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Developing an entire course around a specific research project

Those of you who know me well will remember that there are very few things I love more than developing syllabi. Despite the fact that I once thought writing up a syllabus was an inappropriate activity for a doctoral comprehensive exam (I have changed my mind over the last decade), I love syllabusing. I adore having to choose between various reading materials, reading broadly and deeply and selecting themes, topics and questions I want to address during the class.

Syllabusing

One thing I pride about and do very well: develop printed reading packets out of my syllabi.
Not to worry: I also create a digital version

I always design my syllabi with an ulterior motive, and I am not ashamed to admit it. If there is a topic that I am particularly vested in, I make sure to somehow insert it into my syllabi. Coincidentally, yesterday (December 27th), I came across this tweet, which also summarizes my own approach to new course syllabus design:

In response to Dr. Perry’s question, I shared my approach to new course preparations and how I develop an entire course around my own research interests. If you participate in my writing groups, you will know that I already thought about this and made a suggestion to participants in my writing group. I jokingly said that “I was mercenary about new course preparation – if I am going to prepare an entirely new course, I am going to at least get a publication out of it”.

I did it, with one of my doctoral seminars, this Fall 2020.

Before designing the course syllabus, I surveyed what my students knew about research design, qualitative methods and comparative methods. I realized that I had to develop a syllabus that included everything from case selection to explanation to comparison to qualitative methods. While I was lucky that a lot of scholars helped me with guest lectures, I designed the entire syllabus, and obviously I also led seminar discussions. Re-reading so much about comparative research design really made writing these two book chapters extremely easy and seamless.

Had I not been asked to teach this doctoral seminar on Comparative Methods, I probably would have had to spend at least a month re-reading, thinking through, mulling over and pondering the literature on comparison as a method, and THEN write these chapters. Way more complicated.

Did I teach EXACTLY what my students needed? Of course I did. Sure thing I did. BUT in preparing the syllabus, doing the readings alongside my students, leading the discussion, conversing with the guest speakers, my own thinking about comparative methods got much more refined. Am I going to get a publication out of teaching Mixed Methods next year? You bet I am.

Will I write a paper on policy analysis? Possibly. But my Public Policy Analysis class is undergraduate, so I have less flexibility on what I can include and exclude. I need to give basics. It’s much easier to create a new syllabus that will provide you with an opportunity to read the literature you need to produce a new paper with graduate (Masters, PhD) or advanced undergraduate seminars. Much less flexibility when you need to teach a survey course.

Federalism scholarship by women

To summarize: I design courses based on several criteria:
– what my students need in terms of content, competencies, core skills and “lay of the land”,
– what *I* want to learn better (or refresh my knowledge of),
– what my students are interested in,
– what my current writing schedule and program looks like.

I hope that by sharing this approach, you might find some good ideas on how you can craft a syllabus for a new course in a way that might give you an additional product (beyond the wonderful learning that you and your students will achieve).

Posted in academia.

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How to prepare for a reading-intensive undergrad or graduate seminar (for students) and how to design a syllabus that offers reading guidance to students (for faculty)

The Spring 2021 term is coming upon us quite fast, and I have wanted to write a thread on how to prepare for a graduate-level seminar. I know the range of difficulty of readings, amount/volume/number of pages assigned is going to vary, but I’ve been thinking about this issue for a very long time. Personally, I reduced the number of readings that I assigned in my courses, but not everyone is doing this, and I strongly believe that we need to prepare students for whatever comes their way (including a reading-heavy course/seminar).

I am going to assume a course workload of 4-5 courses per week (exactly what I took when I did my PhD at The University of British Columbia), regardless of whether it is Masters’ or PhD. When I was a doctoral student, I took several courses across disciplines and faculties. I prepared each class the day before, over the course of a morning or an afternoon (I am terrible at night, and work better earlier in the day.

Reading highlighting scribbling

I am particularly worried/concerned for/thinking about my students who may take reading-heavy courses over the next few months, so I decided to write a thread showcasing how I prepared when I was a graduate student. In the process of writing the Twitter thread that this blog post draws from, I also provide some guidance on how to craft syllabi that while reading-intensive, can also be helpful to students by providing guidance on how to approach the reading material.

