Saturday, May 31, 2008

Always Do Your Best

As I have said in the past, I like to read self-help books. A while ago a couple of different friends of mine both recommended a book called The Four Agreements. They actually both recommended it to me within days of each other, which was one of those synchronicities that made me at least think to pay a bit more attention. Anyway, I found the book in a pile of free books on the street one day, and I've just recently been reading it.

The fourth agreement is "Always Do Your Best."
As I was reading this morning I came across the following passage: "keep doing your best--no more and no less than your best. If you try too hard to do more than your best, you will spend more energy than is needed and in the end your best will not be enough. When you overdo, you deplete your body and go against yourself, and it will take you longer to accomplish your goal."

This feels to me very much like what I was saying about pacing. We want to, above all, honor our health. If we sacrifice our health early in a long process, then our chances of finishing decrease. If we can continue to work while maintaining our health, we improve our chances of finishing.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Diff'rent Strokes

That was a TV show in the 70s, I think. With Gary Coleman.

But I was just thinking about how some people go about doing things so differently.
I was looking at a dissertation proposal with a comment from the committee chair to the effect that an abstract was unnecessary for the proposal and can only be written last anyway. I know that this is not an uncommon theory--one I've heard before.

It doesn't match, however, my experience. And so I think of the old expression "different strokes for different folks", or the related "one man's meat is another man's poison." I love the abstract. I love trying to write an abstract. I love the perspective it can give me, and I love the fact that it's something that can be done quickly. Trying to write the abstract, forces me to try to see the big picture and seeing the big picture can help me find structure and keep my writing focused and the details related to the big picture.

Now I can understand, to some extent, the opposite position. You don't really know what the abstract's final form will be until you've gotten the whole paper written, because you learn as you write. You always have to revise it at the end. So I can see how, for some people, it may seem more efficient not to write it until you know what the final form will be.

The balance of efficiency definitely shifts depending on how well you write and what benefit of perspective you get from the exercise. One thing about writing an abstract is that it is something that every writer should be able to do in 30 minutes. You probably won't have a perfect abstract after 30 minutes, but you will have a draft. That's a low cost in time.
Of course it's possible that those 30 minutes will also have a high cost of frustration.

That's neither here nor there.
Different people work differently. What works for one won't work for another. Like trying to write an abstract as an exercise, you want to try different things to see what works for you. For me, I lean towards writing as a means to clear my ideas. But other means may work better for others. Others, for example, may be more visually oriented than I, and may therefore want to use a tool that allows spatial and visual relations to help work through the relevant ideas.

To some extent, one way to interpret the above is to suggest that if you, as a writer, are not getting the results you would like, maybe the thing to do is to try some new approach, and to experiment with the way you work.

Thursday, May 29, 2008


What choices do we get to make and how are we going to make them?

We want to understand our goals, and the context in which we work (that is to say those things that we cannot or will not try to change), but our options are what deserve the great focus. What kinds of outcomes follow from our choices? It is in the focus on the choices that we are most empowered because we are focusing on our actions.

I'm thinking about this right now because I'm anxious. And I'm worrying about things that are beyond my control. I'm not thinking about what I can do; instead I'm thinking about what I can't do, or at least what I believe that I can't do. And that doesn't really feel very good.

This post, then, is an exercise on focusing on things that I can do. Writing, for me, offers an opportunity to work on directing my attention. It's not a meditative sort of thing, but it does force my focus on to the present, and on to what I can do.

If Cognitive-Behavioral psychology is correct in presuming that negative emotional states are strongly related to the stories we're telling ourselves, then an exercise like focusing your attention to write about something positive will help us change the stories that are giving us trouble.

For me, fear is a big problem, fear of other people. But to let that rule me? I have choices of how to act, and as I pursue my choices, I want to choose those that are the most able to help me face my fear. And one of those choices is to keep in mind that any possible course of action has negative potential outcomes, many of which have little or nothing to do with me. So I know that I could choose to focus on negative outcomes for any and all potential courses of action. Or I can try to choose the course of action that will help me move towards my own goals, even in the face of the fear-inducing negative outcome.

I haven't figured out how to choose to turn off the emotional switch. I think that's possible, too. But for now, I know that in the long run, I feel best when I choose a course of action and resign myself to the possibility that it has something bad in store for me, because I see that there is also a possibility that it has something good in store for me.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Placebo Effect

How is it that a placebo effect exists?
In writing about What the Bleep Do We Know?, I got an e-mailed comment about the part of that movie that talks about the effect of the mind on water--there are a series of pictures of water molecules showing how each had been affected by being labeled in different ways (presumably through the action of the mind). What if we had a bottle of "confident" water? or "peaceful" water? What would happen if we drank that water?

Now I don't know how to evaluate the accuracy of the science of the shaping of the water molecules, but I do feel pretty darn confident that the placebo effect exists, and, though I haven't actually studied the placebo effect, that there is plenty of research out there to support the notion of the placebo effect.

How is it that it operates? One possible explanation that we might imagine would be to link the water molecules of What the Bleep with the placebo notion: in the process of taking the placebo, our believing mind alters the molecules in some way. Another possible explanation (and the one I imagine most people would favor over the What the Bleep explanation) would be that our mind acts directly on our body--by believing that changes will occur, we may create those chances purely through the power of the mind. To explain the placebo effect--an observable phenomenon--somehow requires physiological change through action of the mind, whether that causal path is direct or indirect. I have come up with two possible explanations, but I daresay more could be imagined--both variations on the two basic themes I laid out, or development of some other theme (e.g., supernatural entities?).

If the placebo effect exists, is it possible that it can be consciously exerted--for example by repeating "I am confident", one grows in confidence? That would seem to be the rankest version of pop psychology and using affirmations. But does the logic of the placebo suggest that possibility?
We might argue that the placebo effect can only be unconsciously activated, but that requires a Freudian view of the mind, and one wonders whether we really want to believe that there is some entity called the "unconscious" or whether Freud's theory, which characterizes the unconscious as a sort of independent agent, relies on human conceptualization and thus creates a division that is not accurate with respect to the placebo effect. (I daresay someone has studied whether the placebo effect is only unconscious or not; I haven't researched that.)

If we acknowledge that there is a possibility (not a certainty) that we can consciously invoke the placebo principle through such behaviors as repeated affirmations, at what level does the possibility become great enough to try such actions? And though I dismiss affirmations as pop psychology, there is no doubt that there are therapeutic with significant empirical research to support them that suggest that we can improve our moods through behavioral modifications (like affirmations).

For me, especially at those moments when things seem the most difficult, the level of possibility doesn't have to be very high. It seems to be worth the chance, because the cost of changing my behaviors to promote is so low. The effort doesn't contradict other efforts to change my situation, and costs nothing but a little effort.

Following this logic, then, it seems that to the extent that we can imagine a possibility, and we can imagine the steps to get there, we can then use our minds to help us move there by focusing on that goal ("I am confident!").

This post is a little of a hodge podge, because I was also thinking about the role of imagination in work as academics or philosophers: when faced with an observed phenomenon, we can use our imagination to generate different hypotheses about the causal factors of interest (as I did with the placebo effect).

