Teaching: It’s Not About You, It’s About Them

In reviewing a performance of the Dorrance Dance Company, a New York Times critic praised Michelle Dorrance, the company’s founder and lead choreographer. The critic commented on their excellent collective work as well as the virtuosity of their solo performances. After noting that Michelle was the most prominent and ubiquitous tap dancer in America, he pointed out that it was easy to tell who she was – – she was the company member who had the fewest solos. Although it seems odd that the head of a company would give herself the fewest solos during a performance, it made a lot of sense to me. Like her father, Anson Dorrance, the winningest women’s soccer coach in the NCAA, Michelle emphasizes creating the conditions that allow each of her troupe to realize their full potential. The performance was not about her, it was about them.

As I reflected on the simplicity of her genius (she won a 2015 MacArthur genius award), I recognized that it exposed all that was wrong with what I’ve been observing on my occasional strolls past a local  classroom during the past semester. The instructor usually left the door ajar, and so was easy to hear his booming voice, echoing down the hall. In the first week or so of the semester I wasn’t surprised to hear only him, but as the weeks turned into months, it became increasingly clear that his was usually the only voice to be heard from that room. I peered in – – there were about 15 students, sitting around a set of tables arranged in a square .The instructor stood at the front, next to the screen on what he was projecting PowerPoint slides, talking. And talking. And talking.

I thought I must just be passing by at inopportune moments. In a humanities seminar, students surely would be offering their own observations on the material. I even shared a running joke with one of my colleagues whose office was near the classroom. She knew the instructor and so occasionally I stopped by her office after observing another monologue and joked that I still hadn’t heard a student’s voice. She said she knew him and thought that he must be a good instructor, but by the middle of the term, I demurred.

 I noted that he was teaching a class organized around his own views of the material, his own interpretations, not theirs. Out of 15 students, surely there must be other views. When will they have an opportunity to test their understanding against others? How would they even know how their classmates interpret the material? He walks into the classroom,puts his voice on play, and then dominates the next 50 minutes. It’s not about them, it’s about him.

In this era of flipped classrooms,active learning, and student-centered instruction, why does such archaic pedagogy persist? When I can figure out a polite way to introduce myself to the instructor, I suspect I will find that he is well-intentioned and probably not conscious of the extent to which he dominates the classroom. (I hesitate to say“classroom discussion” because I never really heard any.) But he has approached the design of this seminar from the wrong direction. Instead of thinking about ways to achieve the learning goals of the seminar by empowering the students,he has designed the class so that he is telling the students what he knows.Students have few opportunities to tell him what they know (or, probably, don’t know). As I pointed out in several of my other posts, talking is not teaching.In seminars, instructors who do most of the talking are like captains who add so much ballast to their ships that they sink of their own weight.

Even if you are the world’s expert on the topic of your seminar, follow Michelle Dorrance’s lead and allow your students to show their stuff. Listen to them more and talk less yourself.

What To Do When Lesson Plans Blow Up

To show the students in my first-year seminar that nonhuman technologies are used to control humans everywhere on our campus, I constructed a lesson plan that included having students go on a scavenger hunt. I gave each team a sheet of paper on which to list every example they found and asked them to report back in 15 minutes. I said that the team that found the most would get a small prize. I had already made a list for myself of what I expected them to find, picking seven or eight things that I thought they would probably find.

Purple flowers on rose bowl float

Rose Bowl float in Pasadena City Park

After 15 minutes, the teams began trickling back into the classroom, with a surprising message. They had found lots of stuff! How much wasn’t clear to me until I asked the teams to report their observations and I began recording them on the board. I had a column for each of the five teams and had left space for more than enough reports, I thought.

However, I quickly ran out of space! As I went serially around the room, with each team reporting one thing during their turn, my initial excitement turned to dread as I realized that their interpretation of what constituted “nonhuman technologies” was far more expansive than mine. With the inclusive definition that they were working with, they’d come up with at least 30 examples.

I looked at the clock – – 45 minutes to salvage what I was hoping they would take away as the lesson for the day. Or, not.

I thought back to the last time a lesson plan had blown up on me. I remembered that I had candidly told them that things hadn’t gone as I’d planned. That’s what I did this time. Without going into more detail, I can report that it turned out to be an eye-opening and enlightening 45 minutes.

What lesson did I take away from this? First, don’t abandon ship when things move in a direction other than what you had planned. Instead, see what you can salvage. Second, using open-ended questions, find out how the students interpreted the assignment. Rather than lecturing to them on what I’d expected, I listened to their interpretations of the readings and their explanations of why their views fit the conceptual scheme of the text. I found myself agreeing with them. I recognized that their explanations were a valid and logical extension of what they read, whereas I’d had a preconceived notion that was narrower than it should’ve been.

Third, to give yourself time to think through how to deal with the unexpected answers, record their answers on the board. I wrote each answer in the student’s own words, as much as I could, and stopped often to make sure that I was getting it right. This gave me time to recover my composure. As I probed to make certain I’d understood what they were getting at, it also showed me their thought processes.

Fourth, after listing their observations and hearing their explanations, repeat what you had expected and explain why you were surprised. And by “surprised,” I mean in a good way. In my class, I explained that I found their more inclusive view a better way to read the text than what I had prepared.

Fifth, follow up the “blown” lesson with a posting on the course management system, going into more detail on what you said in class.  This shows students that you take their views seriously.

Six, and perhaps most important for the future of the class, after returning to your office, make detailed notes on what you’d planned, what “went wrong,” and how you can change things the next time you use that lesson plan.

I still haven’t decided whether I will give them more expansive instructions, anticipating that next year’s class will otherwise go in the same “wrong” direction as the class this year.  That is, I could “fix” the lesson plan to deliver the expected outcomes. Another option, and likely the one I will take, is to give them the same instructions as this year, prepare to be surprised, and just go with whatever happens!

Highly-Skilled Craft Workers Who Make Guitars Face the Same “Winner-Take-All” Competitive Market As Other Creative Professions

In her ethnographic study of guitar makers in North America over the past century, Guitar Makers: the Endurance of Artisanal Values in North America (University of Chicago press, 2014) Kathryn Marie Dudley provides a penetrating analysis of the dilemma facing high-end guitar makers. After World War II, it appeared that mass-produced guitars were going to put handcrafted guitars out of business. On top of that, the popularity of electric guitars pushed acoustic guitars to the periphery. Nonetheless, a hardy band of craft workers held on, shared information, created craft fairs, magazines, associations, and other mechanisms for taking collective action to preserve the craft.

Because she was interested in learning how to play the guitar, as well as to learn more about the craft, Dudley got to meet some of the key players in the industry as she conducted her fieldwork throughout the first decade of the 21st century. She attended meetings, went to trade fairs, and thus learned first-hand the vicissitudes of being a craft worker in a machine age.

Like Matthew Crawford in his New Atlantis article, “Shop Class As Soul Craft,” her book celebrates the materiality of craftwork and the intrinsic satisfaction craft workers get in producing beautiful artifacts that other people want to own. She emphasizes that almost all the craft workers she studied were drawn to the occupation not because of financial considerations – – until the collecting boom hit the market in the 1990s, many lived off the wages of their spouses – – but rather because they just wanted to make something.

What makes her book relevant to the maker movement is her depiction of the struggle in the industry between craft workers who are happy with low-volume production and a penurious lifestyle versus those who discovered that they can earn a nice living, but only if they scale up production by using modern technologies, particularly CNC machines. Beginning in the early 1990s, the cash value of vintage guitars soared, surpassing wine and fine art. The pursuit of collectible high-end guitars spilled over into guitars made by contemporary guitar makers, raising their value as well.

Some makers had the surreal experience of selling one of their guitars for less than $2000 and seeing it subsequently auctioned off for 5 to 10 times that amount. $100 guitars suddenly became $1000 guitars, and more. The economic incentive to produce at a higher volume was irresistible to many, but not all. The arrival of wealthy collectors, many of them who made their fortunes and the high technology boom of the 1990s, benefited only some of the guitar makers. Those who were able to get their guitars into the hands of celebrity guitarists and onto the performing stages of concert halls or clubs gain the reputation that radically boosted the value of their products. As in other winner-take-all markets, the number of people who could do this was inherently limited, and so other guitar craft workers had to be content with continuing to earn money with refurbishing and repairs on guitars, with the occasional sale of their own work.

A large part of the narrative in this book concerns the struggles in the guitar-making community over the issue of automation, scaling up, and potential destruction of the sharing ethos which guided early and mid-20th century guitar makers. Just as Richard Ocejoe’s book, Masters of Craft, describes the dilemma of distillery owners who received huge offers to sell out to big distributors, so too does Dudley portray the dilemma of guitar makers, living out their golden years in semi-poverty or buying CNC technology, scaling up, and reaping the rewards of large-scale production & distribution.

Hanging over all this are the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) regulations designed to prevent the importation of rare & endangered wood products, making it very difficult for makers to get the materials they need.

To scale or not to scale, that is the question facing skilled artisans today.

Talk Less, Teach More. But How?

“Talk less, teach more” sums up the mantra of the active learning approach to pedagogy. But how can you do that? I have four suggestions.

First, if you ask students a question, listen to their answers. We all know the research showing that most instructors wait two seconds or less before answering their own questions. Don’t do that! Ask a question, count to 10 silently, and if no one has responded, ask the question again. Still no response? Paraphrase the question and ask it one more time. I find I almost never need even the first 10 seconds, as sooner or later, one of the students “cracks” and volunteers. To do this effectively, however, you’re going to have to learn to appreciate silence. Trust me, it is actually refreshing in the classroom to sit silently and contemplate something, rather than coping with a constant wall of words.

Ryōan-ji Temple

Ryōan-ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan. Only 14 of the 15 rocks are visible from all vantage points

Second, instead of jumping right into asking for responses, give students time to jot down their thoughts. This will probably take no longer than a minute or two, but it does wonders for freeing up the blockage that students often encounter when they are immediately asked for an oral response to a question. I’ve use this technique successfully in many countries, especially in Southeast Asia, where students are often reluctant to speak. The very act of writing down their thoughts seems to show students that they do, in fact, have something to say. You can then ask them “read me what you’ve written on your papers,” if they’re still reluctant to speak off the cuff.

Third, use the board to list the answers that students offer. Writing on the board has a number of benefits. It slows you down, giving you a chance to process what the students had said and come up with follow-up question, if need be. It also gives you a justification for probing a student response, as you can say that “I’m not sure I completely understand what you said – – could you elaborate?” Writing on the board, in the student’s own words, shows the students that you take them seriously. It privileges their voice, especially when you resist the impulse to pre-edit their responses and write down what you were going to say anyway. Seeing their own words on the board seems to embolden the students and encourage them to volunteer to answer the next question. Finally, writing in the board also gives you a written record for later review, either in the class or – – if you photograph the board – – later, when you decide on what should be covered in the next class session.

Fourth, put students in groups to work on your questions or problem sets. Tell the group that you will be calling on a member of the group to give an oral response to your question and then walk around the room, coaching them as needed. When you ask groups to report, you don’t need to run through every single group. After a member of the first group gives an answer to the question, you can ask other groups if they have amendments, revisions, objections, supplements, and so forth. Refrain from commenting yourself until you given the students sufficient time to hash things out among themselves. Often, you will find that everything you would plan to say yourself has now been voiced by the students.

Colleagues sometimes object that using these techniques means you can’t cover as much. My response? First, who cares! Second, and more substantively, if the goal is to teach for understanding, there’s no better way to find out if your students are learning their lessons than to hear it in their own words.

Not “the muddiest point” but “the clearest point”

Several books on college teaching recommend using a classroom assessment technique (CAT) in which instructors ask students to reflect on what they’ve done that day and then write about something that still puzzles them – – the so-called “muddiest point.” For example, Angelo and Cross, in their classic book on Classroom Assessment Techniques, argued that the technique forces students to reflect on their comprehension of the day’s lesson and also to pick out one point that stands out as least understood. Feedback from these short notes gives instructors insight into what they might want to review in the next class or approach from a different viewpoint so as to increase students’ understanding.

Big rainbow trout

Trout picture from Livingston MT

As others have pointed out, there is a potential downside to such questions: they emphasize what has not been learned, rather than what has been learned. Accumulating evidence suggests that when students repeat something, even if it is wrong, it gets reinforced in their thinking. For example, wrong answers on tests can pass into long-term memory as received wisdom. In his book, The Art of Changing the Brain, Zull argued that it was futile to bring up and then try to correct misunderstandings and mistaken impressions. He said that such practices only reinforced the very knowledge that an instructor was trying to stamp out. Zull suggested that a better strategy was to focus on the positive and reinforce “correct” answers.

In that spirit, it would seem better practice to end a class by asking students to reflect on “what is the most important thing you learned today?” or “what will you take away from today’s class?” The task can be made slightly more complex by asking students how what they learned in today’s class builds on a previous class or what new ideas they might go online to follow up, given what they learned in today’s class.

An affirmative approach to what’s been discussed in class reinforces a growth mindset by showing students that you are making an assumption not only about that they already know something but also that they are now capable of building on that knowledge and integrating and synthesizing new information. Thus, rather than ask students for their “muddiest point” at the end of your next class, why not try asking them “what have you learned today and what will you do with that knowledge?”

Ask, Don’t Tell

During a recent class, after hearing presentations by my students, I considered doing a summary evaluation myself. I had made notes on what I’d observed, organized them, and had a few points I wanted to make. I rose to go to the whiteboard, prepared to jot them down and then tell the students what I thought I’d learned.

But then I stopped.

Harvey Littleton

Harvey Littleton glass sculpture (Courtesy of Steven P. Aldrich)

Why tell them anything? They had done the preparation for the presentations. They had sat through all of them. Each presentation was between 10 and 15 minutes long, and so there was quite a bit to observe. During the presentations, I noticed they were taking notes, just as I was. I recognized that by this point in the semester, they had surely developed their own critical eye and should have the ability to judge the presentations for themselves.

So, instead of telling them what I thought they should have learned, I just said “okay, what did you learn from your preparation for your own presentation and from listening your peers?” I then went around the room, soliciting responses, and wrote on the board – – in their words – – what they said.

As usually happens when I follow this format, I learned a few things. First, compiled, their list was longer than mine. They had noticed more than I had. Second, some of the things they noticed had never occurred to me. Thus, I learned something new. Third, I was much more relaxed, just listening to responses and writing them down than I would’ve been had I tried to perform my authority role and tell them what I thought. Fourth, through this process, I reinforced the principle that “talking is not teaching,” and that sometimes we play the role of teacher best when we just listen.

Papers into PowerPoint: Help Your Students Turn Their Papers into PowerPoint Slides

Academic papers are not good candidates for PowerPoint slides. Instructors, conference organizers, and seminar conveners expect submitted assignments and papers to have all the trappings of academic legitimacy, which means a literature review, justification for hypotheses, extensive description of methods used, and evidence used to support empirical conclusions. I have seen students build PowerPoint presentations by beginning at the title page and systematically working their way through every section, faithfully following their papers’ layouts.

Consequently, they create presentations with massive walls of text, few visual aids, too many embedded references, and so many slides that they can’t finish in the time allotted. Because they are afraid of leaving out essential points, slides are crowded with text from top to bottom. Some even copy whole paragraphs from their papers onto the slides. Inevitably, two things happen. First, to assuage their fears of overlooking something, students use slides as their scripts, mindlessly reading the slides to us, word for word. Second, audience members who try to read what’s on the slides while at the same time listening to what the student says – – after all, it is possible that presenters will slip up and say something unplanned – – find the task impossible. Our brains are not wired to listen and read at the same time, regardless of what some people believe about “multitasking.”

With so many slides to cover, students soon find that they are running out of time. What to do? Should they omit some of their precious slides, pushing past minor slides to get to the major points? Or, should they just talk faster? Nine times out of 10, “faster” wins because they hadn’t prepared for the possibility that they would need to edit on the fly. Consequently, they can’t do it. Their only option is to talk faster.

Raven Discovers Humans

Raven Discovers Humans, by Bill Reid, UBC Anthropology Museum, Vancouver

I suggest a better design process. First, tell the students to organize the presentation as if there were no paper. Ask them to put the paper away and not consult it again until they have a first draft. If they have read the literature, created a paper outline, written the paper, and then copyedited it, they should know the story by heart. No need to continuously consult the paper while preparing the slides. Second, they should find out exactly how much time they will have for the presentation. In a typical 15-minute presentation, presenters can probably cover six or seven slides, or maybe a few more if they are just graphs and pictures. If it is a seminar presentation and they have 20 or 30 minutes, they can add a few more slides, although I prefer to add more words to my oral presentation than slides to the slide deck. Regardless of much time is allotted, presenters should practice the entire talk at least twice.

