Skip to content

Comparative Policy Studies (Engeli and Rothmayr Allison, Eds. 2014)

Comparative Policy AtudiesOne of my favorite journals is (quite obviously) the Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis (JCPA), founded by Dr. Iris Geva-May (whose 2005 edited volume “Thinking Like a Policy Analyst” I recently commented on). I am often in search of new books on comparative public policy, since that’s basically my own field of research. So I was quite pleased to come across the edited book “Comparative Policy Studies: Conceptual and Methodological Challenges“, edited by Dr. Isabelle Engeli (University of Bath) and Dr. Christine Rothmayr Allison (Université de Montreal). This is the kind of book I would have wanted to write or edit myself, so I am incredibly grateful to Professors Engeli and Rothmayr Allison that they did us all a favour and created this most excellent volume. For those of us who do comparative public policy, this is The Book. I think Dr. Engeli and Dr. Rothmayr Allison managed to assemble a volume with an excellent, broad list of topics and solid expert contributors.

Quite obviously, my only complaint is the book’s price (at $105 for softcover, it’s not affordable for students or early-career-scholars or non-tenure-track faculty who might not have access to library resources, or even for libraries in developing countries). Even the eBook version is expensive ($80). With the precipitous slide of the Mexican peso (more than 75% compared to 2012 prices), buying this book last year or even two years ago would still have been an expensive investment, but now it’s almost double the price in Mexican pesos.

Book price aside, the book’s contributor list is a Who Is Who In Public Policy Theory. The opening chapter by Engeli and Rothmayr Allison is excellent, gives an excellent preview of the entire volume and can be downloaded here). Two quotes from Engeli and Rothmayr Allison’s chapter (page 2) stood up for me:

“Comparative policy studies address processes of policy making, of problem emergence and definition, of policy formulation, of policy implementation and also evaluation.”

“Drawing on the seminal work of Heidenheimer et al. (1990), this volume places comparison at the heart of public policy research. Comparative analysis encourages moving beyond the particularities of each case and identifying patterns and regularity across cases, settings and time periods. Comparative designs force the researcher not to stop the analysis at particularistic explanations drawn from a single context, but to test whether the answers to research questions hold true for a larger number of cases and contexts.”

The reality is that despite the fact that we’re 25 years ahead of Heidenheimer’s essay, it is still hard to find The Right Book for Comparative Public Policy.. There are several worthy volumes out there. There is an entire journal devoted to comparative policy analysis, plenty of comparative studies published in Policy Studies Journal, Policy Sciences, Policy Studies, Journal of Public Policy, and many non-policy-specific journals but still, throughout the years, I felt that there wasn’t a comprehensive guide to where I could send my students (I used to teach The Comparative Politics of Public Policy at The University of British Columbia, and I intend to do so again in the very near future, but now at CIDE). I feel that my quest for a solid book on comparative public policy studies has been fruitful now.

I am fond of just about anything that Dr. Michael Howlett (Simon Fraser University/NUS) and Dr. Ben Cashore (Yale University), both good friends of mine, remind us of what the challenges are in defining public policy from a perspective that uses a comparative lens. I quote, from pages 27 and 28:

The results of such comparative efforts have been many and fruitful. These comparative studies of policy elements, processes, actors and dynamics have shown public policy to be a complex phenomenon consisting of numerous decisions made by many individuals and organizations inside government at different points in policy processes, influenced by others operating within, and outside of, the state and resulting, generally, in long periods of stability of outcomes or incremental changes, punctuated by infrequent bursts of paradigmatic change. The decisions policy-makers make have been shown to be shaped both by the structures within which these actors operate and the ideas they hold – forces that have also affected earlier policies in previous iterations of policy-making processes and have set policies onto specific trajectories, sometimes over long periods of time.

(Howlett and Cashore 2014, p. 26-27, emphasis in bold is mine).

In a way, reading this volume reminded me of the early years of my PhD, when the mainstream body of study was comparative politics. I am a comparativist. I took comprehensive exams with comparative politics as my primary field (although I also do some work in the international relations arena with my transnational environmental non-state actors research). I just applied comparative politics lenses to public policy theories.

We needed a volume that brought together all the questions about how to conduct comparative policy studies, and attempted to answer most of them. Engeli and Rothmayr Allison have done the profession a solid service by bringing all these scholars together to answer questions around case selection and inference in comparative policy studies (van der Heijden), case studies and causal process-tracing (Blatter and Haverland), quantitative methods in comparative policy studies (Breunig and Ahlquist), and one of my favorite authors, Dr. Dvora Yanow on interpretive analysis and comparative research. Amy G. Mazur and Season Hoard offer an excellent overview of how to apply a gender lens to comparative policy studies, while Sophie Biesenbender and Adrienne Héritier showcase the application of mixed-methods in comparative policy research. Biesenbender and Héritier are perhaps the only authors who address “empirical” questions in their chapter with a specific case study, but this in no way detracts from the volume nor their own chapter. I also have to confess a special admiration for Dr. Amy Mazur, whose work on gender, politics and public policy I have always found fascinating, so I was glad to find her in the list of contributors.

