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Note-taking techniques IV: Use abbreviations and/or shorthand

When I was a child, I learned Pittman and Gregg shorthand because my grandfather taught me about them. He learned Gregg shorthand in secretarial/administrative assistant school, and I learned both Pittman and Gregg when I took a class (I was in grade 7 but this was not part of the school’s curriculum, so I had to take it outside of my campus). I knew that shorthand would be useful to me as an employable or hireable skill, but I never imagined it would also be helpful to my scholarly life down the road.

Shorthand

Photo credit: Christopher Newsom on Flickr. Creative-Commons Licensed Attribution-Non Commercial.

Note-taking - arrows and abbreviationsWhile I don’t usually insert Gregg shorthand symbols into my notes anymore (for fear of not being able to understand them down the road), I do sometimes when I am pressed for time and I need to capture ideas from a workshop or a conference. Nevertheless, I DO use abbreviations and I strongly encourage my students and research assistants to use them as well. I usually abbreviate “with” (w/), “because” (b/c), and I also use arrows and superscripts to indicate where I ran out of space and I need to make a note (like a footnote if you will, but on paper, and by hand). I’m a chemical engineer originally so I also use delta (the greek letter) as a symbol for “increase”, and the mathematical notation for “which is demonstrated”. I use arrows to indicate “therefore” but also “causes”, which sometimes becomes a bit confusing, I know.

I strongly believe that every student/scholar/practitioner should adopt whichever abbreviations and/or shorthand techniques they want to or need to, but I am hopeful these posts will be of use for their practice.

RESOURCES:

  • Handout with a few common abbreviations.
  • This post by the Learning Center of the University of North Dakota is golden.
  • This one from the University of Redlands also offers additional abbreviations that might be useful.
  • This blog post from the University of South Australia offers a few more insightful abbreviations.

You may be interested in my other posts on taking notes, which you can access by clicking on this link.

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A brief guide to using Mendeley as a reference and citation manager and as an aid to write scholarly papers

Mendeley references cleaningWhen I was in graduate school, I discovered Endnote. Not only did I discover it, I actually bought a copy at the student price and became absolutely dependent on it. I taught courses to my fellow graduate students on how to use Endnote. I wrote my PhD dissertation using Endnote, as well as many, many papers. I now regret having tied my life to this reference manager because I have struggled to find another one that works as well as Endnote used to work.

A lot of people have recommended Zotero (which I have tried and didn’t love because I found the interface clunky, but I absolutely admire because it is open source and a labour of love, so I do recommend it to other researchers) but I settled for Mendeley, which is the software most of my coauthors use too.

Bloomfield beginning of a memorandum with Mendeley open

I do pay for more Mendeley storage, so I don’t use the free version, but I think the features I will describe here are the most relevant ones too. I also don’t have the time to do a Zotero vs Mendeley vs Endnote vs Refworks vs Citavi vs God-Knows-The-Name-of-Other-Citation-Managers. I’m doing this guide mostly for my own students and research assistants, though I do share it with the world. And yes, I’ve had problems with Mendeley, and yes, I am pretty sure I am not using it to its fullest potential.

adding files to Mendeley from hard drive

I use Mendeley for two main things: to store my PDFs and to use its Cite-O-Matic feature to automagically insert the references in the proper page and do the reformatting for me. Because it works with Micro$oft Word, it’s fantastic for my workflow (and no, please don’t recommend Scrivener because I also have already tried it and it didn’t work out). The Cite-O-Matic (or Endnote’s Cite-As-You-Write) is the one feature that I love the most about Mendeley. What is missing from Mendeley is Endnote’s ease of replication of citations (e.g. you need to write entries for EACH book chapter instead of simply making a duplicate and editing the fields, as you would do in EndNote). Also, in Endnote you could do footnote-style citation super, super easily (I am told you can do this with Mendeley now, but I am not sure how to do it, but happy to hear from people on this issue – email me instead of commenting!)

