Sunday, November 30, 2008

Setting Priorities

It's important to get priorities right. And it's important to know when to shift priorities. I haven't been blogging mostly as a conscious choice to put my effort into other things--some other writing that I'm struggling with. In a way blogging has become a little too easy to be a challenge. Given the standards I demand from myself in blogging, and the general scope of the work, it's a lot easier to blog than to engage in more serious written endeavors--especially those that are longer than an average blog post.

If we don't set our priorities well, and then choose to act on the things we believe are important, and if we cannot see that priorities shift over time--as the Bible says: to everything there is a season--then we get ourselves caught in a difficult spot. If we don't prioritize our work early enough in the life of the project, then we get caught at the end with a crisis as we attempt to make up for the lost time. At the same time, it is also necessary to make sure that we do not prioritize our work too highly, especially in the early and middle stages of a project, because we don't want to drive ourselves to burnout that causes us to lose traction at the precise moment that we need a burst of energy to finish off a project.

It is a delicate balancing act, and an unstable one--because work and rest/play are mutually exclusive (to some extent), the priorities have to shift back and forth. To the extent that we love our work and think that it is important, that allows a closer connection between work and play: when we really love our work, it can be deeply enjoyable and rewarding. But still, the careful balance must be maintained: variety is the spice of life, as the saying goes, and if we do one thing to the exclusion of all other things, then we increase the chance of burning out.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Losing its Luster

When we have something that we're working on for a long time, it can begin to lose its luster. What seemed interesting when it was new, becomes less interesting as its familiarity increases.
I've been facing that with this blog recently; I just haven't felt like I had something new to say that I really wanted to say. and I haven't felt like I had anything that I really wanted to say that I wanted to try saying again in a new way...or at least not in a new way in this blog.

But what to do when it's your dissertation project?
The key, it seems, is to keep the project seeming new by learning constantly. That may not seem to be likely or possible with something that you have been working on consistently for a long time, but realistically, we can learn something new, even about the familiar if we are seeking new insight and new wisdom.

When you're an academic and a writer, there are any new things to learn. The do not always lie in the plane that one expects: when writing a large project, for example, one can learn about the subject itself (as expected), but one can also learn about managing projects and about writing, not to mention the possibility that we can learn about ourselves and learn to better control our emotions and our thoughts so that we can be more productive, and so that we can gain the greatest value from those abilities that we have.

None of these things are easy to learn. Indeed, learning is usually associated with some level of difficulty--without difficulty are we really learning, or are we just storing a little bit of new information? But it is in the learning that we can see the project in a new way, and through that new vision, we can find a new spark of interest--or even we can begin to find some of the luster that was lost as the project became familiar.

In a way the academic writer should have an easy time learning new things--that is, in fact, the purpose of research--to learn. What a shame, then, that so many academic writers have lost sight of the reasons that they began their projects.

I got a card from a writer recently that said "we've been working together for a year now; thank you!" There was a part of me that was a little embarrassed, because I thought when we started working together that she had a good chance of finishing within a year, and she thought that there was no way that she could bear to work on the project for more than six months longer. But that's an incomplete story, too. Her aim is now finishing in the spring, and she's confident that she will. Because the project has regained the luster that she had once seen. Instead of facing the project with resentment for the work that needs to be done, as she did when we began working together, now she is excited about the project, and almost every time we speak she tells me about some additional work that she wants to integrate into the project. To grossly simplify, I attribute this to the fact that she has come to find a deeper appreciation for the value of her own work--not just for what she hoped to accomplish with it, but also she sees the depth of her analysis and how that analysis fits into a larger academic discourse that connects her with other writers. One key during the process was that she found (at least) two writers whose work helped her see a new value in her own work--a value that was new to her.

Projects lose their luster; that's natural. As the saying goes: variety is the spice of life. And where there is little variety, there is bland boredom. With a large project like a dissertation, we cannot introduce variety into the project by changing the project itself, so we have to seek a finer-grain of variety--we can see the change of our own ideas as we develop in our sophistication of both thought and expression (the two are not unrelated).