This book also solidified my belief (which I’ve made quite visible throughout the years) about how you cannot say that there aren’t enough solid female scholars who study public policy. This book is edited by two women, and many of the contributors are women. In fact, this volume confirms my hypothesis that one could potentially teach public policy solely using female authors’ works (my Fall 2016 Public Policy Analysis course has over 67% readings by women and under-represented minorities). It’s time we find new “canonical” readings.

Overall, I found “Comparative Policy Studies” an excellent, agile read, and a volume that should be acquired by libraries and individual researchers interested in the field of comparative public policy.

Posted in academia.

Tagged with , , .

Taking notes effectively

hand writingI can’t claim that I take excellent notes, but I like them, I use them, and I can at least say that, ever since I was in grade school, my classmates wanted to copy my notes. For me, they were, and continue to be, a source of pride. I always wanted to be the one having the best notes of my entire cohort. I took handwriting lessons, and I observed how other people wrote so that my own handwriting became neater and prettier. When I studied chemical engineering as an undergraduate, I drew distillation towers and reactors using different color pens, and solved all my partial differential equations using mechanical pencil, all the while underlining or boxing results with red ink. I love handwritten notes. Through the years, I’ve continued to feel proud about my notes, and my note-taking ability. Sometimes, it weirds me out when a few of my own students don’t take notes, to be perfectly honest.

There is a lot of discussion in the educational technology community about whether we should let students take noteson a laptop or whether they learn better writing by hand or not, about how challenging it would be for some students with learning and cognitive issues — and this IS an important issue to consider, particularly those for whom handwriting isn’t possible because of disability issues, etc. I am not going to engage with that discussion because I don’t study this field and I have absolutely no scientific answer for that – Mueller and Oppenheimer 2014 do provide some scientific evidence. I do believe my students sometimes need laptops, but a portion of the time it creates opportunities for distraction – but that’s not the point of this particular post.

I always assume that when my students don’t take notes it is because they are paying attention to the material I am delivering (I prefer to trust my students than to doubt them). I used to give out printed copies of my Power Point slides (which I don’t do anymore) so that my students could write on the margins (Power Point has a printing feature that shows the slide and provides space to the right, where you can jot thoughts and commentary.

Since I don’t actually do research on how to take notes, I started looking for material, and researching it, and found a lot of conflicting advice. I shared my concern and received a very relevant response by Dr. Pat Thomson, someone I respect a lot on the topic of academic writing (and learning, in general).

Some of the advice I read may be grounded on scholarly research, as Pat makes a good point, but other pointers in those websites seem to be simple heuristics turned into God-given advice. Though I have to admit I love The Conversation, which is an online magazine reporting on issues, but based on academic research. Claire Brown’s post on note-taking hit home with me. She teaches the Cornell method for note-taking (which I have tested but decided not to continue using), and it seems effective.

There are a few things I have noticed about my own notes that I think help me think better.

1. I always note the date. This helps me link what I taught or listened to to a specific date. I find that despite the neat organization system that my Everything Notebook provides me, I need to understand material in a sequential, time-wise manner.

2. I always use colours. This is obviously hard for people who are colour-blind, but I have noted that using different colours helps me retain better. In particular, I note the topic or main theme in red ink, and then I use markers (asterisks, bullet points, arrows) to denote specific, important points.

Handwritten notes

3. I *always* take notes of everything, wherever I am and whatever I am doing. This is also funny for a lot of people. I see people at academic seminars, in class, or during faculty meetings who don’t bring a notebook with them. I trust my memory, but I trust my notes even more.

Mind mapping - note-taking4. I use shorthand techniques to make my writing faster. When I was a child, I always thought of which tools and techniques I could “sell” (I wanted to be able to work and sustain myself even if my parents were no longer with me). So, I learned shorthand techniques (Gregg and Pitman), which were secretarial (administrative assistant) skills. I no longer write full sets of notes using Gregg shorthand, but I DO use some of their symbols. Also, I use abbreviations that make sense to me, like “w/” to mean “with”, “WRT” to mean “with respect to”, etc. I also use arrows, bubbles, boxes and stars to build mind maps (more on that topic in a future blog post). Something people ask me often is if I take notes of journal articles, books and book chapters that I read. Doing so would seem repetitious and a waste of time for some people. Generally speaking, I scribble on the margins when I highlight a paper, and then I write a memo on it (directly in my computer).

However, there are places where I read or take notes where I can’t use my laptop (e.g. when I’m waiting for my orthodontist to finish her appointment before mine). Thus, I do write notes about specific articles (see below for an example).

Taking notes from articles

The one thing I can surmise from all the reading I did for this post is – taking notes does require you to engage with the material and absorb it in a much more profound fashion (what my friend Dr. Daniel Goldberg indicated is metacognition), and thus there is a lot of value in note-taking.

Posted in academia.

Tagged with , , .