Anyways, the way in which I use Mendeley is as follows: Every paper of mine has a folder, and a sub-folder called “PDFs”, where I store every single PDF related to a particular paper. I know this creates duplication, but that’s how I work and how I’ve managed to write everything I’ve published since 2011. Anyhow, using Mendeley’s “Watch This Folder“, I ensure that Mendeley automatically uploads all PDFs related to a particular paper.

Obvious issue is that if the metadata come wrong, it’ll be harder for you to clean the reference.

You can add PDFs or entries automatically (with Import PDFs/Filesor Watch Folder), or you can add each individually by inserting the text into the proper fields on Mendeley as I show below.

I have specific purposes for each digital tool, as I show here. I do use Dropbox, Evernote, and Mendeley, as well as Excel and Word.

Before you use Cite-O-Matic, you need to “clean” your references. Cleaning a reference refers to the process of ensuring that Mendeley’s fields and choice of output are appropriate. In the case shown below, once the PDF is uploaded, all fields are loaded with garbage. You need to clean the reference by substituting the correct text in each field.

Every modification you make to the database, you should synchronize it since Mendeley keeps PDFs in the cloud (though you can also use the Desktop version, which is what I use). You can use Mendeley to insert citations automatically with Cite-O-Matic, or copy-and-paste a number of citations properly formatted, as I show below.

I do all the name-titling of my PDFs by hand, but apparently Mendeley (and Zotero!) can do this automagically.

My workflow isn’t entirely digital. I use index cards, Everything Notebook, Excel, Mendeley, Word, Evernote, etc.

The ability to copy-and-paste formatted citations is incredible to create syllabi, bibliographies, etc.

BUT… the most powerful use of Mendeley I’ve seen is the Cite-O-Matic plugin that integrates with Micro$oft Word. Write some text, search your Mendeley database for the proper citation(s), and insert them into the text. Then click on “Create Bibliography” and VOILA you have a paper with citations properly attributed and a bibliography properly formatted.

I should note that to add page numbers, you need to edit the reference manually and ask Mendeley to preserve it.

So this is how I use Mendeley in my academic writing as a reference manager and a citation manager, and I hope this mini-guide with the mere basics (I’m sure Mendeley has many other features I am missing) will help my own students, research assistants, and colleagues, as well as other people who may want to test-drive Mendeley.

DISCLOSURE STATEMENT: I have absolutely no connection to Mendeley, I’ve had MANY conflicts with them and have complained to them quite vocally on Twitter when Mendeley hasn’t worked properly, and I pay out of my own pocket for my own paid additional storage. And yes, I’m aware that they were acquired by Elsevier. So, no, I’m not really reviewing Mendeley, nor providing a favourable commentary on the program as much as describing how I use it to make it work for me.

Posted in academia, writing.

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Note-taking techniques III: The Cornell Notes Method

Reading and Cornell NotesAs I noted on Twitter, it’s been a VERY long time since I have taken a class, so while I have my old notebooks from courses I have taken, ranging from Comparative Public Policy to Chemical Engineering Plant Design, I am not sure I could teach anyone how I take notes. I’ve written a blog post on taking notes effectively, but it’s mostly as a tentative guide rather than something I’d like my students to learn. HOWEVER… I do think that my students would benefit from learning how to take in-class notes (and capture ideas from readings) using the Cornell Notes method. The Cornell Notes method was developed by Walter Pauk in his How to Study in College book, and it’s been widely used all over the world. Alison Innes (Brock University) and Katherine Firth (La Trobe University) have both produced excellent guides for how to use Cornell Notes, including handouts that can be easily downloaded as PDFs and printed out.