I remember very distinctly taking a class with Dr. Terre Satterfield on Science, Values and Policy and thinking “oh wow, each week has a theme!” (remember, although I have two brothers with PhDs and my Mom has a PhD, there’s a lot I didn’t know about the #HiddenCurriculum). I want to share my approach to syllabus design, because to help students discern strategies for how to read their assigned materials, I also need to read other professors’ syllabi, and deconstruct them so I can understand their choice of reading materials.

Below is my approach to designing syllabi.

I remember very distinctly that Dr. Satterfield always told me to look at the readings as a whole: “what do these readings, in their entirety, tell you? what’s the coherent story/narrative?”

This key question has helped me both prepare for seminars (as a doctoral student), and refine my syllabi (as a professor). Usually faculty write their syllabi offering suggestions on how to approach the readings. But in case they don’t, I always recommend that students look at the entire week’s block of reading materials and search for the key theme/narrative/story.

So how does this “searching for the key narrative/story/themes” approach work in practice? Below, I explain it in detail using examples from my own syllabi and those of other scholars I found useful for my purposes.

As you can see, I assign 4 readings per week (30 pages per, about). What would I do, if I were a grad student taking my seminar? I would devote an entire day/morning (depending on how fast you read) to reading, taking notes and systematizing my notes. When I was doing my PhD I prepared for seminars the day before (hard to do if you take 2 seminars same day, but advisable!)

For a second round, I suggest looking to see how each reading connects with one another. For example, for the week on extractivism, urban political ecology, these are the themes I would be looking for:
– accumulation by disposession (David Harvey)
– primitive accumulation (Marx)
– urban political ecology: scale, power differentials, cross-scalar dynamics, urban contexts
– how water is extracted, implications that this extractivism approach has (denial of the human right to water, etc.)

Asking questions off assigned readings helps make sense of them.

Other examples:

Having read a few of these previously (I studied Science and Technology Policy for my Masters), I can see what are the major themes of Dr. Rhode’s first week:
– artifacts are political (Winner)
– technology has associated risks and responsibilities (Wetmore, GHSA)
– S&T consumers

When I was a grad student, I found that if I asked myself Guiding Questions that helped me make sense of a coherent narrative helped me learn better. I also looked for themes, keywords, patterns, logics and debates (point-counter point). What do this week’s readings tell me? What’s the professor’s intent in assigning these readings? What do they want me to learn? Which are the key ideas, concepts?

To summarize, and clarify:

My Twitter thread and post were originally NOT about syllabus design (though I do provide detailed suggestions on how to design a syllabus, in a way that helps your students prepare), BUT about how to prepare for a graduate seminar – or an advanced undergraduate), as a student.

Here are the insights that faculty members can probably draw from this thread:
a) Design your syllabi creating discrete units that have Guiding Questions to help students make sense of the readings, and
b) Develop your syllabus using storytelling methods to create narratives.

And here are the insights I wanted students to absorb:

a) I recommend dedicating an entire morning/afternoon (or full day) to reading, taking notes, systematizing them and then writing a memorandum (a day before the seminar)
b) If you have 2 seminars on the same day, split time.

(Dr. Neff’s syllabus is here)

Now, how do *I* as a professor prepare to teach graduate seminars?

I do it the same way I prepared for seminars when I was a doctoral student. I dedicate time the day before I teach (since it’s a seminar, I lead the discussion more than “lecture”). I build a set of Guiding Questions and when I start the week, I provide an overall description of the narrative and the key concepts I want my students to draw from the readings. I then lead the discussion and engage with students asking them Prompting Questions based on the Guiding Questions.

Anyways, I converted my Twitter thread into a blog post, because I know my undergrad and graduate students will be taking seminars next semester and I want them to be well prepared. I do hope faculty and students both may get some good insights out of these tweets.

Posted in academia, reading strategies.

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On the importance of the Reading, Note-Taking, Synthesizing and Writing sequence in developing an academic research and writing practice

This Fall 2020, despite having to teach online and facing the challenges of a pandemic, I have had amazing experiences teaching research methods, research design and the mechanics of research. This past summer and fall, I taught these courses online and I realized something that I had been thinking about for a very long while but had not been able to really pinpoint until this week.

