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On Cornell Notes and the importance of noting down EVERYTHING including the article or book chapter (or book) full citation.

Those of you who have followed me for a time know that I do love taking notes off articles with the Cornell Notes method. I find it a very useful note-taking strategy when you are reading materials (articles, book chapters, books, etc.) Some people use it to take notes during class, but this is not the approach I use.


Of course, my mistake was forgetting to write down the citation for the articles I was reading. This is A BIG MISTAKE. For many reasons, you NEED to keep the full citation of what you read in every medium you use (Cornell Note, Everything Notebook, Index Card, etc.)

Obviously I needed to find the original articles, which I posted on here:

As far as filing systems, I use the same across different analog techniques.

I share a big mistake I made (and ways to correct it) because I think sometimes we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. Hopefully that will be the case.

Posted in academia, writing.

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Writing the dissertation (thesis) III: Controlling the dissertation/thesis

I recently tweeted a thread of blog posts of mine that doctoral candidates can use to prepare for their defense (could be adapted to undergraduate or Masters) which I’ll turn into a blog post soon enough.

Now, you may ask, what about those doctoral candidates still in the throes of doing the PhD??

My advice is to always maintain control over the dissertation.

Several of my doctoral students (not my thesis advisees, but those I teach or have taught) have told me:“professor, I have no clue where to go from here. I passed my comprehensive exams and now I’m supposed to write the dissertation, but I feel at a loss”.

This is NORMAL.

One of the anti-climatic things that happened to me after I defended my PhD proposal and passed my PhD comprehensive exams (at UBC we did both when I did my doctorate) was that I was left with a question: NOW WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?. This was probably because I did not feel like I had a schedule and a plan to develop my dissertation. I was too tired from defending my PhD prospectus.

Once I had time to rest and reflect on what I was supposed to be doing, I ended up creating a plan and finishing my dissertation relatively quickly. As the years have progressed and as I’ve become more senior as a professor and researcher, I’ve developed a few techniques to help my graduate students (and a few undergraduate) tackle their dissertation and theses, and more importantly, CONTROL THEM (don’t let them control YOU!)

These three Overview Devices (the Dissertation Two Pager, DTP, the Dissertation Analytical Table, DAT and the Global Dissertation Narrative, GDN) allow me (and my thesis students) to get a “bird’s eye view” of the dissertation/thesis. These three Overview Devices are very short documents, so preparing them is a good exercise on writing concisely. A two page summary of the dissertation, a one page table with all the components of the dissertation and a three page summary of the full work undertaken in the dissertation make up for 6 pages, which should be easy enough for a PhD advisor to read and provide feedback on.

Let’s take a quick look at each one of the three Overview Devices:

For me, a DTP evolves through time. It’s not the same as when my students start their degree. Therefore I ask my students to write a DTP every semester (or quarter).

One can construct a DAT for a manuscript-based dissertation or for a book-style type of dissertation. And as I’ve recommended to my post-PhD friends, it can also help you map out a full book manuscript.

Most of the time, my students will write their GDN as they approach their defense. However, I’ve also tested using it at the beginning (sort of helping them see the end line) and it’s worked wonderfully too. But yes, I will expect that doctoral candidates (or any other thesis-based research scholars) will have a better defined GDN as they approach their defense of the thesis/dissertation.

Writing a DAT, DTP and a GDN every semester helps the thesis writer feel like they can control where their dissertation is going. For me, as a thesis advisor, it helps me see where I need to help my students with their work. And all three Overview Devices work for undergrads and Masters thesis writers too.

This post is as much for those who are trying to control their dissertation (PhD candidates, Masters and undergraduate students) as much as for their advisors. Hopefully it will be useful to you all.

Posted in academia.

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The missing link in the literature review process: 4 elements to look for when reviewing the literature

As anybody who reads my blog knows, I think a lot about the mechanics of research and especially I have written a lot about how to conduct a literature review. This week, because I have been very ill, I have had a chance to think deeply, and I believe that I have finally found the missing piece linking reading (a lot) with the construction of a literature review.

Many students tell me they don’t know how to organize their literature review, how to start it. That is, I believe, because they don’t know what to look for.

Literature Road Mapping

So, what is someone doing a literature review looking for?

1) what has been done (the lay of the land)

  • Who has written about my topic?
  • What are the results of their work?
  • How have they tackled problems that might be similar to mine?