Third, using as few slides as possible gives presenters flexibility in how they use their time. With more slides, each of which must be displayed/described, presenters’ hands are tied when they realize they are running out of time. (Or in exceptional cases, they discover a time surplus!) Having a small number of slides, from the very beginning, means that presenters prepare to talk more and consciously work harder to maintain their connection with the audience.

Fourth, presenters should reflect on the story they want to tell. How will it begin, how will it end, and what needs to go in the middle to justify the ending? I emphasize again: do this without going back to the paper!

Try this experiment: Imagine yourself in a conversation with a friend. Explain to them the problem you set out to address in your paper, what motivated you to take it up, what previous work was critical in shaping your own thoughts, how was your research designed, where did you get the data, how did you do the analysis, what did you find, and what does it all mean?

Fifth, plan the flow of the presentation. For a 15-minute presentation, presenters should lay out six or seven blank sheets of paper on the table and moving from left to right, write down the main point they will make with that slide. These slides will be the script, but not a script is read. Instead, the slides, and especially the graphics on them, will be their cues as to where they are in the story. Think of the slides as analogous to the story-board that movie directors use to plan their shots. Some of the slides might just have a title and a picture or two, whereas others might have a few bullet points. Full sentences are deadly for PowerPoint – – they encourage people to read, rather than listen.

The Internet allows access to thousands of images, and under the Creative Commons licensing system, if you give credit to the originator of the image, you’re free to use it however you choose. Find relevant images that convey the point of the slide. Ideally, they should advance the story and comment on it.

Finally, when presenters have finished the first draft of the story, with each slide having a title and possibly an image, consider turning on the built-in design assistant from PowerPoint. I found it makes great suggestions and you can create eye catching graphics by following its advice.

No amount of fancy design work will make up for a poor story, but many a good story has been ruined by poor design. Help your students get a leg up on the process by telling them to put the paper away and craft a story from their own understanding and imagination.

Derek Lidow’s Terrific New Book on Entrepreneurship

Derek Lidow’s book, Building on Bedrock: What Sam Walton, Walt Disney, and Other Great Self-Made Entrepreneurs Can Teach Us About Building Valuable Companies, is a welcome corrective to the overhyped promotion these days of high capitalization, high-technology, and high-risk businesses. Bedazzled by the wild hype surrounding gazelles and unicorns, entrepreneurship researchers have continued to focus on the black swans, even though the total IPOs in any given year would fit comfortably into a large lecture hall, as on average just over 100 U.S. firms went public annually between 2001 and 2016. The number of new ventures receiving venture capital funding annually in the United States has not changed appreciably in the last 20 years, hovering around 1400 per year. Nonetheless, business books and prominent entrepreneurs continue whipping up enthusiasm, encouraging entrepreneurs to take big risks in anticipation of big gains.

Robert Davidson sculpture

Meeting at the Centre, by Robert Davidson

In contrast, Derek Lidow points to “bedrock entrepreneurs” as the true foundation of economic prosperity in the United States. Every year, hundreds of thousands of ordinary businesses are started in the United States, many by people who have no idea what they are doing and who are not prepared for the challenges they will face. Martin Ruef and I wrote about these “mundane entrepreneurs” in our book, Organizations Evolving, and Paul Reynolds has diligently documented their existence through large scale representative samples of business starts. Lidow offers sage advice to would-be entrepreneurs, suggesting that many of them would be better off taking wage and salary jobs. But, for those who are willing to prepare themselves for the challenges, he recommends going for it.

But, “going for it” does not mean in the reckless way encouraged by entrepreneurial self-help books, but rather in a mindful, reflexive, and experimental way. He shows that successful entrepreneurs are not differentiated from the rest of us by any inherent talents, but rather by their willingness to learn from their experiences. He recommends that entrepreneurs continue experimenting until they either get it right or realize that the venture they’ve planned will not work.

This is a delightful book, written by somebody who has had a productive career running a family business, starting his own business, being CEO of a listed company, and then transitioning to a university position. He has the life experiences and educational training, including a PhD in applied physics from Stanford, to offer valuable advice. He readily admits his mistakes and is humble about his successes.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s contemplating entrepreneurship and to anyone who is consulting, teaching, or otherwise involved in the entrepreneurial community.

 

Setting Assignment Due Dates: Early, Late, or In-Between?

Students often complain that they can’t get enough sleep because they have too much work to do (Hershner and Chervin 2014). My first response has been to suggest that they are just not managing their time well. I seemed to have found evidence for my view when I taught a first-year honors seminar in the fall of 2016 with 24 students. Because I had the students submit their assignments through Sakai, each two-page paper came with a timestamp and I could see exactly when they were submitted. Following my customary practice, the papers were due at 9 AM in the morning, right before class met at 9:30 AM. Most of the assignments were turned in after midnight: 71%, on average, across the four assignments. Some students clearly stayed up most of the night, as for example with paper three, when seven assignments came in between midnight and 2 AM and three came in between 2 AM and 5 AM! For the last paper, eight came in between 2 AM and 5 AM. I was stunned, but what could I do?

Ghosts in the trees

Ghosts in the trees

In the fall of 2017, for the same course, I tried a simple modification: papers were “due” at 9 PM the night before and then “accepted” until 9 AM the next morning, before class. Papers that came in “late” were not penalized. The difference between the two semesters was dramatic: across the four papers, only 15% on average came in after midnight. And that number was inflated because on the fourth paper, six of the students chose to review their papers once more before turning them in, and so they came in between 8 AM and 9 AM, not during the midnight hours. For the first three papers, 85% of the papers, on average, were turned in by 9 PM the night before.

With this simple modification in the due dates and times, students stopped “maniacal binging” (Boice 2000), completed their work well before midnight, and presumably got a good night’s sleep in the bargain. Using a simple tactic of signaling that papers were “due” at 9 PM, I gave the students a hard constraint that they used in planning how they allocated their time. They didn’t want to be “late,” even though “late” carried no penalty. (And no one ever asked me if there would be a penalty.)

I now use this technique on all my assignments, whether they are graded or just checked off when submitted. Having assignments due the night before not only gives students the opportunity for a good night’s sleep but also, if I so desire, gives me an opportunity to review their work and to make modifications in my lesson plan, if the submitted papers reveal any misunderstandings that I need to clear up. What is particularly attractive about this technique is that it works without the imposition of any penalties for “late” assignments. Following Lowman’s (2000) lead, I behave as if there will no such a thing as a “late” assignment and the students make my words come true.

Interested in learning more about late assignments? See this post.

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Strategies for Managing Team-Based Research (co-authored with Akram Al-turk)

The scientific community celebrates individual achievements by conferring prestige and honors on scientists who win out in the competitive game of being the first to publish innovative research. Paradoxically, however, modern scientific expertise rests heavily upon work carried out by teams, rather than scholars working on their own. Tensions between the forces of competition and cooperation thus infuse every aspect of scholarly activities: grant writing, publishing, leadership in scientific organizations, and so forth. Thus, it is understandable that graduate students and junior scholars would be perplexed by how to manage such tensions.

We believe the key to successful collaborative relationships lies in preparing for them ahead of time, rather than attempting to deal with problems as they arise. In fact, some research suggests that the effectiveness of collaborative work is determined before any of the work is carried out. We have identified four structural elements that increase the likelihood of creating and sustaining collaborative relationships.

Define the Scope and Logic of the Project

At the start, the parties to a collaborative relationship should agree on a project’s scope and logic of inquiry. The researchers should ask themselves a few questions that will ensure that they are all on the same page. For example, will the project be open-ended, continuing until all possible avenues of interpretation have been explored and as many papers as possible published? Or, is the project more self-contained, with target journals or conferences identified and the project ended when a paper is accepted? Is the relevant data for the project already in hand or clearly identified, or will building a new dataset be a major thrust of the effort? Sharing “mental models” of the work to be done and how it should be carried out leads to effective teamwork.

In addition to being able to answer these questions, the types of goals a team comes up with will likely affect how well the collaboration goes. Although “write a paper together and get it published” is a common goal for academic collaborations, the success of the research project may depend on having a compelling goal. Is the research question challenging and (by academic standards) somewhat consequential? And, is the goal focused enough so that researchers are working toward a final product but open-ended enough that researchers have some level of autonomy and can be creative when the need arises? Interdisciplinary teams need to communicate with one another the reward systems of their disciplines, as some may place higher values on books than journal articles, or may value certain kinds of journals over others.

Agree about Responsibilities

Teams should also be deliberative and explicit about each researcher’s responsibilities.  External factors often dictate how well an organization (or group) does, but individual interventions, especially by team leaders, can lead to more effective team performance . Teams should decide whether one person will be identified as the “leader” of the project, ultimately responsible for taking major decisions (after consulting with the team) or whether leadership responsibilities will be rotated. In either case, a leader can increase effectiveness by ensuring that the research team comprises individuals whose skills and competencies complement each other and all contribute to the overall goal of the project, designing tasks that give everyone enough autonomy to make their contributions personally fulfilling and meaningful to the project and establishing norms of how the group will work and interact . Teams should identify each team member’s competencies, clarify what that member will do to move the project forward, and make sure everyone on the team knows the others’ roles.

Enforce Deadlines and Give/Receive Timely Feedback

Failure to meet deadlines often sinks collaborative relationships. However, failure to even set deadlines is probably a bigger headache. Without deadlines, members have no way of holding one another accountable for holding up their end of the relationship, as a member can always say that they’re not quite finished yet or they will have their part done “soon.” To receive the benefits of collaborating with people who have complementary skills, team members must be ready to comment in a timely fashion on intermediate products produced by others. First, team leaders can make sure that all researchers on the team are kept in the loop about how the project is going. Second, leaders can try to encourage everyone on the research team (and model ways) to provide good, timely feedback, e.g. by scheduling regular feedback sessions.

Use Coordination Mechanisms That Facilitate the Collaboration Process

Coordination and communication challenges can hinder the success of collaborative research. Although email and video conferencing services such as Skype have become ubiquitous, these technologies do not necessarily ensure that collaboration is successful. For example, although email and video conferencing allow researchers to communicate more easily, these kinds of tools may not be the best for task coordination, information sharing, and intra-project learning. One of the main challenges for teamwork is juggling multiple and simultaneous work tasks. Researchers, therefore, should use tools that help them manage these multiple tasks, allowing them to know what’s expected of them and see changes to the project almost instantaneously. A plethora of programs and software now allow for this. We recommend that researchers start with one that has low start-up costs—both in terms of time and money—and not be lured by fancy features, as they can be a time sink. Sometimes, investing in innovative technologies is worth the time, but teams should be deliberate about whether the investment is worth it for their project.

Summary

We have identified strategies for mitigating or eliminating collaboration problems in team-based research. At the beginning of a project, face-to-face meetings can establish the ground rules and expectations were all members of the team. Free riding, shirking, and social loafing are much harder when team members agree on responsibilities and create monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. Candid and timely feedback limits the damage that emergent problems can create, but requires strong leadership and commitment by all members to be effective. Finally, as in other collaborative efforts, state-of-the-art coordination and communication technologies facilitates effective team governance.

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Guidelines for Reducing Implicit Bias in Your Grading

Kyoto Garden

Garden in Kyoto

When asked what they most dislike about teaching, many instructors put grading at the top of the list. They find the process time consuming and stressful, topped off by demands from students that their assessments be logically justified. Who hasn’t found themselves in a situation of confronting a student who feels treated unfairly in the grading process and whose persistent questioning reveals that a grade does not stand up to scrutiny. Indeed, upon close inspection, the grading seems arbitrary and hard to defend. What to do?

Grading needs to be done well to give students the feeling that they are being treated fairly in the assessment process. Instructors need to use the same criteria of reliability and validity in designing assessments that they use in their empirical research. Just as they might be called upon by reviewers to defend the quality of data used in an article, so also must they have an answer to students’ queries about the rationale for their marks.

From my perspective, “implicit bias” constitutes a threat to the integrity of the assessment process. Instructors need to take every possible step to reduce the possibility that grades reflect less the merits of the answers than the personal characteristics of the student or the arbitrary whims and fancies of the grading process. Race, class, gender, sexual identity, social capital, and other student characteristics can affect grading if instructors haven’t created a process to limit their effects.

In addition, I believe instructors’ overconfidence in their grading abilities constitutes another form of implicit bias that hampers their ability to assign grades fairly. Keeping the process opaque and not sharing grading criteria with the students emphasizes the unequal power between students and instructors, and is another source of student cynicism about the educational process.

What steps might instructors take?

First, grade all assessments blindly. This means making sure there is no identifying information available while grading the assignment. You can do this by having students turn in blue books with the cover page turned back, by having identification numbers instead of names, by having students fold over the top of the page on which the name is written, and so forth.

Second, prepare an answer key beforehand for all answers. Some instructors call this a “rubric.” The answer key should not be simply bullet points, but rather a fully written out answer, of the kind you would expect to earn full credit on the question. You could also have a list of characteristics or features you’d expect in the question, but the sample answer – – which should be posted or handed out to the students – – should be complete and in prose form.

Preparing the answer ahead of time lets the instructor know that a question can, in fact, be graded. In addition, it prevents “bracket creep” in which an implicit and unwritten template for an answer subtly changes as the instructor reads through the answers and subtly changes the criteria for a grade. If you aren’t certain as to whether your template is too tough, you should read a sample of the answers ahead of time, before grading them, and revise your template if necessary. The rubric should not be changed, once grading is underway.

Third, write out the comments necessary to justify your mark. Don’t just write a simple one or two-word phrase, such as “good job,” or “not complete.” Write enough information next to the answers so that you can explain to students, when they come to you for advice, why you gave that particular mark.

Fourth, grade all of one question before beginning to grade the next question. For example, if your exam consists of four essay questions, you would grade all of question one first, going through all the exams, and then shuffle the exams and grade all of question two. And so on throughout the four questions, in order. This ensures that you are using the same standard throughout your grading and that your grading is not influenced by marks that you have given for previous answers.

You must ensure that a student’ s grade on a previous question is not visible to you. Otherwise, that grade is likely influence the grade you give the current question. Turn over the previous page so that you cannot see it.

Firth, take breaks while grading, and do not attempt to binge on finishing the grading in one sitting. Mistakes are much more likely if you continue grading to the point of exhaustion!

Working to ensure that your assessments are graded reliably and validly requires a bit more preparatory work on an instructor’s part, but the extra work returns huge dividends. When students realize that you are taking great care to grade their work fairly, they take a much more positive view of the assessment process. By the time they get to college, many have become quite cynical about the way instructors exercise their power in handling assessments, and they will appreciate the extra effort you take to make the process as transparent as possible.

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Will Trade Associations Exacerbate Growing Economic Inequality in the United States?

An essay prepared for a special section of the Journal of Management Inquiry gave me an opportunity to reflect on potential social changes in the US resulting from major political changes over the past three decades.   I believe a long-term decline in class consensus within the American business elite (Mizruchi, 2013) has raised the relative power of trade associations, compared to the powerful peak business associations of a bygone era, paving the way for more narrow self-interested actions and diminishing the influence of other kinds of interest associations. The worldview of the incoming president and his cabinet officials will facilitate this development, I believe.

Escher "Drawing Hands"

M.C. Escher “Drawing Hands”

Historically, business managers and owners could attempt to exert influence at four different levels in the system. First, they could get involved as individual executives, contributing money, lobbying officials and agencies, and so forth. Second, representatives of their organizations could do the same, especially through board interlocks with other firms in different industries, through which could diffuse general business practices as well as practices aimed at producing public goods  (Davis & Greve, 1997; Galaskiewicz, 1985). Third, firms could participate in specific industries’ trade associations that favored policies and practices they favored (Ozer & Lee, 2009). Fourth, and perhaps most important, a handful of peak associations sat above the previous three levels, cutting across firms and industries, and claiming to speak for the business community as a whole. For example, the now-defunct CED (Committee for Economic Development) advertised itself as offering “reasoned solutions from business in the nation’s interests.”

