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On the value of writing retreats

There’s a lot of writing around about “writing retreats” and I had wanted to write about this for a long while, but I had not been able to do so until today when Dr. Katie Rose Guest Pryal asked me what I thought about writing retreats (you should read her entire thread, which starts here:

I responded with a thread of my own, but I wanted to start by saying that I travel a lot, and I try as much as I can to write every day throughout the duration of my trips. One of the main requisites that I demand from hotels is desk surface availability. That means that the room where I stay, should have at least a desk, preferably with a lot of working surface.

Desk at hotel

When I have some time (i.e. when I arrive early to a conference or workshop or field trip), I try to make the most of my travel by writing at the hotel, and taking that extended period of time as a “mini-writing retreat”. One of my favourite was the one I took in Vancouver Island in 2012.

Kingfisher Oceanside Spa & Resort (Royston, BC)

I did one of my writing retreats at the Kingfisher Oceanside Spa and Resort in Vancouver Island.

Last year, I took up a visiting professorship at IHEAL in Paris (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris 3) where I taught 2 very short courses (Comparative Public Policy and International Development in Latin America). I taught in Spanish, which is something very rare for me. I do most of my teaching in English, and I expected them to ask me to teach in French, or English, so when I was asked to teach in Spanish, it threw me for a bit of a loop and I ended up having to prepare class more than I expected to.

Desk at the Radisson Paraiso (Perisur, CDMX)

As most of everyone who follows me know, I’m super close to my parents, and more specifically, to my Mom. She is in excellent health (thank God!) and while she is not in any way, shape or form disabled, she’s an older person and therefore she has to be careful with her health. While living in Paris, I taught 2 days and could write the other 3 (I did take weekends off, something that I very strongly encourage people to take, if their circumstances allow). Having full days to think, research, write, etc. was glorious. Since my Mom is a professor I was able to bounce ideas off her all the time. She worked on her own stuff and I worked on mine, but we also chatted. I was able to rent a two-bedroom house in the banlieue of Paris, incrediby close to Paris (door-to-door from my house to IHEAL I did literally 35 minutes).

Holiday Inn Express Guadalajara ITESO (El Mante, Guadalajara)

Anyways… visiting my Mom on weekends (we live in different cities here in Mexico) and having a visiting professorship that gave me full days for research and fieldwork were (and one of them continues to be) two of the ways in which I carved time to write. I spend time with her. BUT I also have several very long periods of time when I can just focus on my writing. But back to her health (and mine). This year, my Mom injured one of her thumbs (the right hand one) and her two shoulders. This meant that, while she’s entirely independent, she needs help. She needs help in extraordinarily small things: reaching up to get stuff from the top shelves, tying her shoe laces, etc. Very tiny things that do not affect her independence, but that need to be done. Obviously, washing dishes and cooking become really hard to do for her. So, while I not taking care of her all day long (because she doesn’t need to, she’s healthy and in good shape), I did need to help her sometimes with small minutiae. I mention this because the long, extended periods of writing can/do get interrupted by doing these small errands.

Aztic Hotel & Suites Ejecutivas

By the way, she’s MUCH better now, thanks for asking.

Thus, responding to all 3 prompts that Dr. Guest Pryal shared, I do agree that writing retreats work. I had my mini-writing retreats in Paris (and yes, trust me, the “sitting in a cafe right by the Seine having coffee and writing” visual is a lot more theory and a lot less practice (Paris is ultra expensive and if you want to sit in a cafe and spend hours writing, expect to be paying LOTSA EUROS, which I would assume a writer wouldn’t do). In practice, I wrote a lot at home, which was glorious. It was amazing because after a long writing session, we would simply take the bus and the RER and head out to Tour Eiffel and walk around, sit down and have a coffee by the Seiine, etc. Or we would go to the Versailles Museum. Or shopping in Champs Elyseés.