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Vision of the Future

I didn't write that title thinking about visualization, but it came to mind as I thought about how to open the blog entry.

It's important to have a vision of what you're trying to accomplish. With a vision, you can make a plan, and with a plan, you can move most efficiently towards achieving what you want to achieve. Without a vision of what you want to accomplish, you're waiting at the whim of fate. This may work out well, but it's not something you have a lot of control over.

The idea of visualization is related to the need for a vision. Athletes often improve their performance through visualization exercises--visualizing their performance in the optimal form helps them bring that optimal character to the real performance. This can be seen as being much the same basic process by which a vision of the future can help all of us: the vision is a model on which we can work, which allows us to guide and refine our efforts to their best effect in our search for our goal.

Swiss philosopher Ferdinand Gonseth wrote a fable that my former dissertation chair, Prof. Jean-Pierre Protzen, of U.C. Berkeley, wrote an article about. In that fable, whose purpose is to question decision-making processes, one character asks another "would you let the dice decide"? This seems like the crucial question with respect to the desire for a vision: are you going strive for something that you want, or are you going to allow yourself to accept whatever the dice serve up? As Protzen points out, we think (we hope) that we can do better than simply letting the dice decide.

Having a vision for the future that you wish to achieve is not necessarily a loss of freedom: having a vision for the future that you want does not mean that you can't change your vision whenever you wish, it just means that you will more effectively pursue whatever vision you have chosen to pursue.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Stuckness and Persistence

I preach persistence a lot. It's important to be able to push through difficulties to get beyond them. But that doesn't mean that one wants to be blindly persistent at all times.

I was talking recently with a writer who was stuck, and not writing. In our meeting, I was stressing the importance of trying to write, and of starting to write. He wanted a method by which he could organize his collection of articles. "There are many different ways to organize materials," I said, "but none is definitive. What's important is to start writing." This answer was unsatisfactory to him, and he insisted on talking about how to organize his articles. I told him that had never seen a book on writing dissertations that talked about how to organize the research materials, and that every book on writing dissertations that I have seen talks about how important it is to start writing, and how starting writing begins a learning process that allows you to organize your thoughts and your ideas about material. This too was unsatisfactory. "I want a simple solution to organizing my material," he insisted.

A week later he wrote to me. "I'm still stuck. I haven't been able to organize my material, so I haven't written." I suggested again trying to start writing--however imperfect that writing might be. Again that suggestion was dismissed.

I know that everyone has a different way of working, and I recognize that having well-organized research at your fingertips can be helpful. But I also recognize that if you're stuck, trying something new can be very effective and very useful to helping move forward.

Albert Einstein reputedly defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If you keep working on a project and you keep getting stuck on a specific task, isn't it worth trying to approach that project from a different perspective? Doesn't it make sense to try a new angle from which to look at the project?

Persistence need not manifest as blind repetition of the same attempt. That may be simply stubbornness. We need to be able to learn and adapt--which are, in fact, some of the primary characteristics of basic intelligence--to be able to learn and adapt.

Edison was persistent, but he also knew that he had to try something new each time. Each failed lightbulb was a way not to do things. Maybe the tasks and methods of writing that lead you into stuckness are ways not to write.

When you're learning to play a musical instrument, or when you're trying to master an athletic skill, blind repetition is often necessary, and the repetition will lead to different results: you just get better and better at the skill you're trying to develop, if you're practicing diligently and your muscles and brain start to wire together new skills. The body learns to perform an action more smoothly and easily. I was giving a friend a guitar lesson yesterday, and I was stressing the importance of playing a given chord change over and over until the motions became smooth and even. With practicing a guitar, this works: playing the chords over and over, leads to different results over time; the practice leads our playing to become smoother and more facile. If repetition is leading to different results and you can feel those differences, then it hardly fits Einstein's definition of insanity, because the change comes, and so it is reasonable to expect--at least for a while--that doing the same thing over and over again will lead to different results.

