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Granular planning and The Rule of Three

One of the things I’m an expert on is overwhelming myself with the sheer amount of work I have to do. In the past decade, I have slowly become better at simply reducing the size of my To-Do list and breaking down my workload into manageable tasks, at focusing on just one thing at a time, at ensuring that I have a Completed Tasks list (what Dr. Katherine Firth calls, “the Done List”), at building flexibility into my calendar and inserting buffers into my daily activity and not assuming that I can finish everything on the same day, and that I can knock a few Quick Wins off my To-Do list every single day.

The way in which I try to tackle my ever-growing to-do list is to use a method that I call “granular planning and the Rule of Three“. Granular planning refers to breaking down the work in accomplishable tasks, and then scheduling them throughout the week/month.

It’s granular because it is refined at the micro-scale, as opposed to grand-vision planning at the macro-scale. I adopted this method of granular planning from my Masters’ degree courses on Project Management (I took several courses in the Civil Engineering department at UBC, and my brother is a civil engineer and an expert on project management — by the way, you can read and buy his book here).

The Rule of Three is quite simple, as Professor Stephanie Wheatley mentions in her tweet below.

I don’t list 3 things I need to accomplish every day (which is a very sensible approach), but I break down each paper revision or piece of research into 3 components (hence The Rule of Three). If the list of components I need to fix (or research or write) is much longer than 3 items, then we have a bit of a problem, but as long as it’s just 3-5 things, I can deal with it. Then I insert one item per day (or two, if I have a particularly lax day where I can just write or do research). This is important, because I need to know that when I budget time for a specific task, I can actually accomplish it on that day. If I can’t, for some reason, I migrate the task to the following day.

Granular planningAs an example, you can see my To-Do list for this week (my Weekly Plan, as written in my Everything Notebook). This plan is mirrored both in my Google Calendar (particularly talks I need to give, and meetings I’m supposed to be attending), and my Weekly Activity Whiteboard (you may have seen those in this post). As you can see, I have two days off campus this week (I’m giving a talk on Thursday at the Mexican Institute of Water Technology, and a guest lecture on Friday with the PRODIALOGO-CIDE programme). This means I need to plan my travel accordingly. I also have four meetings (one with students, one with my PhD student, one with my colleagues on campus, and one with my coauthor Dr. Kate O’Neill), and one event (the 40th anniversary of our Masters programme) to attend. But I also want to finish a paper on remunicipalization that I have almost ready, and that I know I basically can finish this week because the changes are pretty minor.

Granular planningAs you can see, I broke down the edits I need to make to the paper into four different pieces of work. This is important, because writing on my To Do list “I have to finish the remunicipalization paper” doesn’t help. What tasks do I actually, honestly, clearly need to finish? I re-read my paper, and found the four spots where I can see the document is still weak. So I planned to finish those four tasks (do note that here, I am breaking The Rule of Three and actually making four edits, but that’s beside the point). I broke down the work of editing a paper for final submission into a set of four manageable tasks. That’s granular planning, combined with the Rule of Three (again, in this particular case, the rule of four). You can see, for example, that one of my four items is editing a concluding paragraph. I can do that in 2 hours!

The important thing about granular planning is deciding the size of the three tasks. For me, a task is manageable, it’s of decent size and it will make me feel like I accomplished something. One of the great things about granular planning and the Rule of Three is that you can break down any task into three pieces of work and then apply the method to any process. A few examples:

A very close friend of mine, and colleague, has already implemented this granular planning and Rule of Three method and it’s been working for her. It works for me, and hopefully it will work for my blog readers!

Posted in academia, research, writing.

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Generating new ideas for (or within) papers

A few people have asked me to blog about where or how they can find new ideas for a paper they want to write. I have to say that the primary ways in which I improve my writing (and generate new ideas) is by reading and then writing. On the plane from New Haven to Dallas I thought about what kind of strategies could one use to generate new ideas, and whether or not there is a systematic way to do this. So here are four ways in which I’ve generated ideas in the past few months.

1. Producing an Excel synthetic dump for a topic

The very first way in which I have generated new ideas is by creating an Excel dump for a specific topic. I have synthetic worksheets for bottled water, garbage governance, polycentricity, field experiments, human right to water, etc. I recently wrote a portion of an Excel worksheet on drinking water and bottled water, summarizing the most recent books I had read. From writing that worksheet, I figured out 3 or 4 gaps in the literature that have not been addressed, and the overall direction in which the literature is going.


