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Carving time to read: The AIC and Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump combination method

This semester has been a bit more hectic than I expected, and keeping everything under control hasn’t been an easy task. But despite whatever challenges I face, I am determined to stay on top of the literature. I’ve written before about having a repertoire of reading strategies (quick skim to determine what a paper is about and whether it’s an important one or not, mid-range for when we’re doing literature reviews, annotated bibliographies or in-depth for when we’re preparing for comprehensives or writing a paper).

Reading

I do carve time to read every single day, because otherwise I’m not able to be on top of the literature (which I need to be). Last night, I live-tweeted my reading of a paper and that process made me consider writing a blog post on my strategy for when I’m pressed for time, which you can see in my tweets (click on the hyperlink on the time stamp of my first tweet to reveal the entire thread, or on this link).

I received this paper via Twitter from the WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing) Twitter account. This group frequently publishes research in a field I work in: informal waste pickers. I know Sally Roever in person, I’ve read and love her work and we’ve met as well (we met and went for a coffee and a walk this year at ISA 2017 in Baltimore and we had a wonderful time).

When I know an author in person, and I know their work is relevant to my own research, I usually try to read whatever research they just published as soon as possible. So that’s what I did last night. In total, I spent 30 minutes because I paired my AIC Content Extraction Method with my Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump. I knew I was pressed for time (I go to bed at around 9:30pm every day so I can wake up at 4:00am and write), so I figured I couldn’t spend more than 1 hour in this paper. This is the process I followed:

My rule is to never leave anything “unprocessed” (see my protocol for the process that I use to go from downloading an article or a book chapter’s PDF to writing a full memorandum here).

My goal for this paper, despite the fact that it’s really important to my work, was to simply read the Abstract, Introduction and Conclusion (AIC), highlight and scribble and find the main ideas, write an entry (a row) in my Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump for informal waste picking, and file in my “To Process” tray. This way, once I get everything that I need to finish this week out of the way, I’ll get back to reading this article in detail.

To do an AIC, I usually read the Abstract first, then the Introduction, then the Conclusion. Because I knew that I didn’t have the time to write a full memorandum, to read the paper in detail, and even to write a synthetic note, I decided to write an entry in my informal waste pickers’ Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump. This is the very least I can do, and this allows me to know which articles are important to read and get back to.

Even though I was reading, I also took the time to post my process on Twitter, and answer questions as I went along.

As I read the paper, I uploaded it on to Mendeley, cleaned up the reference, and typed the content of my scribbles on to a Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump row, as you can see below.

It’s important to note that all I did was read Abstract, Introduction, Conclusion, scribble notes on the margin that help me understand and process the information in this paper, and highlight relevant passages in those three sections of the paper (which give me a good overview of the entire journal article), and then type these notes into a row in my Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump. Because I know I’m going to have to come back to this paper, I don’t simply file it, but I locate it in my “Processing” tray (see my Four Trays Method for Filing and Organizing).

Once I’m done with a paper, I usually file it using a magazine holder (as I’ve outlined in this blog post).

For me, using this method ensures that

  • (a) I stay on top of whatever newest research is being published
  • (b) I carve time every day to read
  • (c) I have notes for the paper and
  • (d) I will come back to read this paper in more depth.

Overall, this entire process took me 30 minutes. I could notice the gaps in learning once I finished the AIC process: I could tell that I hadn’t read about the 4 cities, neither the introduction nor the conclusion had details about the case studies and specific insights but were more general. So I know for a fact I need to come back to this paper, but I’ll do that when I know I have more time, or when I have to write something on informal waste pickers. But at least I already have read some basic information off the paper, and I have an Excel dump entry to check and review.

Obviously, there are papers that are harder to read, therefore taking much more time. Walsh 2015 on mineral springs and primitive accumulation in Mexico, and Kaplan 2011 on drinking water fountains and water coolers both took me an entire week at about 20 minutes a day to finish reading them. These articles were DENSE and full with information. I had to take a few days to process them. But I read a little bit of each one every single day.