We can also use our imagination to hypothesize connections of significance: if there is such a thing as the placebo effect: how can that be significant to the individual? What can be done with the placebo effect? Maybe you could institute a whole program based on it (which might be a health pogrom, not a health program)? Or maybe you would want to limit attempts to apply the placebo effect as treatment to only some cases (say ones with low risk, or ones that are not treatable by other means).

Our imaginations are keys to a whole realm of possibilities in academic work. Judicious use of imagination, along with careful qualification (e.g., the conscious placebo effect is possible, not certain) can lead to fruitful lines of discussion.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Believing in yourself

Either you do or you don't. I wonder what the proportions are on the split: how many do believe and how many don't. Me? I'm up and down. Some days I do. Others I don't. Some days I do stuff and it clicks. Others it doesn't. Some days, yes; some, no.

Believing in yourself is a good thing. Psychologists talk about believing in yourself as "self-efficacy"--a trait that has been correlated with a number of other positive traits, like success in school and psychological well-being.

I've been having some trouble believing in myself recently. But that difficulty is not necessarily reflective of a with me. That point was driven home to me today, talking with a writer who had gotten some difficult feedback on her dissertation. "I don't have anything to say," she told me. I'm sure she believed it. Partly she believed it because the feedback she had received had projected that. Partly she was just forgetting herself. The same writer has also told me about her own sense of the work's importance, and of her experience of others who have been interested in her work. Which is the reality? Is it true that she has nothing to say because one person told her that? Or is it true that she does have something to say, because someone else told her so?

I used to think that brutal honesty--with self and others--was always the way to go. Nowadays, I'm not as certain of the truth. It's easy to find a flaw. But what does a flaw mean? Or, as they say in industry, is it a feature or a bug? Is that flaw a flaw from all perspectives?

I lean now more toward practicing optimism and practicing believing in myself (as any reader of this blog is surely aware by now). It seems like the logically soundest route to follow. Now I admit that this route is more appropriate for those of us who have trouble believing in ourselves--those who do believe in themselves maybe ought to watch out for hubris, instead. Anyway, for those who doubt, it seems like practicing your belief in yourself is generally the best practice, because it leads to action, rather than hesitation.

For writers suffering from any sort of writer's block due to lack of self-belief, it's a worthwhile exercise to step back from the project for a moment and to explore the reasons that motivated the project at the start, as it's often the case that we have good reasons for our work, it's just that in the process of working on the details and research, we lost sight of that driving force.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Attitude Management

As I often do, I want to talk about habits of focus.

Today I'm thinking about the effects of focusing on the past and on other things that you can't control, and how that affects your attitude.

We have come to where we are in our lives--wherever that may be--as a result of many factors. Some of the factors may have been our choices, other things may have been due to the choices of others; some may not have been choices at all but accidents of fate.

It is worth understanding the past inasmuch as it gives us information about how to proceed into the future. As Santayana said "Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it." For this reason it is important to understand the factors that affect us--especially the responses and feedback we get from our professors. But beyond using information from the past to guide us into the future, we want to get our attention off the past as much as possible. And especially we want to get our attention off the things that upset us.

We want to know about the past, so that we can make good decisions for the future. We don't want our focus on the past to disrupt our present.

In particular, I'm thinking about focusing on negative things. I don't know about you, and I won't invite you to test this--because I don't want to prompt anyone to enter a negative emotional state--but when I think about times when I have been treated poorly and unjustly, I get upset--even about things that happened many years ago. By focusing on past hurts, I can feel the pain even today.

Again, I don't know about you, but in the long run I work better when I'm happy and optimistic and operating from a place of interest. I can generate spurts of effort fueled by anger, but they tend to leave me exhausted and unhappy.

I think a key role in attitude management--especially in avoiding the emotional downs that come with focusing on bad experiences from your past--is to keep looking at the future and asking what are you going to do next? What kinds of action can you take in the face of past wrongs? How can you use the options that are open to you to move forward and succeed in your project? The focus on the future, and on the goal of completing your project has an implicitly optimistic underpinning: it looks towards a future that you hope for.

A similar focus issue, which plays an equally important role in attitude management, is to keep you focus on the things that you can do, and to try to build from them.

Recently I have been working with a writer who has been working on the dissertation for over a decade--well over a decade, really. Our correspondence is filled with rehearsal of past problems, of personal weaknesses, of excuses for what can't be done, and for what was once wanted. But none of that material helps the dissertation move forward. I am tempted to write "You write beautiful, long, eloquent excuses for why you can't do the work; if you were to spend as much effort, and write a third as much on the things you're telling me you can't do, you would make far more progress."

Saturday, May 24, 2008

What the Bleep Do We Know?

I loved this movie. It was quirky, odd, and often hard to believe. I also thought it profound, and often hard to reject.

I found it inspirational. The simple message acted out by Marlee Matlin--who early in the movie shouts "I hate you" at her reflection in her bathroom mirror, and later, looking in the same mirror, writes "I love you" on her body with makeup--is a worthy one for most of us to practice. Love and acceptance of others is grounded in love and acceptance of ourselves.

But there's a lot more in the movie than just that. I enjoyed the animated description of the human neurological system and how repeating patterns reinforces neurological structures. And many of the speakers were very interesting, and had credentials that were hard to ignore. It may be easy to dismiss someone who says she is channeling another being, but it's pretty hard to dismiss professors from universities like Stanford (as I write that, I see how my perspective as an academic has framed it; I have no doubt that there are people in the world--religious or spiritual people--who would find it easier to dismiss a university professor than a channeler).

I mentioned this movie a few posts ago, and someone commented on it (thanks for the comment!), which reminded me of how much I liked the movie and how the movie shares the view that we have the ability to recreate our experience of the world into new patterns. Actually, I think the movie would make a stronger claim: that we have the ability to shape the world through our exertion of will. Personally, I might accept that claim. But in terms of writing an essay that can provide useful ideas to you standard dissertation writer, I think the stronger claim is unnecessary and might be distracting.

You, of course, should view my writing and What the Bleep Do We Know? with the same sort of critical eye that you read academic works: what parts make sense and what parts don't? How strong is the argument? When is it using good evidence? and when poor? And so on. And there I go--I set out to talk about a specific resource--the film I liked--and ended up talking about a general process: how to read.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Confusion and Clarity

Yesterday in my yoga class the teacher was talking about confusion and clarity. I was a little confused by her take on it, but clarity is definitely what I'm interested in.

I should start by saying that my confusion is not necessarily a reflection of her confusion, but rather of my attempt to integrate what she had to say into what I'm interested in.

What follows is my take on what she was saying--very heavily filtered by the fact that the subject of confusion and clarity (clarity especially) is so near to my heart that I could not listen without my internal dialogue running away with things. (This in itself is a lesson, but not my subject for the moment.)

I don't believe in logical certainty, and I say that with a great deal of confidence, though not with certainty. At the boundaries of our knowledge everywhere, and in the spaces beneath--the very foundations by which we understand the world--there are gaps and questions that logic cannot answer. To me then, the struggle of the academic writer is to make valuable knowledge crystallize out of the background of uncertainty. And yet the academic must not push to far towards towards the crystalline clarity of certainty, because the work then becomes fragile--by overstepping we lose credibility.