But then again, those learning curves have their terminus as well. One does not infinitely improve as a musician or athlete, and the practices and exercises that get one to a given level of skill will not necessarily take one beyond that level.

A summary of my thoughts: persistence is important, but one needs to differentiate between persistence that is building skill and ability--useful practice and repetition--and persistence that is stubbornness--an unproductive practice in which one is stuck and not developing. One needs to be persistent, but one also needs to be able to change the angle by which a given project is approached, so that one is learning and adapting, rather than simply trying the same thing again and again, expecting different results.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Three hundred posts

This is actually my 301st post on this blog. That strikes me as a big number. And for the most part, all of it has been done in easy, convenient moments when I didn't have to sacrifice anything except a few minutes of sleep to write.

It's a worthy testament to how volume naturally results from a regular practice. I grant, of course, that the 301 pieces that I've written don't cohere like a good single large work should, but the principle is similar. Over the course of 10.5 months, I've probably written something on the order of 300 pages in my blog, and I imagine that I could take those pieces and fit them together into some sort of larger work, just because they were all part of my general desire to think about writing.

If you want to write--if you have a writing project that you want to complete--then writing regularly will get you there in good time. If you keep at it day after day, the pages start to add up, and you suddenly have good volume. If you're working each day to contribute to a coherent piece, you might not write as much as if your efforts were unconstrained, but then a dissertation (or book) has no need to be 300 pages--some dissertations, maybe, have such a need, but many do not.

Monday, November 10, 2008


Learning to estimate how long projects take is a useful skill. It's difficult, too. But it can help a lot (and there is also an associated skill of finishing a task in the amount of time provided).

I was talking with my friend Eve, who had been asked to edit something for a friend/acquaintance. The proposed budget: $200; the project: 400 pages. The friend was asking Eve to edit each page for $0.50. Which may seem generous; I agree that $200 is a lot of money. Except how fast do you read? Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that you can read a page of text in a minute. That's sixty pages an hour, or $30/hr. Which isn't a bad little wage. I don't read 60pages/hr. At my fastest--easy reads--I read maybe 50 pages an hour. That's just reading. When I'm editing I go slower still: it's necessary to read closely, and to figure out how to fix sentences whose meaning is unclear, and to fix any minor errors. At my fastest, when proofreading a well-written document with few errors, I might edit about 12 pages an hour. Proofreading is painstaking work--in the sense that one should take pains to get it right: the point of proofreading is to eliminate errors; it cannot, therefore, be done in a lackadaisical manner. Twelve pages an hour--that's $6/hr at $0.50 per page. Now Eve may be willing to take the project as a labor of love, but that's not a very generous offer to your friend to offer them $6/hr for a project that takes skill, care, and would take over 30 hours of work. I'm not suggesting that the friend is uncaring, but just that they weren't making a very good estimate of what the project would take.

Another example. I had a sobering exchange with a writer recently. He approached me with a week before his deadline, and there simply wasn't enough that I could do in a short time. The biggest issue was a concern with some of the content. With only a week there was no time for any give and take between the two of us. Especially (even if one were to assume that I worked instantaneously) if I had any questions that he needed to answer. There were--both matters of content and idea, and of execution--for example, there were many reference citations in the text that were not made in the reference list. He had estimated that a week would be enough for an editor to work; I can do a lot in a week, but he had not made any estimate for any work that he might have to do in response to what I saw (like the need to fix missing citations).