Hopefully this process will help my readers keep up with the literature! I know how hard it is with heavy teaching loads to stay on top of the literature (I am well aware that my previous 2-1-2 was not the worst – there are scholars who have 4-4 or even 5-5).

Posted in academia, reading strategies.

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A different metric of #AcWri success: Completing sentences and paragraphs

When I read what other writers who write about academic writing, I’m often left with the feeling that there is no room for manoeuvering in their advice. “Write 1,000 words a day, no matter what“. “Write for two hours every day” (and yes, I’m well aware that I am well known for advocating this approach – with the proviso that I do recommend that people do whatever suits them best, as long as they are able to create their own academic writing practice). I have been pondering for a while advocating for the value of a different metric of success in #AcWri – success in completing sentences and paragraphs.

Let me share an example: I was working recently on a paper on evidence-based policy making, science-policy interfaces and coproduction of science and policy. These aren’t fields I usually work on, this was a commissioned paper. As a result, it’s been quite painful to finish the damn manuscript. A few days ago, I decided that it was good time to finish writing this piece, because I have to move on to other, more pressing manuscripts. I was literally about 1,200 words away from completing the draft.

As I’ve suggested above, I take the “complete sentences and paragraphs approach” because I do get tired quite easily. While I love writing, it’s hard for me to stay writing for a relatively long period of time. So, I focus on completing a sentence, stringing a few sentences, or finishing an entire paragraph. This is the idea behind the “anchor sentences” approach.

The trick for me is to focus on completing sentences, and on finishing paragraphs. So, instead of being overwhelmed by the fact that I still have 1,200 words to finish, I focus on completing a sentence that I left incomplete.

While I recognise that this approach may not work for everyone, I agree that we ought to give ourselves permission not to finish all the sentences or complete paragraphs so we can pick up the next day where we left off.

Outlining a paper and adding text allows you to form more coherent thoughts as you write.

Because I do get tired of writing after a while, I calculate “how much more work do I need to do” – so, for example, here I know that I need to write 3 paragraphs (one per bullet item). So, that’s about 300 words. That feels doable and I can do that within an hour that I may have here or there. Or while waiting at the airport for my flight.

Leaving text for the following day is a well tried strategy as you can see here.

Knowing that you can start the next day from an outline of half-completed sentences and paragraphs can actually be helpful. But more importantly, as I’ve said, instead of dreading a blank page, and wondering if 2 hours will be enough to complete 1,500 words, I prefer to focus on completing sentences and paragraphs. Perhaps this approach may be helpful to my readers. It’s definitely useful for me!

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Dealing with Shiny New Project Syndrome: How to remain focused on the task at hand

While I’m pretty organised and systematic in the way I do things, I always run the risk of thinking “wow, that’s a neat project and one I should pursue” without much regard for whether I have the bandwidth to actually work on something and function normally. This has been happening to me this semester (Fall 2017) when despite my previously very organised semester, which I already had planned with my Everything Notebook since last December, I thought to myself “oh look, SHINY NEW PROJECTS! But I don’t have the energy to pursue them. Although… well, I have a large lab, and my research assistants can help me get through and organise this, or write that, or generate that. Ok, sure, I’ll say yes“.

RISC 2017

Myrna Santiago keynote and ISTOR Special Issue Presentation

Seminario Enfoques de Politica Publica CIDE FLACSO

FAMOUS LAST WORDS.

Right now, I’m sick at home, after a rather trying week where I flew into Vancouver, did fieldwork, conducted interviews, met up with UBC professors, colleagues, and coauthors, gave two talks, participated in one panel. All the while, flying back on the Thursday so I could teach my undergraduate and graduate classes on Friday and Saturday. Obviously, I’m completely wiped out, even though it’s a Monday now. The reality is that, despite my best efforts to always plan my life to the very last minute, there are always contingencies, one of the most important ones being – there’s always a Shiny New Project that appears in the horizons that you say “sure why not, this looks doable and like something I want to do“.

DON’T.