The writer has another problem related to the interplay between confusion and clarity. We don't usually know what it is we're going to write when we first sit down. We are seeking that understanding. The writing process is a learning process during which we come to understand our subject matter more deeply. As we write, then, we face problems of what our project should look like. And each time we come up with an answer, that answer will raise new questions. In other words, each time we reach clarity on one question, that answer is likely to create new questions.

Within the writing process this cycling from confusion to clarity and back is almost continuous. Sometimes the confusion moves to smaller and smaller scale, while, for example, you move a draft towards completion. But sometimes the confusion moves to a larger scale--as, e.g., when a completed draft receives feedback requesting changes.

I was also thinking about how clarity is often related to a closed mind, while confusion is related to the open mind. To the mind that sees something as clear, it is hard to get that mind to see things differently. The "confused mind" on the other hand, is open to different answers--if only because no answer seems good enough.

I was also thinking how confusion can often be related to the most profound of learning experiences. If we experience a major shift in how we look at the world, there will likely be a period of confusion where we start to see problems with our old way of looking at the world, but are not yet fully convinced of a new way of looking at the world.

Confusion is not always bad. It is part of the process of seeing the world and it is intimately intertwined with our ability to see clarity in the world as well. If we can embrace the confusion, we can try to explore it and see the possibilities it has to offer, which may prove to be a quick way out of the confusion: listing available options always helps in making a choice. What we don't want to do is complain about confusion without looking for what we can learn in the moment of confusion. Epiphanies don't arise when we're already crystal clear; epiphanies arise when we're still seeking understanding--in other words epiphany can only enter the space where there is room for a new way of seeing the world.

Confusion is not a reason to stop working. And it is not something to feared. It is something to engage (ok, well, there may be circumstances in which confusion is to be feared--you don't want to lose your sense of direction walking on the edge of a cliff in heavy fog, for example--but the academic's confusion is usually not life-threatening).

Thursday, May 22, 2008

To thine own self be true

Know Thyself.

These are some important principles for a dissertation writer to follow.
I was talking with a writer today about how she had shifted from waiting on the instructions from her committee, to telling them what she expected of them. That's a pivotal shift that comes when you begin to develop your own voice.

When you have your own voice things are different. "The pieces all fit together, and I see a reason for everything that I'm leaving in the draft," she said to me. If you see how your whole work fits together, and you have reasons for doing what you're doing, then you interact with your professors differently.

When we're searching and uncertain, a professor's instruction to do things differently is very hard to refuse--even if we perceive it to be some sort of arbitrary exercise of power.
When we've found our own voice, then we can simply evaluate the instruction with respect to our own voice. If it serves us, we have good reason to follow the instruction. And if it doesn't we have good grounds upon which to resist.

It is natural that our vision and voice are not as clear at the start of the project--we wouldn't be learning if there were no development. But the more we strive to know ourselves, and to understand how to use that knowledge to chart a course of action, the better placed we are to take charge of the project and to make it happen on our own terms.

I know that dissertations may not come out in the way we wanted. I know that our work can be invalidated by others--our professors, in particular. Can we be true to ourselves if we're being pushed in a different way?
I believe so. I do not believe that compromise is a betrayal of the self, though some compromises are. If we remain committed to our principles and to our own interests, while trying to remain open to new ideas and new learning that might challenge our old preconceptions, we can often find paths that satisfy our needs and the needs of others. I know that my dissertation is not exactly what I wanted it to be--but it's complete and it's filed and I am a doctor.
I learned a lot by making that compromise. The book that I had been envisioning has not yet come to fruition--perhaps because it was too ambitious, or perhaps just because I don't have support for that project like I did for the other. It's easy to think "once I'm a doctor, I won't be at the mercy of the whims of my professors." Yeah, sure. That may be true. But when you submit that journal article and it's returned with suggestions for revision, do you reject that? When the editor at the publishing house say they're only interested in your book if you revise it, what then?

I never understood how the saying "you can't have your cake and eat it, too" arose. It seems to me that you can only eat your cake if you have it. But that's beside the point. The idea behind the saying is that we can't have everything--and we can't. Compromising something to get something you want may be a sacrifice, but it is not a violation of yourself (or at least it need not be; you obviously don't want to be signing away your soul to the devil so you can complete your dissertation).

The better you know yourself, and the better you understand your interests, aims, needs and desires, the better your ability to guide the interaction with your professors. And this self-knowledge also allows compromises that (hopefully) give up the lesser issues in order to retain the greater.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Stay on your mat

This is not about training a dog to stay in one place.

All during Sunday's run (which, to briefly recap, was a race that was farther than I usually run) I kept thinking about my yoga teacher's advice to "stay on your mat."

It is not physical presence that she's referring to, but rather mental presence. Her injunction is about focusing on your own practice and finding what works for you so that you can grow in a manner appropriate to your own situation. Her concern in telling us to stay on our mat is about keeping our attention on our own practice, rather than focusing on the practice of others.

During the race, I kept telling myself to stay on my mat--to listen closely to what my body had to say to me and to pace myself accordingly. I let the other runners do their running at the pace they wanted, and, although it was a race, I didn't get into a race with them.

It is difficult to stay on our own mats. People tell us one thing and another. The media bombard us with images, ideas and suggestions. We compare ourselves to others. We try to keep up with the Joneses, as the saying goes.

This outward focus is not useful. Yes, of course, as researchers we need to look outside ourselves. And yes, of course, we want to be able to learn from and admire and even imitate others and their work. But ultimately, we must learn to develop our own voice. We must find our own thing to say, our own way of presenting ideas--something coherent, preferably--something that comes from inside; something that comes from really internalizing the research done and developing that into your own, carefully developed view.

The greater your awareness of your own situation, and the greater your presence within your own voice, the easier it is to use that which you can see in the world around you. When you are centered in your own voice, then, as an academic writer, it becomes easier to engage with the work of other researchers and theoreticians: your own voice provides a guide.

My premise is that, unless you are actually in a race for the sake of racing, you should be able to see the projects you engage in as part of a larger life: sometimes there may be reason to work yourself into the ground, but for the most part, what really matters is protecting and nurturing the ability to engage in life fully the next day, too.

By staying on your mat, by focusing your attention inward, and by understanding who you are and what is suitable for you, you are best able to care for yourself, thus protecting your ability to profit from both today and tomorrow.

And in the world of dissertation writing, it is the process of staying on one's own intellectual mat--by understanding your own abilities and situation--that you are able to develop your own voice and to use the ideas and examples of others in a way that works with your voice, rather than against it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ups and Downs

We all have cycles. Some days we're up; some we're down. It's just the nature of things.

However, I also believe that we can influence the ups and downs. We want to be sure to create patterns that are going to generate ups and not patterns that will generate downs.

What I had to say about pacing was about looking for that point at which the pattern is generating an up. By treating myself easily, while still pushing, I created an up. Push too hard, get injured, and I'm generating a down.

