Tag Archives: practices

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 subject 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.

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.

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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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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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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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

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.