RESOURCES

  • Alison Innes’ first and second blog posts on Cornell Notes as note-taking methods. Alison’s template is ruled and included in her blog posts.
  • Katherine Firth’s first and second blog posts on Cornell Notes and how to take notes with them and turn them into scholarly writing. Katherine’s template is not ruled and therefore is easier for me to use, also included in her blog posts.
  • Descriptions of the Cornell Notes method by the Cornell Learning Center.
  • A Power Point by the Orange County Department of Education on the Cornell Notes method and how to use it.

MY OWN APPROACH TO CORNELL NOTES’ STYLE NOTE-TAKING

This blog post showcases how I take notes from books and journal articles with the Cornell Note method. If you use any of the methods I’ve written about on my blog, you’ll quickly see that you can either use a Cornell Notes-style Everything Notebook, an index-cards version, and an electronic version that combines the Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump with a paper-based template. As I note on Twitter, you can dump your Cornell Notes into an Excel Dump row, OR an index card, OR a section of your Everything Notebook OR a synthetic note, OR a memorandum. It’s literally basically up to you which technique you use or how you combine them.

Basically, what I have used the Cornell Notes for is to draw relevant quotations from my readings as well as the proper page, and to make connections between themes and topics and stuff I have already read, or written about.

Clearly, you can use your Cornell Notes summary to write an Excel dump row entry.

You may also be interested in my other note-taking techniques blog posts: with Index Cards and with the Everything Notebook.

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Building redundancies in personal organization and productivity systems: why it works for me

One of the most challenging topics of conversation I’ve had in the past few years is the eternal question of “why don’t you go all digital? Why keep paper planners, write in project whiteboards, and have an Everything Notebook?”. The answer is: I like the idea of having redundancies. For me, making sure that things appear twice or thrice in several different media and that I have back-up systems is important.

Having redundancies helps me ensure that nothing really escapes me. My To-Do lists are available in my Everything Notebook, my Google Calendar, my Weekly Project Whiteboard, and at my home office, in my Weekly Commitments Whiteboard.

Home office

In addition to printed calendars and Everything Notebooks, I have an additional redundancy in my home office: I have a Weekly Commitments Whiteboard right by my desk. I copy my most important To-Do’s (usually meetings and milestones) on to that whiteboard so the first thing I see when I wake up is exactly what I am supposed to be doing on that particular day. This redundancy ensures that even if I don’t have my Everything Notebook (or can’t access my Google Calendar), I know what to work on, every single morning.

As Eleonora Rohland aptly said here: “better redundancies than gaps“. I agree wholeheartedly, and this is why having redundancies in my writing and organization systems works for me.

Posted in academia, productivity.

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Note-taking techniques II: The Everything Notebook method

A couple of people have told me that they feel uncomfortable using index cards for their note-taking process. I completely understand, even though I love writing index cards and I use them to take notes too. Nevertheless, I also use other note-taking techniques. One of them is using just ONE notebook for absolutely EVERYTHING. That’s how I came up with the idea of my Everything Notebook – it literally stores everything.

Everything Notebook

How do I assemble an Everything Notebook?

I have created “Everything Notebook Starter Kits“, where I include the following items:

  • A 200-300 pages notebook, preferably with rigid covers. You can use whichever brand you prefer.
  • A set of rigid plastic tabs (1 inch long).
  • A set of highlighters.
  • A set of coloured fineliners/pens.

I often give these away as raffle prizes or simply to my colleagues, like I did for my fellow professor Dr. Elizabeth Perez-Chiques.

Each item has its purpose within the Everything Notebook process, as I describe below.

  • The long rigid plastic tabs create a physical separation between different sections of the Everything Notebook”
  • I write with different colours so I need a set of coloured pens. I use fineliners (0.4mm) instead of actual pens.
  • I highlight text in articles in at least 6 different shades (yellow, orange, pink, blue, green and purple) so I need at least that many highlighters.
  • I have used different brands of notebooks, but since I live in Mexico, I’ve settled for Norma’s Unicampus (as shown in the tweet above)

When do you write in the Everything Notebook and when do you use Index Cards? When do you use entirely digital methods (Synthetic Notes, Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump, memorandums, Evernote)?