We can focus on the downs or on the ups. This focus tends to create more of the same. If we focus on what's wrong, it's easy to feel worse. If we focus on what is good, then it's easy to feel better. And that's not got to be a matter of turning a blind eye--but rather a question of how long the seeing eye remains focused, and on what. I really enjoyed the movie "What the bleep do we know;" I think it expresses these ideas well.

There will be ups and downs. But can we shift the baseline? I believe so.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Random Thoughts

Not all writing need be entirely coherent. The stream of consciousness is not just for artists. It's just you don't necessarily want to share the stream of consciousness if you're an academic. You may profit from writing it.

I like the ability to just get my ideas down quickly; to skip from one thing to another; it allows covering a lot more territory. Something is often lost in the process: a suggestive line or two, written in the moment an idea is flush, may not be so suggestive when you go back to read that note some time later. Many a brave idea has met its demise in this fashion at the hands of my memory.

Incoherent writing is easier. perfection unnecessary; punctuation can drop by the wayside. I personally like punctuation because it helps me express my thoughts. Some people think it's a nuisance. If you're writing for yourself why worry what others might think?

Practice is important. writing--when ever, how ever--is a practice. Today's stream of consciousness cuts a path for tomorrow's eloquence. Or at least entertainment from the act. Yesterday I wrote about running. You've got to practice a little to be able to enjoy acts. some days going for a run seems really hard. And some days so does writing.

Writing doesn't seem easy to me. Day after day it requires effort. But I keep practicing to develop a better relationship with it. It doesn't necessarily seem easy, but it gets easier with time. Especially if I don't worry so much about what I'm saying.

We could be digging ditches, struggling to make ends meet, or maybe cleaning other people's houses. It would be a challenge to turn such situations into transformative growth. Dissertations have a lot of difficulties. Writing in general has a lot of difficulties. Writers have their troubles and toils. The dissertation, for all the heartache, has a real chance to be a transformative experience. All the hostile, selfish, petty, close-minded people who try to interfere can't take away that opportunity. One of the things that makes dissertations so difficult is the extent to which the writer is left alone--but that also leaves the writer the opportunity to grow into his or her own maturing voice.

Random jottings of thoughts, late night whimsy and early morning optimism, even that letter you've been meaning to send, can be part of a practice of putting your thoughts onto paper. And that practice will accumulate, day after day, into a skill. Some of those random jottings might even turn out to be something about your dissertation that you can use. It would be nice to have such things pile up, day after day, too, no?

Sunday, May 18, 2008


I went for a run today. Ten miles. I run usually three times a week, usually about 6 miles. Today I let a friend talk me into running in a ten-mile race. I wasn't really sure what running 10 miles was like. He warned me that the route was hard and harder on the return than on the way out.

I took it easy, keeping my pace steady. I finished the race feeling fine. Most of the racers finished before me but I was happy to finish feeling fine and with energy left for the day.

The race is a decent metaphor for a dissertation: you don't necessarily finish by being very fast at any point. You finish by sticking with it. Step after step after step. This idea of persistence leading to successful dissertation writing is nothing new. I've said it many times, and I don't think I've ever seen a book on writing that didn't suggest the primacy of developing a repetitive routine.

But I was thinking about feeling good. I felt good running today because I paced myself well. In the last few miles I passed several people who didn't look so happy. They were working hard and not looking like they felt very good. I didn't set any records for finishing quickly, but I finished. I don't know about "leaving it all on the field". That would have led to a different kind of accomplishment--running as hard as I could, and running faster, but feeling bad after, because I had pushed myself to the limits of what I could do.

We get to make choices about this kind of stuff. There's no doubt that there's a lot to be said for striving for your limits. On the other hand, it's not like you can't work hard and push yourself without hitting burnout. The dissertation can take a long time; if you burn yourself out, or work to the point of exhaustion before the race is over, you have to drag yourself to the finish line in a state of exhaustion. And that is no fun.

Good pacing is important. It helps you maintain your health, your energy, your positive attitude, and, if you're steady, it helps you finish, perhaps more quickly than you anticipate. If the dissertation race stretches out over years, then maintaining your health--especially your emotional health--is crucial. A steady pace is conducive to supporting your mood because you continue to make progress (which helps, for obvious reasons), and yet it doesn't create the negative reinforcement that working to the point of exhaustion does. A steady pace with room for a whole life doesn't create the sense that the dissertation is some sort of cruel punishment because you're not creating the painful part of it.

I worked hard enough today that I was pushing my limits. I ran farther than I normally do. I don't normally time myself running, so I don't know if I ran faster, but I know that I ran faster than I expected. It was a challenge and a growth experience, and it left me feeling like the process is something worth doing. A good pace made it possible.

Would that every dissertation writer could say that. You may only want to write one dissertation, but if your career choice is to be an academic, that dissertation is only one race to be run. It may be a relatively long race--a marathon of academic projects--but you'll have other equally long projects if you hope to publish any books. If you learn to set a good pace and to work steadily, each project can be completed without making writing into a sort of purgatory.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Mental Activity

Yesterday's post about imagination was centered on the crucial role that imagination can play. It was about the activity of mind: it is not just a mind that is receiving information and passing it on. Now, of course, we don't "just" receive information and pass it on, because everything is filtered through our own perceptions, thus it can be observed that different people remember the same event in different ways.

I think there is always an active element in this filtering, but it can be more or less active. I was talking with a writer who assured me that the way she worked was just to use what other people said. I was completely unable to convince her that she wasn't just passively receiving ideas, but was also making active choices among them. If it is your conviction that your mind has no active facility, then certainly you won't be able to put it to use.

But more importantly, as writers, we are trying to exercise the activity of our minds--this is how our own voice gets to manifest in what we write. The more that we can exercise our active mind, the better our opportunity to work on developing our own voice.

In this desire to move towards an active consciousness, towards a mind that generates ideas, it can help to write. Writing forces our minds to be active, while reading and researching allow a much greater passivity (though activity while reading is certainly possible, if that is already your habit).

Ideally we are mentally active. Ideally our work is motivated by some curiosity. Ideally we think it's kind of cool to try and figure out how things work and to try to come up with different stories that might explain a situation.

These ideals, however, do not always prevail. And in that case, the need to write become greater because writing obliges mental activity.

I didn't work in any quotes, but part of the influence for this posting is Gail Sher's book One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers, in particular her chapter titled "Reading Supports Writing -- But Watch Out!" Overall, Sher's book, though possessing a certain elegance, is not my favorite book on writing. It's got some good points, but... It is highly comparable to Cameron's Right to Write, but with a less friendly attitude. I tend to be put off by people who complain about how others are destroying the language. Language is a tool to be used to communicate with others; we each do the best we can with it. It is not some fragile heirloom that can only be used by those in the know.

Friday, May 16, 2008


Imagination gets a bad rap in academia--at least most of the time. It certainly has not been revered like rationality is, at least not in the past few centuries. But it plays a crucial role.

As academics we work with theories, and we work with data, and we're supposed to be objective. But where do hypotheses come from? How do we expand on the theories we do have? Imagination plays a crucial role.

And yet, because it gets a bad rap, it gets ignored. "I can't listen to my imagination! It's not rational!"

I'm here to say to throw that idea out the window. Imagination plays a crucial role in good academic work, and it's got a venerable history in the world of philosophy (a field of study that, sadly, is less well studied than it ought).