Contemporary Policy Analysis (Mintrom 2012)

MintromDespite the fact that I’ve been teaching public policy since 2006 (yes, a decade already!) I have always loved varying the content and outline of my courses. Primarily, I am interested in teaching my students employable skills, I aim to teach them how to write policy content that can be read by policy makers, and I work hard at innovating with the content of my courses. That’s one of the reasons why I almost never, or practically never, teach with a textbook. I have tried many, I have tested many, and I’m always torn because none actually does exactly what I want them to do. There are many excellent textbooks for specific courses that I no longer teach. For example, Michael Howlett and M. Ramesh’s extraordinary book (whose 2009 edition includes Anthony Perl as another author) on studying public policy is excellent for the actual public policy cycle literature. But this semester, I am teaching policy analysis, and while I love many of the traditional textbooks, including Weimer and Vining’s classic, I wanted something MUCH more applied, and with a focus on actual skill-building.

I have to admit that I did not expect Michael Mintrom’s Contemporary Policy Analysis to be as good as it is. I figured that it would be hard to beat Weimer and Vining, despite the extreme focus on cost-benefit analysis that these authors have put into their book. Well, I have to say that Mintrom has not only assuaged my concerns, but has surpassed my expectations. Contemporary Policy Analysis, published by Oxford University Press, is an extremely readable, agile, accessible and useful book for policy analysis students who want to be actual policy analysts.

Divided in 17 fast, easy-to-read chapters, Mintrom’s Contemporary Policy Analysis presents not only a model for how to do policy analysis (yes, in many ways, better than Bardach’s 8 Steps). There are many things I love about Mintrom’s Contemporary Policy Analysis book. It’s a book for students, a definite textbook, but it can also be used by practitioners, or to teach in a continuing education class. Moreover, Mintrom perfectly executes a story-telling approach to writing about policy analysis. At the beginning of each chapter, Mintrom recapitulates on what has been covered and the chapter’s objectives. He then covers the material in an agile, fast, easy-to-read manner. He finishes with some review questions, exercises and proposals for in-class work or homework.

The first 7 chapters are focused on what policy analysts and governments do. Then from chapter 9 to 16, Mintrom covers different analytical strategies (chapter 8 covers which topics and analytical strategies will be used throughout the course of the book). And chapter 17 looks at the professionalization of policy analysis. You can read a chapter-by-chapter listing of book contents here. Overall, I don’t regret having taken the step of assigning a textbook for the very first time in my career. While I am supplementing with journal articles, having a textbook allows me to follow a specific thread in a workshop-manner. So, for this semester, I have chosen to teach my students how to do policy analysis by using Mintrom, while I use journal articles to teach them the theory behind each approach to policy analysis. Mintrom is the main textbook for my policy analysis workshop, and it provides a lens through which my students learn the techniques and tools of the trade.

Overall, Mintrom’s Contemporary Policy Analysis is a book I will be recommending to other scholars of public policy analysis. Very easy to read, to implement, and to apply in practice.

Posted in academia, policy analysis, teaching.

Tagged with , .

On having ethnographic sensibility

One of the most interesting elements of ethnography as a research method is that for many scholars, it’s a technique and a way of living. Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom (Virginia Commonwealth University), a sociologist whom I consider a friend and whom I trust a lot, told me on Twitter something that makes complete sense: being able to feel physical pain when doing fieldwork in communities where very vulnerable populations reside DOES make a difference in the work.

I do really love undertaking applied research. I care deeply for the communities in which I am embedded. I study people who lack access to toilets and examine public policy strategies to enhance access to them. I analyze the interactions between informal waste recyclers and their city governments, and have undertaken fieldwork in 13 cities in 8 countries observing their behavioural patterns. I have explored questions of water accessibility where bottled water was what sustained very poor and vulnerable individuals in marginalized communities. I use multiple methods, but have made ethnography my bread-and-butter for the past decade or so. That said, I am NOT a trained anthropologist, so I can’t claim to know more about ethnography than do those for whom ethnography IS who they are and what they do. Dr. Carole McGranahan, for example, IS an ethnographer. Her work on self-immolations in Tibet is extraordinary, and I am sure engaging in fieldwork is also painful to her.

For me, the value of doing ethnography lies well beyond the actual methodological, analytical and theoretical insights. Being an ethnographer situates me within contexts where my work can actually make a difference and affect policy change. I am sensitive, as a human being. I’m very empathetic (and empathic, some would say). Thus, my ethnographic sensibility is a feature of my personality. In a way, I feel like was born FOR ethnography as my main method of research. I have always felt like I’m a born ethnographer. I have been lucky and able to gain access and earn the trust of individuals in very marginalised communities, and have learned a lot from them.

However, as Dr. Carole McGranahan (University of Colorado, Boulder) has written, you *can* teach ethnographic sensibility, even without fieldwork (read her excellent article What is Ethnography? Teaching Ethnographic Sensibilities without Fieldwork). People like me, like my coauthor and friend Dr. Kate Parizeau (who has done ethnographic work with informal waste pickers in Buenos Aires, Argentina), like Dr. Joseph Henderson (who did a “three-year institutional ethnography of an elite private school in the northeastern United States”), like Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom who has used ethnography as pedagogical process and product) have shown in our work that ethnographic sensibility is part and parcel of engaging with the communities we study.