A related issue is that of getting feedback from professors--a notoriously difficult task. If we have a big draft and if we want detailed feedback, we have to realize the effort that we are asking from our professors. A short dissertation might be 100 pages. To read it closely might take four hours. To write comments and feedback could take another hour. That is not a request to make lightly of your committee, even if they do owe it to you to give you good, clear feedback on your work. It is important to correctly assess what you are asking of them in order to have reasonable expectations of what you can get back. And what if your draft is 200 pages? Or, like my final drafts, over 300? I respect tremendously the work of my dissertation committee--Professors Jean-Pierre Protzen, Eve Sweetser and Greig Crysler--who all read three drafts, and commented copiously during the last six months I was writing. I appreciated and marveled at it then, but now, having worked as an editor, I respect the effort even more. If they were working twice as fast as I do, they were spending six to ten hours on each draft. Adding in the other help they gave me in the final semester, I would estimate now that each gave me almost 40 hours of time in the course of twenty weeks.

It's important to estimate the effort that goes into tasks, not only to help us manage how we work with others, but also to help us manage our own work. If we have unreasonable expectations of ourselves, that can be as harmful as having unrealistic expectations of others. Writing is a difficult process, and one during which you learn a lot about what you're trying to write about. Usually you learn so much that at the end you'll look askance at what you wrote in the beginning. That's not a problem--that's an opportunity to grow. But if you haven't given yourself time for that, then you're going to get into trouble.

I had an inquiry once from a writer: "I can only work with an immediate deadline; I have to write my entire dissertation in six months." Is that a realistic estimate? Can that plan of action work? It seems to me that estimating that you can finish the whole dissertation in six months, when you can only write on immediate deadlines is a naive plan. Wouldn't it be better to estimate accurately: "If I don't change how I work, so that I can work regularly without an immediate deadline, I won't be able to finish in the six months I hope?"

Good estimating plays a key role in making good plans. Whether estimating the needs you will face, or estimating the help that you can get from others, if you can realistically assess what needs to be done and how long it will take to do it, you will be far more likely to get your project done and far less likely to suffer the emotional strain of unpleasant surprises and frantic attempts to make the final deadline.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Start Writing; Stop researching

One of the classic procrastination patterns is the "I haven't gotten my research done" ploy.

It's a trap; it's deceptive, comforting, perhaps--"If I just read this book and those articles, then I'll be ready to write; If I can just organize my research materials, then I'll be ready"--ah, that bright and shining future, where you know enough to start writing!
It's a trap. It's a painful, unproductive pattern.

The hard part about writing--which is also the valuable part about writing--is the part that's not like reading. The hard part about writing is in making something that works. It is in organizing your thought. The hard part about reading is in trying to observe what is there. It's completely different.

Writing is like speaking: it comes from inside your head.
And that means that you have to expend energy to organize your thoughts. And to find words to represent those thoughts to share with another person. We struggle with this all the time; there are a whole slew of stock phrases that relate to this precise struggle--"I'm speechless; I couldn't find the words; there aren't words to describe..." and so on. The battle with writing is to find your own words. It won't happen while you're looking at other people's writing.

In the dead of night, you're woken by strangers who pull a hood over your head, bind you hand and foot, and take you away.
When they take the hood off your head and the bindings off your wrists, you're seated at a desk with a pen and a pad of paper.
"Describe your dissertation project in 350 words (give or take 50), or you'll never see your family again," they say.
What do you do? It's obvious what you do, and realistically it takes you a couple of hours at most because it just doesn't take that long to write if you focus on it.

The knowledge is already inside your head. You studied for years to get to the point where you're being permitted to propose a dissertation. Use that knowledge. Trust yourself. Put away the freakin' books an articles and trust that you learned something from all that reading you've been doing.

You're home for Thanksgiving and a subject related to your topic comes up. Maybe you're writing about something--anything really: history, physics, engineering, designing musical instruments, raising pets, making crepes; it doesn't really matter what--and something related comes up in conversation. Don't you know relatively a lot about your subject? At least compared to the non-specialist?

You've got to write. Writing is like teaching: it forces you to learn again and in greater depth, the subject you have been studying. When you read, and when you learn, you can rely on intuition and ideas for which you have found no expression yet. When you write, you have to struggle to make explicit the intuitions that have previously guided you.

If you do some writing, that doesn't preclude doing more reading later. But if you say "I can't write until I'm done reading," then writing is precluded until you're "done."