Thought experiments, a valuable tool to any researcher, are a tool that use the imagination. What is a thought experiment? Basically any sort of speculation about how things could work, that then tests the logic of the hypotheses of the speculation.

For example, in the world of cognitive science and artificial intelligence research, there are two very famous thought experiments. The first, and the better known is the "Turing test", named for Alan Turing. The Turing test explores the idea of computer intelligence through a thought experiment the asks whether intelligence is equivalent to a computer that can have a conversation with a person. The second thought experiment, John Searle's "Chinese room," is a well-known and much discussed Follow up to the Turing test. Searle, in attempting to argue against artificial "understanding" postulated a room in which a person who does not understand Chinese is given a rule book that says how to respond to written Chinese messages. Searle argues that despite rules producing correct linguistic responses, "understanding" is not present.

What I'd like these examples to show is that imagination, sometimes in the form of thought experiments, plays a valuable role in academic work.

Today I spoke with two writers both of whom are getting stuck: "I can't write, because I don't know for certain; I can't write because I don't know enough." In both cases, they're looking for knowledge, when they should be trying their own imagination.

What's research about if not explaining how the world works? Historians try to explain what happened in the past and why--why did Rome fall? Physicists explain the natural world--what interactions occur and why? And so on and so forth. The point of knowledge is to explain the world--not just to document it, but to understand how it works. In whatever field you work, it can be useful to sit back and speculate and let your imagination wander in search of useful explanations and hypotheses.

Say you're studying psychology and you're interested in a certain condition. Use your imagination to try to come up with explanations for behavior: he did it because of confidence; he did it because of fear; he did it because of high attachment with his mother; he did it because he really likes chocolate cake. Come up with possible explanations. Some will seem better than others--and those explanations are routes to explore. But you can't explore those routes until you start to try to imagine what the important dynamics could be.

It can be hard to use a faculty you've avoided for a long time. So give it a little practice. Conduct thought experiments; use your imagination to explore the possibilities. It is in this space, where you open up possibilities for good research through use of the imagination, that you can find your own voice, your own explanations and analyses.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


We have expectations. It's natural and unavoidable. It's how we work. Our lives are based on expectations: we expect food to nourish us; we expect water to quench our thirst; we expect the light to go on when we flip the switch--and what a rude shock it is when it doesn't!

My yoga teacher told a little parable the other day (I have no other source to offer; if someone knows the source, I'm happy to give credit):
A stranger approached the gates of the city. In the dust by the road sat an old woman.
"What are people like in that city?", asked the stranger.
"What are people like where you come from?", responded she.
"They are stupid and evil. They lie, cheat and steal and all out of the meanness of their hearts."
"You will find they are much the same here," said the woman.
Later the same day another stranger approached and stopped by the old woman.
"What are people like in that city?", asked the stranger.
"What are people like where you come from?", responded she.
"They are kind, loving and wise. They are generous and hospitable."
"You will find them much the same here."

To me this story is about finding what we expect to find. People are people, in groups some are kind, some are mean, some are smart, others stupid, and so on. People as individuals are themselves usually a mixture of the better and the worse, we may be generous and wise in one way and stupid and grasping in another. Liars expect to find liars and honest people expect to find honest people.

Having an open mind means being able to see the good as good, the bad as bad, and the complex as complex.

But our expectations shape our experience at least partly by shaping our experience. If we expect people to be generous, then when we see a person being generous, that example adds to our expectation of future generosity. I can think of at least two sources from my past that I have read that talk about these matters, but I don't have exact citations. One is the work in experimental psychology that I associate with Kahnemann and Tversky and their colleagues that looks at expectations a compared with probability assessments. The other is Tristram Shandy, an eighteenth century novel among whose concerns was John Locke's association of ideas. Throughout the book there is the constant theme of "hobbyhorses"--ruling interests dominated by past associations of ideas--and in the discussion is a quote that I no longer remember precisely, to the effect that once a person becomes engaged with a ruling passion, that passion shapes all the person sees.

And it's all largely a matter of focus.

This is relevant when we're receiving feedback, because, when faced with complex feedback, we can focus our energy and attention in different ways--we can focus on the good, or the bad, or on the things we can fix, or about the things that we don't understand.

In general, I believe in realistic assessments and carefully checking the weak spots. And I believe that we should balance our attention across all the feedback we get (at least at first); we want to take it all seriously. But in the long run, if that balance tilts towards focusing on the positive feedback and the things that you can affect most easily, there can be a gain in emotional energy--and when it comes to getting a dissertation done, emotional energy can be the resource in shortest supply. We don't run out of intelligence when working on a dissertation, nor do we lose our ability to write and research; what can be all too easily lost is the emotional energy that provides motivation.

In practical terms, one could boil this posting down to the recommendation: focus on the compliments and doable changes in your feedback first. This is, of course, a gross simplification. Among other things, it simplifies the difficulty of choosing where to focus.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Receiving and Using Feedback (2): breaking it down

The feedback has come in. You've finished cursing your readers as heartless, inhuman fiends. What next?

Well, you want to get the most mileage from it you can, and you want to avoid any difficulties it might create. I think the way to go about this is to break the feedback down. Break it down into pieces. And test each piece to see how it fits.

Some pieces are compliments: "This is some good work," they write, or "You're getting close," or some such comment. Compliments are good. And they're not to be taken lightly.
"It is notoriously hard to write a good review," notes Julia Cameron. "It is hard to be specific about a book's strengths. It is notoriously easy to write a slam. It is shamefully easy to be specific about a book's weaknesses." Keep this in mind for the compliments, and for the complaints.

Some pieces are nothing but complaint. You can pretty much ignore these. If you're getting lots of complaints, you're probably fully aware that your reader is dissatisfied.

Some pieces are specific: they talk about a specific paragraph or sentence. Whether compliment or complaint, specific pieces need to be examined individually for their merits. What does the comment tell you about your writing? What can you learn from it to improve your writing?

Some specific pieces will be easily used: use 'em and make a note of them. You want to be sure to remind your professors/readers of what you have done to accommodate their wishes (to some extent).

Some will be hard to understand. Don't be afraid to ask for clarification. Asking for clarification does not make one appear weak or stupid. In the right context a willingness to admit ignorance can be an indicator of both confidence and wisdom: the wise person knows that no one knows everything.

The process of breaking down the feedback is a piece-by-piece deconstruction in which you strive to look at each comment as an individual comment.

Each individual comment needs to be evaluated by you in the context of your own work: how does the comment match up against the ideas that you're trying to develop? If not, does it indicate a misunderstanding that can be fixed by minor revisions? Or does it indicate some logical problems that need slightly wider revisions? Or is it something else.

The ultimate test of whether a comment makes sense and whether to use it is whether you think it furthers your purpose. Test each comment against your main points, and see what that teaches you about your writing, about your ideas, about the ideas of your reader, and about the reader's character and attitude.

Each comment is evidence to be studied. And the only comments to take to heart are the compliments; all the complaints are nothing but evidence that will help you plan what to do next.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Top-Down and Bottom-Up

No, this is not about convertibles, nor about drinking.