I loved how Hayley Henderson put it in her article in the Australian Planner, and I quote:

Adopting an ethnographic sensibility in urban research offers a platform to better understand actors’ reasoning and actions based on what they say and do, as well as in relation to the cultural, historical and other social con- ditions in which they operate. The term sensibility implies flexibility around the type of immersion in research and a broad view of ethnography that goes beyond on-site data collection processes and pays particular attention to the perspectives of the people being studied (Shatz 2009). It creates opportunities to under- stand values and meanings in urban planning based on what is said and done. In terms of analysis and interpretation of data, an ethnographic sensibility is attuned to the social relations and interactions between people that produce meaning in everyday practices.

(Henderson, Hayley. 2016. “Toward an Ethnographic Sensibility in Urban Research.” Australian Planner 53(1): 28–36. Quote from page 30)

Waste pickers

Paying particular attention to your subjects is precisely part and parcel of the process of developing ethnographic sensibilities. To me, the only way to do this is precisely to engage in fieldwork (particularly participant observation). I very much share Van Maanen’s view that fieldwork and ethnography go hand in hand, and while I agree that it is possible to teach ethnographic sensibility even without fieldwork as posited by Dr. Carole McGranahan, the work becomes much richer once one as a researcher is right in the midst of the field, in the thick of things.

Ethnographic sensibility also means being able to be reflexive. To go in and out of the field and subject of study and maintain an ability to question what we learned from being immersed in the field and how our fieldwork relates to the lived experiences of our subjects and our own. As Whittemore (2005, p. 25) says, “It is this capacity to move from the strange to the familiar and back again, as well as to count on your own adaptability derived from that capacity, that lies at the core of the sensibility we aspire to share with our students.” (Whittemore, Robert D. 2005. “Fieldnotes, Student Writing and Ethnographic Sensibility.” Anthropology News 46(3): 25–26).

Reflexivity (which I see as part-and-parcel of ethnographic sensibility) also means maintaining an ethical stance about your research subjects, and engaging in critical self-reflection. As Dr. Farhana Sultana (Syracuse University) indicates in her 2007 paper, “[r]eflexivity in research involves reflection on self, process, and representation, and critically examining power relations and politics in the research process, and researcher accountability in data collection and interpretation“. (Sultana 2007, p. 376 – full citation – Sultana, Farhana. 2007. “Reflexivity, Positionality and Participatory Ethics: Negotiating Fieldwork Dilemmas in International Research.” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographers 6(3): 374–85). We can’t just simply parachute into a field, a community (particularly a vulnerable one) and pretend that we have engaged in reflexive, reflective, critical ethnography. As a result, we might actually have not developed an ethnographic sensibility.

This topic fascinates me as I continue to engage with more methodological work (I just submitted a coauthored piece on research methods, and I have another one in the works). And I look forward to hearing comments about what I see as ethnographic sensibility, particularly those readers of my blog who are engaged in actual ethnographic work.

Posted in academia, research methods.

Tagged with , , , .

Editing a research paper

Paper editingI was asked to write about tips for editing a research paper, since my Academic Writing and Literature Review posts seem to be quite popular. I have to confess that I don’t have any particularly insightful piece of advice to give, because here is the kicker: I HATE EDITING MY OWN PAPERS.

I do it, quite obviously, and when I do it, I do it by hand and on paper. But the truth is, I don’t think I’m particularly good at editing my own work. I hate cutting sentences and cleaning text. I love my writing and it’s painful to see it go. It sometimes takes me a long while because I procrastinate about doing small and minor changes. It’s WAY easier for me to generate new text than to edit my own. I much rather pin needles on my skin than to have to edit a paper. But given the task, here’s what I usually do. At the end of the post I have included a few links related to advice on how to edit a paper.

My academic writing #AcWri process

In short, my process looks something like this:

1. I read the paper (or whatever I have as a draft) once at the beginning of the editing session. This post on 8 sequential steps to write a research paper may help you with the initial drafting.
2. I plan my edits (with the help of a Drafts Review Matrix)
3. I break down the tasks that I need to undertake by day, and
4. Once I start editing, I edit by hand. Yes, with pen and paper and sticky notes.
5. I use the Drafts Review Matrix and my Weekly and Daily Plan (yes, the one that is in my Everything Notebook) to work on whichever piece of editing I need to do on a particular day.
6. Once I’ve finished a round of editing I either send it back to my coauthor, or I send it out for someone else to read and review it.

I am a combination of an analog and digital scholar, so I usually print my draft paper in whichever form I have it and scribble notes on the margins. I usually mark wherever I’m supposed to be doing a major edit with a pointy-arrow Post It note. That way I can visually see where I should be taking steps to undertake major work.

I write a list of those pieces of major work (e.g. re-do a map, re-do a data analysis, check my coding, re-read a particular article that may counter my argument). I dump that list into my Drafts Review Matrix, but I also schedule time for each piece of work. I try to break down the major revisions into smaller components (e.g. “clean up the Mendeley database references pertaining to bottled water” or “insert correct map” or “revise map in QGIS and insert different layer”). It’s easier to edit when you know you only have to finish ONE piece of work at a time.