Mark Mizruchi argued that after World War II, American business leaders, working individually and through peak associations, were voices of moderation and pragmatism as the American economy expanded and the US became a global power. Foregoing narrow self-interest, business leaders accepted the legitimacy of organized labor and some federal oversight of the economy. By pursuing a policy of what the CED referred to as “enlightened self-interest,” they made it possible for the federal government to pass significant legislation that took account of national collective interests, such as the construction of the interstate highway system and improvements in the Social Security system, as well as the expansion of Medicaid. However, all this changed in the 1970s, as businesses were buffeted by global competition, rising inflation, and strong public pressure to do something about the environment, public health, working conditions, and so forth. That pressure led to the creation of many new federal agencies in the 1970s, such as the Environmental Protection Agency. What Mizruchi characterizes as a relatively harmonious working environment prior to the 1970s — involving government, business, and labor — changed into a much more confrontational system. The financialization of American corporations in the 1980s intensified pressures on executives and diminished their enthusiasm for pursuing collective solutions (Davis, 2009; Mizruchi, 2013). The corporate scandals of the early 2000s and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 further disrupted the formerly cozy relationships between members of the corporate elite (Chu and Davis, 2016).

Changes in patterns of mergers and acquisitions, initial public offerings, and the growing importance of private equity firms have led to the slow disappearance of corporations from the American economy over the past two decades (Davis, 2016). Previously, publicly held corporations might have felt some obligation to temper their self-serving actions with more public-regarding actions, to the extent that shareholders and activists could hold them accountable (King). However, privately held corporations have no such watchdogs and thus can act with much more autonomy and disregard for collective and societal interests.

Because of these changes, the business elite has fragmented over the past three decades and lost its ability to act cohesively (Walker & Rea, 2014). Unlike in earlier eras, when presidents and political leaders could call upon business leaders in peak associations to help them push for policies that might involve some sacrifices on their part, elites pulled back into policies reflecting more narrow self-interest. Mizruchi argues that many of the problems plaguing US politics – – extreme partisan polarization and inability to enact needed legislation, such as improvements in national highway infrastructure – – stem from the damages done to social and political consensus by developments since the 1970s. Consequences can even be seen at the state level, where efforts by public interest associations to expand Medicaid, under the Affordable Care Act, ran into strong opposition by conservative nonprofit advocacy organizations that mobilized public opinion against expansion (Hertel-Fernandez, Skocpol, & Lynch, 2016). Traditional general business interest associations like the Chamber of Commerce, as well as associations of hospitals and doctors, were unable to overcome special interest lobbying against expansion.

Today, with the loss of elite cohesion resulting in fewer class-wide constraints on businesses pursuing narrow self-interest and lobbying against policies purported to be in the public interest, strong trade associations are much better positioned to pursue their own interests. In the past, they might have been constrained by networks of ties between firms and their membership in strong peak associations. However, in the changed political and economic environment of narrow partisan self-interest, they now have much more room to fight for industry-level benefits against more comprehensive cross-industry solutions, as in issues such as environmental protection. Moreover, in this new environment, big firms are not as constrained by class-wide norms as in the past, and they can use their dominance within trade associations to push for their own interests (Barnett, 2009). Whereas in the past special interest associations — such as the American Legislative Exchange Council or Americans For Prosperity — might have been restrained by needing to justify their actions to more moderate peak associations, that is no longer the case (Jackman, 2013).

The United States is entering uncertain political times, with political parties polarized, and collective action in the public interest extremely difficult to achieve. To the extent that the decline of elite class cohesion and moderate business peak associations weakens the forces of conciliation and compromise, strong trade associations may actually step into the void and make matters worse by pursuing policies favoring their own industries. Of course, as Walker and Rea (2014) remind us, we should not conflate business unity with business power, and each case must be assessed on its own merit. Nonetheless, the possibility worries me – a lot.

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The Sound of Silence Can Be Deafening & the Questions You Ask Your Students Can Provoke It

A colleague recently visited my office with a problem. He said the students in his undergraduate class “didn’t want to talk.” He and I had previously talked about how to get students more engaged, and I had suggested to him that he ask questions. I probed, “what kinds of questions have you asked your students?” He replied, “Well, the first question I asked this morning was ‘what is the main point of the article I assigned for the day?’” Nobody said anything.

Instructor pointing at student

You WILL answer my question!

I pointed out that even I might be afraid to answer such a question. Such questions pose a severe challenge to the confidence of undergraduate students, because the instructor clearly knows the answer and they don’t.  The answer is a “fact” which the instructor clearly thinks the students should have already known before they came to class. When it comes to answering questions about “facts,” there are many ways to be wrong, but only one way to be right. When faced with this dilemma, students are understandably silent.

I suggested that he come up with nonthreatening questions: questions that didn’t put a student’s self-confidence and reputation at risk. Trying to begin a discussion with questions for which there is a “correct” answer makes salient the asymmetrical relationship between instructors over students. No one wants to look bad in the eyes of peers and so it is safer to say nothing and wait till somebody else answers or instructors give up and answer the questions themselves.

Is there a better way? What types of questions could you ask to begin a discussion? First, you could ask about something that everyone has seen or experienced. For example, in a class on the sociology of work, I asked students what is the best job they ever had and what were its characteristics? Everybody can answer such a question. Second, you could write a concept or principle on the board and then ask students to suggest examples. For example, you can ask for personal examples of a principle identified in the readings, rather than asking students to define the principle itself. In a class session on organizations and bureaucracy, I asked the students which aspects of the ordering process best exemplified what George Ritzer identified as the rationalization of fast food restaurants. It is critical in this process that you do not comment on the examples that are offered. Instead, simply compile the list. Third, you could ask students which previous class sessions or readings the day’s assignment reminded them of and why. Again, simply compile the list without editing it. Later in the discussion, after students have gained some confidence in participating, you can ask more difficult questions.

In addition to choosing questions for which there is no clear right or wrong answer, I follow several guidelines in getting discussions started. First, if at all possible, I use the whiteboard to keep track of student responses. Otherwise, trying to control the discussion process while at the same time keeping track of what is been said creates a high stress situation. You could also use an interactive polling system, such as Poll Everywhere.  Writing responses on the board clears your short-term memory and also gives you a few seconds to collect your thoughts while you decide on follow-up questions.

Second, I take care to make sure that if I’m writing answers on the board, I write them in the students’ own words. I rarely edit student responses and when I do, I always ask their permission. Writing the responses verbatim sends a strong signal that you are going to privilege student voices in the discussion, rather than just looking for confirmation of what you are going to tell them anyway.

Third, you should follow-up short or incomplete responses. Probe for more information by telling students that you need to make sure that you understand their meaning and thus you need a sentence or two from them. Point out that the few words you’ve written on the board might make little sense in a few minutes, when the discussion turns to assessing what’s been written in response to your original question.

When you are satisfied that you have responses that adequately cover the readings assigned for the day, then turn to editing what you’ve written on the board. This is a dangerous stage in the process, as it is here that instructors often hijack the process and begin selectively drawing from the writing on the board to give the lecture they had planned in the first place. Although the impulse to “correct” the unedited responses may be strong, don’t do it. Instead, turn to the students and ask them for suggestions for improving or simply using the list. For example, after I’ve written down the responses to my question about the characteristics of the best job students have had, I asked students if they see any pattern to the responses. The discussion naturally leads into various ways in which the dimensions of jobs can be analyzed.  In another example, after listing all the comments about ordering systems in fast food restaurants, I asked if the list reminded them of any of Ritzer’s principles and why. Note that it is okay at this point to begin probing for relevance to the day’s instructional goals, because you’ll have shown the students that you are listening to them, that their words matter, and that you take their views seriously.

The next time you find yourself stumped by why students are sitting passively in the classroom, seemingly unable or unwilling to answer your questions, take a hard look at your questioning strategy. Rather than sparking a discussion, the very questions you’re asking may be shutting down the process.

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Why Students Need Milestones & Small Wins

In my first year honors seminar, 5% of the grade is earned by making five posts on a webpage Forum. I added this to the course because I was searching for a way to keep the students engaged between class meetings. I invited students to comment on the readings, posts from other students, and anything else relevant to the course theme. I tried to reinforce their postings by commenting on those that I thought were particularly insightful. By mid-semester, I noticed that only about half the students had posted anything. I sent out an email to the entire class, reminding them of the requirement. Nothing happened.

As we approached the three-quarter mark, with about a month ago, I noticed that a few more students had posted. However, only a handful of the 24 students had come close to meeting the five post-requirement. To my amazement, many students had still not posted anything. I sent out another mass email, with an additional targeted group email to those students who hadn’t posted anything. The response was desultory.

With about two weeks to go in the semester, my disappointment deepened: three or four students had completed the requirement, about half the class had posted two or three items, and four or five students had still not posted anything. I made an announcement in class, reminding students that this requirement was sort of like “free money” in the sense that they got credit for simply making a posting, without any evaluation of its content. I then sent out another email, and this time I noticed that the number of postings began to increase.

At our penultimate class meeting, I made one last reminder of the requirement and encouraged students to set aside a few minutes to complete the requirement. I also sent personal emails to all the students who had posted nothing to that point. I was actually beginning to worry that so few students were going to complete the requirement that the grade distribution would be materially affected, as three or four points can make the difference between a B+ and an A-. (My friend Joe told me he would have stopped before going this far, as he saw my tactics as “coddling” the students.)

I watched the webpage intently over the weekend, and I noticed a few more people posting things. About one quarter of the class hit the five posting goal. But there were still many laggards.

On the evening before the last day, the posts finally began pouring in. Indeed, it was almost like watching a video game – – announcements were rolling into my email account, showing me an hourly tally. By the 5 PM deadline, most students had met the requirement. However, a few still had only one or two postings. One very surprised student discovered, after 5 PM, that he could no longer post to the webpage and emailed me. He ended up with only two postings to his credit.

What had gone wrong with my simple plan to increase out of class engagement with the course? When Melissa came to my office hours, I asked her why she hadn’t done the Forum postings until the end of the term and she nonchalantly replied, “It wasn’t high on my priority list.” She explained that with everything else she had to do, posting to the class Forum fell far down the list. Not only did she have work to do for her other classes but there are also lots of extracurricular activities to contend with, such as athletic events, concerts, and clubs. Other things were simply more important at the moment.

She could see that I was puzzled and volunteered an obvious – – to her – – solution: prevent students from waiting until the end of the term to fulfill the requirement by setting a target of one posting per month, which would result in five total postings. She told me that she was personally disappointed that students had waited, as she found the flurry of postings over the last couple of days of the class really provocative and wished that she had an opportunity to talk with the students in the class about their ideas in a more timely fashion.

As she was one of the five or six students who had also waited to turn in their term paper during the eight hour grace period on the last day, rather than the morning it was due, I asked her why she’d waited. She offered much the same explanation: she had lots of other stuff to do and had counted on the afternoon of that final day to allow her to finish up the proofreading of her paper.

Looking back, I realized that the milestones I had built into the course for completing various parts of the term paper assignment were simply not strong enough. Once again, Melissa volunteered a solution: set up stronger milestones and more closely assess compliance with the course requirements, rather than settling for “check plus” or simple peer review of outlines and drafts.

I’ll admit to being profoundly embarrassed by what I now realize was my failure to take account of the larger context in which my course was embedded. I had committed an elementary mistake inexperienced instructors often make: I thought that if something were important to me, it would also be important to the students. I had assumed I could motivate students by setting up incentives and creating a few simple milestones that allowed me to track students’ progress in meeting course goals. I had failed to account for the complex and overloaded life – as they perceive it — of today’s college students.

Students are confronted with an enormous variety of activities from which they must choose, and the priorities they follow don’t always accord with what we as instructors would prefer. The tasks we set for them are often overshadowed by much more immediate and pressing demands, including not only work for other courses but also their desire to live a richer social life now that they are on their own. Often, we are just not salient in the midst of more attractive options.

What to do? I suggest being much more mindful of the need for building frequent and graded milestones into your course that give you the opportunity to provide feedback on how well students are meeting course requirements. Management theorists talk about the power of “small wins” that give people a sense of making progress toward a goal. When people feel that they are making progress toward a goal, they feel more positive about the process and the positive emotions feed back into the amount of investment they make in the activity. Motivation increases and people began looking for the next small win in the process.

For example, when I enact milestones requiring monthly postings, I give students a periodic and highly visible reminder of the course themes. Because this particular requirement just assesses whether students have posted, rather than the content of their posting, it is also an easy win. An added advantage of requirements that involve highly visible activities is that students also gain public confirmation of their progress.

Small-stakes assignments also mean that students don’t put a lot at risk with any particular submission. Sim Sitkin described this strategy as one of “small losses.” Either way, it can be effective in motivating students to focus on completing assignments.

Term project milestones are bit more complicated, but they too provide opportunities for small wins. Students might simply get a check for turning in a proposed theme or a plan for researching the paper. Turning in outlines and drafts involves higher stakes’ assessments, and I believe instructors should provide fairly detailed written feedback for such assignments. Again, if it is to be a “milestone,” then students must not be given the impression they have passed the milestone until you, as the instructor, give them the go-ahead.

When students fail to keep up in our courses or turn assignments in late, we often accuse them of procrastination. But I’ve argued in this note that part of the problem is our failure to provide incentives powerful enough to motivate students to keep up. By building “small wins” into the milestones we set, we can rely on positive motivation, rather than draconian punitive measures, such as late penalties. If the milestones are simple and clear enough, students will do their assignments on time.

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Teaching a class? Be the 1st to arrive

When I leave my office and head for class, I’ve noticed that my step quickens noticeably. I feel excited about the class I’m about to teach and eager to share with the students what I’ve learned about the day’s topic. However, I also walk briskly because I want to arrive in the classroom before my students do. My goal is always to be the first to arrive so that I’m there to greet the students as they enter. This may seem like a minor detail in the greater scheme of all things pedagogic, but I actually have a well thought out plan for this tactic.

Workers in the Great Depression

Men arriving at work

First, arriving early gives me the opportunity to engage in small talk with individual students about the course and how things are going for them. Information gleaned from these discussions may generate a question that I bring to the general class discussion or may lead to modifications in an assignment I had planned. For example, students might point out some better contemporary examples of the principles discussed in a reading or they might have seen something in social media that’s worth mentioning to the whole class. I also find out about what’s happening in their other classes, which is information I can often work into our class discussion. Some students will be motivated to show up early because they want to hear what I’m telling other students – – they don’t want to miss anything.

Second, chatting informally with the students who have arrived early gives me a window into college life in general. Has sorority rush started yet? Is anybody in the class a candidate for election to student government? Are students excited about an upcoming appearance by our women’s soccer team in the conference tournament? Some of what I learn can be used subsequently as examples in the class discussion. For example, issue-oriented student groups are very active on my campus and their organizing tactics make for great examples in a social movement course. Generally, I get a good sense of the pulse of the campus and the rhythm of students’ daily lives.

Third, students are often willing to share things with me before class starts that they would not mention when their peers are seated around them. For example, did they find the readings for the day difficult? Why? Are they worried about meeting deadlines for the term paper? Revealing such anxieties to everybody, once the class is underway, can be a daunting experience for shy students. By contrast, as I walk around the room before class starts, engaging in small talk, I find they are more likely to open up and reveal such concerns. Speaking to students individually, or in small groups prior to the start of class, is particularly helpful for students who are nervous about speaking during a large class session.

Fourth, my students often use this time to ask me questions about how I spent the weekend, how I feel about recent political events, and so forth. Students often seem surprised that I have a life outside of the classroom, one that includes children and grandchildren. Sharing – – but not over-sharing – – some recent events in my life helps to humanize me as more than just their instructor. In my experience, this also helps in making students feel comfortable about coming to visit me during office hours.

Fifth, showing up early carries significant symbolic value. It signals to the class that you take teaching seriously and are prepared to put in whatever time it takes. When students realize that I will be in the classroom 15 minutes before the official start of class, they start showing up early as well. Often, almost all the students are seated several minutes before the “beginning” of class. Few people walk in late, where “late” is defined as not being seated at the official starting time. In contrast, were I to set a bad example by coming in just before class started, I would be encouraging my students to do the same.

Sixth, setting aside time in your daily schedule to leave your office early to head off to class will give you a bit of extra time for those unusual circumstances that sometimes disrupt your schedule. If a student visiting your office hours has an issue that needs more time or if an emergency phone call keeps you in your office for a few extra minutes, you will still arrive well in advance of the starting time. Do not treat arriving early as an option or you will end up finding the time occupied and you won’t ever get to class early. However, on rare occasions when “stuff happens,” you will still arrive on time for the start of class, given your new routine.

I strongly suggest you try out this practice at the beginning of the next term. Make it a routine practice for all your courses. Arriving 10 to 15 minutes before the published start time will make a dramatic difference in how much you know about your students, how much they know about you, and in creating a more comfortable and positive classroom atmosphere.