Learn your lesson through me. Although, in all fairness, we ALL sometimes face Shiny New Project Syndrome.

I took to Twitter to ask them how to deal with SNPS, and here are a few of the excellent responses I got.

I love Liz Gloyn’s concept of academic otters :)

One thing I liked about all the responses is how human we all are regarding new projects. We all try to be very systematic and stay with the main ones we’re working on and then… WHOA. Something new comes our way.

Overall, when it comes to Shiny New Project Syndrome, I try to just stick to my yearly, monthly and weekly plan, but I also have a folder of “Projects to Undertake“. I’ll write more about it in a different post.

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#AcWriMo Day 2: Deciding on which writing projects to tackle and in what sequence

One of the challenges we (professors, and I believe, graduate students, contingent faculty, and a broad range of other academics and adjacent-to-academia folks) face is that we increasingly feel that we don’t have enough time and that we are too busy, and sometimes we feel too overwhelmed by everything we have to do: supervise theses, write papers, travel for fieldwork and conferences, do service to the university, the department and the community. I’ve been feeling this way the past few weeks, despite my relatively decent organizational and time management skills.

#AcWri on a plane

A couple of weeks ago, I literally did not even have lunch, I worked all day, having started at 4 am. I participated in a workshop on public policy theories, met with graduate students at CIDE, met with undergraduate students from IBERO, had FaceTime meetings with coauthors, etc. This past week, I was the local host for an international conference and worked 17 hour days (though I did eat). So, when I finally have had some time to think over what projects I wanted to tackle, I KNEW had to go back to using some sort of Hierarchy of Priorities method.

If you’ve read the literature on decision analysis, Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP) is a method designed to help make complex decisions. It’s used in a very broad range of scholarship. I am not nearly as systematic as to use AHP to decide which writing I need to do next, so my hierarchy of priorities is much less sophisticated. This is, more or less, the hierarchy I follow when tackling a writing project:

1. Coauthored papers that are at a Revise-&-Resubmit (R&R) stage.

These papers are usually at the highest rung of my priority ladder. The logic underneath this decision is quite straightforward: R&Rs usually mean that there’s a likelihood that we’ll get the paper published. A fast R&R turnaround can help us get the paper out and published faster. Plus, having a coauthor means that we both need to consider tenure clocks, etc. So when I am coauthoring a paper, I usually focus my efforts on these one.

Travel AcWri

2. Coauthored papers that have an impending deadline.

These papers are usually either second, or tied-to-the-top of the priority hierarchy. Since we have to get revisions in, I usually focus my time on getting these out relatively fast. For example, a coauthor of mine and I have to resubmit an R&R in the next couple of weeks to avoid having our paper considered as a new submission rather than a revise-and-resubmit. Therefore, this paper takes precedence over others.

#AcWri at the SFO airport

3. Single-authored papers that are currently under R&R.

These manuscripts need to get worked on relatively fast as well, because they’re important for my tenure clock. So I currently have 5 R&Rs and they’re occupying A LOT of my time. That’s why I never feel like I don’t have anything to write. I have 5 R&Rs, one per day of the week if I decide to work WOPED model (my post on WOPED vs MEPFED is here).

#AcWri on the plane

4. Memorandums, synthetic notes, Conceptual Synthesis Excel dump row entries.

Since manuscripts are made out of words and data, I usually focus on spending at least some time (1 hour if possible, if not more) writing “input material” (i.e. drafts of memorandums, handwritten notes on a specific project, transcriptions of interviews, composite versions of datasets, etc.)

Obviously, emails related to scholarly activities, and other types of writing are also important and should be valued, particularly when it comes to moving your research forward. But those are usually positioned in the lower rung of my writing priorities. Still need to be considered, but they are not at the top of my priority hierarchy. I’m also quite open to other suggestions on how to prioritize writing projects.