Here is the BUT…

I can and could do this because my care work is on minutiae. My Mom is perfectly capable of driving and she drives herself anywhere. But I do like being of service to her, so I often drive her around on weekends. This, obviously, makes the dynamic of long-blocks-of-time difficult And I do really simple care work! I can’t even begin to imagine the challenges that parents, or folks who need to take care of themselves AND of others (the number of people I know dealing with their own disabilities AND with care work I know is staggering and I admire them much).

At the peak of my eczema/dermatitis/psoriasis/chronic fatigue/chronic pain, I was unable to THINK let alone write. I am six months behind on everything because I spent six months struggling with bad diagnoses, incompetent physicians and having to teach and fulfill my commitments. I share my life in such an open way because I believe that sharing my story may in some ways help students, faculty, practitioners, society at large. I do have some privilege, but I also face many challenges. I am just starting to get back into the groove after 6 months of pain.

In closing: do I believe in writing retreats? Sure. But I am not sure how we can organize one that could be sensitive to the needs of parents, people with care work, disabled/marginalized individuals, etc. Academia is very ableist, as I have repeatedly said.

I am grateful to Katie for asking me to share my thoughts on writing retreats, because I do believe in them, but since academic populations are so heterogeneous, we can’t generalize on their usefulness.

Posted in academia, writing.

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The Global Dissertation Narrative (GDN): a strategy to develop a final doctoral dissertation story

As I mentioned earlier on my blog., two of my PhD students are THIS CLOSE to finishing their draft and defending. This week, I sat with one of them to go over her entire doctoral dissertation. I just wrote a Twitter thread on how my (close-to-defending) doctoral students are writing their Global Dissertation Narrative (GDN), and I wanted to keep it for posterity as a blog entry.

Library Cubicles at El Colegio de Mexico

I explained to my student that she needed to develop a Global Dissertation Narrative (GDN) that clearly tells the story of her work. As my PhD advisor once told me: “research is telling stories with data”. For me, storytelling is key, and I make sure that my students learn how to do it, and how to do it well.

To avoid having to click on this thread, you can read the components of the narrative below, and you can download my template here.

Global Dissertation Narrative

Global Dissertation Narrative

Global Dissertation Narrative

So how does a doctoral student fill out their GDN template? Below, I explain in detail.

Obviously, you could easily tweak my GDN template to apply to STEM dissertations, book-style theses, undergrad and Masters’ theses AND book manuscripts. In fact, strongly believe you could totally use the DTP, the DAT and the GDN to craft your book proposal.

Hopefully many doctoral students and their supervisors will be able to test my GDN to see if it works for them. It certainly works for mine!

If you liked this blog post, you may also be interested in my Resources for Graduate Students page, and on my reading notes of books I’ve read on how to do a doctoral degree.

Posted in academia, graduate school.

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What are the differences between the Everything Notebook and the Bullet Journal?

Because of the similarity of both concepts (one notebook to organize your life), a lot of people online confuse my idea of the Everything Notebook with the Bullet Journal. I’ve tweeted about the differences between both systems quite a few times, but on this occasion I want to keep these tweets in more permanent form.

Weekly Plan

My tweets explain in a bit more detail how the Bullet Journal and the Everything Notebook differ.

Personally, I wish I had learned about the Bullet Journal before I developed my idea of the Everything Notebook, because I am sure that there are ways to make both of them work (below see an example of a Bullet Journal).

Bullet Journal

Bullet Journal (photo credit: John Uri on Flickr, Creative Commons Licensed)

FUNDAMENTAL DIFFERENCES BETWEEN A BULLET JOURNAL AND AN EVERYTHING NOTEBOOK

The way I see them, the below are the major differences between an Everything Notebook and a Bullet Journal.

  • The Bullet Journal serves more as a planner. The Everything Notebook includes planning and project notes/field notes/random ideas.
  • The Bullet Journal has numbered pages and an index (pre-made). The Everything Notebook has rigid plastic tabs (1″) that mark different sections. Once you run out of pages with the Everything Notebook, THEN you write an index/table of contents.
  • The Bullet Journal method is very well suited for creativity/colours/etc. The Everything Notebook has colours, but mostly for writing and for differentiating sections (various rigid plastic tab colours)

In the end, you can use the Everything Notebook, or the Bullet Journal, or a commercial planner like the Passion Planner, or a combination of the first two (as many people have done, see below).