Writing

Because of the way I like teaching these interrelated topics (research design, research methods and mechanics of research), I quickly realized that teaching Note-Taking Techniques, Reading Strategies, and Synthesis Methods was complicated (along with helping my students learn research design and research methods).

Trying to teach reading, note-taking, synthesizing and writing altogether is kind of a chicken and egg problem. What do students need to learn first, reading or taking notes? Teaching strategies for both simultaneously is hard to do, and I struggled all year to do this.

Nevertheless, over the summer and fall I tried the following sequence:
– Reading Strategies
– Note-Taking Techniques
– Synthesis Methods
– Writing Processes and Practices

Obviously, my course wasn’t the only one they were taking. Turns out that students are thrust into the “you need to read a lot to understand what I am teaching” model quite early during their programmes. This poses challenges for someone like me who is trying to provide foundational skills as well as to provide substantive content/material.

… they can then move to more advanced reading, note-taking, systematizing routines/techniques/strategies. Once they’ve developed these routines and systems, THEN they can get into the habit of writing (and developing a writing practice).

You can teach writing earlier, surely. But from experience, I can tell you that what my students have developed, a reading-note-taking-systematizing-writing practice, is driven by my pushing them to READ FIRST, and then TAKE NOTES, use those notes and SYSTEMATIZE them and only after having read broadly and deeply, then WRITE.

Reading should be a priority. Before you even send them on the field, or ask them to choose a model and download a dataset and run regressions, you (or your program, somehow) need to teach them this Reading-Taking Notes-Systematizing sequence first and foremost.

I hope this blog post and these considerations will be useful, not only for my own students, but for others as well as they develop their own research and writing practices.

Posted in academia.


Linking theory with research, choosing a theoretical framework and developing alternative explanations

I taught Research Design this past fall and one of the key challenges I see in teaching how to properly design research projects is the chasm that exists between theory development and empirical testing. For some reason, it is hard for some students (and more than one scholar!) to link theory with research. This discussion is one I have had for a very long while with my colleagues, Dr. Rodrigo Salazar Elena and Dr. Gloria del Castillo Aleman.

How do we link all the theories we read into what we see in the empirical work?

I believe that there are three elements at play.

1) There are various types and levels of theory (grand theory, meso-level theory, micro-level theory), etc.

2) We (scholars, students, practitioners) need to read very broadly to be able to discern across theories.

3) We need to learn how to establish THEORETICAL EXPECTATIONS and ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATIONS.

Holland establishes two theoretical expectations:

1) if there is poor state capacity to monitor and enforce, we may expect that there will be limited enforcement activity. Holland cites Levitsky and Vicky Murillo on this)

2) if there’s inadequate bureaucratic control here’s a higher likelihood that there will be limited enforcement activity.

These are two observations that Holland makes from absorbing, summarizing, integrating and presenting the various theories surrounding poor regulatory enforcement.

She then introduces her own conceptualization of forbearance. Holland makes it clear how her framework borrows from other theories (including price theory) and in doing so, these borrowed theoretical concepts help her explain how states choose not to enforce regulation.

This is an excellent example of how to apply theory to explain things. Theories help establish an expectation of how the world should work. We need theory to establish exactly what we expect to see

Empirical research then tests those theories and asserts whether the theories being used actually do help explain the phenomenon we are observing.

If we reverse-engineer Holland’s paper, we can see the empirical phenomenon she is looking to understand (limited, constrained regulatory non-compliance). She then establishes the various theories that could potentially help her explain this non-compliance/non-enforcement.

We choose the theory depending on the empirical phenomenon we are examining and the research question we are trying to understand, and our prior experience (and reading/understanding) of how the phenomenon will operate. hus selecting a theoretical framework does not happen “a priori”.

I never decided that “oh I am going to study the governance of river basin councils using the Ostroms’ frameworks”. I examined the phenomenon, and reviewed the literature to see how others have looked at it. For example, in my work on water conflicts, I look at the different theories on which factors could combine to make a water dispute happen. There are theories that indicate that under resource scarcity conditions, actors will want to hoard resources and thus engage in conflict.