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#AcWriMo Day 4: 3 strategies to catch up when you fall behind on your writing

Friday (yesterday) was the last day of a conference and pre/post doctoral I co-organized with colleagues from INECOL, University of Helsinki, Universite du Luxembourg and obviously my own institution, CIDE. Being an on-site host for a conference is a logistical nightmare I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, but I have an amazing team and we pulled it off. Obviously, with 17 hour days all week, I was unable to write much. I know for a fact I did fall behind. This annoys me because I’m a proponent of the “write every day for 2 hours” system. And I did write for 15 minutes a day, as per Jo VanEvery’s blog. BUT I didn’t write as much as I wanted to (or I needed to). So here are 3 strategies I’m using to catch up.

1. Using my Twitter threads as fodder for synthetic notes, memorandums and handwritten notes.

On Thursday, precisely because it was a holiday in Mexico and I was exhausted, I ended up doing 3 hours of reading in the morning, rather than directly doing some writing. I finished three books on public toilets, gender, psychology and sexuality. You can read my entire thread by clicking on the tweet shown below.

As most of those who read my blog know, sanitation governance is one of my key research areas, and I’m really interested in the publicness and privateness of human waste disposal. As a public administration scholar, I’m always looking at how we deliver a public service, even when it is as private as human waste disposal. So I grabbed three books from my collection that I had recently purchased and proceeded to live-tweet some annotations and photographs from key passages. I threaded my notes, which I then used the same morning to write both some handwritten notes and synthetic notes on the three books, and perhaps a few rows in my sanitation governance Conceptual Synthesis Excel dump. This process of transcribing live-tweeted threads can help clarify your thinking (it did with mine!) and advances your #AcWri in ways that you may not have suspected before.

2. Using the R&Rs I have open to schedule my writing for the next few weeks.

After being somewhat disconnected from my research all these weeks because of all the organizing I had to do (trust me, you have to do A LOT OF WORK both on site and online, even if you hire, as I did, a person to do this work full time), I needed to go back to my trusty Everything Notebook and Publications Planner to ensure that I was tackling whichever projects I was supposed to by the deadline I was supposed to submit them. So that’s what I’m doing this weekend, as I fly to Vancouver: organizing my writing schedule by using my Publications Planner, my Monthly Task Break down and my Weekly To-Do lists on my Everything Notebook.

Everything Notebook

I have a tab in my Everything Notebook for my Publications Planner.

3. Taking some work with me while I travel.

I’m headed to Vancouver this week to do some fieldwork (I’m writing three papers about Vancouver, my hometown, even though I never wrote about it before while I was living there!) and give a couple of lectures. So, I’ll be bringing some work with me and write on the plane. Specifically, I’ll be working on the R&Rs I have pending, some submissions I’m doing this November, and joint work with my coauthor whom I’m also visiting in Vancouver.

#AcWri on the plane

For me, the most important thing to remind people (and myself) is that falling behind doesn’t mean you can’t catch up. You shouldn’t beat yourself up. If you didn’t start #AcWriMo on November 1st, you can still catch up. It’s November 4th. Don’t overthink it, just get some writing done.

Posted in academia, research, writing.

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#AcWriMo Day 1: On the importance of gradually building an academic writing practice

I’ve had a “want-to-do-can-do-can’t-do-wish-I-could-do” relationship with AcWriMo (the Academic Writing Month, first started as #AcBoWriMo, Academic Book Writing Month, in November of 2011, by Dr. Charlotte Frost (@PhD2Published on Twitter). On its sixth year now, November has become the month where fellow academics decide that they need to push hard to get some writing out. The timing isn’t ideal as academic semesters are nearing the end. #AcWriMo draws parallels from and is inspired by #NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, where you can write an entire novel during the month of November), something that might be feasible for fiction writers (or non-fiction who aren’t on an academic schedule) but becomes a huge hurdle for academics.

AcWri while travelling

THAT SAID, I strongly believe there are good reasons to do #AcWriMo. Particularly if you’re looking to build an academic writing practice. Practising is, from what I’ve seen, always at the core of any academic writing advice provider’s set of recommendations. In my view, creating a writing practice requires us to go back to the very foundation of what motivates us to do things.