Once my Drafts Review Matrix is completely checked out (e.g. I have finalized all required edits by the reviewer or the editor or myself as an author), I print out a new version and read it again. If it makes enough sense, then I send it back to my coauthor or to someone I trust for a solid read. Then I submit the revisions.

I know for a fact that my process is time-consuming, but it is also what helps me do better work. I do take time to reflect on each edit I am doing. I’m a proponent of the Slow Scholarship movement and therefore I try to make sure my edits are well thought out. Otherwise, I think my work will suffer.

My research process (highlighting - making notes)

Here are a few links on editing a research (academic) paper that might be of interest:

Posted in academia, writing.

Tagged with , .

Simplifying paper writing with Mendeley’s Cite-o-Matic and MS Word

Ever since I was a PhD student, I tried as much as I could to make it easy for me to write my doctoral dissertation. But since I am so analog in the way I work (I take notes by hand, I edit by hand, and I highlight and scribble on the margins of printed book chapters and journal articles), I also spend much more time than people who are purely digital. This said, I have always used reference managers and have tested a few (EndNote, Mendeley, Zotero, RefWorks) during the course of my PhD and as a professor. My good friend and co-author Dr. Oriol Mirosa (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) recommended Sente, which I saw in action and is way more powerful than any other reference manager I’ve ever seen. And at some point I plan to make sure to write a comparison of different reference managers. But I digress…

#AcWri on a plane

I am the first one to recognize that I don’t use Mendeley’s feature to its fullest extent (and I am also aware of the ethical implications of the fact that it’s now a paid service for many features, and that it was bought by Elsevier, etc.) Since I started using Mendeley 5 years ago, I am pretty comfortable using it as is and I don’t foresee I’ll be changing my reference manager any time soon. One of the things I’m trying to teach my students how to do is to write their papers with proper referencing and citation (we’ve had some highly visible cases of plagiarism in academic work in Mexico recently, so I want to teach my students better study and writing techniques). As a result, I’m combining my post on how to write effective memos with this one and the post I wrote on how to write a research paper in 8 simple steps during a workshop I’ll be giving next week.

I simplify how I write memoranda and my own research papers by integrating Mendeley’s Cite-o-Matic (the Mendeley version of EndNote’s Cite-As-You-Write) plugin. Microsoft Word and Mendeley connect through a plugin that allows you to insert a citation as you are writing. I always keep both Mendeley and Word open when I write memoranda or papers because that way I can cite as I write. I also open Excel because often times, I already have an Excel dump of all the quotations I need (see my post on how to manage literature reviews with an Excel dump). If you want to learn how to use Mendeley’s Cite-o-Matic’s feature you can do so by reading this website.

inserting cite as you write

Because I often copy and paste large blocks of text quotations in my memoranda, I need to ensure that I avoid plagiarism and properly attribute them. To do so, I insert the block of text and immediately after, I insert the citation and edit the field with the proper page. Since this is a manually edited citation, you need to approve Mendeley’s manual edit every time you do this. But this process ensures that everything you write is properly attributed and cited.

Hopefully using an in-line citation process will work for you the same way it works for me, and what I’m also hoping is that my students will use this technique for their own papers!

Posted in academia.

Tagged with , , , .

Why did I switch to starting work at 4am and how did I do it?

Many, many people have asked me why I start working at 4am, and how the hell did I change from being a night owl to being a morning person. I had been thinking about writing about this topic for a very long time, and then this Wall Street Journal article started making the rounds (”Why 4 a.m. Is the Most Productive Hour“). Before anybody gets freaked out about me promoting overwork and longer hours (I don’t), let me explain that I wake up at 4am, and go to bed at the very latest by 10pm. I also have a 1 – 1.5 hour nap every day. This is completely in agreement with the fact that I have been actively advocating AGAINST overwork in academia.

AcWri at home office (Leon and Aguascalientes)

If you knew me while I was doing my undergraduate degree (I have a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering), you probably knew that I was a night owl. My late grandpa (another late-night person) would stay up with me until I finished my homework (usually between 1 and 3am, but sometimes as late as 4am). Often times, he would get tired and want to go to sleep before me, but he stayed and I really valued our time together during those long nights. As I was completing my degree, I had to wake up around 7 (a short 3-5 hours after finishing homework) to go to work which meant that I was usually exhausted by the time I had finished school. Since I played highly competitive volleyball at the national level for a very long time, even after I started working, I was lucky that my down time coincided with training and thus I got an additional high from the exercise. Then after I went to dance school. So, by the time I hit 7pm, I was ready to sleep. But I had homework to do. I got a 2 hour nap and then I started working on homework again.

I am not as young as I was then, so I couldn’t really maintain this schedule now even if I wanted to. Also, this was during my undergraduate and first few years of work. I was hoping that working would switch me to being a morning person (it didn’t). Even during my PhD I still remained a late night person, and this was compounded because just about everyone I dated was a night owl. Every close friend of mine was (with the exception of three of them) a night owl. Until I started seeing someone who woke up at 5am. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

And that was the end of it.