Below another example.

Snow et al find empirical support for resource mobilization theory (one of the most popular among scholars of social movements). Thus, instead of arriving with a theoretical framework in hand, we need to establish which phenomenon we want to study/explain and the theories that have been previously used to explain this phenomenon.

Thus, in closing:

a) selecting a theoretical framework for a study usually happens after reading and synthesizing a lot of literature on how the phenomenon has been analyzed before. I wouldn’t do it “a priori”.

b) linking theory with research is particularly important because it helps us establish theoretical expectations (and develop alternative explanations, something that apparently has been forgotten when teaching research design).

3) Alternative explanations are based on theory. I strongly believe it is fundamental that we teach our students both elements, how to link research with theory and how to select a theoretical framework, and if I were to add a third element, how to establish alternative explanations for the same phenomenon and discern which elements/theories/evidence best explain what we are trying to understand.

I hope this blog post clarifies my approach to selecting a theoretical framework, linking theory with research and developing alternative explanations as well as theoretical expectations.

Posted in academia, research.

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Three hot takes on the (wrong-headed) assumptions that incoming undergraduates and graduates have research skills

I have always considered myself a methodologist, and someone with a slight obsession with methods. I write about research methods here on my blog, I’ve edited a methods journal (International Journal of Qualitative Methods), I’ve published several scholarly pieces (book chapters and articles) on methods, and this fall, I taught several courses on research design, comparative methods, qualitative methods and thesis writing.

Writing while in Berlin

Along the same lines, since Fall of 2020, I joined a Methods Lab (led by the amazing Dr. Rodrigo Salazar Elena, dear colleague and friend of mine at FLACSO Mexico). Thus it should not come as a surprise that I have the following three hot takes:

I am seriously amazed at how many faculty assume their students know how to do a lot of things that they do not because they were not prepared nor taught. Neither my Twitter thread nor this blog post offer criticism of students, but more a concern with undergraduate and graduate programs where rigorous research desig and techniques are not taught or poorly developed.

Often times, we need to take students at their most raw and take them from zero to hero. Thus, I encourage all instructors to be KIND and GENEROUS with students admitted to graduate programs who may not have the research skills you may have expected them to have. Make graduate programs equalizers and skills developers. A gradual approach to teaching them how to do research may work best.

Even hotter take: you should NOT assume that graduate students who are doing their degrees in a foreign language know the rules and norms of conducting scholarly research in English.

There’s a hidden curriculum beyond what is new to first generation students. Never forget it. I find it super, super wild that scholars who discuss the hidden curriculum (about first-generation students in the United States of America and Canada) often do not seem to bring to the conversation the differences across cultures. There are hidden curricula all over the world.

Many students from countries or cultures where challenging the authority is not the norm may find it hard to enter “discussion groups” or to challenge a professor/doctoral supervisor. Also, writing norms and expectations (and grammar and structure) vary wildly across languages.

I have an even SPICIER take: By saying “send me/us your BEST students”, you are in fact reproducing the cycle of inequality and further marginalizing scholars who may have great potential but lack the training that others with more privilege have had.

Think about this.

… when I have to craft a new syllabus for research design or research methods.

I write my blog for my students, although I DO come back to my own posts for advice on how to do specific things. And I also write my blog for those who have not had the mentorship they deserved. Institutions and faculty need to do better by their students. It’s our job but also our duty.

Posted in academia, teaching.

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Getting the most out of writing groups (online and offline)

Writing while in BerlinI love writing groups, as you probably can guess from my raving about them on Twitter. I have also written on this blog about their benefits. Now, one of the questions people ask me frequently is: how can I get the most out of a writing group? Here are a few reflections regarding what works well for me. As always since these are based on my own experience, I strongly believe you can only know if it will work for you if you try it out. I also want to make something perfectly clear: I strongly believe that you get out of a writing group what you put in. If you are supportive of others in the group, you’ll definitely find support too. I don’t think one can get into a writing group in an extractive manner, expecting benefits but not providing support, help and encouragement as well.