2) the foundations upon which their own work can be developed

  • Who are the core authors in this space?
  • Which works seem foundational enough to build my own work upon?
  • Where have these works been developed? (this opens up new possibilities for geographical spaces and case studies)

3) any possible spaces where they can insert their own contributions,

  • Where can my work contribute?
  • How would my work dialogue with others’ research?
  • If there is a gap, how does my work contribute to narrowing?
  • If there is something new to develop, whose work do I extend?

4) a map of themes showing connections

  • A mind map of different themes and their connections can help scholars develop their own literature review.

So, in practice, you DO need to read a lot so you can figure out which topics have been discussed in which areas of study, which case studies have been already analyzed, etc.

Concept saturation

This first step, I would break it into two stages (depending on the level of understanding of the particular topic under study):

  • Make a list of possible topics and issues

This list of topics can’t come out of thin air. Therefore the second stage is:

  • Draw guidance from either experts or published reviews to map the list of possible topics.

Normally it is at this stage that I give my students advice on authors and specific citations.

What happens if you don’t have an expert to guide you?

Well, it is very likely that someone already did a literature review about your topic or adjacent to it. We search for the general topic (“a review of topic X”) and it’s likely we will find something that will help us.

For example say I’m doing a project on the dynamics of protests against renewable energy mega projects, specifically windmills. There’s certainly literature on protests. There’s work on extractive industries and their negative impacts, etc.

I could search for literature on these topics. But then the second question my students ask comes up.

“How do you now assemble the literature review into a coherent document?”

There are many ways to do this assemblage, but I believe the Funnel Method is easiest, particularly for anybody who is relatively new to literature reviews.

Writing at the h

So what’s the Funnel Method?

It’s basically taking your research through a conceptual funnel (from the most general to the most specific).

In my case, I would follow a structure like this:

1. Conflicts
2. Environmental conflicts
3. Protests against mega projects
4. Protests against windmills
5. Case studies of protests against windmills across the world.

By the time I get to (5) in this list, I would feel pretty confident that I will have at least a broad landscape of the literature. It takes a while to get to the eureka moment. That’s why this exercise is hard.

When you read accounts from doctoral students and seasoned professors regarding when they actually figured out the topic of their thesis and many of them say “oh years after I finished my PhD”, that’s totally believable.

It was so hard for me to find the niche for my PhD thesis!

What I have found, having survived writing 3 theses, supervised many, and taught numerous academic writing courses and PhD workshops across the world is that the more literature reviews I conduct, the easier it becomes for me. Practice makes perfect.

OBVIOUSLY there’s a catch.

Highlighting, scribbling marginalia, reading, writing

The catch is: the literature review (particularly regarding topic selection and assemblage) is driven by the Research Question. A LR doesn’t happen in a vacuum — you need to have a guiding objective – what are you trying to understand or learn. HOWEVER, the LR can ALSO help you develop a solid RQ.

That’s why it’s important to remind learners that the research process is very iterative. It’s not linear and you may need to restart the search from scratch more than once.

Don’t despair!

Posted in academia, research.

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The repeating cycle of overwork in academia: a first-person account

I have written several times here (on my blog) about how overworking almost has taken me to the actual tomb. What disappoints me and angers me (and yes I’m disappointed and angry with myself) is that it’s July of 2022 and I am writing about it yet again. As a good friend on Twitter responded to my thread discussing my health situation: “it’s a lesson I need to learn and re-learn over and over”.

I’m not happy about it.

Parksville's amazing weather

I sat down with my Mom last night and had a terrifying but important conversation. Despite repeated negative COVID tests, I’ve had 3 waves of respiratory illnesses and two bouts of gastrointestinal sickness in 5 weeks.

This means my last healthy day was May 27th, 2022.

These illnesses and their permanence track (quite logically) with 2 months of absolute insanity in terms of work. I’ve managed to finish every commitment I had for May and June by working while sick in some way or another. This is, of course, not something I am happy about nor something I advocate for. On the contrary, anybody who has followed me on Twitter or read my blog for any length of time will know that I am an ardent advocate of self-care and avoiding overwork.

I know that everyone at some point works while being ill. It’s one of the biggest issues I think in current society and especially in academia. We have made overworking and/or working while sick a badge of honor. The problem with working while sick, in my case, (or while slowly improving) is that my body is super sensitive to any external negative forces. So, what a mild cold normally do to me (take me out 2 days) takes me instead out 2 weeks. TWO WEEKS.

And then there’s the “feels like COVID even if I tested negative” series of symptoms that showed up in my body this past week.

Parksville at dusk

I want to be 100% clear about this: neither my institution nor my department have put this kind of pressure to work while sick on me. The fact that FLACSO Mexico and their leadership are so incredibly kind and generous is one of the key things that attracted me to it. On the contrary, I have received all sorts of positive encouragement to not push myself, to take care of myself and to wait everything out until I’m healthy again. The current state of affairs is one of my own doing. It’s all on me.