2. Writing memoranda from newspaper articles

Other ways in which I gain new insights is writing memoranda about newspaper articles. For example, I recently used a long-form article on bottled water to design a historical timeline of how bottled water has grown. This was something I needed to do, something I WANTED to do, but that I had not had the time to think through and systematically follow. Thus, from reading a news article, I got a diagram showing the history of bottled water, and a summary (with quotations) of the news article, plus a few paragraphs discussing whether the historical timeline was accurate.

AcWri at night at my Mom's place (my home office)

3. Writing a memorandum about a journal article, book chapter or book.

I usually can relate to topics better when I am writing a memo, usually summarizing a book chapter, journal article, or book I have just been reading. For example, a recent paper by Kate Neville and Erika Weinthal on rescaling as a strategic choice of environmental activists in Canada prompted me to revisit the literature on rescaling, and the different ways in which rescaling occurs. The same article led me to think about framing theory (something I’ve been doing for a while in my study of intractable water conflict), and thus I wrote a few paragraphs on different uses of framing theory (citing Neville and Weinthal, but also Snow, and other authors on framing). Thus, as I was writing a memo on Neville and Weinthal, I ended up writing a few paragraphs of another memo on framing theory, and a few paragraphs on rescaling and different applications. I may or may not use these paragraphs in a new paper, but at least, I put them down “on paper” (although in this case, it was digitally) and thus have them available and systematized.

4. Explaining data and analyses through tables and graphs

Another way in which I get new ideas (and thus produce new “generative” writing) that is also related to the previous point is through writing tables or analyzing data and preparing graphs with those data. Creating tables (or graphs) and then having to explain them helps me think through new ideas and concepts. I recently created a table of ethical bottled water companies, and that table itself made me rethink the way in which ethics is discussed within bottled waters. In writing explanations about how I constructed the table, I realized several different components of this research that I hadn’t thought through very well.

Writing at my campus office

These are four ways in which I generate new ideas for papers, or within a specific paper. These techniques help me overcome writers’ block and kickstart my writing. Hopefully they’ll be useful to other people! I am also curious to know which techniques others use to generate new ideas.

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A few warm-up strategies to start your workday

Even though I wake up every morning at 4am to start writing, launching into work sometimes takes me anywhere from 10 minutes to a solid hour. This is not uncommon. There are plenty of articles on the internet on why you should have a morning ritual, how to start your day off right, and the morning routines of famous writers. The truth is, for me, mornings are key because it is in the early morning and before 2pm that I write my best stuff, and that I feel most creative. But, contrary to what a lot of people think, I don’t always have an immediate start to my day. It takes me a little bit of time to “warm up”.

I’ve always been fascinated by how other scholars work, and thus I asked several professors of mine what they did every single day to sustain their academic careers. So this list of distilled snippets is my own routine as I adapted the routines of others. I also acknowledge that you can’t always apply this to your own life, simply because you have toddlers or babies who wake up very early in the morning.

1. Read a journal article or a book chapter.

Dr. Terre Satterfield, with whom I took a class when I was in graduate school, told me that she would read a journal article or a book chapter every single morning. She said that it would help her “kick start her day”. I do this when I don’t have a specific writing or research task thatI need to finish, and to avoid being “non-productive”. Some people think that highlighting and scribbling on the margins is not actual “generative writing” and thus shouldn’t be considered “academic writing”. I beg to differ. Even if this were the case, reading, highlighting and taking notes off of a journal article or a book chapter IS work, and I consider it as such.


2. Launch into writing an unfinished paragraph/piece of work.

This is something I’ve learned to do that allows me to do what my friend Steve Shaw (McGill University) calls “insta-launching”. Before I go to bed, I quickly glance at my to-do list (which I’ve previously written on my Weekly Whiteboard and my Everything Notebook). I almost always leave a document open so that I know what exactly I’m going to start working on the next morning. I leave stuff in this document unfinished (paragraphs, calculations, drawings). That way, the next morning the very first thing I do is write the final few words of the paragraph I was working on, or finish polishing the table, drawing or diagram, or running a specific model in STATA. But I always leave something for the next day.

Reading and writing on the plane

3. Take some time to think through an idea and free-write

Sometimes, I am so stuck with writing and/or data analysis, that I simply take the first 30 minutes to 1 hour to think through an idea (”how am I going to analyze these data?” or “what are the different types of bottled water I can find” or “which conceptual models have I not looked at yet”) and then write some thoughts about this idea. I can then type those thoughts and usually that launches me into writing a few paragraphs.