This is a complicated question, which I luckily answered in a Twitter thread.

I do travel everywhere with my Everything Notebook, or at least, almost always, and I do always keep my Everything Notebooks from previous years, at my campus office or at home, but always handy.

Can I combine the Index Cards Method with the Everything Notebook Method?

Obviously yes. YOU DO YOU. You choose what works best for you.

Why do you keep your To-Do Lists with all your project and field notes in the same Everything Notebook? Don’t you get confused?

No, because as I mentioned, I need to carry just ONE notebook everywhere. I use my Everything Notebook as a daily planner, as a calendar keeper, and as a note-taking device.

Synchronizing To-Do lists

How do you use your Everything Notebook for note-taking?

Glad you asked. Here’s a Twitter thread of my processes and the instances when I use it and how I use it.

What happens when you finish one Everything Notebook and you need to move to another one?

I link them both. I also generate a table of content for the Everything Notebook I just finished.

I usually keep my last 5 years’ worth of Everything Notebooks at my office, because you never know if you’re going to need some random piece of data from fieldwork you did 2-3 years ago. Yes, of course, this all can be done digitally (OneNote, Evernote, ask Dr. Ellie Mackin about this.

What happens if you leave your Everything Notebook at home when you travel?

I write on loose leafs and staple them to my Everything Notebook upon my return. See below.

The idea and process of having just ONE notebook to write your notes and To-Do lists may not work for everyone. But I can assure you, A LOT of people have adopted my system and adapted it and it’s working for them. Obviously it works for me. I always try to bring it with me EVERYWHERE I GO for the reason shown below.

You may be interested in my other posts on taking notes, which you can access by clicking on this link.

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Note-taking techniques I: The index card method

Index cardsI’m an old school kind of guy, and I think everyone who follows me on Twitter and reads my blog (and knows me as a person) knows this. I like highlighting, scribbling (by hand, on paper). I write handwritten notes. I keep just one notebook, my Everything Notebook. I carry index cards, highlighters, fineliners, pens and my Everything Notebook everywhere I go. Therefore, I am sure that it will come as a surprise to absolutely nobody in the entire world that I still write bibliographic references, quotations and thoughts on index cards. Yes, small (3″x5″), medium (4″x6″), and large (5″x8″) cardboard, ruled index cards. In a previous blog post, I had shared how I take notes, but I am not 100% certain that undergraduate students would actually find my blog post very useful, since it’s been a very long while since I last took a class.

I graduated with my PhD years ago and I’ve been a professor for a pretty long time, so I thought that maybe I needed to settle down and clarify my ideas of the process I follow to take notes. In this series, I will share my processes to take notes using different methods. The very first method I use is the Index Cards Method. Other authors have referred to the process Niklas Luhman followed (Zettelkasten ). Hawk Sugano has shared his Pile of Index Cards (PoIC) method as well. Mine isn’t all that sophisticated, and since I combine my very analog Everything Notebook and notes in index cards with digital synthetic notes, memorandums, Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dumps, and Evernote, I don’t know that my system would be extraordinarily systematic. But here goes more or less how it works.

I produce at least 5 different types of index cards, which are more or less the same categories other folks have all agreed upon. Here are some resources on taking notes in index cards that I found useful as I was trying to make sense of my own system.

1. The Direct Quotations Index Card

I use index cards to write direct quotations (with page number and full bibliographic reference) from articles, books and book chapters I find useful. This card is the analog equivalent of my Synthetic Note method.

2. The Bibliographic Reference Index Card

It’s rare that I do this one anymore because I have been using Mendeley and EndNote as reference managers for more than 15 years, but this was my study method and strategy to conduct research before: I would write the full bibliographic reference in a 3″x5″ index card. Then I would write a small paragraph on the back summarizing the entire book, or at least, the main idea behind it.