Once upon a time I studied computer science, where I first learned the concepts of
top-down and bottom-up design.

Top-down design focuses on the overall structure and the relationship of parts, and then adds in detail as the structure is resolved.
Bottom-up design focuses on the little pieces, leaving the relationship to be worked out later, on the presumption that once you get the details working, you can make them work together.

These two choices are available as design choices to dissertation writers. I think writers in the humanities are usually encouraged to do bottom-up dissertation design: first you write one chapter, and only once you've written that chapter do you then go on to work on the next chapter. In the sciences, I think that the structure of empirical studies forces the writer to use a little bit more of a top-down approach: the link between a literature review chapter and a methods chapter is clear: the literature review lays out the basic theories that you are working with, and then the methods discusses how those theories are operationalized. By contrast, a humanities dissertation that might, for example, have a series of chapters on different authors, and the structures and relationships of these chapters are far less clearly defined.

I'm a firm believer, in writing a dissertation, of a top-down approach. The more that an author can develop a sense of the overall project, the more easily that author can see what to talk about, and when. My experience with clients suggests that it's not a paucity of ideas that people struggle with, it's the organization of those ideas, and the making a coherent project. My experience suggests that writers with plenty of material often are thinking they need more material when what they need is the top-down view.

I know that I'm swimming upstream on this one. My experience indicates that it is almost universal for students in the humanities to try to write one chapter at a time, and for them to be encouraged to work that way. Finish the first chapter; then move on to the next. It's not how I like to think about these things, and I recognize that this is a matter of opinion.

My qualifying exam included a two-week writing period during which I had to answer five questions. When I was given the questions at the beginning of the period, I said something to my examination chair about making the answers chapters in one larger whole paper. She said I shouldn't try; that it would make the work harder. But I couldn't help it; it seemed natural to me to try to respond to each individual question and to try also to show how those questions formed part of a coherent whole. For me that sense of coherence provided guidance that helped make choices about where to include material, about how to use discussion of theoretical issues in an important fashion, etc. Maybe my preference for top-down writing is merely a reflection of a personal bias.

But I think it helps. I think that if we can see how the project as a whole is working, then we have an extra set of reasons that help us structure our discussion.

Recently a client was told "your chapter isn't complete; finish working on it before moving on." Obviously the advice of the dissertation chair is not to be taken lightly. But I really want to suggest to the client to keep on working on the next chapter (on which the client had started working after turning in the previous chapter draft). I want to suggest this because I think that working on the next chapter will give insight into the previous chapter, too. As the dissertation chair's comments were largely about making it easier to see and follow the points (i.e., the comments were on the writing, not the material), I can appreciate the top-downness of trying to make the chapter more coherent. It's hardly wasted effort to go back and work out the organizational and presentational issues that make writing hard to follow; a lot of good insight can come of that.

But I think it's six of one (working on the same chapter) vs. half a baker's dozen (e.g. 6.5; working on the next). Working on the organization of the same chapter will provide insight into what the structural issues will be, and how those will relate to the points that are to be made to build an argument. The thing is that working on the next chapter can provide the exact same insight, except in a larger context--in a context of writing a second chapter that works together with a first. In one way that's a slightly more complicated issue, but in another it is easier because of the additional perspectives available.

As for bottom-up?
I think there's a great place for bottom-up writing. I don't think it's as predictably time-efficient. It requires the synthesis to bubble up accidentally. There's a lot of value to be had by sitting down to simply write a little about your ideas, or to write a section of a chapter, or to write a chapter without worrying too much about how it will fit with the rest. But I think there's more value by having a better top-down vision.

Is it more complicated to do top-down, because then you have to accommodate more factors? Or do those extra factors help reduce the number of possibilities, thus simplifying the decisions to be made?
If you're getting stuck because you're having trouble coming up with ideas, then maybe bottom-up is better. If you're getting stuck because you have too much material and too many ideas and you don't know what to do with it all, then top-down might be better.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Just for the sake of having posted today...

I don't really have much to say today--at least not about writing and not that I want to write about right now. I've been doing some writing of my own today, trying to get another project moving, so I'm a little written-out.

But it's always a good dictum to try to spend a little time with a project each day, even if you're busy with other things. A little time on a day that you can't do much is still some time to let your imagination roam over the possibilities, and perhaps to create some new ones.

A little bit of time is good to try to think about a problem from a new angle, or maybe to consider what you're going to do next. Working on your dissertation every keeps your mind working on the problem, even if you're not consciously working on the problem.

Imagine the time as a little bit of exercise for just that portion of your brain dedicated to the dissertation. You notice the actual work you do, but your body responds to the work by growing. Your muscles don't grow when you lift weights. But if you lift weights, your muscles do grow. Working on your dissertation is like lifting mental weights (in this limited sense).

If you're willing to do just a little work to stay in touch with the project, that helps you move to the days when you do more work. It also helps you see that you can make progress in small increments. It also helps stave off the sense that there is a tremendous mass of work waiting to be done.

Friday, May 9, 2008


I choose the title of this post from a chapter in Cameron's The Right to Write. Her chapter is about choosing wisely when you share your work: don't share with everyone, she would say.

I was thinking about something different--I almost chose as title "Compartmentalizing"--but "Containment" works well, too. I was thinking about the emotional malaise that can overcome us when we're not containing our horizons well.

It's easy to look into the future and see the work that lies there and say to yourself "Alas! It seems as if I will never finish!", or, as a client wrote to me today "it seems like there's a tremendous amount of work to do." Sadly, there often is a tremendous amount of work to do. But then, we do a tremendous amount of work in our lives. It adds up as we work, day after day.

If we look at a project and try to see the whole mass of work there is to be done--then it seems quite intimidating. But if we just focus on the next step we have to take, that single step is not so daunting. As the saying goes: "the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." If we keep the horizons of our attention contained--if we limit them to our next action, that single action isn't daunting. Taking a step is not daunting. Taking that first step only becomes daunting when you have begun to focus on all the steps that follow.

The White Stripes have a song that opens with a quote from a self-help audio recording--the song, "little acorns"--opens with a passage about a woman who watched a squirrel carry one acorn after another to his nest. The lesson of the passage, as described by the audio tape, is that we can break down our large problems and handle them one acorn at a time.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Requesting Feedback (2)

Julia Cameron, among other words of wisdom on getting feedback, says: "It is absolutely fair, in giving over a piece of work to be read, to make the proviso: 'I want you to tell me what you liked, tell me what you'd like to see more of. Please be specific.'" (The Right to Write, p. 179)

It may be politic to slightly alter the words with which you request feedback from a professor, but the spirit is correct.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Receiving and Using Feedback

So, you turned in that draft. You waited to hear, and now you've heard. What can you do?
One of the keys to success in a writing project is to use the feedback that you get in a productive fashion. And you can always use the feedback in a useful fashion.

It doesn't matter what feedback you receive; it is valuable information about how to proceed.

Not to be pessimistic (I was thinking about worst cases a few days ago), but if your committee chair tells you that you ought to quit your program that's important information.

You are not obliged to use any feedback you receive. There is always a choice of how to respond. This is true regardless of whether the feedback is big (like "drop out, you fool!") or little ("fix the error on p.54, you fool!").