Handwritten notes

4. Do the mechanical work that your research requires

When everything else fails (I’m bored of the topic, I don’t want to read an article or a book chapter, I can’t launch directly into work because I don’t have a plan for the following day), I do what people call “the grunt work”. Pull quotations from a journal article or a book chapter. Type the reference into Mendeley. Download databases. Clip newspaper articles into Evernote. Basically, the work nobody wants to do.

Inputting reference into Mendeley

But here is my most important suggestion, if you want some unsolicited advice.

Create your own routine.

As someone who studies neoinstitutional theory, I am a very big fan of routines. My routine is sustained throughout the week: I always wake up at 4am, start my coffee maker, wash my face, turn my laptop on, turn on my iPod, start some classical music, and then I sit down and work. Speaking of routines, I very strongly recommend that you read this piece on the Daily Routines of 12 Famous Writers. I’ve found some excellent pieces of advice here. I also recommend this read describing the morning routines of several authors who write about productivity. I am particularly fascinated by how different authors address the formation of a daily writing habit. I find the notion of having a “trigger” particularly resonated with my own routine, because for me, classical music is the trigger for my academic writing.

Hopefully my weird morning rituals will be of help to some of my readers.

Posted in academia, productivity.

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Strategies to sustain your research during heavy-teaching semesters

Recently, my good friend Dr. Amanda Bittner (Memorial University of Newfoundland) told me that she was suffering from focusing again a lot on teaching and as a result, her research was not progressing as much as she would have wanted to.

My biggest fear has always been not being able to publish (or not sustaining my daily writing practice) throughout my heavy-teaching semesters. I do acknowledge again my privilege: the most I teach per semester is two courses (both of them usually undergraduate level, which take a lot more preparation than graduate-level seminars). I usually teach two courses in the fall, which means that I also need to schedule a lot less travel. Unfortunately, many of the things I do require me to travel for fieldwork or to do project-related work. I was in Berkeley (California) a couple of weeks ago finishing my e-waste governance project, and I need to travel to New Haven for the EGAP18 workshop. Therefore I always need to strategize how I am going to sustain my research during the heavy-teaching semester.

Here are a few things I do, and again I acknowledge my privilege in that I get some perks by being organized.

1. I teach only Mondays and Wednesdays.

I request this time slot for several reasons. First, it allows me to do fieldwork or travel for my research during Thursday and Friday. Second, it also gives me leeway to do service-related work. The first three days of the week NEED to be focused on teaching (although I usually prepare lectures on Friday, because I am distanced enough from the two days of teaching that I feel fresh and know exactly what I plan to do for the following week.

Teaching in English at CIDE Region Centro

2. I schedule full days for research.

It’s rare that I will allow service to creep into my research days. Usually I focus on teaching and service during Mondays and Wednesdays. This is the result of many years of practice. I know for a fact that I finish my lectures exhausted. But I can easily find reviewers for a journal article, or input references into Mendeley, or answer emails related to faculty or student stuff. I can also grade on days that I’m teaching, because I usually take a nap and feel refreshed. So I can come back to grade without having to devote entire days to it.

AcWri at night at my Mom's place (my home office)

3. I schedule a buffer day.

My buffer day is usually focused on catching up on research and reading. This means that during that day, I’m not allowed to have meetings, I’m not allowed to answer service-related emails, I’m not allowed to think about the next lecture. All I do during the buffer day is research and read. You may think “how is this different from having a research day?” Well, during a normal research day, I know that there are things that need to be done regardless of the fact that I am doing research. I must meet with a student, I must read a graduate student’s thesis. But during my buffer day, I catch up on stuff that I would leave behind if I didn’t have that day. For example, if I am finishing a paper, I schedule all my reading for said paper for Thursdays. I know for a fact that I may need to schedule meetings on a Tuesday, or a Friday. But on Thursdays, no meetings whatsoever. Maybe I should call my buffer day my BLOCKED day.

Reading and #AcWri on the plane

4. I focus on my physical health first.

I try hard to sustain my exercise in the morning regime, I pursue good eating habits. I know for a fact that I can fall ill during a teaching semester (after all, this has happened to me 3 years in a row). So during heavy-teaching semesters, I make even more of a point to rest and take care of myself.