3. The One Idea Index Card

I find that these are useful for when you’re studying for an exam, testing your ability to recall, or when you’re giving a talk without reading a set of Power Point slides (e.g. when you’re leading a seminar, using each card as a theme for the seminar). I also use them to remind me of key authors who discuss particular themes and topics.

As I said on Twitter, this is very rare for me to do, and I usually combine my own types.

4. The Summary Index Card

This type of index card is a summary of a particular journal article, or book chapter, more than of an entire book.

5. The Combined (or Content) Index Card

As its name indicates, the Content Index Card is a combination type of index card that includes direct quotations, draft notes and ideas, conceptual diagrams, etc. that are all associated with the main article, book chapter or book discussed in the index card. I use larger (5″ x 8″) index cards for those cases.

There are obvious questions that people ask me, so I’ll try to answer them here.

1. Can you do digital index cards?

For sure. You can either do combinations as I do (physical index cards, then row entry in a Conceptual Synthesis Excel Dump row), or all digital (either in Evernote or simply in Excel, or synthetic notes or memorandums in Word or Scrivener as you may choose).

2. How do you store and classify index cards?

I usually have boxes that fit my index cards, and add a plastic tab with the reference in Author (Date) format. Other people use different classification systems (by keyword, by topic, by author). I just recommend that the process be consistent across.

3. When should I use memorandums and synthetic notes and Excel Dumps, when should I write in my Everything Notebook, when should I craft index cards?

This question has such a personal preference type of answer.

4. What size of index card should I use?

This is again, a personal preference as I note in my tweet below.

I do teach my students the Index Card Method of Note-Taking because I believe it is important to learn the old-school techniques, but also because I find that it helps me, and I strongly believe that if it helps ME, then it may also help THEM. In subsequent blog posts I’ll share some of my note-taking techniques when using my Everything Notebook, and other types of media.

You may be interested in my other posts on taking notes, which you can access by clicking on this link.

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What is a PhD? What does doing a PhD entail?

I have three PhD students right in their second year, plus I informally mentor other 3. I love mentoring and supervising students, particularly doctoral ones, because this component of being a professor is really the one that allows you to build how other scholars think and you can see them flourish. All doctoral students I mentor are parents, a fact that also brings along specific challenges, as I try to be a supportive supervisor. Two of my current PhD students are undertaking Doctor of Philosophy degrees, and one of them is undertaking a Doctor of Business Administration, which is a slightly different kind of degree. At any rate, because they are all in their second year, they all have come to me with very important questions about where their dissertations should go, how to build their research questions and how to come up with their contribution to the literature and the “gap in scholarship” they are filling. But these contributions need to be VERY CLEARLY STATED in the dissertation, and at the doctoral defense.

As I said on Twitter (you can read the rest of my Twitter thread by clicking anywhere on the tweet shown) there are core elements to the doctor of philosophy degree that have been agreed upon collectively. For me (and for a lot of other doctoral advisors) a PhD dissertation is an original contribution to knowledge (which can be theoretical, empirical or both) which fills a void (or a gap) in the literature on a particular topic. While moving across disciplines could possibly mean that said gap may not actually exist (and therefore, a dissertation could very well be creating a new area of scholarship and understanding), for the most part, particularly in disciplinary settings, a PhD dissertation fills a gap. Something wasn’t known, well understood or read about Phenomenon X in this particularly novel way, and therefore this dissertation fills a gap in the literature. I really like how Tierney Wisniewski put it:

I also agree with Susan Porter and Lisa Young: “The core of the PhD continues to be the development of the ability to do independent, rigorous research, as documented in the dissertation.

Finding a gap in the literature signals originality. PhDs are supposed to make an original contribution. That’s the crux of the degree. Academic, social impact, interestingness, all are added bonuses. Of course I would like my doctoral students to do interesting, scholarly robust and impactful research. And obviously I want my students to undertake topics that are interesting TO THEM (I don’t care if the topic isn’t interesting to me, it’s not MY PhD dissertation!) But the core of the dissertation research is, whether people like it or not, or agree or disagree with it, an original contribution to collective knowledge, which is signaled by showcasing a gap in the literature that the dissertation fills.