Not the end of the relationship, mind you. Much to the contrary, what this meant was the end of my time as a night owl. As I completed my PhD, submitted my final doctoral dissertation, filed it in the library and started working full time, I started weaning off of the late nights. I started switching to an early morning (which for someone like me, meant waking up at 7am, like most people do).

But then I realized I had way too much work to do to wake up at 7am. I would need to stay up late to finish my work if I wanted to come to the office to a clean desk. About 5 years ago, when I was already going up to 6am (slowly) I read Peter Shankman’s post (in a desperate Google search to justify whether it was worth for me to make the sacrifice of waking up earlier and earlier). His post, and the experience of my former professor Tony Dorcey (who woke up at 3am every day, and worked until 4pm, but then went to bed at 8pm) convinced me to go up to 4:45am. But then my body apparently decided that 4am was just fine, and since my gym opens at 6am, and I try to write 2 hours a day every day, 4-6 #AcWri (academic writing) and 6-7am exercise seemed to make sense.

OBVIOUSLY I get tired earlier. OBVIOUSLY I need a nap (I have what is called a 6+1.5 sleep cycle, where I sleep 6 hours but I then get a 1.5 hour nap). OBVIOUSLY this has a negative impact on my social activities. I don’t take well to those rare times when my friends keep me up after 10pm (you know who you are if you’re reading and you know why you shouldn’t). I simply have learned to explain to my friends, colleagues, students, and coauthors that I don’t stay up after 10pm, and to NEVER call me at that time (my brothers do this on rare occasions, with the subsequent angry “you woke me up“). But generally speaking, people tend to be very, very attentive and appreciative of my time.

There’s plenty of articles on why people wake up at 4m, and why it is the most productive. I Googled the idea and got a sample here and here. Like everything, you need to negotiate with other people when you’re living in a context of 8am to 5pm (or like in Mexico, where 9-2 and 5-8 are acceptable).

If you have a 4 am start, you really need to negotiate with people and teach them to respect your wake up time. For example, I push for faculty meetings to be closer to 1pm. First, it forces them (my colleagues) to be VERY efficient with time (many of them eat at 1:30pm) and not keep meetings too long. Second, I get my work done (4am-6am, then 8am-1pm) before my body shuts down for the day (usually at 2:30pm). And third, it allows me to be more receptive to ideas (if a meeting is in the early morning, I resent it and thus I’m cranky when attending). Because that’s also when I am at my most productive writing and data-analyzing, those meetings completely disrupt my productivity.

You can’t do the 4am wake-up time cold turkey, as my good friend and colleague Dr. Allyson Benton indicated – doing it cold turkey is pretty horrible (she and her husband, who is also a professor, do this too). Allyson and I agree that you need to do this gradually. Here’s a post by someone who did the 4:30am rise for 21 days (the number of days that apparently the scientific research says will be enough to create a habit for you). I can’t say that waking up at 4:30am was something I did in 21 days, but I assume it can be done. It took me MUCH longer.

Here is how I went up to a 4 am wake-up time: I started first with a very decent 6:30am rise. I spent the first few weeks (2-3) doing 6:30, then I went up to 5:45am (I didn’t reduce 15 minutes per week, as some suggested – my body doesn’t work that way). This was good for about 2 months. Then I read the Shankman post and tried to reduce to 4:45am. This didn’t go well, and I started regressing to 6am by waking up, feeling groggy and then “sleeping in” until 6am. After a few weeks, I was able to go down to 4:45am, which I then tried for a couple of weeks. Then my body automagically decided to wake up at 4am, and I haven’t stopped since.

Obviously, as those who wrote the posts that I linked, there are a few rules to this 4am thing (and it only works for some people – for example, if you are a Mom who just had a baby, or your toddler wakes up at 5am, or you need more sleep – there are PLENTY of people for whom 4am will NOT work and there is no need to make it work for them):

  • Listen to your body and rest when it asks you to.
  • Verbalize that your waking time is different to your colleagues and ask people to respect it.
  • Eat well, exercise regularly, and sleep exactly the number of hours your body needs, which often may mean, go to bed MUCH earlier
  • Accept that this is a process, and that for you 5:30am may be the earliest you can wake up and be functional, period.

I also have a few hacks for myself to make sure I can do this 4 am wake up and write thing:

1. I leave my work stuff ready the night before (music play list included).

2. I also make sure to have my To-Do list for the day ready the night before. This comes from my weekly planner whiteboard and my Everything Notebook, as you may already have guessed.


3. I sleep as much as my body needs. That means, 1.5 hour naps just about every day, sleeping with ear plugs, going to bed early, and sleeping in on weekends.

As I have said, 4am isn’t for everyone, but if you want to try it, this is how I did it.

Posted in academia, productivity.

Starting up and maintaining an Everything Notebook

It’s been an excellent few months for me, because I have been able to share more of my “tricks and tools of the trade” with people who read my blog, and readers seem to like how my workflow processes help them with their own. As always, I don’t provide “advice”. I simply share my experiences in hopes they will help other academics who are at similar stages of my life, or my own students (or other professors’ students!).