Professional meetings: act like you’ve been there before

Many professional associations have their annual meetings this time of year, and thousands of attendees will mingle in the corridors of super cooled hotels, many for the first time. When newbies ask me for my advice on what to do at these meetings, I’m reminded of a quote variously attributed to John Wooden, Bear Bryant, or Vince Lombardi: when you score, “act like you’ve been there before.” In other words, don’t make a fool of yourself. As a professional, you were supposed to score in that situation and so don’t make a big deal of it by excessive celebration.

Robert Davidson sculpture

Meeting at the Centre, by Robert Davidson

Now, very few interactions at professional meetings carry the same high-stakes outcomes as a sports competition, but Wooden’s advice is still relevant. Understanding what kinds of questions are appropriate and potential openings for productive conversations with more experienced participants is a key to having a good time. In this post, I review the kinds of questions that I think are conversation stoppers and clearly mark someone as either a first-time attendee or possibly socially inept. I then offer suggestions about more appropriate conversational openers.

At a national professional meeting, you are quite likely to meet a senior scholar whose work you have read and admired. You will be anxious to make a good impression on the person. You probably know that Professor Proteus works at Ivy League University, and so two questions immediately pop into your mind: “are you still at Ivy League University?” And “do you like it there?” The first question reveals that you appear out of touch with the current literature, as Professor Proteus’ affiliation is always prominently displayed right below her name in publications. The second question is fundamentally flawed in two respects. First, it can be answered with a “yes/no” answer, which gives Professor Proteus a chance to terminate the conversation and walk away. Second, if Professor Proteus has been at Ivy League University for several decades, what is she to say? “No, I hate it there, but I just can’t get a job anywhere else.” Or, “now that you mention it, I guess I should begin to look for better jobs elsewhere.”

Professor Proteus has probably answered this question dozens of times before, and thus she will resist the temptation to give a snarky answer. However, she will begin casting her eyes around the room, looking for more interesting conversational partners.

Another apparently obvious opening gambit has similar hidden dangers: “so, what are you working on now?” First, like the earlier question, it reveals that you evidently are not paying attention to recent literature, or else you would know what Professor Proteus is working on. Second, it gives Professor Proteus another chance to terminate the conversation, as she can say “oh, I have organized a session on the apocalyptic consequences of Brexit at this meeting. You should attend.” Third, the question is likely to remind Professor Proteus of those early days in her career when she was explaining to potential employers, over and over again, the contents of her research portfolio. There is no satisfactory short answer to such a question, especially if Professor Proteus has no idea how much you already know about her work.

Finally, a third problematic opening remark is more nuanced: “in my graduate seminar, we read your paper on the semiotics of transcendental strategic growth initiatives, and I didn’t really understand it. Can you explain it to me?” At this point, you will notice Professor Proteus glancing at her watch and making her excuses for why she has to be somewhere else as soon as possible.

What are some better ways of beginning a conversation with senior scholars whose work you have admired? First, after telling them your name and where you’re from, resist the temptation to immediately begin explaining in great detail what you’re working on, unless they ask you. Even if they ask you, keep your remarks short. Turn the conversation back to their work. Second, show them you are familiar with their work. A good opening question would be something along the following lines: in the last issue of JoIR (The Journal of Irreproducible Results), I read your paper on the semiotics of transcendental strategic growth initiatives and I found it really interesting. Are you working on a follow-up to that paper? I’d love to read a draft, if you are interested in circulating it, and send you comments if you wish.”

Professor Proteus will be pleased that you are aware of her recent work and that you didn’t ask her to explain it to you. More importantly, because she gets few invitations from others to make comments on her draft papers, your voluntary expression of availability might pique her curiosity. If she indicates even a tentative willingness to send you a draft, do not – – I repeat, do not – – ask her for her email address. Any competent user of Google these days can find her email address on the web and conversational time is better spent on more substantive matters. (This is another way you show that you’ve done this before.)

Third, if you attend the meetings pre-armed with a short list of people whose work you admire and whom you would like to meet, then go ahead and prepare a question or two for them. The question should not be answerable with a simple “yes/no” answer, and indeed, it should not have an obvious answer. Senior people hate questions with obvious answers, as it appears that you are just trying to flatter them. You will notice that their answers to such questions are quite short.

Here is an example of a possible challenging question: “I have always thought of your work as questioning our assumptions about the power of human agency, but I noticed that your recent work seems to back away from that view. In your recent paper in JoIR, your explanation heavily privileges not just collective but individual action. Am I reading you correctly?” Okay, I know this seems like it permits a yes/no answer, but it is not a simple answer – – the way you frame the question shows that you are familiar with her work and are looking for deeper explanations. Even if Professor Proteus has no time to engage you in a full exploration of this question, she may actually set up an appointment to meet with you later.

So, what are the principles underlying my advice? First, show familiarity with a scholar’s work. Second, ask more than simple yes/no questions. Instead, make the question challenging, perhaps by pointing out what you perceive as contradictions in recent work. Third, don’t act like a tourist. Questions about the weather and complaints about the hotel are best discussed with the concierge or doorman. Fourth, spend some time preparing a short list before you go, listing not only whom you’d like to meet but also the kinds of questions you’d like to ask. At the meeting, ask senior scholars whom you know for introductions, if you are too shy to introduce yourself.

However, if you follow the advice given here and avoid the nonstarter questions, you need not worry about making your own introductions.

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If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?

One of my favorite expressions is “if you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” I believe that the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden was the first to use this expression. How does this apply to academic writing? After a little thought, I came up with these five examples of putting things off that would have been better accomplished had they been completed at the appropriate time:

John Wooden

John Wooden quote from http://www.brainyquote.com/

First, not doing a full outline before beginning to write a draft. Even in my senior honor’s seminar, open only to the best students in our program, many students give me a funny look when I ask them whether they do an outline before they began working on their papers. Okay, you say, those are undergraduates, what do you expect? However, when I ask the same question of graduate students and even faculty, many say they can’t be bothered, offering various excuses including “it takes too much time,” “I like to discover my central theme as I write,” and my favorite, “it hampers my creativity.” I liken this practice to hikers walking into one of our large national forests on a week long track without a map. What do we call such people? Lost. Somebody will eventually need to rescue them. In academic settings, the rescuers are often editors and reviewers.

Second, skipping a difficult section while writing a draft. Assuming that you prepared an outline, you have an end goal in mind and so the problem is just to execute. However, the only way to test whether the outline actually represents a coherent narrative for your story is to go through it from beginning to end, in order. The difficult bits that you skip over, assuming that they can be written later, might actually be the points where you eventually discover that you can’t get there from here. When writing an outline, it is fairly easy to convince yourself that, as seen from the mountaintop, there is a walkable trail from the park entrance to the creek. On the ground, however, the unbridgeable chasm that was concealed by the tall trees becomes readily apparent. It is much easier to do it right the first time than to walk back to the entrance and start over again.

Third, not recording the full reference for a book, article, or blog post when you first take notes on it. It is easy to convince yourself that you can always come back later and get the rest of the reference you need for the bibliography. Moreover, there’s a chance that you won’t actually use the material in your paper, and so why spend extra time writing down all that information when you’ll never need it. Indeed, why bother? The answer becomes painfully apparent when you discover the incomplete references on the morning you plan to submit the conference paper, to meet the announced deadline, and you find that the library server is down.

Fourth, not doing the descriptive statistics before beginning the multivariate analysis in a statistically based paper. I try to teach my students the relevance of this potential misstep when they bring me the first draft of their paper and I point out the implausibility of a coefficient or two. Could it really be true that people with college degrees earn less than those who dropped out of school? Quite likely, somewhere along the way, a coding error or data transformation mangled the true values. Carefully scanning means, standard deviations, skewness, and other basic properties of the data goes a long way toward reassuring me that you actually understand your data.

Fifth, sending out a paper for comments from your friends and colleagues before you have proofread and copyedited it. Nothing says “I don’t care about your time” more than sending a colleague a paper full of typos, misspellings, botched grammar, and other mistakes that could have easily been caught with an hour or so of careful reading. I suggest first running the paper through a standard spelling and grammar checker on your word processor, then printing the paper out and reading it line by line. To ensure perfection, you might try having a very patient and loyal friend read it aloud to you. Here’s your chance to discover the true meaning of a “strong tie.”

John Wooden was surely right: although each of these shortcuts will seem to save you time in the short run, the gains are purely illusory. You have merely embedded problems in your work that will come back to haunt you later, especially when they are discovered by others. Do yourself, your friends, and your reviewers a favor: take the time to do it right the first time.

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What To Do After the Reviews Arrive

Over the past decades, I have responded to more than 100 revise and resubmit requests from editors, served about 10 years as Associate Editor of the Administrative Science Quarterly, and reviewed hundreds of papers for dozens of journals. Closer to home, I’ve had the experience in the past year of responding to several tough R&R requests, and thus I decided to see whether I had learned enough to share some general tips with other authors. So, here are a few, with no claim to originality on any of them.

Ryōan-ji Temple

Ryōan-ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan. Only 14 of the 15 rocks are visible from all vantage points

First, just wait. After you finish reading the editor’s letter and the reviews, you might feel the need to “do something.” My advice? Don’t! Read the letters a couple of times to make sure you’ve noticed everything and haven’t spent more time on the negative then the positive reviews. Then, put them aside and just think about them for a day or two. Or longer.

Second, moderate your emotions. It is natural to feel annoyed, irritated, and even angry about a letter that points out the flaws in your work. However, letting your anger get the best of you will lead to unprofessional behavior which you will later regret. Given that the letter is a revise and resubmit request, there will be sentences in the reviews that say positive things about your work. Relish them and then move on. Similarly, there will be sentences in the reviews that lead you to question the intelligence and motives of the reviewers. Such thoughts are not helpful. They block rational thinking about the strategic course of action you need to take.

Third, thank the editor. The letter probably asks you to indicate to the Journal whether you plan to resubmit and if so, by what date. I never turn down such invitations. Even if the letter says something like “meeting the reviewers’ comments will require major changes in the manuscript,” the fact that the editor thinks you have a chance is reason for celebration. So, don’t complain in the message you send back to the Journal; just tell them that you’re grateful for the opportunity to revise the manuscript and you will be returning it within 30, 60, or 90 days, or whatever time frame it is that you’ve been given. Editing is mostly a thankless job — give the editor a break.

Fourth, do not send the manuscript unchanged to another journal! Occasionally I hear friends and colleagues tell me that the effort to meet the revision requests is not worth it and they’re just giving up and sending the paper to another journal. That’s a big mistake. Why? First, for most journals, far less than half of the authors submitting papers are given opportunities for revision. Somebody likes your work. Second, the odds of an acceptance skyrocket for most journals, once the paper has been given an R&R. For some journals, the odds approach 50% that a revision will be accepted. Whatever the number, if you cared enough about the Journal’s reputation to submit to it in the first place, you’ve now got a much better opportunity to publish in it and so you shouldn’t turn it down. Third, and perhaps most important, it is quite likely that at least one of the reviewers who told the editor that the paper needed work will be a reviewer for a subsequent journal to which you send the paper. Nothing angers a reviewer more than to learn that all the work put into a review has been ignored by an author who has chosen to send the unchanged paper elsewhere. Sending the paper elsewhere without revising it is likely to elicit a strong rejection or at least one really strong negative review!

Fifth, consider the possibility that the reviewers were right. Lots of research in cognitive neuroscience tells us that people consistently overestimate the value of something they have produced, as well as being wildly overconfident that their work is above average. Don’t be one of those people. Take the reviews to a colleague and, without biasing their response with a negative cue, ask them to tell you what they think of the reviews. You will be surprised at the response. Although your colleagues can put themselves in your shoes as a spurned author, they probably have had much more experience as a reviewer than as an author (judging by the average colleague’s CV), and so their sympathies are quite likely to lie with the reviewers. Listen to what they have to tell you.

Sixth, make a plan. Every revise and resubmit editor’s letter asks an author to not only revise the manuscript but to include a document that indicates how each of the comments made by the reviewers was dealt with. You can get a head start on that document by using the reviews to create a plan for revision. First, fit the plan to the comments. If the points in the reviews aren’t already numbered, number them. Keep track of which reviewer said what by giving each reviewer a letter, e.g. A, B, and C. Second, indicate whether you accept the criticism and can do something about it (adding literature, clarifying language, conducting new analyses, and so forth) or you can’t. If you can’t do something about it, indicate why. Third, clearly indicate which of the comments will require moving words around (theories, concepts, models, etc.) versus which will require new analyses. Externalizing your thoughts in this way will show you whether you truly understand what the editor is asking you to do. (You can write back and asked for clarification of murky points.) It also gives you a sense of the magnitude of the effort required to meet the comments. This document will be both a plan for revising the manuscript and the template for the letter you will write to the editor.

Seventh, don’t lengthen the text. Almost all papers that are submitted are close to or over the ideal word limit set by a journal. Although you may claim that you can’t deal with the reviewers’ comments without adding more words to the text, that is surely not true. Unless you had hired a professional editor before submitting the paper, there are many places in the text where you will find redundancies, unnecessary digressions, and so forth. Use the revision opportunity to shorten the text, or at least to ensure that it is no longer than the original submitted.

Eighth, be generous. Avoid gratuitous insults to the editor or reviewers in the letter you of explanation write. Although it is tempting to claim to an editor that the reviewers misunderstood your manuscript because they’re out of touch with the literature or have inferior reading skills, you’ll gain no profit by doing so. Avoid effusive praise, but do thank the reviewers when they genuinely pointed out something that you had missed. In simple declarative prose, explain to the editor and the reviewers how you understood each of their points, how you responded to it, or why you were not able to.

If you follow these tips, I cannot guarantee you that your resubmitted manuscript will be accepted. However, I can guarantee that your professional reputation will emerge intact and you’ll live to fight another day. You will also feel better about the process.

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The Impossible Necessity of History

Some book titles are so compelling that you’d feel guilty if you didn’t at least pick the book up and skim it. Such is the case with Ged Martin’s book, Past Futures: the Impossible Necessity of History (University of Toronto Press, 2004), based on the 1996 Joanne Goodman lectures at the University of Western Ontario. Despite his thoroughly convincing arguments that historical explanation, as we know it, is methodologically and analytically impossible, he managed to convince me that it is nonetheless worth doing. This is the kind of book that people used to describe as a tour de force. What’s Martin’s argument?

A small town that time has (almost) forgotten.

A small town that time has (almost) forgotten.

He asserts that the data available to historians are hopelessly incomplete, the models they build are fraught with selection bias, and our view of the past is unjustifiably judgmental. He advocates giving up traditional historical scholarship in favor of locating events in time, identifying their relationship to each other, and connecting them to the provisional present.

In terms of data, three problems confront anyone turning to the historical record for evidence about what “happened in the past.” First, throughout most of human history, very little that happened was permanently documented. Hugely significant events went unrecorded or noted with incomplete details using fragile techniques and materials, which disintegrated, burned, and were lost forever. Second, only a minuscule fraction of the population has ever been in a position to actually have their actions recorded. Much of what we do know about the past concerns that vanishingly small segment of the population some have recently labeled the 1%: elites who had the luxury of employing others to document what they did or the resources to create semi-permanent records using materials such as stone or parchment. The vast majority of the population engaged in activities that are now essentially invisible to us, although forensic anthropology and archaeology are pretty good at working with the few artifacts we can find. Third, more problematic is the tendency of those people who did leave records behind to engage in hyperbole, self-aggrandizement, and untrustworthy accounts of the role they actually played in historical events. Although the rise of modern digital technology would seem to have improved matters greatly, Martin argues that the problem still exists, but now on a grander scale. It is simply impossible to know everything that happened in the past.

In terms of model building, contemporary historians are in the unfortunate position of knowing exactly how things turned out. First, scholars are tempted to build their explanations backwards, starting from outcomes and then searching for plausible prior events, continuing back through history until reaching a “satisfactory” explanation. But, they will be working with historical materials left behind from each era by people who had their own theories of why things had happened and structured their documentation accordingly. Second, almost all events have multiple causes.  Prioritizing them and determining how much leverage each exerted on an outcome of interest is nearly impossible, given the data problems mentioned above. Martin compares this task unfavorably to the situation that laboratory scientists work with, which allows them to run multiple experiments, under conditions where they can control many possible causes, and isolate the influence of specific factors. By that test, of course, almost all social science explanations will also fail. Third, and perhaps more important, uncertainty permeates every aspect of human activity, with people facing multiple options at every turn. Even focusing on “decision-making,” as Martin advocates, doesn’t remove the problem of people having only the faintest of ideas concerning what’s going to happen next, given the action they take. Moreover, because we have no way of getting inside the heads of the people who made those important decisions, we can only speculate as to what they were thinking at the time they acted.