For this blog post I have extracted some thoughts off my Twitter threads, which may appear disjointed when you read them online, but will make more sense when you read them on this blog post.

A few other elements of writing groups that help me (these are obviously online right now because of the pandemic).

– Having a 3 hour block gives me the flexibility of “investing” some of that time as “runway” (preparation) time.
– I need to block Twitter and Facebook while I write
– with the 2 hour block, if I invest some of that time in “runway” I feel frustrated.
– hearing how others work is also inspiring for me.
– seeing camaraderie online is also very inspiring – lots of people offering to help one another “once the Zoom is over”, makes me feel supported and cared for.
– The shared struggle: knowing that others are also struggling to think/work.

There are so many contingent faculty, academic parents (especially mothers, and even more acutely single mothers) for whom having the privilege of accessing an extended block of time is a real luxury. Every time I do one of these, I do recognise my privilege, and I do try to help.

A few other secrets on writing groups:

I have made INCREDIBLE friends in my writing groups. I have introduced childhood friends to my writing groups.

NOW, A FEW WORDS OF WARNING:

1) Communities develop through time and repeated contact. Don’t expect to be ultra chummy with your writing buddies immediately.

2) Different writing groups are run in various ways. Not every writing group will fit your style or expectations. Try a few ones first before “committing”.

3) Some people need the structure/support that a guided, facilitated (PAID) writing group gives them. THESE ARE GREAT.

Like with anything, if you want to have professional help you’ll need to hire a professional. So if you feel like this would be a service that would help you, there are academic coaches all around who provide this facilitated writing group service (a few that come to mind quickly: Dr. Lisa Munro, Dr. Michelle Dionne Thompson, Dr. Leanne C. Powner, and Dr. Jo Van Every).

I also have previously mentioned the importance of academic coaches. There are things that supervisory committees do not provide, and that’s why you hire external help. Dr. Powner does that kind of consulting (particularly social sciences, political science especially).

4) Like with anything that is social, writing groups aren’t just for you to “receive support”. They’re also there for you to GIVE support. The beauty of writing groups is that you get as much as you give. Generally speaking, they’re very reciprocal (that’s the basis for them).

Sometimes, institutions have the funding to bring someone in to start a writing group (for example, have someone teach a Master Class on Academic Writing and then the institution provides support to start a dairly, weekly, bi-weekly or monthly writing group). I myself have been (and continue to be) hired by several universities to teach these workshops for a long while now. It’s definitely a great strategy and a good investment to develop students and faculty.

I teach courses on academic writing and even *I* get writer’s block.

I struggle with producing text.

I sometimes feel overwhelmed with wanting to Do All The Things.

I am human, after all.

This is the beauty of writing groups: you can be an academic who is also a human.

To be 100% honest with you, I am writing so much right now because I AM HEALTHY. At the peak of my eczema/psoriasis/dermatitis/chronic fatigue/chronic pain, I could barely move, let alone write. AND I *had* to teach! So while I do feel slightly guilty for being more productive now than when moving would cause me pain, I feel relieved. These are very, very tough times, so let’s try to not guilt, shame or otherwise put pressure on others, or let anyone put pressure on ourselves. We do what we can with what we have, that’s all.

In the end, we make do with what we have. Dr. Loleen Berdahl has encouraged writing for 10 minutes, and I think that’s doable and worth doing, even if it’s literally what Dr. Meredith D. Clark calls “runway time”.

We are all in this together, and hopefully things will get better in the future.

Posted in academia, writing.

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Analog note-taking when highlighting is not possible (e.g. books)

Anybody who follows me on Twitter or reads my blog knows that I have quite a healthy stock of stationery. I have always loved stationery and office supplies. I love taking notes by hand, and this reflects in my methods for note-taking, active reading and writing.

Note-taking in the Everything Notebook

Recently, a relatively new follower of my blog and Twitter stream asked me a question (I am paraphrasing here):

How do you take notes when you cannot highlight?

I am assuming that people who ask me this are referring to note-taking of books. Personally, I don’t mark up my books, and obviously I am extremely careful with those from the library, so I interpreted this student’s question in this way.

In this blog post, I explain my method, integrating my Twitter thread with some additional thoughts.