One idea that came to me recently is that, while folks seem excited with the concept of the Everything Notebook (to keep track of their To-Do lists, research notes, ideas, etc.) I don’t think I wrote what I believe are the key elements of how the Everything Notebook works from the start up. In my view, the two things that make my Everything Notebook work for me are the durable plastic tabs and the use of colour (in my case, Sharpie 0.4mm fine markers, and multiple colour highlighters). The third element is the flexibility and ease of adjustment of an Everything Notebook. I can move stuff around very easily, as shown below.

The key to the Everything Notebook’s simplicity is that you don’t need to create an Index (as opposed to the Bullet Journal). Because the Everything Notebook has descriptive titles in each of the rigid plastic tabs that are attached to each section, you don’t need to have a detailed index. While I do try to save some pages for Research, a few for Students, space for To Do lists, and a few pages for Administrative Tasks, I don’t fret if one thing runs over another, or if I end up having to move the plastic tabs from one page to another. The beauty of using plastic durable tabs is that they’re mobile. You don’t depend on specific dividers and therefore, you can vary how many pages you use for each section.

Another important element is flexibility of notes’ location. Because I label each page or set of pages with a cue to the specific content that is in that page, I don’t necessarily need to write all my To Do lists in a specific location. All I do, particularly if I run out of space, is tag the page with the proper cue so that I can know what exactly is filed where.

As shown above, I bring my Everything Notebook everywhere. Even if I’m working online (writing notes, or editing papers), I keep an analog medium to jot down ideas and/or To-Do items. My Everything Notebook is always synchronized with my Project Whiteboard and Google Calendar. I’m also glad other people have taken up the concept!

The important thing for me is that the Everything Notebook gives me the flexibility of not having to be strict about content, or location of said content. I can have a To Do list, followed by a few notes from a scholarly seminar, followed by ideas about a research project, followed by notes from my lectures or scribbles related to a new research paper. Because I use the plastic tabs to organize the notebook, I always know exactly what is located where.

And more importantly, I use the Everything Notebook everyday. I carry it everywhere. My students, colleagues, other academics, participants in meetings, people whom I’ve interviewed during fieldwork, everyone has seen the Everything Notebook, and so far everybody has understood what I use it for.

Caveats to using an Everything Notebook

There are obviously a couple of caveats, though. The first one is obvious, some people are colour-blind and therefore using colour will not help them. The advantage of using plastic tabs (and you can even use traditional adhesive mini-notes) is that you don’t depend on a colour-code. You can simply turn your Everything Notebook around and read what the tab says.

The second caveat is obviously that you need to carry the Everything Notebook around. I do, and it’s the first thing that I usually bring with me. Except when I don’t, and then my life is completely screwed up. That’s why it’s important to have the meetings synchronized with Google Calendar (because my iCal is synchronized to my Google Calendar, so I may forget what I’m meant to be doing, but I don’t miss where I am supposed to be or which meeting I should be attending).

The third caveat is that you may run out of space. If so, and it’s happened to me before, you can start a new Everything Notebook. Just keep the previous one handy in case you need to confer. I have my two most recent Everything Notebooks at my office at the ready just in case I need to confer about specific datasets, ideas, fieldwork, etc.

The Everything Notebook in action, beyond writing and To-Do list planning.

When discussing how to operate the Everything Notebook, Dr. Veronica Kitchen from University of Waterloo asked me what would we do if there are some notes you took by hand in your Everything Notebook and you don’t remember where you left them.

As I noted below, when the article or book chapter, or book, or report is worth writing a memo about (or memo-ing), then I insert a larger tab where I write the citation.

When people ask me “how do you find stuff in your Everything Notebook”, I show them how I use plastic tabs (they’re pretty sturdy and rigid) to mark the content. I use very descriptive titles so that I can find quickly. Also, I use the tabs on the right hand side, on the top and on the bottom.

From the example below: “Lucero Radonic” means notes from my Skype meetings with Dr. Lucero Radonic from Michigan State University, a water anthropologist who shares interest in water governance in Mexico with me. “Seminar with Debora” refers to a seminar I attended that Dr. Debora VanNijnatten (a good friend and colleague from Wilfrid Laurier University) gave at CIDE earlier this year. “LASA 2016” are my notes from the panel where I presented at LASA in late May of this year. “Goals June 2016” should be obvious, those are my writing and mentoring and teaching goals for June.

It is also clear that sometimes you scribble things in notepads, or Post-It notes. You don’t want to lose those notes, and you wonder how to integrate them to the Everything Notebook. What I do is: I staple them. That way, I know for a fact that I won’t be losing the notes I already had written for a project, or a To-Do list that I ended up drafting on a plane or in a line to enter a building.

I am just happy to see that people find my methods useful. Hopefully this post will help those who may need an organization system that doesn’t have to be perfect (because I am FAR from perfect myself!)

Posted in academia.

Tagged with , .