The “past futures” of the title refers to the fact that from the perspective of the present, everything in the past could be viewed as the realized futures of people who had little clue as to what was coming next. Today, we are their future, but it is highly unlikely that one any of them foresaw it. In writing history by looking backwards, from the present, it is tempting to make our “known past” part of our explanation by treating it as the intended future of humans who were making decisions about what options to pursue. But of course, lacking clairvoyance, they had no ability to imagine all the possible futures that would unfold. Nonetheless, the temptation to write linear, coherent narratives about why things had to happen the way they did overwhelms most scholars.

But wait, there’s more! Martin also takes historians to task for imposing normative judgments on the actions of historical figures, using contemporary values. The severity of the normative judgment increases, the further back in time the historian travels. He uses the example of people involved in the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as more contemporary examples. Martin’s point is that such normative judgments cloud the construction of analytic arguments, biasing the selection of cases and causal principles.

Despite the incredibly bleak picture Martin draws of the impossibility of historical analysis, he nonetheless concludes his book with the argument that contemporary social scientists “need” historical analysis. Giving up their quest for comprehensive explanations of historical events, historians can instead simply locate events in time and identify their relationships to one another. They can tentatively indicate which events were more significant than others by making comparisons to possible alternatives, now known because we have the luxury of looking backwards. Abandoning the conceit of the superior present, they can remind us that “each succeeding present is merely provisional, nothing more than a moving line between past and future.”

Discerning readers of my blog post will now recognize why I like this book so much: this is a very evolutionary argument, cognizant of the need for humility in building tentative explanations of social phenomenon. “Past futures” are always explicable, if one is willing to commit the kinds of methodological and analytic fallacies that Martin points out. Don’t go there. He argues that contemporary historiography has plenty to do, without falling into the trap of building “neat and tidy” explanations. Instead, historians can make us aware of our own ethical standpoints and caution us against ransacking the past for justifications of currently favored policies. The future awaits us, but it is probably not the one that we envisioned, nor could we.

Organize literature reviews by ideas, not authors

A few days ago I received a draft manuscript from some friends who asked for comments. The manuscript was prepared for a handbook meant to summarize the state-of-the-art in an emerging field and thus was intentionally focused on reviewing the literature and identifying trends. I first checked the references and saw that they had included what I expected. Therefore, the review was certainly up to date. I settled in for a good read.

Wilhelm Hofer

Wilhelm Hofer “Medir a Coherencia da Vitalidade.” Santiago de Campastella

The first paragraph announced the paper’s purpose and then laid out the plan of the paper. It was organized into thematic sections, with short headlines identifying the themes. No surprises so far.

However, as I read through the paragraphs, I noticed a pattern that has become all too familiar to me over the years, in my roles as reviewer, editor, and commentator on other people’s work. The first sentence of nearly every paragraph began by mentioning a particular author’s work, often with the author’s name the first words in the first sentence. For example, “Smith (2014) studied 94 entrepreneurs in the process of beginning their first ventures, focusing on how they picked the industries they wanted to enter.” Subsequent sentences provided more detail on what Smith had done. Occasionally the paragraph included mentions of other authors, but often the entire paragraph was devoted to a single author.

In the paragraphs that followed, the pattern recurred. Each told us about a particular author or authors and their work. Sometimes the authors were strung out in a narrative that presented the work chronologically, but often the organizing principle wasn’t clear, beyond the fact that all the authors in this section could be grouped under a common theme.

By the third page, I was ready to throw in the towel. The authors were asking me to do the work that they should have done, before beginning to write the paper: group the papers reviewed by concepts and principles and then use topic and concluding sentences to tell us why the work reviewed is important. Rather than organizing the review by authors’ names, they should’ve organized it by ideas and concepts.

Thus, the paragraph that now began with “Smith (2014),” should have instead begun with “Most studies of how entrepreneurs choose the industries they want to enter have found that entrepreneurs enter industries in which they have worked, rather than taking a chance on coping with unfamiliar environments.” Smith’s contribution could then have been placed into the context set by a strong topic sentence. For example, Smith might have conducted a particularly valuable study because it included a large nationally representative sample and well – documented indicators of the concepts under investigation. By contrast, Jones could’ve been mentioned in the same paragraph as conducting a study that seemed not to support the topic sentence’s empirical generalization but, in fact, the study should be discounted because of fatal flaws in methodology.

Literature reviews that follow a simple narrative structure of serially presenting author after author are easy to write but do little to advance our understanding of how to interpret previous research and how much confidence we should place in it. As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, a better strategy is to read all the relevant works and write interpretive notes on them. Then, the interpretive notes should be sorted into conceptual categories and further ordered along the dimensions that emerge from a close reading of the notes. For example, one dimension might be “research designs used,” and another might be “theoretical perspectives framing the research.”

The resulting emergent conceptual categories and principles should then be used to organize the literature review, with authors’ names subordinate to the higher-order principle of capturing central tendencies and the extent of diversity in the literature.

So, the next time you read a literature review and notice that nearly every paragraph starts with an author’s name, ask yourself, did the authors really do the tough analytic work required to add value to the literature? If not, perhaps here is an opportunity for you to step in and do more! Organize your own review by ideas, not authors.

Use the norm of reciprocity to get constructive feedback on your work

In popular fiction, authors are often portrayed as isolated and tortured souls, locked away in a garret apartment or in a cabin in the forest, producing their great works without benefit of human companionship. In reality, writing is an extremely social activity, highly dependent upon an individual’s network of family and friends. Peer networks play in a particularly important role in moving writing from solipsistic doodling to prose that others want to read. Let me suggest one way in which social relationships are critical: finding people willing to offer critically constructive feedback on the work.

Boston MFA

MFA Boston

When your draft is completed, how will you know what reception it will receive from the intended readers? When I talk to academic writers about this question, I point out that the most risky action an author can take is to submit to a journal a paper that no one else has yet read. Although it seems incredibly shortsighted, I often talk to people who’ve done exactly that – – they claim that they really couldn’t find anybody they thought would be a good reviewer. Thus, to get feedback on their work, they plunged ahead and sent it out for review.

Why is this risky? For most academic journals, the best outcome of initial review is an invitation to revise and resubmit the paper. Thus, the initial submission is not an attempt to get the paper published as is, but rather to convince the reviewers, and hence the editor, that the paper has enough merit to warrant the journal spending an additional round of reviewing on it. If you submit a paper that has not been evaluated by anyone yet, it is quite likely that it contains so many serious problems as to preclude the likelihood that reviewers and editors will see it as worthy of a revision. So, at the very least, it makes sense to seek feedback from others that will enable you to fix major problems with the paper before submitting it, thus increasing the odds that you will get a chance from the journal to revise the paper.

But who should you turn to for such feedback? I recommend thinking first of strong ties and then expanding beyond them in selecting people whom you will ask for feedback. First, you can turn to your local circle of colleagues and mentors. You might join a writing group with others who seek feedback on their work. With others writing about similar topics, you could organize a workshop at which you present your papers. Second, you can locate potential reviewers by attending conference sessions at which people in your field are presenting their own work. Third, if there are several authors whom you relied heavily upon in your literature review, they are likely candidates for providing feedback.

When I make such suggestions, especially to graduate students and junior faculty, they almost immediately object. Why would these people be interested in helping you out? Providing feedback is a lot of work and it seems unlikely that people you hardly know would voluntarily give up their precious time to spend it on your draft. Even close colleagues and mentors are mentioned as people evidently disinterested in providing timely feedback. (That could be a topic for another blog post!)

Anthropologists and sociologists have given us the answer to why we might expect these people to help: the norm of reciprocity. How does it work? In just about every culture where the phenomenon has been studied, we observe that when somebody does a favor for someone else, the person receiving the favor incurs an obligation to return it. You can use this norm to your advantage, but you must be strategic about it.

Locally, ask a fellow graduate student or junior faculty member if they are working on any projects on which they would like feedback. Do they have any working drafts they can share with you? At a conference session, stick around after the presentations and speak with the scholars from whom you’d like feedback. Again, don’t tell them that you are seeking feedback on your own work, but rather ask them if the paper they presented has been published, and if not, if they would like feedback on it? For scholars you know only through their journal publications, write and tell them that you find their work very interesting and that you are interested in keeping up with cutting edge findings in your field. Ask them if they can send you their working papers and if they’d be interested in receiving feedback.

If the targets of your solicitation respond positively, take the next step. Ask them to send you a digital copy of their work and ask what specific issues they are concerned about; for example, adequate recognition of prior work, arguments supporting proffered hypotheses, and clarity in interpretations of findings. Find out if they are working to any deadlines and in particular, if the paper has already been submitted for review. It’s important to ask about the status of a paper, as there is little point in sending people comments on a paper that is currently in the review process. Whatever you have to say will be overridden by the editor’s requests of the author.

Now we come to a critical component of my recommendation: in your comments, you need to show the person what kind of feedback you would like for your own work. In doing so, you prepare the groundwork for a working relationship with a constructive critic who can give you the help you need.

How do you teach someone else what kind of feedback you would like? Remembering the norm of reciprocity, you need to show them what a competent and constructive review looks like by doing one yourself. Provide higher order rather than lower order feedback. Critique their ideas and concepts, not their spelling and grammar. For example, point out problems with the flow of the argument or with lack of a connection between the literature cited and the inferences drawn.

Technology is our friend in this case. Microsoft Word makes available two excellent writing tools — Insert Comments and Track Changes — one of which you can use in providing feedback and one that you should avoid.

Do use insert comments by marking blocks of text and then writing explanations to the author for why you have marked them, as I noted above. Do not use track changes by inserting your own words into the author’s text. “Track changes” is for co-authors, not commentators. It is not your job to point out spelling mistakes or errors in grammar, unless someone specifically asks you to do so, and even then, you should resist. In short, leave the copy editing to the author or somebody who is paid to do such work. Your job, as a reviewer of their work, is to provide feedback on the substance of their argument. So, aim high.

The norm of reciprocity is so powerful that it will probably not be necessary for you to enter into an agreement, a priori, with the person whose work you are citing. Instead, by following the above steps, you will have prepared the other person for a subsequent request from you, asking them if they’d be so kind as to provide similar feedback for a draft paper of yours. Of course, there is always a risk that you will be turned down, which is why I recommend only commenting on the work of others whose work you genuinely find interesting and is in fields which you know enough to provide useful feedback.

Start small, with your local circle, and then work your way out to others you don’t know personally. You will be astonished at how grateful even well-known authors are to receive constructive feedback on their work. I have met a lot of good friends this way.

In my own work, I am delighted if I can find five or six people to provide the kind of feedback I’ve mentioned above – – feedback on the substance of my arguments. More than that and I’m ecstatic! This past month, I sent a paper to three friends overseas with whom I previously talked about the topic, and I sent it to three other scholars whose work I admired but whom I never met face-to-face. In their cases, I made clear to them why I was seeking their help and advice on whether I had used their work properly. I sent it to several people with a request that they only look at one particular facet of the paper, and ignore the rest, unless they had the time to do more. As a consequence of these solicitations, I believe the paper improved enormously from the early drafts to the latest drafts, and now I am ready to send it on to the formal reviewing process.

Journal reviewers will be anonymous and brutally honest! Better to learn all you can before the paper reaches their desks

Message to graduate students: The way you practice is the way you will play

In sports, coaches tell their players that they should treat practices the same way they would treat actually playing in games. They say this because sloughing off in practice, rather than following best practices, can carry over into the game. When a game situation arises, when decisions must be made quickly, people tend to fall back on old habits. If those old habits were reinforced by sloppy practicing, then the player will be sloppy during the game. So, even while practicing, people need to behave as if they were in the real thing. I see a parallel between this advice from coaches and the advice I give to first-year graduate students, with respect to how they should begin developing good habits. Rather than just recommending that they follow the leadership of their mentors and try to imitate their practices, I tried to identify specific habits that students could start practicing, using a technique called “deliberate practicing.”

 

Never take a play off

Never take a play off. From Steve Gilliland (@SteveGSpeaks)

I came up with a reasonably short list. I first list the professional habit that you are trying to cultivate and then list what you can do in graduate school to “practice” how you will eventually “play.”

  1. Professionals take every opportunity to learn more about their field: go to all open seminars and workshops offered by the department.

  2. Professionals can articulate a point of view and back it up with evidence derived from their expertise, a skill you will need when teaching, as well as when you’re trying to make yourself heard at conference sessions: speak up in class – – don’t just speak when called upon, but rather volunteer to speak; pay attention to what others are saying so that you learn to maintain continuity in the conversation.

  3. Professionals take initiatives to organize their environments to their advantage: start discussion groups outside of what is required by your instructors.

  4. Professionals establish relationships with others who have complementary skills and not just with those with whom they share overlapping interests: befriend not only the junior faculty but also some senior faculty with research interests different from yours. Ask them if they will help coach you.

  5. Professionals don’t just “attend” conferences, they participate in them: at professional meetings, spending your time in coffee shops, sightseeing, and going to clubs will do nothing for your professional development – – go to sessions!

  6. Professionals don’t “take a play off”: if you are a teaching assistant, be a good teaching assistant – – someday you will be responsible for organizing your own course and you would like to have TAs who work as hard as you do

Begin establishing good habits from the moment you enter graduate school. You can do this taking advantage of the many opportunities offered to you to begin acting “as if” you had already earned your PhD. Practice those habits that will stand you in good stead throughout your career: participate, connect, and never take a play off (unless maybe it involves fly fishing).

Can you live up to the titles you choose for your papers?

Which of these two papers, on the same theme, would you read first: “Patterns of Vandalism during Civil Disorders as an Indicator of Target Selection” or “Mad Mobs and Englishmen? Myths and Realities of the 2011 Riots”? The former is wordy and boring, not reflecting the passion and chaos that typically characterize riots, whereas the latter is cheeky and informative, conveying a sense of an author who’s keen to connect with readers. Sadly, the boring title was chosen by my co-author and I in 1972 for our otherwise well-executed study of civil disorders in US cities in the late 1960s, thus consigning it to the dustbin of academic history. It reported on the only large-scale longitudinal study of small businesses that were at risk of being targeted and convincingly showed that there was an implicit logic to the choice of targets by people involved. Despite being published in the flagship journal of the American Sociological Association, it has been cited only 64 times in the past 43 years. By contrast, the “Mad Mobs” book, published only a few years ago (2011), has already been cited 52 times.

Venice vaporetto

On a vaporetto in Venice

I believe some, but not all, of the difference in the perceived usefulness of these two papers reflects their authors’ choices of titles.

So, what makes for a “good” title? Let me offer four suggestions, based on my experience with writing dozens of titles, good and bad.

First, I strongly suggest choosing a title that you must live up to – one with bold and even outrageous claims to importance. It should make promises about the payoff that readers will expect you to keep. Of course, the risk is that they will be deeply disappointed if their expectations are not fulfilled. Do not disappoint them! Set the bar high and motivate yourself to get over it.

Second, simple titles with an emotional resonance that surprise readers and foreshadow the paper’s “hook” are my goal. Finding them is arguably as important as crafting a strong narrative for your paper. Indeed, I have discovered that choosing a memorable title often completes the final piece of the puzzle that shows me the way forward for the narrative.

How simple? Entrepreneurship through Social Networks” is a 4-word title – with no colon and thus no follow-on description of its contents – that succinctly captured the essence of what Catherine Zimmer and I had to say. Published in 1986, it has been cited over 2600 times, garnering several hundred citations each year for the past decade. The paper’s narrative offers a few simple ways in which social contexts and connections can increase the likelihood of people becoming entrepreneurs, none of which were new to the literature in the 1980s. Evidently the title is a magnet for people who already believe that networks are important for entrepreneurship and just want a confirmation, in print, that they can cite to substantiate their beliefs.

Similarly, “Who’s the Boss? Explaining Gender Inequality in Entrepreneurial Teams” asks a simple question but doesn’t necessarily imply what the answer will be. From the words after the colon, it is clear that Tiantian Yang and I will be looking at men and women as bosses, within entrepreneurial teams, requiring people to actually read the paper if they want to know the outcome of our inquiry. We could have written a longer title, such as “Will Men or Women Be in Charge of an Entrepreneurial Startup?” Instead, the simple “Who’s the Boss?” suffices to provoke a reader’s interest, especially coupled with the material after the colon.

Third, I suggest choosing a surprising title. How surprising? Studies of babies show that even at a very young age, they have a strong sense of the causal interconnectedness of their world and thus take for granted a lot of what they see. By contrast, they are startled when their expectations about the world are thwarted and focus intently on where things have gone wrong. Authors can use this trick of confounded expectations to heighten interest in their papers.