There are many things that motivate me to write:

  • wanting my books and articles to be published;
  • achieving tenure;
  • clarifying my thoughts;
  • synthesizing others’ ideas for my own understanding,
  • , and

  • the pure joy of seeing my words out.

For me, it is important to note that there’s huge heterogeneity in how people write. Whenever I offer any suggestions or advice in academic writing, I do it from the viewpoint of someone who was trained to repeat stuff until he did things right.

For me, it’s important to recognize that, while I champion repetition, there are a number of circumstances where predictive repetition will not work, as noted below.

But still, I do believe that we can all find 15 minutes to write (Dr. Jo Van Every’s suggestion for building an academic practice) , as I note on the tweet below.

The relevant message I want to bring home with this post, on Day 1 of Academic Writing Month, is the following: Not only that you should do you (i.e. you should adjust your writing processes to fit whatever suits YOU), but also that, should you desire to build an academic writing practice, you should start with reasonable goals and gradually build towards a specific goal you want to achieve.

#AcWri while travelling

For example, say that you want to do something similar to what I do (write every day for two hours). You could follow this sequence:

  • Start #AcWriMo on Day 1 by setting a specific goal for a project, and doing 15 minutes of writing on that project.
  • Start Day 2 with 15 minutes of writing, again.
  • Continue until you complete one week.
  • If comfortable, build to up to 30 minutes a day of writing.
  • Continue for a week.
  • If comfortable, build up to 45 minutes a day of writing.

By the end of the month, you will probably be up to 1 hour per day of writing, or (perhaps also doable for you), 4 blocks of 15 minutes throughout the day. But again, you probably want to do this, slowly and gradually. That’s how I created and sustained my writing practice, that’s how I switched from being a night owl to waking up at 4 am and write. This gradual process of adjusting to a new writing practice may be useful to you too.

Another way in which I believe you could gradually build an academic writing practice is by following Dr. Wendy Laura Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks‘ approach. This process goes obviously beyond #AcWriMo, but I strongly believe you can use at least the first four weeks to build the approach and then continue moving forward. The important thing, which I stress again in this blog post, I believe any writing practice should be built GRADUALLY.

Posted in academia, writing.

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

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

AcWri at the airport

So, for example, when I first started writing this blog post I was sitting at the Atlanta Jackson-Hartfield airport on my way to Waterville, and I knew I had about 15 minutes until we had to start boarding our plane headed to Portland (Maine). I knew I could crank a blog post in less than 15 if I already knew what I’m going to say. I wrote a first draft of this blog post, published it and then realized that it wasn’t nearly complete enough.

So now that I’m on my way to Vancouver and sitting at the Mexico City airport waiting for my next flight, I’m editing this blog post. While blogging doesn’t technically count as #AcWri, I am using it to remind me of the things I need to write this next week. It also does help when I can write on the plane.

Let me give you another example of a time-based approach to working – the other night, I accompanied my Mom to a meeting. I drove and brought along enough work to keep me busy for about an hour, or 90 minutes. I figured I could skim an edited volume and write a couple of rows in my Conceptual Synthesis Excel dump. I did manage quite well.

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

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

I think the basic rule for me is bring enough work to write at least two or three memoranda (that means, 2-3 journal articles) and the equivalent of one book’s worth of Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump row entries. In total, that’s about 8-10 pieces of reading if you count 5-7 book chapters per book.

#AcWri on a plane

For example, for this Vancouver trip, I brought along 13 journal articles. 7 of those I’ve already highlighted completely, so I can just add my scribbles to an Excel dump (7 row entries). The Mexico City – Vancouver flight is 6 hours long. I can devote 2 to a nap, 2 to highlighting and reading, and 2 to writing. And once I land in Vancouver, I’ll spend some time adjusting my writing schedule to accommodate the fact that I’ll be doing fieldwork, conducting interviews, having research meetings and participating in a workshop on North American environmental politics.

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

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

public latrine (BORDA) in a slum near Bangalore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in academia.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in academia, reading strategies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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