… may or may not work in the same way.

Since I prefer analog systems and do not mark books up, here are a few ways in which I take notes that still retain some of the characteristics of my strategies for printed materials.

1. THE INDEX CARD METHOD.

2. THE EVERYTHING NOTEBOOK METHOD

3. THE CORNELL NOTES METHOD.

Obviously, as you can imagine, I’ve written a lot about Note-Taking Techniques on my website’s Resources page. I list those below.

Obvious question you surely will have:

When should I write in my Everything Notebook or when should I use Cornell Notes, or when is a good time to use Index Cards?

Every single student of mine and every person who has ever attended my workshops asks me this question. I don’t have a universal answer, although I do have a few suggestions. As it always happens with techniques and methods for note-taking, active reading, annotating, writing, etc., we all develop our own heuristics for when we should use one method over the other.

Here are my heuristics:

  1. If what I am reading cannot be marked up (I don’t write nor highlight my books, nor any library’s books), I use physical (analog) media. You can, easily, take notes in other programs (Evernote, Notion, etc.) Personally, I find that I need the tactile sensation of handwriting.
  2. I usually write summaries and quotations drawn from books and book chapters in my Everything Notebook if they’re directly related to a research project I am doing at the moment, or if I am doing something VERY specific with them (for example, write a book review).

Now, let’s go to another question I often get asked:

Do you take notes in your Everything Notebook, or on Index Cards or Cornell Notes of ARTICLES that you actually highlighted and scribbled on? Glad you asked.

The answer is YES, I DO. Why do I do this? (apparently redundantly)

My methods work for me, adaptations of my methods work for my students and research assistants and colleagues and also for thousands of people around the globe, but the only person who can really tell if a technique I suggest will work for you is YOU.

Hopefully this blog post can answer people’s questions!

Posted in academia, productivity, writing.

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On the benefits of online writing groups

My life changed right about March of 2020. Well, yes, there’s that pesky thing called a lethal global pandemic, SARS-CoV2, that also changed the lives of absolutely everyone on this planet.

But I also feel changed through the work I have been doing with two amazing writing groups: one led by Dr. Amanda Bittner (Memorial University of Newfoundland) and the other one organized and shepherded by Dr. Mirya Holman (Tulane University).

Writing at my home office in Aguascalientes

Writing doesn’t need to be a lonely activity. Instead, it can be social. Even during this global COVID19 pandemic.

Around when we got into a global lockdown, Amanda and Mirya (both good friends of mine) decided to organize online writing groups. I had heard of them, but I never thought of joining one because well, I already had my writing schedule prepared.

BUT THIS THOUGHT OF MINE CHANGED THIS SPRING, AND I AM EVER SO GRATEFUL TO MIRYA AND AMANDA FOR THIS.

I already had a writing practice of my own, waking up at 4 in the morning and writing from 4:30 to 6:30 Monday through Friday, as my schedule shows. However, joining Amanda’s and Mirya’s online writing groups really has boosted my writing capabilities and improved my ability to focus and concentrate in my research, even during a semester where I taught FOUR courses (how did I survive THAT is material for ANOTHER blog post).

writing calendar

It’s not only the actual writing commitment, the daily declaration of goals and check-ins. It’s the care, love and mutual respect, it’s the constant motivation and positivity. It’s the accountability. It’s the community-building aspect.

I love my writing groups, I really do.

I’m not the only one, though. I recently asked this question on Twitter.

I absolutely loved the responses. A sampler:

And obviously, I also adored Dr. Louise Seamster’s response in an article, as well as Dr. Nicole Janz’s post.

Posted in academia, writing.

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Expanding Detailed Outlines into Memorandums and those into Full Manuscripts

As most of you all know, I’ve been teaching research methods, research design and academic writing for a while now. My students ALWAYS, literally ALWAYS ask me the question:

“How do I go from having the Detailed Outline to actually writing a Memorandum (or a series of Memos) that I can then assemble into the full draft of the paper?”

This blog post answers this question, based on a Twitter thread I wrote a few days ago.

Writing at home

This is the process I outlined on Twitter. You can see the entire thread by clicking anywhere on the tweet below.

