and pun intended, being slow on the uptake. The slow science movement has been gaining momentum particularly because of the way in which we have been pushed by exogenous forces to publish more, write more, give more talks, bring more grant money into our institutions.

Given my own health issues in the past year, and being confronted with the fragility of my human being, I started to push back against this paradigm myself. Ironically, in the year where I lost an entire month of my life to illness (January 2015) is also the year where I’ve travelled to the most places (New Orleans in the US for #ISA2015, Chicago for #AAG2015, Vancouver in Canada for #CAG2015, Edmonton in Canada for #IASC2015 and Milan in Italy for #ICPP2015, plus two keynotes in Montreal and a few workshops and other research trips here and there).

My good friend Alison Mountz (who was a graduate school friend of mine, and with whom I regained touch when we saw each other this year at the Association of American Geographers conference in Chicago) and her coauthors have written an extraordinary piece on the need for slow scholarship as a mode of feminist resistance to the neoliberal university. I encourage you to read it as it is an excellent piece on how shifting the way we approach research can, through collective action, engage and possibly affect change on the way research and science (and social science) is done nowadays.

Hotel AcWri

I was reflecting on the slow scholarship movement in the past couple of days because I wrote a book chapter in two days, but I had been already slowly thinking about this paper and the logic of its argument for TWO YEARS. Yes, the very first draft of this paper had already been written (and I forgot about it) in the summer of 2013. So, you can’t really rush science. And while I encourage my fellow scholars to get their manuscripts out when they’ve been sitting on the desk for too long, it’s more a call to complete the cycle of slow scholarship. Once you know the ideas are there, the research is there, it’s time to finish it off.

A nice reflection post-AAG2015 on the slow scholarship paper by Mountz et al can be read here.

Posted in academia, writing.

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#MyAcWriStrategies: Write first, edit later, and edit by hand

Perhaps the weirdest thing about the way in which I conduct research and I write is that I find that the old-fashioned way works best. For me, doing everything online (on the screen) doesn’t work. I am quite well-versed in computer-aided qualitative analysis (I use N*Vivo, Atlas Ti and will start using Dedoose once I figure it out), yet I still code my data by hand (with colored pens, markers and highlighters). I work the same way when I write. I edit by hand. And I write first, and edit later.

Old-fashioned editing

To be very honest, my approach to academic writing (and particularly mine) is to always draft first and edit later. Whatever I write, for the two hours I do (or the 4 periods of 30 minutes a day) I write as it comes out, and then edit. For the book chapter I just finished, I actually wrote a very first draft (a skeleton) that then I started filling out by hand, with Post-It adhesive notes, colored pens, etc. (as you can see in the photo below). I do edit the really, really old fashioned way.

Old-fashioned editing

If I don’t have a first draft, it’s much harder for me to start filling up the blanks. And as I have mentioned before, I think in terms of filling up paragraphs rather than worrying about finishing a full chapter, manuscript, conference paper. I don’t think I’m alone in suggesting that you should write first and edit later (here is Rachael Cayley on drafting and editing). You can do the editing through the full document, or as Patrick Dunleavy suggests, doing reverse outlining and paragraph re-planning. Pat Thomson is quite right in saying that we shouldn’t obsess about producing perfect first drafts.

I have no shame in admitting that I do things the old-fashioned way. Of course I know how to use computer-aided-just-about-everything, but the feeling of shaping how a paper is looking through handwritten notes and Post-Its is just amazing. Of course it helps that I have a stationery addiction, because I use every single tool I can to achieve my research and teaching goals.


Posted in academia, writing.

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Cleaning and organizing my office before the school term starts

While normally I try to keep my desk quite neat, both at my home office and at my campus office, I always need to spend some time cleaning up, organizing and rearranging my stuff before the new semester starts. I do this as well every time I finish a writing piece. I need to reorganize everything and always start with a clean slate. This is my office after the clean up.

Clean office at CIDE

Clean office at CIDE

Clean office at CIDE

Unfortunately, as you can see, the number of books I have has now officially outgrown the space I have available on my bookshelves. So now I need to ask my carpenter to build me another bookcase. Yikes. Before the semester starts officially (we come back to work on Monday, but I start teaching August 17th).

Posted in academia.

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