In the end, only you can know what works for you. The Everything Notebook method works for ME (and apparently, for other people too!)

Posted in academia, research.

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What kinds of things do we (I) write in the Everything Notebook?

I’m often asked to discuss one of my most popular techniques, the Everything Notebook. I have considered making YouTube videos explaining how to make one, how it operates, etc. But I end up running out of time. But over the winter break (this past one, December 2019-January 2020), I was asked what kind of stuff do I write in the Everything Notebook. I was planning my 2020, so I took the opportunity to showcase the kinds of things that I post to my Everything Notebook.

Everything Notebook

I am also experimenting with something in 2020: I am starting my new Everything Notebook WITHIN my 2019 one. Normally, I devote at least 1 Everything Notebook to a specific year. Some years I have run out of space and therefore I have to start another one, but this year, I had enough space (mostly I believe as a result of my being in Paris for the Spring term) to start the 2020 one right there and then.

So here are a few things that I write in my Everything Notebook:

1) My Weekly To-Do List.

Planning 2020

This is perhaps the one component that is similar to the Bullet Journal and one of the major reasons why people confuse both systems. The Everything Notebook, however, has both project notes AND To-Do lists in it. That’s perhaps the one thing that differentiates both systems. I am writing a blog post explaining the (rather substantial) differences, which I’ll publish soon.

2) Project Notes

When I refer to project notes, I mean notes about a particular project I am developing or commentaries about scholarship I have read. So within the “Bottled Water” section of my Everything Notebook, I may have summarized an article and dropped a few notes regarding its content, or written a few ideas about stuff I am thinking about.

I also copy suggestions on to my Everything Notebook, which I obtain from tweets answering my tweeted research-related questions online.

3. My Yearly Writing Commitments

One of the ways in which I keep track of what I am supposed to be writing is by virtue of keeping my yearly plan in my Everything Notebook. This includes my writing commitments. Within each project tab/section, I make a note regarding which projects I am supposed to be tackling related to that specific research area (in this case, discards and waste).

Obviously, the power of the Everything Notebook resides in having EVERYTHING in one place instead of scattered notes all over the place. That’s why I encourage folks to adapt my method (or if they so choose, the Bullet Journal idea!) the way they prefer. Because for me, having the To-Do lists with my yearly plan and my writing commitments and project notes, field notes, etc. is much more efficient than dedicating different notebooks to each one of these items.

Posted in academia, research, writing.

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Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How it Can Succeed Again (my reading notes)

Flyvbjerg Making Social Science MatterI have long admired Professor Bent Flyvbjerg for being an economic geographer who speaks methodologically and conceptually to many other disciplines. As someone who has been trained both in political science and human geography (with a concentration in economic geography), and who works in public administration/public management/public policy as well as comparative politics and international relations, the kind of interdisciplinary writing and thinking that Flyvbjerg is capable of doing is quite admirable and something I aspire to replicate in my own work. Having read (and used with my students and research assistants) his “5 misunderstandings regarding case studies” piece, I was very excited to read “Making Social Science Matter”. I am definitely not disappointed.

Bent Flyvbjerg uses the first 5 chapters do discuss empiricism, methodological debates, epistemology.

Chapters 7 and 8 delve into rationality and power, Aristotle, Foucault and Habermas. This analysis is important because conflict and power are at the core of what we understand as “the political” (see my paper on the politics of bottled water, Pacheco-Vega 2019, Langdon Winner on whether artifacts have politics, Winner 1980, Mark Warren on “what is political”, Warren 1999).

As an Ostrom scholar who often hears from non-Ostromians about “how Lin forgot to discuss power in her work on institutional analysis” (TL:DR; she didn’t), I often find discussions of power and Foucault rather enlightening. Flyvbjerg does excellent job of bringing them together.