In our paper on generational units, collective memory, and imprinting, Steve Lippmann and I took an old proverb and slightly twisted it, generating the title “A Rolling Stone Gathers Momentum.” Note that we only changed the last word in the proverb, but that change completely overturned the original meaning. Instead of gathering no moss, the stone now picks up speed as it moves along. The new meaning fit well with the paper’s theme, which was that a combination of imprinting and collective memory create generational units that play leadership roles in a region’s economic development over time.

Surprise can also be generated by conjuring up bizarre images, as Ellen Auster did in our paper “Even Dwarfs Started Small: Liabilities of Age and Size and Their Strategic Implications.” Strange as it may seem, the first part of the title actually anticipates quite well the papers theme, which is that small organizations are ubiquitous in the world and that few of them grow significantly. Auster and I discussed the ways in which small firms coped with their disadvantaged starting point.

Fourth, you earn a bonus if your simple and surprising title also subtly implies the paper’s hook, especially if you can do it in the words before the colon, rather than after. I published “Paradigm Wars: Donaldson Versus the Critics of Organization Theory2″ in the late 1980s, when Lex Donaldson had taken on not only what he called anti-managerial theory but also the threats to organization theory from social constructionists. My initial title was “Paradigm Warriors,” but I decided that I wanted to put the focus on the theories themselves, rather than the protagonists.

Fools Rush In? The Institutional Context of Industry Creation,” published in 1994 with Marlena Fiol, was deliberately posed as a question because we wanted to capitalize on the skepticism of the academic community at the time toward entrepreneurship. The “fools” in question are the entrepreneurs who create businesses which are the first of their kind and thus are pioneers in creating a new industry, if they succeed. We focused on the strategies that nascent entrepreneurs could use in the face of uncertain and possibly hostile institutional environments. Note that we were not calling such pioneers “fools,” but rather were using the term in the same sympathetic way that Johnny Mercer’s 1940 lyrics characterized the behavior of people who’d fallen in love. Or the people that Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers referred to when they asked “why do fools fall in love?”

Where can you find templates for possible article titles? When searching for titles, I turn to songs, movies, books, aphorisms, and proverbs. Some of my favorite titles have come from popular songs, as often the title can be used directly without changing any words, such as “Fools Rush in?” In other cases, just a few word changes are needed, such as in Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light which became “Blinded by the Cites” when used as a title for a paper using bibliometrics to assess trends in entrepreneurship research methods. Soelvi Lillejord and I used the title of David Bryne’s concert film “Stop Making Sense!” as a title for our paper on contradictory logics in the American university system.

You should avoid overusing the work of popular musicians and other artists. For example, in a study of papers in the biomedical literature that used song lyrics from Bob Dylan in their titles, researchers found that 135 articles used just one title (“The Times They Are a-Changin’”) and 36 others over-used another (“Blowing in the Wind”). I recommend doing a search on the perspective title you are thinking of using, to make sure that it hasn’t become banal or a cliché.

Books are often good sources, and my colleagues and I found that Terry Orlick’s In Pursuit of Excellence became an excellent jumping off point for our paper on sampling procedures in organizations research, which we called “In Pursuit of Evidence.

I am fond of classic movies and so have often turned to them, borrowing “Lost in Translation” and “Even Dwarfs Started Small” directly from the films. “Lost in Translation was a paper about the cultural mismatch in modern societies between a media over-emphasis on becoming an entrepreneur versus an under-emphasis on the difficult steps required to become successful at it.

Choosing a title that is simple, surprising, and foreshadows a paper’s theme takes a little extra work, but it pays off in two ways. First, in this era of scholarly information overload, anything you can do to motivate readers to give your paper a second look is worthwhile. Second, by not settling for a plain-vanilla, boring, and forgettable title, you push yourself as an author to make sure your story is strong enough to justify your provocative title. I believe the title is so important that I often delay writing a draft until I have found a title that not only grabs readers’ attention but also challenges me to work as hard as I can to fulfill the implicit promise it makes.

Using the literature in your writing: interpretive notes, not summaries

At the beginning of my doctoral workshops on academic writing, I start with a simple question: “when you sit down to compose your draft paper, what does the space look like around you? Is it covered with books and journals? Photocopies of papers and articles?” Most students confirm this description, but others say no, it’s just them and their computer. However, when I push them, it turns out that they have multiple files open on their computer, with digital copies of papers and articles ready to be consulted. My response is always the same. I tell them they’ve begun to write too soon. They have skipped the stage where they impose their own interpretations on what they’ve read. They have failed to make the material useful for the narrative structure of their own story.

Venice staircase Palazzo Cini

Staircase of the Palazzo Cini in Venice

My claim is confirmed when I ask them why they still have all these raw materials lying around. Students say “I might forget something,” or “I wanted to make sure I got it exactly right” or “the author said it better than I could.” Their responses indicate that they have read the material but not really made it their own. They understood it sufficiently to know that it was relevant but they hadn’t yet put those ideas into their own words – – they still needed the words of the authors.

I probe further, asking what kinds of notes they have taken. Some have copied the abstract, others have made a list of concepts in the form of bullet points, and still others have compiled long lists of verbatim quotes. In all these cases, they are still working with the authors’ words, not theirs. At best, they will be able to offer a condensed version of what was in the original, but now shorn of its primary context. I suggest to them that if I really wanted to know what Mary Douglas had to say, I would just read her in the original. Why trust a pale reflection?

Moreover, by sticking so close to the original text, they’ve deprived themselves of the chance to write in their own voice. And editors and reviewers want original voices. Is there a better way to work with the literature when reviewing it for papers? Let me offer some suggestions.

First, your goal should be to write interpretive notes of what you read and not just simple summaries. Copying words from the text into your notes requires very little cognitive engagement. The words and phrases are held in short-term memory long enough to be transferred from one medium to another, with very little processing taking place. By contrast, writing to capture the meaning of what you’ve just read and explaining its relevance to your project requires higher order cognitive processing that reorganizes and stabilizes memories.

Second, think of the notes you are writing as a message to your future self, who will be reading them in a few weeks or perhaps even months. If your future self sees only bullet points or the reproduced words of a famous author, you may have to go back to the original to figure out why you felt the text was valuable enough to include in your notes. Hence, you’ll find again yourself sitting in your chair, surrounded by piles of raw material. So, make it easier for your future self – – explain in your notes why you feel this material is worthy/unworthy of discussion.

Moreover, because these notes are for your eyes only – – as opposed to the text that you put into the first draft of a paper – – you are free to be as casual, emotional, and judgmental as you wish. If you feel that an author has offered an outrageously ridiculous argument to explain something you’re studying, put that into your notes. Don’t pull your punches, writing something ambiguous that will require your future self to go back to consult the original text. Similarly, heap praise on arguments that you find compelling.

Third, as you begin to think about the notes you are taking as interpretive, rather than mere summaries, push yourself to make connections between this book or article and other things that you’ve read. For the moment, it can be quite simple, perhaps nothing other than simply saying “Merton seems to be having an implicit argument with Lazersfeld in this paper, but I think he missed Lazerfeld’s point.” Later, as you start to sort through your interpretive notes, you can check out this tentative interpretation by looking at your notes on the other authors.

Forcing yourself to think about making connections to other knowledge you’ve acquired in the course of your literature search involves retrieving information from long-term memory, thereby reinforcing it. Using it in a new context and applying it in an evaluative way helps you update your understanding of all the material you’ve read.

Fourth, rephrasing an author’s thoughts in your own words is a great way to deeply learn the material. Elaborating upon what they’ve written and generating your own text gives you the opportunity to express your own voice, rather than merely mimicking that of the authors you’ve read. Indeed, by steadfastly sticking to the principle of writing interpretive summaries rather than faithfully reproducing the original text, you’ll have prepared material that will readily fit into your paper’s narrative. This material is already in your own words, written in your style, and you own it.

Of course, if you do find that some of an author’s text is so perfect that it simply must be preserved, then by all means copy it into your interpretive note, but be sure to adequately document where it comes from. I suspect that as you become comfortable with trusting your own voice, you’ll have fewer occasions on which you feel you need to preserve original text.

When you have accumulated a sufficient stack of interpretive notes, it is time to sift through them, looking for connections, new directions, and arguments that need to be further researched. I like to write my notes on paper, rather than in digital form, as I find I can more easily sort through them, mark them in multiple colors to indicate different themes, and add pictures/diagrams. I use them to suggest an overall narrative structure for my outline, but the notes themselves are not the outline. I number the notes and when I have the first draft of my outline, I work my way through it, indicating by number where I might fit the ideas from a particular note. At this stage, some notes drop by the wayside. By contrast, gaps in my outline indicate where more notes are needed, which requires I go back to the literature.

So, if you find yourself sitting down to “write” your paper but are still burdened with piles of undigested raw material from your literature search, you have begun too soon. Instead, take the time to learn the skill of writing interpretive notes, rather than summaries. Use those interpretive notes to flesh out your outline, and discover the joy of finding that in the process of writing the interpretive notes, you have found your own authorial voice.

Journal submissions: Playing up (or down) to the competition

Every fall I look forward to the opening of the college sports season: football, soccer, field hockey, volleyball, and so forth. In particular, I enjoy the discussions in the sports press about the choices athletic directors and coaches have made in setting up their schedule of games. Unlike the professional sports leagues, where scheduling is taken care of by the league office and considerations of equity and robust competition are explicitly taken into account, college schedules are under no such strictures.

Carolina soccer player

photo credit: IMG_9551 via photopin (license)

In scheduling games, college athletic directors face two stark choices. They can make their teams look good by padding their records with early games against lesser opponents, thus ensuring at least a winning record for the early part of the season. Or, they can put their teams through a trial-by-fire by scheduling tough opponents. Why wouldn’t athletic directors choose the easier path, giving teams an early-season break and setting them up with a winning record?

As sports commentators are quick to point out, the danger of taking the easy road early on is that playing against lesser competition lulls teams into a false sense of confidence. Running up the score against weaker teams covers up mistakes and gaps in preparation, such as athletes’ lack of endurance. Players who look like All-Americans against East Overshoe Tech become sloppy, take plays off, and are overwhelmed when they come up against teams in their own league. No matter how much the coaches tell them that the early-season games against weaker opponents are no gauge of their true strength, players may start believing their own press clippings.

The other danger of scheduling easy games early in the season comes back to haunt teams at the end of the season, in those sports where teams are invited to championship competition based on the strength of their schedule. Committees deciding on which teams to include in the playoffs, such as in women’s soccer or men’s basketball, can easily spot the flaws in a winning record based on playing weak competition. Florida State’s overwhelming early season win against the Texas State Bobcats will be heavily discounted!

Athletic directors with their eyes on the future are advised to schedule at least a few tough opponents early in the hope that difficult competition will pay off and prepare the team for its league schedule against stronger opponents. Such planning may also ease a team’s path into the postseason.

I’m reminded of this scheduling dilemma every time graduate students and junior faculty come to me, seeking advice on where to send their papers. As I see it, academics just beginning their careers face the same conundrum: do they aim for the top journals in the field or do they try for the easier route, in journals with weaker review boards and softer selection criteria? Why not try to pad your resume by aiming for the Journal of Lost Causes, which you know accepts almost half the papers it receives?

My answer to the authors seeking advice is the same that savvy athletic directors offer to desperate coaches: if you began by playing down to the weakest level of competition you can find, you set in motion a process that becomes hard to reverse, after a few iterations. Getting into a top journal is hard work, requiring sophisticated literature reviews, excellent research designs, and state-of-the-art analysis, regardless of the kind of data collected. If the paper is a theoretical/conceptual contribution, rigorous analytical thinking will be required, as well as lots of revisions before the paper is submitted.

I tell students that even if a paper is ultimately rejected at a top journal, the experience gained in the process is priceless. Most top academic journals use what they call a “developmental” review process, a much kinder and gentler process than authors faced three or four decades ago. (I hasten to add that I discourage “frivolous” submissions which just clog up the review process – – a senior colleague can quickly tell a junior scholar whether a paper is worth submitting to a top journal.) As a colleague reminded me, you must be prepared to invest anywhere from 2 to 6 months, on average, with every submission. That’s another reason to “start early.

Recruitment and promotion committees are seldom fooled by resumes padded with acceptances at weaker journals. So, I would turn to the weaker journals only after I had tried the top journals.

Although the odds of acceptance are low, gaining experience with the practices necessary to compete at the highest levels pays off in the long run.

Imagination, interrupted: creative writing requires a lot of control

How often has this happened to you? You sit down to work on a piece of writing for which the deadline is fast approaching. You feel energized and optimistic. Shortly after you begin, the notification alert on your smart phone goes off. Or, a colleague pokes her head in your open door and asks if you have a moment. Or, you look back at the previous sentence you’ve written and decide that it could be worded better. And so on. Taken in isolation, such small interruptions seem harmless. However, each of them disturbs your thought process. After you’ve dealt with the interruption, your brain can take 3 to 5 minutes, or more, to get back on track. There is a better way: follow the suggestions below and take control of your environment and of the writing process. You will free your mind to focus deeply on putting into words the ideas buzzing around in your imagination since your last writing episode.

Happy Hippo

Happy Hippo at Rose Bowl Parade 2014

Control the Writing Environment

Blocking out interruptions begins with asserting control over the context within which you’re writing. Three long-term considerations are particularly important. First, make sure you get enough sleep and begin the writing process well rested. Studies show that a high proportion of the population is not getting enough restful sleep, resulting in inefficient and error-prone work behaviors.

Second, establish a regular time and place for your writing activities. Make sure that you set aside this time for writing only, perhaps by blocking it off as a “busy” period on your calendar and smart phone. Pick a time when it is unlikely that you will have any scheduled meetings and be fiercely protective of that slot. Some writers tell me that they like to work in coffee shops and that the constant buzz of activities doesn’t bother them. I know that some think the “white noise” of such spaces is soothing, but the problem is that somebody you know will see you and want to engage you in conversation. Turning down an invitation to talk with them can be awkward, and the very act of telling them that “I am working” constitutes one of the interruptions that you’re trying to avoid. (I suppose you could always wear some kind of disguise, if you can’t break yourself of the habit of working in a coffee shop!)

Third, turn off all notifications on your PC, laptop, and smart phone. Don’t let your smart machines ping you when somebody posts on Facebook or sends you an email. Although you may have the willpower to resist the fatal attraction of social media’s siren song, marshaling such willpower constitutes another interruption to the train of thought that you may have been working on. Prevent such struggles by simply turning off all alerts.

Three short-term considerations are also important. First, whether you are working in the office or at home, keep the door to the room closed. Take a “do not disturb” card from your last hotel stay and put it on the door. Train people to recognize that when your door is closed, you are working. Drive that point home that by being very approachable only when the door is open. Call to people when they are walking by to indicate that you have switched to another mode. Eventually, you’ll train most of your colleagues and friends to recognize the difference.

Second, rather than just turning off alerts and notifications from your phone, be courageous and turn the phone off. The odds of your receiving a call so important that is worth interrupting your train of thought are vanishingly small for most of us. Reward yourself for an hour or so of productive work by turning on your phone for three minutes and checking for messages. Then, turn it off again!

Third, take planned breaks to designated places. Some authorities recommend working in two-hour sessions, whereas others recommend getting up and walking around at least once every hour. Whatever rhythm you choose, stick to it. Binge writing without taking breaks is ultimately counterproductive, as working until you actually feel tired enough to need a break means that you’ve probably been working inefficiently for quite some time. Set a timer and obey it. (I like old-school hourglass timers, but electronic ones will do.)

Control the Writing Process

If you’ve taken control of the writing environment, you’ve gone about half way toward your goal of blocking interruptions. I use three strategies to control the writing process itself. First, differentiate clearly between “free writing” and “production writing.” Use free writing when you are trying to generate ideas, search for connections between ideas, and explore thoughts wherever your imagination may take you. The major discipline required in free writing is the will to keep writing, even when you’re not sure about the quality of what you’re capturing. Interruptions are deadly to this process because you may never get back to that creative thought you were about to set down on paper when the phone rang. Use production writing, my contrast, when you’ve done enough free writing and research to have discovered the narrative that’s going to unify your paper.