SO HOW DO YOU FIND A GAP IN THE LITERATURE AND HOW DO YOU ENSURE THAT YOUR DOCTORAL DISSERTATION IS NOVEL?

My recommendation to my students always is to READ AND MASTER THE LITERATURE VERY WELL. Read broadly, read deeply, engage with the literature. Also, don’t expect that your doctoral dissertation will have all these grand innovations. We all contribute to scientific and human knowledge incrementally.

Failure to do this kind of clear articulation is not the student’s fault. Students are developing their knowledge of the literature, and more importantly, they’re still in the process of learning how to conduct independent research. In my view, this failure to clearly articulate a doctoral dissertation contributions is a supervisory issue.

So, how do I prefer that my own students write their doctoral dissertations? I like them to be able to very clearly articulate the following:

I am grateful for people’s articulations of these thoughts as well, because I think we all collectively develop how we deal with doctoral research in different ways.

Ultimately, my goal is to guide my PhD students to complete their dissertations on time, doing important, interesting and innovative research in a way that is both fulfilling and scholarly rigorous. All these blog posts are inspired by the numerous failures in supervision that I’ve witnessed through the year. I don’t want my own students to go through the hell that I’ve seen others go through. A PhD (and any scholarly degree) should not be painful. It should be challenging but not torture. And on this very topic, PLEASE read Katie Wedemeyer-Strombel’s excellent post in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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

Posted in academia, research.

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Developing a structured daily routine for writing and research

One of the main questions that my doctoral students have asked me most frequently is “how do you structure your daily work routine, professor?“. While I am a scholar of neoinstitutional theory and I know the importance of routines, I have to confess that I don’t think about my own daily work routine often enough to share a clear outline of how I work on a daily basis. BUT I also love Dr. Eva Lantsoght’s series “How I Work“, in which she interviews schoars who describe their daily routines.

Monthly calendar revision

Planning and schedulingI do love structure, perhaps a little bit more than I should. I am very regimented with my daily routine (wake up, write/read/analyse data/exercise/shower/run to campus) but at times, I wonder if having very rigid daily schedules has been counterproductive. I will admit that for the most part, no. I like structure, routine and discipline and a regimented life. When I was a teenager, having this kind of “militarized” daily routine was super helpful to me: I had a lot on my plate and juggling all my tasks required smart planning and thinking very systematically about what my long term priorities were. At the time, I was doing competitive dancing, high-performance volleyball and volunteering for adult literacy campaigns, so I had to wake up at 5 am to head to the gym and train for 2 hours, then go to school, then train volleyball for 2 more hours.

Once I was done with volleyball training, I still had to do 2 hours of dance training, then focus on my homework. After finishing my assignments, I still had to do volunteering, so these commitments required me to be very, very strict about not wasting my time. I feel lucky I retained this kind of thinking and regimented discipline throughout my undergraduate and my Masters and PhD. Being disciplined and systematic about my daily routines has helped me sustain a regular research and writing practice, particularly because I get distracted rather easily.

I superimposed a regimented structure onto my PhD, because that’s basically the only way I know how to work. I am not someone who can just “fly by the seat of his pants”. I need to know what I am doing when, and I don’t foresee that this approach will change through time. But I know quite well that having unstructured time is challenging, not only for faculty but also for students. This is a common concern I see on Twitter, from doctoral students:

I am particularly reminded of this very important tweet by Stephanie McKellog on the challenges that unstructured time can present (particularly in the summer time, for doctoral students, but also for faculty and post-doctoral researchers, etc.):

So when my doctoral student asked me what my daily routine looked like, I figured I had to write a blog post to share my thinking on this issue. I plan for the year, then break down my commitments per month (using printed monthly calendars, and by hand), I insert my standing commitments in my Google Calendar, and on my Bi-Weekly Project Whiteboard, and then I write my Weekly Plan and daily To-Do List’s (5 items, 4 items, 3 items through Granular Planning and the Rule of Three, or 2 – through the #2ThingsADay strategy – items, depending on what I can actually accomplish that day). The core of my planning system, obviously, is my Everything Notebook.