Flyvbjerg basically says “let’s do social science that matters”, something I can definitely agree with. A word of caution: this is NOT a book for undergraduates and I wouldn’t even assign it in first or second year of graduate school. This is a book for advanced graduate students with some experience already doing research and for experienced scholars.

Disclosure: As with most of my books, I purchased this book with my own money and I have no financial (or other) obligations to anyone for writing about it. I just like this book and that’s why I am writing about it.

Posted in academia, research, research methods.

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How to Fix Your Academic Writing Trouble: A Practical Guide (my reading notes)

I had been wanting to transfer my Twitter reading notes about How to Fix Your Academic Writing Trouble: A Practical Guide but because of personal health issues I had not, so I am glad that I am now able to write, using January 1st, 2020 as the backdrop! I am having a coffee, and copying my Twitter notes about the Firth, Mewburn and Lehman book (to which I will refer by the unfortunate acronym FML, which also stands for F*ck My Life).

Reading writing working

Audience: faculty members, post-docs, advanced graduate students. I wouldn’t use this book with an undergraduate audience, nor with #AcWri (academic writing) beginners. The authors are very clear: we assume you already #AcWri. I would teach this book in an 8 week format, or maybe even a 1 week long workshop format.

We (everyone who writes about academic writing) tend to repeat some themes and topics all the time, but I strongly believe that Firth, Mewburn and Lehmann (FML) zeroed in on a couple of items we normally don’t discuss much:
– refining arguments
– presenting evidence

I like the conversational tone that FML maintain throughout the book (though, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t all thrilled about the use of spider diagrams and snowflake diagrams – I think these two tools merit an entire book. They’re useful, but need to be explained in detail.

I like the conversational tone that FML maintain throughout the book (though, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t all thrilled about the use of spider diagrams and snowflake diagrams – I think these two tools merit an entire book. They’re useful, but need to be explained in detail.

This means: you may want to get other 6 grad students and faculty, postdocs, etc. and follow along FML’s 7 chapters either in 7 weeks, or within an entire week (I would recommend one day per chapter, except beginning and end to fit within 5 days). Overall, a fine read.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book as a small token of appreciation for writing a blurb. This small gift does not affect in any way, shape or form my views of the book

Posted in academia.

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Human Right to Water and Bottled Water Consumption: Governing at the Intersection of Water Justice, Rights and Ethics (new chapter)

Bottled waterSomething I used to do and for some reason stopped doing was to write on my blog about my recent publications. I am hoping to re-start this practice with all my current and forthcoming publications. This recently published book chapter (though with a publication date of 2020), “Human Right to Water and Bottled Water Consumption: Governing at the Intersection of Water Justice, Rights and Ethics”, is included in the new version of the acclaimed edited volume that Dr. Farhana Sultana and Dr. Alex Loftus produced in 2012. The 2020 new volume on the human right to water charts new debates regarding the global commitment to end water scarcity and facilitate access to the vital liquid. The new book, Water Politics: Governance, Justice and the Right to Water. I wrote a thread describing my main findings and summarizing the chapter, which I reproduce below. This chapter is one of a series of outputs I am generating on my research on the politics of bottled water.

I’m a chemical engineer with a Masters of Business Administration, a Masters in economics of technical change, & a double PhD in human geography and political science. This is why I really try to look at public policy issues from a multidisciplinary perspective. I do believe my work speaks for itself in this regard. I am hoping folks teaching water politics and environmental public policy will find this chapter useful. The citation can be found below:

Pacheco-Vega, R. (2020). Human right to water and bottled water consumption: Governing at the intersection of water justice, rights, and ethics. In F. Sultana & A. J. Loftus (Eds.), Water Politics: Governance, Rights, and Justice (pp. 113–128). London: Routledge.

Posted in academia, bottled water, research.

