When I discuss a term paper assignment with my students, I explain that readers need to understand a paper’ s purpose and the logic of its organizational structure. To prepare them for writing a rough draft, I ask them to write a detailed outline, with section headings, introductory paragraphs, and prospective topic sentences. Despite this request, when I read their drafts, I still find that I have a hard time understanding how they got from their opening problem statement, through their
Instructors and students face much heavier cognitive demands in discussion-based class sessions than in more straightforward lecture or structured discussion classes. They face the problem of managing their working memory: being able to hold multiple elements in their minds while actively processing them. In this post, I offer some strategies for easing the burden on working memory by externalizing much of the discussion.
Free flowing discussions enliven classrooms and make college teaching gratifying
To be clear: the reason for asking instructors to reveal the structural principles of the course is that it explicitly acknowledges the role that students’ comprehension of the design will play in their performance.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
But then I stopped.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Of course, this feeling is the same for the students themselves. Whilst we hate marking and grading, the students also hate writing these assignments and essays. These feelings are only experienced by those who write their own essays though, there are some students who make use of cheetahpapers.com to write their essays for them. This probably makes their lives a lot easier, but it can be difficult to grade pieces of work that aren’t written by the students. This is just one problem teachers face. 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.
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.
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.”
Professionals take every opportunity to learn more about their field: go to all open seminars and workshops
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. Training with a professional mindset remains as crucial for these players as it would have been since they stepped on a soccer pitch for the very first time. Without some of the equipment provided by the likes of Gear Up Sports, it is highly unlikely many would be as good a soccer player as they are now.
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.
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. Some decide to buy term papers online to reinforce structural fundamentals. I’ve heard that this helps writing get off the ground with their ideas.
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.
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.
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.
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.