My first advice to students when writing outlines is ALWAYS FINISH THE INITIAL OUTLINE FIRST.

My second piece of advice: is: FINISH DRAFTING THE DETAILED OUTLINE FIRST.

What is the reason for finishing the Detailed Outline first, you ask? Well, the rationale is that you will be able to see the overall argument, at a distance, from a vantage point, “bird’s eye”.

Now, another key question that my students ask me regularly:

“Professor, how do you decide what goes into your memorandum?”

Generally speaking, I try to write ONE memorandum per Triggering Question. For example, in this case: “what is ethnography?” would be an ideal Triggering Question based on which I could write a full, well developed Memorandum.

Now, for the “breaking down the big project into small pieces” part of this thread and blog post. Different people use different strategies for outlining. I teach most of them. One of them is outlining by hand (as I have been doing). Others outline directly on screen.

A few options:

Personally, I’m not tied to any model for outlining (directly in Scrivener, Word, or whichever word processor you use, by hand, or using mind maps). I find that combining both sets of techniques (digital and analog) really helps me refine and hone the final product.

Now, let’s move from the Detailed Outline to the Writing Memorandums stage.

Here’s what I do:

  1. I break down the Topic Sentence or Triggering Question into its elements.
  2. I begin a memorandum using heading-level Triggering Questions or Topic Sentences

Let’s grab the “What is Ethnography” Triggering Question, and the “Elements of Ethnography” Topic Sentence/Sub-Heading.

In my mind, there are three key elements to ethnography:

  • Observation
  • Fieldwork
  • Understanding culture.

I can use those categories and/or elements to start my Memorandum.

This is the moment when we need to READ AGAIN to make the argument and start writing the Memorandum. My students think that we read, read, read, read, and THEN WHAM BAM, there’s a paper.

No, writing requires us to think, mull over, reflect and write in smaller chunks.

The final product of the Detailed Outline can be shown below.

Now, here is the finalized Detailed-Outline-to-Memorandum product. This memo would not have been possible had I not thought of writing an Initial Outline, adding more thoughts and ideas to make it a Detailed Outline and then broken down each Triggering Question and Topic Sentence to craft a Memorandum.

Again, DON’T STRESS ABOUT WORD COUNT.

Does using Triggering Questions and Topic Sentences work to stimulate thinking and help our students write?

I can 100% certify that this method works and has worked with my students (it also works for me, obviously). This method is an easy strategy to tackle Writer’s Block and the Blank Page.

I hope this blog post and the links associated are helpful to those battling papers, book chapters, theses and books!

Posted in academia, writing.

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How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers (my reading notes)

Index cardsAnybody who follows me on Twitter or reads my blog will know that I am absolutely smitten with index cards. I have taken notes in index cards for decades, and I still do it. I loved index cards as a grade-school student and I adore them as a professor. I have a number of boxes to store my index cards. A few of those are portable, so you can take them with you, others are intended to stay at home. Index cards have been an intimate part of my life since I was too young to even write on them, and will continue to be an important element of my teaching practice, as I strongly believe that my students benefit from learning how to take notes in index cards, and the various methods associated with their usage. In fact, this 2020 I taught note-taking techniques using Index Cards and all my students have loved it.

There are numerous strategies to take notes with index cards, but perhaps the most famous is Niklas Luhman’s Zettelkasten, which has recently been made popular again by Dr. Sönke Ahrens, who wrote one of the most authoritative texts on the method. Full disclosure: though I bought and paid for Ahres’ book on my own dime, I actually do NOT use Zettelkasten, as my Twitter thread explains.

Bottom line: I DID enjoy this book and recommend it though I really do not like the Zettelkasten method as is. Hope my reading notes are helpful to someone.

As someone who LOVES index cards, and who is a Virgo, Type A, Upholder (Gretchen Rubin) you might wonder what I do NOT like about Zettelkasten.

I do not like the sequencing approach, nor the “unique key”.

HOWEVER…

I think reading Ahrens’ book is EXTREMELY VALUABLE/HELPFUL.

DISCLOSURE: I bought and paid for this book on my own dime, as I do with ALL my books.

Posted in academia, research methods, writing.

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