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On “impostor syndrome” and “FOBMO” (Fear Of Being Missed Out) – the “Publish A LOT” strategy

Even though English is my first language (contrary to what many people may think because of my name and last names) and I was trained in English-language institutions (The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and University of Manchester, in Manchester, England), I have published A TON of Spanish-language journal articles and book chapters. Despite my interest in dialoguing with the global scholarly literature, I always felt that I would be at some point working in Mexico and that I needed to publish in Spanish in order to talk to my target audience.

My publications folder

OH, SO FOOLISH OF ME.

I thought I’d get A TON of citations by publishing in Spanish. I didn’t. I haven’t. Despite the massive volume of Spanish-language publications I have, I am not as cited in this language as I am in English.

BUT…

For a while there, I didn’t have (in my view) enough publications in this language to show the complexities, nuanced shades, importance and relevance of my work. I felt an enormous sense of FOBMO (Fear Of Being Missed Out). Perhaps it was insecurity, perhaps it was FOBMO, I can’t quite pinpoint how I felt. I tried to articulate my feelings on this Twitter thread.

Again, I used this Twitter thread to reflect on my publication strategy. I can’t say if it is good or bad, but I think that there is value in not letting your own insecurities be an obstacle to your intellectual development. Perhaps I could have used a different publication strategy, I don’t know. But I do know that I sometimes have felt FOBMO. Despite the fact that I have a pretty decent publication record.

google scholar rpv

I strongly believe that losing my FOBMO is partly because I now have a much larger, stronger and robust publication record that shows my intellectual development. Again, this entry is NOT a “this is a strategy I recommend” suggestion but more like a “I wouldn’t recommend this strategy” blog post.

Posted in academia.


On the importance of rest and recuperation (R&R) over the holidays

I won’t tell anyone what to do, but as I close out a terrible year, health-wise, I want to share a reflection regarding MY OWN EXPERIENCE with overwork. I think everyone can do whatever they prefer, I’m just using my experience to reflect on the profound inequalities and inequities of the higher education system and academia in general as it stands now (much as it has improved over the last few years).

Hotel San Trópico (Marina Vallarta, Puerto Vallarta, México)

Photo of me on holidays in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, a couple of Decembers ago

My reflective Twitter thread started like this:

I have A LOT of experience with overwork. I was brought up as an overachiever. My life as a child was pretty regimented and (because 2 of my grandparents were in the military), quasi-militarized. I do not regret my upbringing and I’m grateful to my parents that they did this. I grew up expecting to balance and juggle a full-time school load, piano lessons, swimming lessons, and volunteering teaching adults how to read and write in gang-riddled neighbourhoods. I switched piano for theatre and competitive dancing (note I didn’t just dance, I COMPETED).

I switched from swimming and basketball to volleyball. I THRIVED while playing volleyball, and trained 4 hours every single day. I reached juniors national-level competitive team-status and travelled the country and abroad to play tournaments. All of this, while balancing school.

To me, my friends and my social life were irreplaceable, so I balanced competitive volleyball, competitive dancing, volunteering, a full-time school load (chemical engineering, which isn’t an “easy’ undergraduate degree) with having a social life, friends and a close-knit family. I have plenty of experience with big workloads and the challenges of juggling activities trying to keep a semblance of balance. I had tough and rigorous professors, and I do not regret having faced these challenges at all whatsoever.

HOWEVER…

When I entered grad school, more specifically my PhD, I felt that trying to manage the workload was like drinking water through a straw that was coming from a firehose. I am 5’11 and often felt that my workload was like 7 feet tall.

I frequently felt like I was drowning. LITERALLY

Note, I DO have special skillS. I speed-read, I touch-type over 100 words per minute, and I have quasi-eidetic memory. To me, preparing for comprehensive exams was a total breeze, and when I defended my doctoral dissertation, I basically hit the ball out of the park.

Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega at CIGA-UNAM (Morelia)

Me giving a talk at UNAM in 2014. This is one of the things I love doing the most.