This time I am taking the time to rest and heal without committing to anything else other than, well, resting and healing. But it’s brutal for me to see me making the same mistakes I made years ago and swore to never make ever again.

You should be your first priority always.

So if you have seen me organize a workshop, teach a class, teach a workshop, know that I did all that while sick. This is not something to replicate in your own life, on the contrary. I’m sharing because I know I should have just cancelled everything and take time to get well.

Most times I share what I see as my best practices in academic life. I’m now sharing a reflection of what I did wrong and what’s I plan to NOT do ever again. I really think I learned the lesson this time.

Posted in academia.

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A few strategies to overcome writer’s block

I’ve had an absolutely bonkers pair of months (April and May, and June is gearing to be the same). For the first time in 2.5 years, I attended in-person workshops (2!)

I am, of course, behind on absolutely everything.

Writing at the home office

I used to be a very big proponent of the “write whenever you have a small pocket of time” trope up until my health started to go downhill quickly (I am very immunecompromised, since birth, and thus respiratory infections take me out a solid two weeks).

I now try to write for longer periods of time if at all possible.

However, not everybody is me, and therefore when I write about writing on my blog, I describe the range of strategies I have used and continue to use, depending on my health, the amount of service work I have, teaching, and other commitments.

So here’s what I have found.


1) PROMPTS HELP ME WRITE. Prompts help my students write, and also participants in the workshops I teach.
I am not the kind of person who will open the Word document and be like “LET’S WRITE”. I need something that PROMPTS ME to start writing. I respond to external stimuli.

But writing is a PRACTICE that requires a repertoire of strategies and techniques. A lot of us, myself included, want to write books, articles, papers, chapters just like “laptop open – Word open – words flow”. That’s not how it works.

Developing a writing practice TAKES TIME.

I have several pieces overdue (and though I am almost back to 100% healthy, I have A LOT going on over the next month, so I need to balance my overdue writing commitments with my health and everything else I have on my plate).


This is a word I hear often.

Seasoned writers (several of them full professors!) come and tell me frequently “I used to have a solid writing practice and a routine, and all of a sudden life/childcare/eldercare/COVID/service work/teaching threw all of that into disarray”.

Friends, you & me both. I get you.

Writing while in Berlin

I think it’s only human to accept that we might have had the best writing practice and the most amazing routines and then life threw a wrench at us and now we’re faced with the challenge of restarting while dealing with *waves hands around* all of this.

Here’s how I’m doing it:

Reading is an absolutely integral part of my writing process.

Reading helps me improve my written prose.

Reading helps me think through ideas I’ve been trying to put into dialogue with other authors’ arguments.

I can’t write if I don’t read. I read every day, in fact. except when I am very ill.

Reading highlighting scribbling annotating

These are a few strategies that may be of help to some of you. Good luck!

Posted in academia, writing.

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On doing “the work of self-repair”

Recently, a dear friend (fellow professor) told me about “the work of repair”, in terms of repairing damaged relationships and eroding trust. When something doesn’t work and the relationship is damaged, there’s work of repair to do.

I reflected on this.

I thought of developing a related idea: “the work of self-repair” — the work we need to do to heal ourselves. The importance of treating our bodies and minds with dignity. I’ve posted on here about how overwork put me on the brink of actual death (loss of life) 4 times.

Sometimes I still overwork even if I advocate very seriously against it. Part of it is that I feel that I need to carry the weight of stuff that needs to get done. Part of it is that I lose (luckily, not frequently) track of the actual moment when I’m starting to burn out.

I am working on doing the work of self-repair. I met with and I’m being treated by a better otorhinolaryngologist, and a smarter dermatologist. I am paying more attention to my nutrition and getting dental care that I neglected because I am always so busy.

Recently I said, in a meeting, very publicly: “I’m on holidays from the end of July to the third week of August and no I won’t be checking email, text messages, Telegrams. I’m basically unavailable to anyone except my mother” – everyone understood and agreed, no questions asked.

Mom's visit to Aguascalientes and San Jose de Gracias (El Cristo Roto)

This work of self-repair also involves sleeping more and I am awake way past my bed time, but I’ve also felt energetic throughout the day, which means I’m slowly but surely recovering from the horrible bronchitis I got last week.

Just thought I’d share. As a scholar of waste, and discards, repair work and the right to repair are theoretical concepts I understand and value, but thinking about self-repair is a new avenue for me.

I think we need to do more work of self-repair, and be kinder and gentler with ourselves.