5. I front-load my lecture slide deck preparation

Because I know that I still want to do research, yet I want to be an excellent teacher, I front-load my courses’ preparation. I usually spend a couple of weeks before the semester starts preparing lecture slides for the next 2-3 weeks. And since this year I started teaching again public policy theory courses (which I already had done at UBC), I feel much more at ease when I am lecturing because that’s material I know really well.

Preparing lectures

6. I take weekends off (mostly)

I say mostly because given that I spend my weekends at my Mom’s house, and I have a full-fledged home office in my bedroom, it’s inevitable that I’ll wake up early and do *some* work. But I usually read during weekends, which also allows me to catch up on work. But more importantly, I spend the weekend with my parents, my brother (when he visits), my friends. And napping. Lots of naps.

7. I plan my week on Sunday nights.

I am a bit of a Type A. I need to have a relatively rigid schedule, a daily/weekly plan, a monthly strategic plan, and a publications plan. So I spend about 20 minutes every Sunday night planning exactly what I am going to be doing the following week. I also coordinate my weekly plan with my Project Whiteboard so I know all my projects are moving forward. But then I sleep well on Sundays because I know which pieces of research need to be done by when.

Filling up my To Do list a little bit AFTER the fact

These strategies aren’t applicable to everyone, I know, but these are things I do that I am sure can be adapted in other environments.

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On slow scholarship, time investments and good research

When looking at my publication record, many people have told me that they were amazed that I had published so much in such short period of time. While I am positively flattered that they think so, I don’t consider myself a particularly productive academic. Yes, I’ve published a lot in the past few years, the result of a focus-on-quantity strategy designed to be awarded Level 1 of the National Researchers’ System (Sistema Nacional de Investigadores, SNI) of the Mexican National Science and Technology Council Research (CONACYT, Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología, the Mexican equivalent to the NSF in the US or the Tri-Council in Canada).

For my institution, being recognized as a National Researcher is a distinction that is important and therefore, I wanted to comply with this requirement. While not an explicit request from my institution, it’s something that is expected, that CIDE professors will be members of SNI. This doesn’t mean that I published stuff of lesser quality, it means that I did basically nothing else but research and write for the vast majority of the past four years. As a result, many of the pieces I had under review came out during that period, making it look as though I was a researching writing and publishing machine. This isn’t really the case.

#AcWri at the SFO airportLike many other scholars, my strategic choice in order to have a well-populated publication pipeline is to have several projects on the go. Juggling different projects IS a hard balance. Do I want to narrowly focus on just working on one strand of a broader research agenda? Or do I want to expand my portfolio and work on several different issues/topics/methods? Personally, I have chosen the latter because that is what makes me feel more fulfilled. But the truth is that every single project I undertake takes time.

As I have posited before on Twitter, you can’t rush good research. And you need to put in the work. You can’t just skip to the part where you are already awesome. Gaining new insights, building datasets, inputting citations into your reference manager, reading papers, summarizing data, coding the mathematical and statistical models that you are going to run, going into the field, writing field notes, assembling projects, writing grants, preparing lectures, writing lecture slide decks, all of this means DOING THE WORK. You can’t rush any of this. You need to put in the hours, and do the work.

One of the best papers I have written, a paper that I coauthored with my good friend and colleague Dr. Kate Parizeau (University of Guelph), has taken almost a year to see it from original idea to fruition. My work on the politics of sanitation and wastewater governance started in 2004. Twelve years. I have studied the coalition-building and influence-seeking strategies of transnational environmental non-governmental organizations since the year 2000. SIXTEEN YEARS. Good research takes time.

The truth is, scholarly work involves NUMEROUS TASKS.

And one of the least valued, unfortunately, is reflection. We need time, often long hours, to reflect, read, consider thoughts, ideas and marinate what we want to say. Yet we are deeply embedded in a culture that demands more from academics (students and professors alike). Thus what we end up getting is overworked professors who don’t have the time to reflect (and thus may actually produce work that is of less quality than they could if they had the time to read, think, ponder).

I am a fan of slow scholarship, despite the fact that I do many things fast (touch-type 100wpm, and speed-read). At the same time, I am well aware of the fact that producing good research will take me A LONG TIME. Even without taking into account the sometimes extremely long time that it takes for journals to provide a peer review report, let alone publish our journal articles.