But even with those skills, I STRUGGLED. When I transitioned to being a professor, I reflected on the fact that even with my skills and extended experience being a systematic planner, I WAS STRUGGLING, I thought to myself: “what happens with everyone else who doesn’t have the privileges that I do? How much do THEY struggle?”

Being in a highly competitive environment drives up self-imposed excessive workloads. In graduate school I started getting tired regularly (despite playing competitive volleyball on a regular basis too), and this has followed me through my professor career.

THIS WAS NOT, AND IS NOT NORMAL.

I’m ok with being competitive, working hard, but I also like playing hard and more than anything, RESTING HARD. I regularly face this challenge of having a fulfilling academic career all the while trying to achieve some semblance of balance. I’ve written about this since 2013 (you can check my posts below).

2018 brought a really bad chronic pain episode, and 2019 started with a similar case. My first 2019 pain-free-day was February 15th, 2019. Over the second semester of 2019, I developed a terrible case of psoriasis/eczema/dermatitis combined with chronic fatigue/chronic pain. I am grateful that for the most part, I lived in Paris with relatively low-levels of pain, or pain-free (for the last few months of my visiting professorship at Sorbonne Nouvelle’s Institute D’Etudes D’Amerique Latine”). Because at least, I got extended periods of time to THINK.

I know for a fact from my experience this year that chronic pain, chronic fatigue and dermatitis all have impeded my scholarly performance. What I could accomplish with my full capacities, I did from February 15, 2019 to September 15, 2019 (which is when my dishydrotic eczema manifested itself alongside the chronic fatigue).

I understand that many of you may need SOME time to catch up with the accumulated workload you have. I had to do it too. FINE. I still suggest that you ought to take at least a few days off, in the way “off” is important to you (I can’t stop reading scholarly literature, so “time off” = “reading a nerdy book at a leisurely pace”). In closing:

As I was writing my thread I came across an important addendum: I am well aware of the fact that contingent faculty may be forced to overwork precisely because of the very nature of their labour precariousness. This is why academics’ wellness should be also higher education organizations’ responsibility. It’s a structural issue. We can’t let academic institutions off the hook without taking responsibility of the well-being of staff, faculty and students.

Posted in academia.

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On the importance of teaching robust work using qualitative methods in the social sciences

One of my biggest pet peeves is how we end up rehashing discussions all the time about the same topics. I feel forced to write Twitter threads and blog posts about the validity, rigor and importance of qualitative research on a regular basis, particularly because for some scholars, qualitative work appears to be considered “easy”. The relatively recent popularity of quantitative and experimental approaches in political science combined with an apparent belief that qualitative research is less relevant/rigorous/well done than quantitative work seem to be two factors that influence uptake and popularity of qualitative research methods in political science.

Mazapil - Concepcion del Oro - Salaverna - Fieldwork  June 8 2018

Photo from one of my trips doing ethnographic fieldwork in Zacatecas, Mexico, over the summer of 2018.

A recent article in PS: Politics titled Graduate Qualitative Methods Training in Political Science: A Disciplinary Crisis by Cassandra Emmons and Andrew Moravcsik reports that there appears to be a dearth of training in qualitative methods in the political science field at many universities. I really don’t have much time to discuss it in detail so both this post and my Twitter thread only discuss two aspects of the debate: the importance of teaching qualitative methods and of publishing good qualitative work.

I admit that I DO have a stake in the development of qualitative methods as a field.

My Twitter thread draws from my experience here in Mexico. While I do field research all over the world, I do have a lot of work that focuses on Mexico, and as a result, I need to read scholarship in the Spanish language. In my experience reading a lot of the Spanish-language stuff that is being published in Mexico (and A TON of what’s published in English worldwide), it seems to me as though people are teaching that “qualitative methods is everything that is not quantitative methods”.

WRONG.

The conversation on research methods and qualitative vs. quantitative is far from over, and I am hoping this blog post will contribute to the discussion too.

Posted in academia, qualitative methods, research, research methods.

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