If you're told to quit, you may choose to listen to that advice. You may choose to get a second opinion. You may decide that you should find a different professor to work with. You may decide to find out more about how that professor works and what she/he likes. You may decide to retreat into a funk for a while. I don't personally recommend that last strategy; I've tried it and it doesn't usually lead to good results, even for problems less severe than being told to leave school.

Anyway, the general point is you choose how to respond to the feedback. It doesn't matter what the feedback is, there are still multiple courses of action available to you.

You want to process the feedback as information that tells you about your project. It would be much nicer if the feedback were about your paper, of course, but you get what you get.

It is important to retain emotional distance from the feedback, because that feedback is not information about you, but rather about how a person responded to your work. (Let's leave aside the dysfunctional cases, like if a professor pans you without actually reading your work.) Does that response indicate a problem in your work? Not necessarily. I had a presentation brought to a complete halt by a professor who wanted to complain that it was inappropriate to use "paradigm" as a synonym for "model." I never presented that work. All my effort went into talking about what "paradigm" meant and how it should be used. I was unable to get the professor off the subject by any tactic, including referring to a dictionary and agreeing to use "paradigm" more carefully in the future. But the feedback was not really about "paradigm"--it was there to mask a resistance to the ideas I was presenting.

This experience became, for me, a model on which to understand feedback. Professors are not infallible, and sometimes feedback just isn't relevant, appropriate, or even correct. (Try to find a dictionary that doesn't use the word "model" in its definition of "paradigm"!)

You, therefore, have to take the feedback as information to be processed and analyzed. You need to check its value, and need to test its reasoning. Use your own judgment and sense of purpose to try and understand what is being asked for, and how it is appropriate. Does that feedback represent a valid, useful critique? Does it represent a misunderstanding (you meant one thing, but were read as saying another)? Or does it represent something else (a professor who disagrees with you or is hostile to your theoretical position, or is just outright hostile to you)?

Graduate students process and analyze information a lot. The feedback you receive is well handled in the same way. Figure out what the feedback means and how to use it to shape your project or actions.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Constant Practice and Rest

It is a fabulous moment when our relationship with a work project changes from dreading the work and finding it exhausting, to enjoying the work and finding it refreshing.

If you are setting up a program of work that generates more positive reinforcement than negative reinforcement, then the work itself can often be refreshing. The work always takes energy, but if the relationship with the work is good, the energy you put is is typically matched by energy coming out of the work: work can feel good.

But this assumes that you are not overworking. Overworking creates negative reinforcement, making it harder to get back to work. I'm not saying there's no occasion that calls for 12-hour days or all nighters, but, especially at the front end of a project that you can anticipate lasting months into the future, there's also a very important place for developing a positive relationship with your work. Therefore, proper rest plays a crucial role in the development of a long-term constant practice.

(Yes, I was thinking of taking a night off from blogging. The preceding is a version of the reasoning I was using to justify the night off, but once I realized I could write about it, there was no longer a reason to take the day off.)

Monday, May 5, 2008

Constant Practice

Today I just didn't feel like writing the blog.
Laziness, a bit. Perhaps a little jaded today. My enthusiasm waxes and wanes. It usually waxes when a project is new, and wanes when I get deeper in and the enthusiasm of novelty has worn off.

I've been writing this blog consistently--almost every day--since early January. It's been consistent enough that the consistency itself almost justifies a day off. But I'm still awake, and I thought I might just put in a few words about making things happen by working on them.

The constant practice, at its roots, is no more than a constant practice. All you have to do is focus on the practice for the time that you have committed yourself to (or in my case until I've written something that feels like a complete blog post).

In any regular practice, as in our lives as a whole, there are periods when we're up and periods when we're down. The key to being able to have good days--whether writing your dissertation or working on any other project--is to be able to stick with the project through the difficult ones with the awareness that even though the work is consistent, the rewards may not be.

Starting a practice is the most difficult task of all.

Julia Cameron talks about how a writer must write every day, constantly. If you want to finish a writing project, that is the way to do it. Make a constant practice. For the days that you are busy, still carve out that little niche of time--even fifteen minutes. Your commitment to the project would do well by being matched with commitment to a practice.

But a practice with acceptance. So many writers get caught fearing they will not write well enough, or get caught fearing that if they make a commitment and don't keep it, they have somehow failed. If you miss the practice one day, return to it with commitment the next. Don't let the lapse be excuse for further lapses, neither do you want to let the lapse be cause for punishing yourself: it's past; focus on the future practice.

In a number of her chapters Cameron starts by talking about how she's not in a mood to write, and at the end comments on how easy the writing became as she went. It happens this way to me, too. The constant practice allows this growth.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Waiting for feedback

Ok, so you sent off that draft, or you dropped it in their mailbox, or whatever.
It ain't perfect; maybe your cover letter ain't perfect; maybe the list of things you would have liked to accomplish is longer than the work you submitted. But you submitted it.

And you get to wait to hear back.

What do you do in the meantime?
You could start by celebrating a little. Sending off work is tough. Acknowledge what you have accomplished for a moment or three before you go back to working on the things you haven't accomplished. Build some good feeling in your life by recognizing what you get done.

But then you want to get to work again. You don't want to rest on your laurels too much; whatever the feedback you do get, you want to be able to have new work accomplished for any contact with your professors. Don't focus on the things over which you have no power (what the reader does with your submission); instead keep working. If you have been productive while waiting for your feedback, you're probably going to feel better able to handle whatever feedback you do get. By building your work, you create something to feel good about rather than simply waiting and depending on the feedback to make you feel good (or bad!).

What you don't want to do while waiting is worry about what the reader will say. That will be revealed soon enough. Usually. When you get the feedback, that's when you process it, and deal with the good and the bad. While you're waiting, you're either not thinking about it at all, or you're reminding yourself of how the feedback will provide valuable information that will help you--even if the feedback isn't good (see my post from a few days ago about preparing for feedback).

Ideally you will hear back from your committee sooner rather than later. And then you'll have feedback.

Too often, we'll wait a long time for feedback with no result. Don't be thrown by this. It's reasonable to check in to remind your professor about the submission and ask if they'll have a chance to get to it. You might also try telling them a little about what you are working on while waiting, or even submitting something. If you're not working while you wait, that can suck up a lot of time. Don't depend on the readers; take the initiative. The harder they see you working, the easier it will be to get feedback (usually).

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Requesting Feedback

OK, so let's take it for granted that you, as a graduate student, have every reason to expect to get useful, instructive feedback from you instructors. Sadly, things don't always work out as they ought.

Is there anything you can do to improve your feedback? Of course there is.
One obvious route is to be a brown-noser, to use to colloquial and cynical expression of my youth.

But assuming that we don't want to sacrifice our dignity, is there anything we can do? Of course.
Asking nicely is a good place to start, but if you write a good cover letter, it can help a lot.

First of all, imagine that your professors really want to help you, but are extremely busy. For too many, perhaps, the former (their wanting to help) may require some active imagination, but the latter (their being busy) is probably pretty much true. Anyway, we start by imagining a helpful, busy audience to set the tone.