Tales of the Field. On Writing Ethnography (Van Maanen, 2011)

Tales of The Field (Van Maanen 2011)Even though I strongly recommend NOT to do any work during your holidays, I had the pleasure of spending my holidays taking care of my 8 and 5 year old nephews, and during the time during which they allowed me to work, I basically caught up on my reading. One of the books I really enjoyed and spent a few days reading was one of the classics of ethnography: Van Maanen, John. 2011. Tales of the Field. On Writing Ethnography. 2nd. ed. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. As someone who primarily does qualitative work (particularly ethnography) I am always keen to read books that are specific on research methods. This semester I am not teaching Research Methods, but I have been developing a strong syllabus specific for public policy.

Van Maanen is an anthropologist, and he makes no apologies for the clobbering he gives sociologists who use ethnographic methods. He is a purist and believes that ethnography is truly a concept, a method and a way of living and researching that is by nature and in its own right, anthropological. Van Maanen does an excellent job of offering insight into the daily practice of ethnography. He also offers a historical overview of ethnography and fieldwork, both as method and as practice. From an epistemological viewpoint, for Van Maanen ethnography IS fieldwork and fieldwork IS ethnography. I offer two quotes:

The trick of ethnography is to adequately display the culture (or, more commonly, parts of the culture) in a way that is meaningful to readers without great distortion” (Van Maanen 2011, p.13)

In anthropology, fieldwork alone sets the discipline off from other social sciences. A lengthy stay in an exotic culture (exotic, that is, to the fieldworker) is the central rite of passage serving to initiate and anoint a newcomer to the discipline” (Van Maanen 2011, p. 14)

In pages 17-23, Van Maanen compares how sociologists and anthropologists use ethnography (these pages reminded me of a conversation my coauthor Kate Parizeau and I had over email with Carole McGranahan – ethnography IS what anthropologists do). Van Maanen historicizes the evolution of ethnography as a method and as a field itself, with an overview of the Chicago sociology School. Van Maanen differentiates how sociologists look at ethnography (somewhat as the less relevant method, whereas to anthropologists, ethnography IS the method by excellence) – I liked that Van Maanen centers on W.E.B. Dubois as an early fieldworker and key to the field itself.

The book is organized as follows: Van Maanen reviews his 3 types of Tales (Realist Tales, Confessional Tales, Impressionist Tales). He then closes with a chapter on Fieldwork, Culture and Ethnography revisited, analyzing other types of tales (with brief, not extensive notes). Each chapter revisits the conventions that mark each tale. Then he uses a chapter section to describe how to produce each type of tale, often with examples from his own ethnographic writing. Then he writes about each type of tale in perspective — how each fieldworker and author operates within each Tale, etc.

The Epilogue serves to bring the book together, and offers perspective on the evolution of ethnography, fieldwork, writing and reading conventions. I liked that Van Maanen takes a self-critiquing position where he says that even though he is writing a main text on ethnography, he doesn’t have all the answers. Nobody whose ethnography textbook I’ve read really does have this kind of humble approach (albeit towards the end!).

I strongly recommend the Van Maanen for anybody who does ethnography, and it is a reference text, so I would strongly encourage students and researchers to buy a copy for themselves and keep it handy.

This blog post is a shorter version of my memorandum on Van Maanen, not a formal book review. I am sharing it in hopes it will be of use to those who study ethnography and qualitative methods.

Posted in academia, research methods.

Tagged with , .

Synchronizing my digital and analog weekly and daily planner

Some people who see how my daily workflow happens in real life seem to be taken aback by the fact that I synchronize my digital and analog daily and weekly plans. To them, it would appear as though I take longer to plan my life than to actually execute it. This isn’t the case. It’s quite simple because everything that goes on my weekly plan (which I write on one of my campus office whiteboards) is synchronized with my digital and analog calendars.

My weekly plan (on the whiteboard) is synchronized with my Everything Notebook.

Synchronizing weekly plans

To-Do Lists in my Everything NotebookAs you can see, everything that was planned on my Weekly Plan (on the whiteboard) is also transferred to my Everything Notebook. I need the analog version so that I can check off stuff that I am working on, and so that I can have a daily reminder of what I am doing when. For example, it is crucial to me to wake up and see what exactly I’m supposed to be doing on which day. So I open my Everything Notebook on the week where I’m supposed to be working, and I see what tasks I have due and by when. When I arrive to campus, I know for a fact that I can check off both on the whiteboard and on the Everything Notebook what I’ve already accomplished. By Friday, I erase those things I completed from the whiteboard. But everything is also digitally synchronized. I use Google Calendar for everything. I block weekly class-meeting schedules, office hours, and time to write.

Since I am sometimes absent-minded, I require having a Google Calendar alert that reminds me of where I should be when I should be. On Fridays, after everything is said and done, I clear my weekly plan and leave on whatever I didn’t accomplish, and then refill with new tasks.

Synchronizing weekly plans

Because I know that “things happen”, sometimes I need to migrate tasks from one day to another (which is why the green arrows point a task to a different day).

Synchronization of my weekly plan to google calendar

The tasks that have specific dates and times (like my teaching, and meetings) are blocked into my Google Calendar directly.

Schedule Week 2 August 2016

And at the end of the day, everything is synchronized. This process takes literally 30 seconds to run, and 5-15 minutes to set up. Hopefully my method will be useful to other folks!

Posted in academia, productivity.

Tagged with , , , , .