That’s all I have.

Posted in academia.

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A partial bibliography on books and articles on how to conduct qualitative research interviews

While I consider myself more of a mixed methods person, I do a lot of qualitative research, and therefore I enjoy sharing resources I develop on specific research topics. This blog post links to a bibliography I generated of the books I have read on how to conduct intereviews with a qualitative research focus.

I very much HATE when people ask me for “The Best Book to Do X”. So no, I won’t be recommending to you The Best Book on How to Conduct Qualitative Interviews. I do, however, have a few preferred books (if yours isn’t in my list of preferred, please don’t be upset, ok?)

Given that I do so much ethnographic work, I often follow Skinner’s The Interview: An Ethnographic Approach and Spradley’s The Ethnographic Interview.Svend Brinkmann’s “Qualitative Interviewing: Understanding Qualitative Research” is often used, and it’s practical & pragmatic.

Personally, I don’t think you (professors/educators/faculty/thesis advisers) should send students/researchers to design and conduct interviews BEFORE actually taking one or two courses on qualitative research, but that’s just me and my approach and you can do whatever you prefer.

Posted in academia, qualitative methods, reading notes.

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“Parking your writing downhill” as a strategy to keep momentum with your academic writing

This blog post describes my understanding of the “parking your writing downhill” strategy to kickstart your academic writing or simply to keep going. It was Dr. Veronica Kitchen who first said to me that she usually “parks her writing downhill”. It sounded like such an interesting strategy that I had to research it.

How do you do it? How do you “park your writing downhill”?

U of Alberta visit Feb 2020 002

Well, I researched the idea and found a few resources.

And herein are a few of my own strategies to “park my writing downhill”.

1) I leave an article, book chapter or book on my desk, so I have materials to read first thing in the morning, as soon as I wake up. I normally do this reading with my first cup of coffee.

2) I leave unfinished paragraphs that I need to complete as prompts to get me going.

There’s an important issue I want to raise here:

You don’t need to “park your writing downhill” at night. I write in the mornings and early afternoons, maybe you do your creative work in the evenings and late at night. The point is to do the parking at the end of your writing session so you can “hit the ground running”.

Hopefully this blog post will help those who are struggling with their writing right now!

Posted in academia, writing.

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On writing about, thinking and teaching research methods.

I wrote a thread in Spanish last night on puzzles and how to craft research questions. I’ve written about this topic several times in English, and in Spanish, but not on the actual topic of “puzzles”. This blog post is NOT about “puzzles” (I am preparing another one, in English, on this very topic). But the amount of reading I did to just feel BARELY that I had mastered the notion of why we teach students to write research questions based on puzzles was unreal. I had to read a heck of a lot.

Home office (Aguascalientes)

There are multiple things I think about ALL THE FREAKING TIME: generalizability, reliability, reproducibility, transparency, research design, concept formation, theorization, ethics of research, fieldwork. I am a methodologist, after all.

This thinking and writing and reflecting on multiple elements of research methods, has to occur in addition to the reading, thinking, writing and researching I do in my substantive areas (comparative public policy, environmental politics, water governance, waste and discards, homelessness, elder care policy, public administration and comparative politics, transnational environmental activism).

Yes, of course thinking about research methods all the time makes me a better researcher. And yes, reading (and writing) about writing DOES make me a better writer. No regrets.

But this entire process of thinking, pondering, reading, researching and crafting processes, models, frameworks that people can use in their own research, TAKES A LOT OF TIME AND BRAIN POWER.

I don’t feel it’s a waste of my time to come up with frameworks, models, techniques, strategies and processes that make my readers’ research, teaching and learning easier. But it IS an investment, and this weekend I’m just tired.

Rewarding activity, for sure. But consuming too!

Posted in academia, fieldwork, research, research methods, teaching, writing.

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The realities of writing: loving it and having to work hard for it

I love writing.

I utterly, completely and absolutely adore writing.

Am I naturally gifted as a writer? No.

Is writing easy for me? Also no.

Do I write in spite of the fact that I struggle with it? Yes.

Am I a good writer? I suppose that by some standards, I am.

The thing is, when I was a child, I recognised I was not naturally talented to write, nor inclined.

I developed the inclination.

Writing my blog and knowing my resources are useful to readers has been an incredibly powerful source of motivation to write it.

And… seeing my work published, cited, engaged with, discussed, and assigned in syllabi keeps me motivated.

I want to understand the world, yes, but I want even more to help others make sense of it, through my research and my public scholarship, particularly my writing.

And that’s why I write.

Posted in academia, writing.

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