Second, when you’re in production mode, but not free writing mode, work from an outline. My outlines tend to be very structured, sometimes with four or five hierarchical levels, and with headings that signal to me the substance of what is needed in the coming section. The joy of an outline is that even when interruptions occur, you really can’t lose your place. Although I don’t achieve it in every project, my goal is to outline the paper right down to the level of having a few key topic sentences in every subsection. If you have your story or central narrative in mind when you begin the outline, you will find that a few topic sentences in each section serve as reminders of what you’re trying to achieve.

Third, don’t copyedit while you write. Every book or article about production writing makes the same point: draft, then copyedit, but don’t try to do both at the same time. Copy editing is a pernicious form of interruption, as you may feel that you are still “working” because words are appearing on your screen. However, interrupting your train of thought to copyedit risks disrupting the coherence of your narrative and is one more intrusive act from which your brain will need to recover to get back on track. I treat copy editing time as a reward to myself, and generally schedule it as a less stressful part of the writing process whenever I finish a major section.

Summary

Interruptions aren’t accidents! They can only happen if you allow them by not controlling your writing environment and writing process. By preventing interruptions from disrupting your writing, you increase the chances that the words in your document will reflect the flight of your freed imagination, rather than the struggle to complete a coherent thought.

Write As If You Don’t Have the Data

At a conference, when you ask somebody to tell you about their current project, what do they typically say? I often get a puzzling response: instead of beginning by telling me about an idea, the person starts by describing their data. They tell me they are using survey data they have collected, or data from an archive, or data they’ve scraped from the web. As they go on at length about the nature of the data, I have to interrupt them and ask for what purpose the data will be used. Then, I’m likely to get a description of an analytic method or computer software. It’s almost as if they have devoted most of their working hours to thinking about what they can do with the data they have collected – – or will collect – – and very little time to the question of where their project fits into some larger scheme.

Control loss

Loss of control can be dangerous but exciting!

I’ve realized that this response partially explains why many graduate students have such a difficult time in writing a thesis proposal. Two kinds of problems result from a “data first” strategy.

First and most obviously, beginning with data considerations may lead to the unintended outcome of writing a theoretical framework and conceptual model, complete with hypotheses, that are totally framed around what the data permits. In the worst-case scenario, this can resemble the kinds of narratives corporate historians write when they begin with what they know about their firms in the present and then build a story to suit. Researchers may anticipate journal reviewers’ biases toward “significant” results and may simply wait to begin writing their story until they’ve conducted preliminary analyses.

In the writing workshops that I offer at conferences, I often have students tell me that they wait to write the introduction to their paper or thesis until after they’ve done the “analysis and results” section. This is certainly a safe strategy to follow if one wants to economize on doing multiple drafts of a paper, but it goes against the spirit of disciplined inquiry that we try to engender in our theory and methods classes.

Second and far more damaging from my point of view, following a data first strategy severely constrains creativity and imagination. Writing a theoretical introduction and conceptual model that is implicitly tailored to a specific research design or data set preemptively grounds any flights of fancy that might have tempted an unconstrained author. By contrast, beginning with a completely open mind in the free writing phase of preparing a proposal or paper allows an author to pursue promising ideas, regardless of whether they are “testable” with what is currently known about available data.

When I say “write as if you don’t have the data,” I’m referring to the literature review and planning phase of a project, preferably before it has been locked into a specific research design. Writing about ideas without worrying about whether they can be operationalized – – whether in field work, surveys, or simulations – – frees authors of the burden they will eventually face in writing their “methods” section. Eventually, a researcher will have to explain what compromises have been made, given the gap between the ideas they set out to explore and the reality of data limitations, but that bridge will be crossed later. Rushing over that bridge during the idea generation stage almost guarantees that the journey will be a lifeless one.

Even if someone is locked into a mentor’s or principal investigator’s research design and data set, I would recommend they still begin their literature review and conceptual modeling as if they had the luxury of a blank slate. In their initial musings and doodles, as they write interpretive summaries of what they read, they might picture a stone wall that temporarily buffers them from the data obligations that come with their positions as data supplicants. Writing without data constraints will, I believe, free their imaginations to range widely over the realm of possibilities, before they are brought to earth by practical necessities.

So, the next time someone asks you about what you are working on, don’t begin by talking about the data. Instead, tell them about the ideas that emerged as you wrote about the theories and models that you would like to explore, rather than about the compromises you will eventually be forced to make. The conversation will be a lot more interesting for both of you!

Why start early on your projects?

A few days ago, I was sitting in my car at a stoplight, waiting for the light to change, when a thought suddenly popped into my head. In a flash, I recognized the relevance of a paper I’d read several decades ago for a current project on which I was working. I had been thinking about ways to justify the narrative I was trying to set up, and I’d been frustrated by my inability to find recent literature that could be cited to justify its importance.

Purple

Purple installation @ Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, August, 2015

Why did that idea suddenly occur to me? The paper wasn’t due for several months and I felt no obvious pressure to make rapid progress on it. Nevertheless, some weeks ago I had decided to begin working on the paper. Following my normal routine, I’d begun jotting down interpretive notes on the papers and articles that I read, sticking them in a purple manila folder which I carried in my briefcase. As the folder grew thicker, I found myself thinking about the project occasionally, when I took breaks from other projects or was just relaxing.

I believe I know where the idea came from. Material I’ve been reading over the past several years on how the brain works tells us that most of our thinking takes place below the level of conscious awareness. We are thinking all the time, intentionally or otherwise, including when we are sleeping. In fact, I would say, especially while we are sleeping. It is difficult to shut this activity off, as is shown by yoga exercises during which we are advised to “clear our mind of all conscious thought.” Initially, most of us can’t do it. Apparently random thoughts buzz about like bees in our brain, and no amount of mental swatting can drive them away.

Luckily for us, what could be a very distracting feature of our seemingly uncontrollable brain can be put to good use by authors. I’m referring to the practice of putting all this mental firepower to work on a problem facing us by beginning to think about our projects well before they are due. In a sense, starting to think about how a project will be framed, how it will be solved, how it will be explained, and so forth, gives the brain its marching orders. By intentionally telling our brain that this is a problem that needs to be worked on, we take advantage of a resource that otherwise would be wasted: the brain’s search for meaning and patterns in the information it’s storing.

The brain never shuts completely down, even while we are sleeping. Some sleep research suggests that while we are slumbering, our brain is trying to sort out what’s happened to us recently, tidying up a bit and perhaps trying out tentative solutions. I like the idea of being able to claim to my friends that I can work even while I’m sleeping!

By starting on a project early, I increase the chances that subsequent experiences, including not only reading but also conversations, will inform my thinking. Although it’s good to take notes, I trust my brain to recognize potentially relevant material and throw it into the mix.

In addition to the cognitive benefits of engaging my brain early, two other benefits follow from getting an early start. First, the earlier I start, the more likely it is that I’ll be able to seek help from friends and colleagues, such as with reading a first draft. Discussions with them may direct me to a literature that I wasn’t aware of and scholars elsewhere whose work is germane. Second, the earlier I start, the more chances I have to revise my work. With a 3 to 6 month head start, for example, I have a chance to do several revisions on the first draft so that when I submit the final version, it will be a much more polished version of the ideas that sparked the initial project.

My message is simple: when you take on a writing assignment, such as a conference paper, a book proposal, or potential Journal article, don’t procrastinate. Deliberately set aside time early on to think about the project and perhaps free-write about it, and give your brain a chance to do its work.

 

Pitching Papers as if You Worked in Nashville

For the past decade or so, I have made presentations to groups of graduate students and junior faculty on how to write more effectively. I’m always on the lookout for new ideas that I can inject into my presentation. Thus, I was delighted to come across an essay by C. Neil Stewart Jr, on “Songwriting and Science,” in the July 24, 2015 issue of Science magazine. Frustrated by his low hit rate from grant submissions, Stewart turned to songwriting as a way of soothing his frustrations. He discovered that getting his songs accepted by professionals in Nashville was even more difficult than winning grants from the NIH. Whereas reviewers of his scientific proposals almost always gave him feedback on what he could do to improve, that almost never happened with his songwriting. In his Science essay, therefore, he took it upon himself to offer young scientists some lessons he had learned from his experiences. His recommendations echoed many that I have made and so in this post I offer his five suggestions, interpreted through my own experiences.

Why is this relevant?

Relevance

First, “you have to sell your story in three minutes.” Social psychologists tell us that people make up their minds about others after the first few minutes of meeting them, and studies of venture capitalists have shown that the first minute or two of an oral pitch often determines whether a nascent entrepreneur sinks or swims. Every scientific field is awash in many more publications than can be taken in by individuals who face intensive competing demands on for their attention. Authors need to attract the attention of readers immediately and provide a compelling argument for why we should turn to their second page. For me, this means creating a first paragraph that highlights a pressing problem that arises from previous research and for which I can offer a promising solution. The first paragraph is so important that I recommend not going any further in the paper until you are satisfied that your entire story is anticipated by that paragraph.

Second, “you need a memorable hook.” In the music business, the “hook” is that part of the tune that, once heard, you can’t get out of your head. When I was growing up, in the late 1950s, hooks were easy to remember because tunes with rock ‘n roll chord structures were simple enough to be sung by others, even amateurs. In scientific papers, the hook is the simplified message that you want readers to take away from the paper, and thus it has to be framed and memorable ways. One way to do that is to clearly indicate what scientific theory or principle is at risk, as a result of your work, or to point out a contradiction or tension between two or more lines of work that previously have not been brought together. Drawing attention to a contradiction for which you will offer a resolution is a good way of setting up a hook.

Third, “keep it fresh.” I read lots of papers that have straightforward linear narratives, with the underlying skeletal outline often apparent in the simple declarative sentences used by the author. In contrast, Stewart suggests surprising readers with unexpected twists and turns, challenging their expectations by showing them novel results. When I make oral presentations, I like to begin by giving quizzes to which everyone thinks they know the answer and then showing them that their preconceptions were wrong and not evidence-based. Better still, if the paper’s introduction contains a puzzle or problem for which the existing literature has no obvious solution, readers will be on the edge of their chair, waiting for you to provide one. One classical way of introducing tension is to systematically go through all the obvious solutions and show how each is inadequate, leading up to the favorite that you propose.

Fourth, “don’t go solo.” Stewart notes that most songs are written by teams, rather than solo. For some time, most papers in the natural sciences have been co-authored, and now that’s increasingly true in the social sciences. Moreover, co-authored papers get disproportionate numbers of citations, compared to solo authored papers. Very few individuals have the full range of expertise and competencies required to conduct high-quality research, analyze the data, and write it up for publication. Teamwork is essential, especially for junior authors who are working on creating a portfolio of papers, rather than the cottage industry batch mode of production.

Fifth, “inspiration isn’t everything.” Stewart notes that hit songs are usually the product of extensive rewriting, rather than overnight wonders. The same is true of academic papers – – my co-authors and I typically go through dozens of drafts of a paper before we feel ready to show it to the world, and then it goes through many more revisions as we receive feedback from friendly critics.

Following these five suggestions won’t guarantee either hit song or a published article, but they certainly increase the odds.

For more great advice on writing an introduction to your paper that will entice readers, see Pat Thomson’s blogpost at the LSE Social Impact blog.

Family Businesses as Boundary Objects

Boundary objects are arrangements that permit people to work together without needing to achieve consensus, as Susan Leigh Star explained. The figure below displays a collection of small dots that represent different manifestations of some phenomenon of interest, with three of them labeled with capital letters. Object A is clearly at the center – it is probably the central tendency in this group. In contrast, Objects B and C are at the edges of the cluster. People could say, “I’m studying this phenomenon by examining C.” Somebody else could say, “I’m studying this phenomenon as well; I’m examining B.”

 

objects to cagtegorize

Cluster of objects that might be classified into the same category

Objects A, B, and C are in different parts of the overall domain, but a key feature of a boundary object it is that scholars don’t actually have to agree on what specific characteristics put something inside or outside of the definition. They just have to have some degree of overlap in their conceptions. Boundary objects are not about sharp edges; boundary objects are about overlap and working together even in the absence of consensus. I think that’s a very good characterization of the family business field.

Considering the diverse scholarly community that makes up the field, it is apparent that the field of family business studies includes people from many disciplines. Each discipline, and sometimes each person within a discipline, offers a different definition of a “family business.” Distilling a single definition is highly unlikely. Nonetheless, it’s possible to have a conference with “family business” in the title at which scholars work together, as long as they recognize that the goal is not consensus. Instead, the objective is to talk to one another rather than worrying about the things that might divide them.

Observers could still ask, why do so many different definitions exist? Why does field of family business exhibit such diversity? What is it about the phenomenon that has led people to come up with such different conceptualizations? I believe that the fuzzy set comprising the multiple definitions stems from scholars attempting to take account of the historical changes that have transformed the phenomenon generically labeled “family business.” Even in periods as short as a few decades, they could well be talking about very different phenomena.

Holly Straut Eppsteiner and I am currently working on a paper that uses findings from research on the history of family forms in the United States over the past several centuries. Much of this research is based on life course and family demography models. The paper focuses on the formation and composition of families from around 1800 until 2015, using long-term trends derived from US Census data and other sources. Steven Ruggles’ 2015 Population Association of America address was particularly helpful to us. We urge family business scholars to bring into their work what we have learned about the economic and social transformations in the US that have produced fundamental changes in the ways in which family units form and are sustained.  Studies of “family business” in the 21st century need to take account of the new reality.

Assignments: better late than never?

A few days ago, a colleague came to me for teaching advice. On his syllabus, he had written that he did not accept late assignments. One of the students, a young woman who was struggling in the class, had turned in a paper that was woefully incomplete and he told her that it did not meet the assignment requirements. However, rather than rejecting it outright, he took account of her struggles and told her that if she turned in a finished version by the end of the week that completely met the basic requirements of the assignment, he would give her partial credit. At the end of the week, she turned the paper in again, but it was still well short of what he would accept as meeting minimal requirements.

Angry instructor

Get that assignment in on time or else!

He asked what I thought he should do. He told me that the assignment counted 15% of her grade, and thus giving her a zero on the assignment would immediately knock her down at least a grade and a half, before taking account of her other less-than-stellar work in the course. But, because he had announced that he didn’t accept late papers and then had recanted on that rule by inviting her to submit a revised version, he felt he had to give her some credit.

After suggesting that yes, it made sense to give her some credit, under the circumstances, I went on to make a more general point about putting strict rules and regulations in a syllabus. I reminded him that in my syllabi, I never say that I will not accept late assignments. I have no list of punishments or points that will be taken off if assignments are turned in late. My friend, Joe Lowman, and I have had many conversations about this & I’ve benefited greatly from his wisdom. Indeed, when it comes to such matters, I usually find myself asking, “what would Joe do?”

On the first day of class, students often ask me, what are your penalties for late assignments? I tell them I don’t expect late assignments, as all the due dates for assignments are in the syllabus they’ve just been handed. In that case, why would any assignments be late? I find this logic impeccable, but some aren’t satisfied with this answer and persist in questioning me. All I will say is that if they find themselves having difficulty, prior to an assignment being due, they need to talk with me and I will try to help them. I never speculate about what I might do with the late assignment, preferring to deal with each of them on its own merits.

I do this to avoid being put in the situation of my colleague: announcing a hard and fast rule which extenuating circumstances may well require me to break. Over my 45 years of teaching, I have heard about plenty of emergencies, some of which were devastating to the students involved. What would I do if a student told me about a family emergency which gave them no choice but to rush home? I would feel really heartless in telling a student that I was very sorry about the accident and I hoped the victims would recover, but I stood firmly by my policy.

My colleagues are typically astonished when I tell them about this policy. Typically, they raise two objections. First, won’t I get a lot of late assignments? Second, if I do accept late assignments, isn’t that unfair to the students who turn their assignments on time? My answer is “no” to both objections, as I will explain.

First, in my syllabus and on my webpage, every assignment is clearly described with its due date. I use Sakai, which sends out automated notices, reminding students of due dates. The assignment is also noted on the website’s course calendar. For larger assignments, such as term papers, I have multiple milestones that students must meet: reporting their chosen topic, submitting a one paragraph description of their theme, a preliminary listing of references, a rough draft, and so forth. These milestones give me many opportunities to intervene when students show signs of falling behind. I also take a very active role in keeping track of how students are doing, sending emails to students who miss class and asking students to come in and talk with me about assignments, if they have difficulties.

When students approach me about the possibility of a late assignment, and what I would do, the first thing I always say is, “What is interfering with your turning in an assignment on time?” I don’t say, ”Remember the penalties.” If, after working with them, it is clear that they will not get the assignment in on time, the next conversation I have with them goes something like this:

Student: “okay, when can I turn the paper in?”

Me: “when do you think you will have it finished?”

Student: “well, will I be penalized?”