My daily writing and research routine when I’m on campus looks more or less like this:

At the end of every day, I try to leave my desk cleared and my work papers organized so that when I come back the next day, my working spaces and areas are perfectly organized. That way I can work without worrying about organizing my desk or where a specific paper went. I don’t waste time in the mornings organizing stuff because I put order into my things the previous day/evening/night.

I know many people loathe the idea of as much structure as I give my life, but I have found that if I don’t do this, I am lost. Hopefully my process will help my students and anybody else who reads this blog post!

One thing that I think is important to add is that if you have care duties (children, parents, etc.) I believe that you should schedule everything around those commitments, not all the other way around. For example, one of my doctoral students has to pick up her kid at 2pm. I told her to work from home in the morning, pick her child up, have lunch with him and THEN come to campus. This routine works better for her. As someone who is childless and single, I am keenly aware of how parenting and more generally, care work can become a hurdle for doctoral students and academics/post-doctoral researchers. So, I try to make my planning processes as family-care-friendly as possible. I champion a more human, kind and humane academia and therefore my strategies, mentoring approaches and routines reflect this belief.

Posted in academia.

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The Sunday night weekly planning strategy

As most of those who read my blog and follow me on Twitter know, I’m very systematic about what I do and how I plan. My annual programme (which I create using printed monthly calendars and my Everything Notebook has the major milestones, but as time goes by, and things get post-poned, plans get derailed, or additional obligations get added, I need to make adjustments. Some are major, a few are minor.

Planning and Scheduling for the Fall

I have two major moments of strategic workload readjustment. The first one is at the beginning of the month, where I look at my yearly plan as I broke it down per month, and then check commitments, verifying whether I missed something important by some odd reason. Since we are almost in November, this is the right week for me to revise my Monthly Plan and reassess what my commitments are and which ones I need to fulfil and what obligations I need to say no to. I check my Monthly Calendar every week, but sometimes I need to make changes even in that one, because I get invited to give keynote talks, participate in workshops, attend student progress meetings, etc. So, by the end of the previous month, while hopeful that nothing in my calendar will change, I am also aware that things may get added on to my schedule or shifted around.

The second moment of To-Do’s review for me is either on Monday morning or Sunday night. Throughout October (a perfect month for experimenting as it started on a Monday) I have experimented switching it over between revising my plan for the week on Mondays (as soon as I get to the office, or as soon as I wake up at home and start working) and then on Sundays. I’ve found that planning my week on the Sunday night allows me to hit the ground running on Monday. I probably have carried this strategy from my doctoral student days, when (if I needed to work over the weekend) I used to work Sundays instead of Saturdays (a strategy I recommend to my own students).

I have to admit that Sunday night has worked much better for me than Monday morning. For one, it doesn’t intrude on my early morning writing/reading process. For two, it allows me to quickly glance at my daily plan and know exactly what I’m doing and what time. Hopefully this strategy will work for others too.

Posted in academia.


Writing topic sentences and crafting paragraphs

Two of the questions I get asked most often not only by my own students but by other scholars on Twitter as well are: “how do I write good topic sentences?” and “how do I write good paragraphs?“. These two techniques are important for many reasons, but the one I think about the most is the topic sentence, because I believe good topic sentences often can lead to robust, well-written paragraphs.