What do we want to do?
1. Don't waste time! Keep the cover letter to one page.
2. Request their attention, and acknowledge that they are probably busy.
3. Tell them what you're sending them.
4. Tell them what to focus on (if anything in particular), or tell them what kind of feedback you're looking for.
5. Be confident and assertive, while still being respectful, even deferential.

I think numbers 1, 4 and 5 are the most important: keep it short and sweet, clear and focused. If you tell them what to do, you make the task that much easier for them, and therefore they're that much more likely to do it. If you act confident, they'll be much less likely to look for problems. If you assert what you have improved and focus their attention to the new strengths, you're like to get more positive feedback.

To follow up on that last point, there is a corollary to point 5: Don't apologize for your work or direct attention to the weakest points if you have any concerns about getting problematic feedback. Making apologies and pointing out weaknesses is virtually begging for the reader to focus their attention on the worst parts.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Preparing for Feedback (2): Worst cases

We don't really want to dwell on the worst cases, but we do want to recognize that we can develop a practice that helps us deal with stories that we tell ourselves that make us feel bad--like worst case scenarios.

But that is a place for intervention. As described by David Burns (in the book Feeling Good-forgive, please, my use of pop psychology for a reference), there is a form of therapy that puts a great deal of focus on our ways of thinking. Burns refers to the work of Aaron Beck, and his theory known as "Cognitive therapy", which is also commonly called Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (or CBT). Burns writes: "Beck's thesis was simple: (1) when you are depressed or anxious, you are thinking in an illogical, negative manner, and you inadvertently act in a self-defeating way."

As described by Burns, a great deal of the practice of this therapy is about keeping a journal, writing down negative thoughts and thought patterns, and analyzing them for logical errors such as exaggeration of the gravity of situations.

I think that if an academic were to write down their worst fear about submitting a work to another, and then were to examine that statement and look for logical errors or errors in reasoning, they could probably find them. And if the logical errors are not there, there is probably some associated claim which is filled with logical errors. (Incidentally, my use of "their" as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun in the first sentence of this paragraph is intentional. I understand that there is some debate over whether this is "proper" English; this is my choice as to how to use English. I have no fear of being misunderstood. To those who are offended by my grammatical choice, I will say only that I respect your position without agreeing.)

You might imagine "What if I'm told I'll be kicked out?" But if you examine that, you can see how unlikely it is. There is, of course, some population for whom this risk is real, and that population then, ought to look for other aspects of his/her thinking that are creating distress.
You might imagine "I'll be told I'll never finish or my work is no good." But how likely is your reader to do that? And if you have good reason to believe it is likely, doesn't that indicate as much about the reader as it does about your work?
You might fear "I'll have a lot more work to do." This is a realistic fear, but I would wager that one doesn't get depressed just thinking "I have a lot more work to do", one gets depressed when one starts thinking "I'm overwhelmed with all the work" or "I'll never get all the work done on time." But such thought patterns are exactly the kind of thing that CBT, as described by Burns (who calls it "Cognitive Therapy", as I noted earlier), is meant to handle. Using ideas like "being overwhelmed" or "never finishing" are the sorts of cognitive patterns that Burns focuses on defusing with the practices of CBT.

So if the prospect of getting feedback is stressing you out, write down the fears, and then try to write down some alternative outcomes that are better, and are also equally likely or more likely.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Preparing for feedback

Today's e-mail had the question: "I would really benefit from having some ideas on how to prepare myself for feedback (good & bad)."

It's a good question, and there's more than a little to be said. But preparation is only part. The picture is incomplete without receiving and processing the feedback well.

But preparation obviously comes first.

The first step is to want feedback--no matter what.
Feedback can be painful, but often painful feedback is necessary for our long-term good. An ugly parallel might be to suggest that feedback is akin to going to the doctor: you need to know if you're sick, even though you don't want to be sick. Fortunately, the consequences are far less severe.

What's a worst-case scenario with a dissertation? That a professor says that they will request your dismissal from the program? That would be pretty bad. So you need to be ready for the worst. But, it's also worth thinking about how likely that would be. It must have happened, but I have not ever met anyone to whom it happened. One would imagine it's even more unlikely to come out of the blue; one would expect such behavior to follow at least some warning.

I think it's pretty important to start by thinking about the worst-case scenario at least for a moment, partly to acknowledge the danger, and partly to recognize how unlikely that outcome would be. I would imagine that if you are really in danger of getting asked to leave your program, you're probably in equal danger for not producing any work at all, so eventually you have to risk turning something in.

But there are a whole gamut of possibilities for feedback. You can use what you know about the person you're working with to try to predict their response. Is your professor going to be harsh, insulting? Or supportive? Will the feedback be detailed? Or general? Copious or sparse? Which parts will they like and which parts will they dislike? Don't engage in doomsaying, but try to make a real assessment based on what you know of the person, of your interactions with them, their theoretical preferences, and so forth. It is an exercise in understanding your audience.

It's also useful to emotionally distance yourself from your work: you are not your work. The response you get--even if it is a personal attack--may not be due to what you actually believe, or the quality of your ideas, it may simply be that you did not succeed in communicating the ideas in your writing. Feedback based on what you've written is not about you; it's about what you submitted. Criticism does not indicate anything about your abilities or worth as a person.

You want your work to be accepted. You want it to be accepted by your committee, and ideally by a wider audience. Getting positive feedback is awful nice. In order for that to happen, you have to risk the negative feedback.

Negative feedback can be very instrumental in improving your work, so you want to be able to receive it. Any response teaches you about how your writing reaches your audience. If you can evaluate those responses as data to guide future efforts, then all feedback, even negative feedback, is an opportunity to learn about how your work is seen by others.

Be realistic in preparing for feedback. Try to understand the source of the feedback. Try to recognize the individuality of the response. Try to recognize that critical remarks can be used to indicate what needs to be improved.

I mostly talked about receiving negative feedback, because I don't think most of us sit around losing time and energy due to the prospect of getting good feedback. Getting good feedback doesn't require much preparation. But if you're waiting on feedback, it can be very useful to rehearse the reasons that feedback--even negative feedback--helps you learn and grow. If you fear the feedback, it's important to keep working on the ideas of valuing and being able to accept even negative feedback and use it productively. Attitude is crucial; if we remind ourselves of the positive value of even negative feedback (and make no mistake, negative feedback is always valuable in what it teaches about the person who gave us the feedback), then when the time comes that we get the feedback, we're already able to slip into the process of breaking down the feedback and using it to guide your efforts.

Some of this sounds simplistic. I think one reason it may sound simplistic is because it is basically simple. I like the ideas of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, which suggests that the stories we tell ourselves have a profound emotional impact, and that we can improve our mental health by telling stories that are accurate in their balancing of positive and negative possibilities (as many have a tendency to rely on exaggerated stories that emotionally distressful). CBT relies, among other things, on repeating and retelling accurate internal stories, so that those new stories replace the old. In the case of preparing for feedback, if we have negative stories about what feedback means, we need to start telling balanced stories that acknowledge the possibilities presented by feedback.

To awkwardly wrap this up: keep working on wanting the feedback no matter what.