Me: “you realize that the reason I ask for assignments to be turned in on time is so I have enough time to read them properly, so I can be sure that I will give each assignment its proper due. Late assignments make that more difficult. However, I will grade it as fairly as I can.”

Student: “okay, I’ll turn it in on Monday.”  [Students almost always pick a date earlier than I would have chosen, if I had picked the date!]

Cutting flowers for Rose Bowl Floats

Cooperative learning means you’re always coming up roses!

One of the consequences of this approach is that I almost never get late assignments! And, my syllabus is not cluttered up with pointless draconian rules that I have no intention of enforcing.

Second, what about the “fairness” issue? Isn’t it unfair to the conscientious students, who get their work in on time, to allow some students to turn assignments in late? I have three responses to this alleged violation of some perceived moral principle. (In what philosophical system is taking account of extenuating circumstances equivalent to a moral failure?)

(1) for students having problems getting assignments in on time, extra time almost never makes a difference in the quality of what they do. The best students in a class are not the ones asking for extensions.

(2) students who get assignments in on time can put that assignment behind them and get on with their lives. By contrast, students who are struggling to complete a late assignment will find they have to forgo other things that they would’ve enjoyed doing, with their assignment-free peers, but instead they are stuck indoors, completing an assignment. Being allowed to turn something in late is no free pass to scholastic heaven. It is a burden.

(3) my goal in assessing my student’s work is to try to figure out what they have learned in my class, and knocking off points from a student’s score because a paper was a day or two late completely muddies the meaning of a grade. I’m not teaching “discipline,” I’m teaching sociology. I want to give students every opportunity to show me what they’ve learned, and if this requires me, every few semesters, to accept a late assignment, I’m quite willing to do so.

Interested in learning more about what to do about late assignments? See this post.

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Lecturing & daydreaming: what happens when students have no decisions to make?

A few weeks ago, I spent several days at a conference on a topic that holds great intrinsic interest for me. I signed up for the conference, eagerly anticipating meeting new people and being challenged with novel ideas. I had never attended the conference before and had few preconceived notions about the format for presentations. However, because most of the scholars were in the humanities, I knew that I wouldn’t be seeing many tables of numbers or hearing about esoteric statistics!

What I wasn’t prepared for was being read to. Over the course of several days, almost every speaker read their presentations from pre-prepared scripts. In one typical session, the first two presenters held their papers with two hands, looked up occasionally, and put the paper down only to change the PowerPoint pictures. They read well, using inflection and pitch to emphasize important points, but it was still a word for word matching of oral presentation to the text. The third presenter had a script but had done a better job in memorizing it, as she occasionally made eye contact with us and did a fairly good job of disguising the fact that she was reading.

Biennale sculptures in Arsenale

Which way to turn?

As I always try to do in conferences, I had made a point of sitting in the first row, so I could see the slides clearly and also have a clear view of the presenters’ faces. I found that being able to see faces helps me catch meanings I otherwise might miss when I don’t hear all the words.

Despite my advantageous location, where I should’ve been in the thick of the action, there wasn’t any. I found my attention wandering, and to stay focused, I tried taking notes of the key points that I heard. As often happens, my notes quickly became observations on the format of the presentations and not just their contents.

Why couldn’t I stay focused on the content? Frequently in such situations I find myself lamenting the lack of presentational skills by the panelists and speculating about what it must be like to sit through one of their classes. But in this case, I turned the focus on myself and asked why I wasn’t doing a better job in playing along with the role of an “audience member,” which is apparently how the presenter saw me. Then I realized that I didn’t want to play that role anymore.

Instead, I wanted to do something. I wanted the presenters to ask me questions, to solicit my feedback, and to force me to puzzle out where they were going next. Alas, their one-way talk left me with no options — no decisions to make. I had been forced into a thoroughly passive role.

If there was to be action, I needed to force it myself. I started writing down objections to what was being said, but because the presenter had left no space for such diversions, whenever I wrote something down, I missed a part of the presentation. Because the presenter was reading from the text, and redundancy had mostly been edited out, missing a few sentences often meant I lost the thread of the argument.

Colleagues who know me well will recognize that, once again, I’ve found another provocation from which to push my case for active learning! The situation in which I found myself was very much like that of our undergraduate students in classic lecture based classes: an instructor does 90% or more of the talking while students passively try to record in their notes as much as possible of what has been said. The few questions asked of the students are mostly rhetorical and only answers that conform to the a priori expectations of the instructor will be followed up.

Why do such situations make me so unhappy? Why was I so disappointed with the presentations I heard at the conference? I think it is because the presenters had made no allowance in their plans for bringing me into the session as an active participant. Just as instructors who rely heavily on one way talk give their students no decisions to make, as an audience member, I also was expected to simply absorb what was being offered rather than let the speaker know that I actually understood – – or not – – what was being said.

The decisions offered to me could have been simple ones: the presenters could’ve asked for examples of what they were talking about. The speakers could have offered several alternative scenarios that completed their narrative and then asked us which one we thought was the most plausible, and why. They could have purposefully constructed an alternative counterfactual scenario and then asked us why it didn’t occur.

 

Venice red threads & keys

You Keep Me Hanging On! Keys hanging by red threads at Japan Pavilion, Venice Biennale, May 2015

My point is straightforward: when humans are put in situations where they are simply being talked to, with no opportunities offered for them to engage their higher order cognitive powers, they will struggle mightily to stay engaged with the material. I recently read a blog post by a scholar who works with online courses and who noted that she had viewed some amazingly well produced videos. However, within one week, she had completely forgotten their contents! The slick videos had given her no role to play in her own instruction.

The natural cycle of human attention is quite short, but it is further truncated when people are asked to play only passive roles, as audience members. Daydreaming is a more likely outcome than deep learning!

Memories of Clark Terry at Jazz Land in Vienna, Austria

The death of Clark Terry (1920-2015) this past week brought back memories of watching him in concerts when I was teaching in Vienna several decades ago. He appeared at a small jazz venue called Jazz Land, run by Axel Melhardt, an Austrian man who clearly has a great love for American jazz. Somehow, he has been able to book great American jazz artists for his small club off Schwedenplatz, near the banks of the Danube. Jazz Land lives in a small brick cellar that you reach through a dark alley, under St. Ruprecht’s Church, not an obvious jazz venue to people just casually passing by. Concerts are played in a dark room about 30’ x 50’, with a low-arching ceiling and rickety wooden chairs arranged in closely packed rows and tables. Two archways lead to the bar area in an adjoining room, and there are several smaller rooms leading off of that, down some steps. That’s where the band retreats to rest between sets, but audience members can mingle with them, buy them drinks, and get autographs.

Clark Terry at Jazz Land

Clark Terry playing at Jazz Land

One of the notable features of this venue is a small coterie of jazz aficionados that sits in the front row, occasionally bending down to tinker with something under their chairs. One evening when I was sitting in the second row and could see clearly what they were doing, I realized they had small tape recorders running under their chairs, creating tapes which they exchanged among themselves, I assume. Several of the men took photos and then sold the glossy black & white photos to patrons the next night. If a musician is booked for multiple nights, the photographers provide indelible markers for autographed photos on subsequent nights. (I have no idea what financial arrangements they make with the musicians.)

Jazz Land customers are an incredibly attentive audience. Anyone who tries to carry on a conversation while the guest artists are playing is promptly told to shut up and no one needs a second reminder.

Sitting through two or three sets was a challenge for me back in the old days, because of the clouds of smoke that eventually hung down from the ceiling and more or less engulfed the audience. I suspect there were ventilation shafts running out of the room, but they were clearly overwhelmed by the amount of smoke produced by the patrons! Every night I went home with my hair and close smelling of smoke. But, whenever I complained, people who’d accompanied me would probably remind me that we had a great time. I haven’t been back in a long time and so for all I know, the place is now non-smoking.)

From the late 80s through the early 90s, I probably made seven or eight trips to Vienna to teach in entrepreneurship program of the Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien. As I was there for a week or two on each trip, I typically was able to see two or three great jazz artists. Some evenings it was just local artists, but other evenings Axel had booked guests such as Benny Carter, Eric Reed, Art Farmer (who lived in Vienna for over 30 years, preferring it to the US), Gene Harris, Frank Wess, Bob Wilber, Joe Williams, and Howard Arlen. Wild Bill Davidson (1906-1989), a great jazz trumpet player from my home town in Northwest Ohio, often appeared there. (I had no idea Wild Bill had grown up in the basement of the library I used to frequent – I only learned about it when I was in my 50’s.)

Usually the club was packed, but occasionally the crowds were sparse, giving me an opportunity to spend some time with the musicians. For example, Howard Arlen was in town for two nights and on the first night, only about 15 or 20 people showed up. We gathered in a circle around him and he entertained us with tunes and tales. I asked him a question I’m sure he’d heard before, “are you related to Harold Arlen [e.g. “Over the Rainbow,” “Stormy Weather,” “Let’s Fall in Love”] the song-writing guy?” He paused, sighed, and said, “If I were, do you think I’d be out on the road like this?”

Gene Harris

Gene Harris at Jazz Land in Vienna, Austria

Frank Wess

Frank Wess playing at Jazz Land, Vienna Austria

On one memorable occasion, I got a chance to talk with Gene Harris (1933-2000) and Frank Wess (1922-2013), who were backed up by three local musicians. Of the two, Harris seemed more lively and talkative, but oddly enough, Frank Wess outlived him by more than a decade. When I told Wess that I was from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, he mentioned that he had “bivouacked” nearby on one of his tours. At first I thought he was talking about being in the Army, but then I realized that he would’ve come through in the days when black artists couldn’t stay in local white-only hotels and so he had to stay in a hotel in Durham that accepted black customers. Times have changed.

My Evening with Talcott Parsons

Between 1970 and 1973, Anant Negandhi held a series of conferences at Kent State University, sponsored by the Comparative Administration Research Institute. The conference focus was on “the various conceptual problems encountered in studying the functioning of complex social organizations.” I took part in several of these, including one that led to the publication of a book on Interorganizational Theory, edited by Anant. These conferences attracted a stellar cast of organization scholars, including Richard Hall, Don Hellriegel, David Hickson, Hans Penning, Jeff Pfeffer, Lou Pondy, Jon Slocum, Andy Van de Ven, and Donald Warren. Looking back, I’m astonished that Anant was able to attract this group to a regional State University in the Northeastern corner of Ohio. Up to that point, Kent State was known primarily for the infamous killings of four students by the Ohio National Guard during a peaceful protest against the Cambodian invasion. Indeed, memories of that tragedy were still in my mind when I contemplated whether to accept Anant’s invitation to attend the conferences.

In addition to people known for their contributions to organizational studies, Anant invited Talcott Parsons to the conference because of Parsons’ interest in institutional theory and organizations. In 1956, Parsons published two lead-off articles in two successive issues of the Administrative Science Quarterly, laying out what he called “suggestions for a sociological approach to the theory of organizations.” In our book, Organizations Evolving, Martin Ruef and I gave Parsons a great deal of credit for offering one of the first systematic presentations of a multilevel theory of organizations’ relations with their environments. He anticipated many of the themes that institutional theorists of organizations “rediscovered” many years later.

Parsons had just announced his retirement in the spring of 1973, after 42 years at Harvard.

Fortunately for me, Anant held a small dinner party for Parsons at his house and some of the other speakers at the conference. I wish I could report that Parsons and I enjoyed a spirited exchange about the application of evolutionary theory to organizational studies, but I’m afraid I was so awestruck just being in his presence that I mostly stuck to asking the banal questions that junior professors tend to put to famous scholars.

Jean Boddewyn, from NYU, took pictures at the party and sent several to me, including the one shown below. The photo shows Parsons, cigarette in hand, holding court, while I sit to his left in rapt attention. Thankfully, the photo is not in color, or else you would see that the houndstooth pattern on my jacket is a mix of fire-engine red checks on a white background. We took lots of fashion risks in the early 1970s!

Talcott Parsons Kent State Spring 1973

Parsons chain-smoking is probably what I remember best about that evening. Memories of his habit are confirmed in an interview Parsons did with Robert Reinhold around the time of his retirement, when he was asked about his role in American sociology and the bridge he provided to European sociologist. In reply to a question, he said “it happened to be my particular role as it were to act as an importer,” and Reinhold then noted that Parsons said this as he lit up the first of six cigarettes consumed down to the filter in the course of a one hour interview.  ASA Footnotes, August 1973.

Parsons died in 1979, aged 77.

Outsmarted by a largemouth bass twice in the same day

Do largemouth bass learn from experience or are they just naturally cleverer than us? Discussions with other anglers have confirmed that the experience I describe in this post is a common occurrence, but no one has come up with a satisfactory explanation. I invite your speculations.

Largemouth Bass

One that didn’t get away, caught with a big popper

My unplanned experiment in trying to outsmart the bass began when I decided to spend a morning at a local lake, practicing my casting and, along the way, catching a few bream. The water had finally cleared up, after a few days of turbulence stirred up by big rainstorms. Thus, it was easy to spot the bream, swimming in a few feet of water. Fingerlings, recently hatched, were also clustered in schools at several points near the shore. I started out by casting short distances with a green, yellow, and white popper with little rubbery legs that evidently looks like a disoriented but tasty frog to the fish. I found that the bream hit the fly either almost immediately when it landed on the water, or else they ignored it.

As I was doing a retrieve after a cast, I noticed a dark shadow cruising among the bream, about 15 feet from shore in water that couldn’t be more than three feet deep. Next to the bream, it looked huge, and I knew it wasn’t just an overgrown blue gill. Instead, it was a big largemouth bass – at least a foot and a half long. If I could see it, could it see me? It didn’t seem at all concerned. The bream didn’t seem afraid of it, either. They just scattered as it cruised among them, taking their time getting out of the way. I tried casting my popper directly in the path of the bass, but it didn’t even both altering its course to investigate. I briefly considered trying something else, but the bass looked like it was just out for a recreational swim.

By contrast, the bream actually seemed to be fighting among themselves, at times, to eat the popper. I forgot about the bass. Then, as I was bringing in a small fish I had hooked, I saw a flash in the water and whoosh – not wham – the bream was gone. Only silently spreading ripples marked where the fish had been. Suddenly, my line straightened and I felt it being pulled out toward the middle of the lake. My first thought was, wow, this little fish really puts up a fight for someone its size. My second thought was, that damned turtle is back (the one I scrimmaged with a few weeks ago). My third thought, however, was that no turtle swims this fast and tugs this hard – I was holding my rod with both hands.

I quickly realized that the bass I’d seen previously had grabbed the bream and was taking its prize to deeper water to eat. I kept giving it line and held my rod tip up, hoping that the bass had actually eaten the bream & thus might be snagged on the hook. It pulled about 25 yards of line off my reel, with no sign of stopping, and I had a brief vision of watching my backing get burned up by this run. (Ok, a dumb fantasy.)

Regrettably, the bass eventually figured out that its lunch came with a string attached. After what seemed like an eternity but must have been only about 30 seconds, it was over. The line suddenly slackened & I was once more just “fighting” a bream. I reeled it in and when I netted it, I saw bite marks on its side and tail. However, they were superficial and it didn’t seem much worse for the wear. I released it and it swam off.

After reflecting on what it happened, I abandoned my original goal of catching a few bream & began to think of something bigger. Revenge? I tied on a black and green woolly bugger – my fishing club friends have shown me the way – and started casting where I’d last seen the bass. After 10 or 15 fruitless minutes of this, however, I snipped off the woolly bug or and went back to the bream, only this time with a bead-head copper john. The bream seemed to enjoy the change of pace.

I hooked another one and began stripping it in. I had pulled it to within five feet of the dock when once again, a dark form shot to the surface. This time, I not only saw the flash of the attacking bass but actually watched it grab the bream in its mouth. As it swam away, the fly popped out of the bream’s mouth and my dreams of landing a largemouth vanished once again. I don’t know if the bream got away, as both disappeared in a few seconds. I felt like I’d just seen one of those Animal Planet videos of a killer whale nabbing a seal off an ice floe.

Now, I know there is probably a scientific explanation for the phenomenon of bass stealing bream off an angler’s line. When a bream is hooked, it starts darting about frantically, sending out a signal of “fish in distress” which the bass probably interpret as “easy kill coming up.” However, I’m considering another hypothesis. Namely, these largemouths are really clever and are just hanging around offshore, waiting for us to serve up their meal for them. If my 5-wt rod could throw a big fly that looked just like a blue gill in distress, I think I’d hang out a sign “dinner served” and try winning this battle. In the interim, I’ll just enjoy the show.