I’m not even sure this blog post has a major central point, but I just wanted to emphasize that doing good research takes time. Taking the time to reflect and refine our thinking is a major component, and it worries me when I see some PhD programmes that take 3 years, because it is clear to me that those PhD students have not been given the time to really marinate, ruminate and process the literature. I really think we need new models of thinking about academic work that champion less “publish-or-perish” and more “publish the best work you can produce”.

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Resilience, overwork and stress management in academia

This past week, I had anxiety attacks 3 nights in a row.

This is an extraordinarily rare occurrence, but one that I thought was worth bringing up as the semester ramps up (for us at CIDE, we are starting the 8th week of 16). I had never gotten an anxiety attack, because I am usually in control.

I am super organized, I thrive on having everything well planned, and I have a system that enables me to plan what I’m going to be doing (thank you, Everything Notebook!), when I am supposed to get things done, and stay in control. Being ultra-organized, a Type A kind of individual (as anybody who reads my Organization and Time Management posts can see) is part of who I am. Those who collaborate with me and work closely with me (both on campus and off campus) know that I love being in control of my workload.

When this happened, I remembered what I always tell my students: be like bamboo, flexible and resilient, not like an oak, whose branches can break under extreme pressure. This flexibility and adaptive capacity is what in the biological sciences is called resilience. Resilient organisms are able to quickly adapt to extreme stress and negative or adverse conditions, survive and thrive. I quote from the Resilience Alliance website:

Resilience is the capacity of a social-ecological system to absorb or withstand perturbations and other stressors such that the system remains within the same regime, essentially maintaining its structure and functions. It describes the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization, learning and adaptation (Holling 1973, Gunderson & Holling 2002, Walker et al. 2004). People are part of the natural world. We depend on ecosystems for our survival and we continuously impact the ecosystems in which we live from the local to global scale. Resilience is a property of these linked social-ecological systems (SES). When resilience is enhanced, a system is more likely to tolerate disturbance events without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes. Furthermore, resilience in social-ecological systems has the added capacity of humans to anticipate change and influence future pathways.

Resilience theory has also been studied and widely adopted in psychology, not the least because it provides useful pointers as to how to recover when under extreme stress. The Canadian Mental Health Association has an interesting page on resilience. Coincidentally, one of my closest friends (Dr. Dayna Lee-Baggley) studied stress and coping strategies for her doctoral dissertation with Dr. Anita DeLongis at The University of British Columbia, and I always found her research fascinating. I have to also thank Dayna for helping me cope with one of the toughest break-ups I ever had in my life. One of those amazing coincidences where what a close friend studies is actually helpful for your own life. I believe that having a broad range of coping strategies helps build up resilience.

Ironically enough, finishing a book chapter on resilience and polycentricity was exactly what had me stressed and what triggered my anxiety attacks. I say that this is ironic, because to finish the book chapter, I had to re-read what I had already studied during my PhD: adaptive strategies of resilient firms. Having to reflect on the need to be resilient while on the tenure-track, or during the PhD, and even post-tenure, was what drove me to write this blog post. I think one of the biggest challenges we face in academia, is to learn how to manage workloads and build resilience.

One way in which I do this is through sharing openly how I feel and the kinds of challenges I am currently facing. I also seek help and advice from counsellors, trusted friends, exercise and communicate with my coauthors and collaborators about how things are going. I don’t believe that academic life should be a source of constant pressure and therefore, I work hard at building resilience and learning how to cope with the challenges that my own work throws at me.

This is one of the reasons why I advocate for a more human and humane academia and for self-care in academic contexts. I don’t plan to stop doing so.

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My talk on The Governance of Bottled Water in Mexico at the Center for Latin American Studies (University of California, Berkeley)

The Governance of Bottled Water in MexicoI was invited by the Mexican Students’ Association at the University of California Berkeley and the Center for Latin American Studies at UCB to give a talk on my current research project on the governance of bottled water in Mexico. I was particularly touched to be invited, and even more impressed at the turn out (the seminar room was packed at 5pm on a Thursday!). Thank you all who came to my talk and thanks to Nain Martinez (PhD student at Environmental Science, Policy and Management at Berkeley) for organizing. Here are a few photos and my slides from the talk.

The Governance of Bottled Water in Mexico

Thanks to Nain for organizing, and to my friend and coauthor Dr. Kate O’Neill for joining us for the talk!

The Governance of Bottled Water in Mexico

Seeing so many amazing Mexican students at Berkeley so interested in solving Mexico’s problems restored my faith in the future of Mexico as a country.

The Governance of Bottled Water in Mexico

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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.

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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.

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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.

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