My #AcWri process integrating reading CSED

This is one reason why I am (like Dr. Eve Ewing in a tweet I quote below), a fan of the 5 paragraph essay (a type of essay that is often taught at the college/university level). In my view, well-crafted topic sentences set the stage for coherent and robust paragraphs which then produce sound, cogent, articulate essays. While sometimes unpopular, the Intro, Body, Evidence, Discussion, Conclusions model (the 5 paragraphs essay) is replicated in scholarly writing beyond undergraduate writing (see the IMRAD model of scholarly paper). I thus concur with Dr. Eve Ewing here in that the 5 paragraph essay IS actually a smart way of introducing undergraduates to scholarly writing.

Unfortunately, some of the journal articles, book chapters and books I read skip the basic structure of a paragraph as described by Dr. Patrick Dunleavy in his blog post on constructing paragraphs. This is problematic because if the topic sentence is not the first one that you find in a paragraph, it is harder to discern which one is the most important and therefore, readers may find it challenging to evaluate the content to determine the most important and valuable idea within.

The usual structure of a paragraph is (and I borrow from the Dunleavy model here, though I apply my own codes):

  • Topic Sentence
  • Body
  • Tokens (Supporting Evidence(
  • Wrap (Closing)

My office at CIDE Region Centro during and after writing a paper

Professor Dunleavy doesn’t agree that the Wrap sentence (what I call the Closing Sentence) should link to the next paragraph. But frankly, I do like doing this, and my writing reflects this. I believe that the Closing Sentence should allow me to follow the flow (the Throughline or Red Thread) of the entire paper.

How do I know whether a Topic Sentence is well constructed? This is a question I often get asked. One test I usually ask my students to apply is to highlight in yellow (see my colour-coded highlighting and scribbling scheme here) the first sentence of every paragraph of an entire paper or book chapter. If they are able to understand what the paper or book chapter is about through only the topic sentences, then the author chose the right ones. This method for quick reading (skimming) only works if authors follow the model where you start a new paragraph with the topic sentence.

Academic writing (working from home)

I concur with Dr. Jessica Calarco (Indiana University – Bloomington) here where she says that a robust essay should have solid topic sentences and well-written paragraphs.

When I write, I try to follow the topic sentence model. For me, a key idea should be contained in one paragraph. As I searched for sources that I could link to in order to help readers discern what a good topic sentence is, I came across D’Angelo (1986)’s article, “The Topic Sentence, Revisited“.

If you read this article, D’Angelo goes back to the intellectual history of what a topic sentence and a paragraph look like. What D’Angelo and the authors he cites indicate is that a paragraph is a set of sentences that are coherent, cohesive and provide an entire idea in a self-contained unit. Therefore, a topic sentence establishes the TOPIC (or the theme, the main idea) of a paragraph.

The topic sentence must, therefore, ensure that if we read it (and only that particular sentence) we can have a broad, bird’s eye view of the full paragraph, even if we add supporting material and a closing sentence afterwards. A paper with good topic sentences should therefore easily be skimmed by reading only the first sentence of each paragraph. Although as I mentioned above, there are a number of academic writers who do not follow this model, unfortunately, because they feel it is formulaic. Nevertheless, I strongly believe in following strategies and formulas and THEN use slight variations and deviate from the model.

That’s why I recommend writing papers through one of two methods: (1) Answering Questions and (2) Listing Topic Sentences. These topic sentences then, as Dr. Calarco mentions in her tweet above, become full sentences. I also encourage my students and readers of this blog to consider paragraphs as their target objective. Producing enough words to finish a few sentences and form a cogent, cohesive and coherent paragraph should be a valid goal for academic writers. This belief is also why I encourage my students to write in paragraphs, one idea at a time.

Once you’ve crafted your entire paper/essay, you can then run a Reverse Outlines (Paragraph Replanning) analysis like the one posited by Dr. Rachael Caeley here. By drafting an outline and seeing how it looks like, you can see if you need to replan specific paragraphs.

A few resources:

Hopefully this blog post will help people formulate better topic sentences and develop stronger, more coherent and cogent paragraphs.

Posted in academia, writing.

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