Boice for kids!

Ok, not really.  By “kids” I mean 24-year-olds.

(If you are my student, why are you Googling this?  Stop it and go back to work on your paper!) (Also, please don’t tell anybody my secret identity.  Thanks.)

Everyone else is doing writing these days!  Once more I attempt to incorporate writing into my content course for juniors and seniors in the major.  For them I am summarizing a lot of work by Robert Boice, author of the amazingly useful Professors As Writers. But, most of the stuff here in this post comes from his other book, How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency (1994).  I just couldn’t find a link to the other one, it’s hard to get ahold of.  It’s worth it, though, because it has more details than Professors as Writers, and it has particularly useful bits (almost half the book!) about how to get motivation and ideas, and how to answer your own objections to implementing a writing schedule.  Some of this stuff is new to both #1 and #2 so I’m plopping my notes here, just in case anyone else wants to know. [Editorial comments in brackets.]

These are really my own notes, so most are not in comprehensible sentence-form, sorry.  Also, remember not to plagiarize.  Personally, we find Boice inspiring, and we hope you do too.  (Although if you are a student for whom this looks very familiar, note that this post may have totally been plagiarized from your own professor… you just can’t tell on the internet.  Or it could be great minds thinking alike.)

First, an example of my own freewriting when stuck [I show this to students after they have already taken a version of Boice’s blocking questionnaire, and have tried freewriting at least once themselves.]

Getting over some problems:
(Boice, 2000)

Before you are ready
– Informal outlines
– Talk aloud, freewrite
Keep going: contingencies
– Go back to freewriting if necessary
Finish: revisions (not today) [I don’t talk about revision until later, because I don’t want to distract the students from producing a first draft]

Starting before you are ready is hard for impatient people but will help them avoid doing it all at once.  It will help procrastinators and challenge perfectionists.  Informal outlines or talking will help perfectionists.

How To Get Motivation:

Boice (1994, p. 22) summarizing Murray:
1.  “[B]ecome an avid collector of details, facts, thoughts, anything including references.”
2.  “With immersion in a subject, the next step, wanting to order & organize the information, comes naturally.”
3.  “…realization emerges that much of what has been collected & clarified is unknown to others…”
4.  “Finally, after rehearsing the material in their minds, writers impose a plan & a schedule….”

A pep-talk:

“Motivation and inspiration follow, not precede, the practice of regular, accumulated work…”  (Boice, 1994, p. 19)
Writing can be conceptualized as problem-solving task.  To solve a problem, you have to try stuff.
The anticipation of pain is often worse than actually experiencing it.
BRIEF DAILY SESSIONS (not huge blocks)

Getting Ideas

Where do you get your ideas?
“There’s a swell Idea Service in Schenectady; and every week I send ’em twenty-five bucks; and every week they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas.”   –Harlan Ellison [#2 likes saying Schenectady]

Boice book 1994, pp. 54 – 57: steps to get ideas from taking notes (presented here in much-reduced and adapted form)
(This also leads very naturally to a useful outline that won’t feel too rigid.)

If you know experts in the field, ask them where to start.

1.  As you read, ask how it can help your writing. How do your thoughts fit in with the conversation?
2.  Take notes.
3.  Go back through notes and write comments to yourself.  Have a conversation with yourself and author.  Agree, disagree, expand, argue.
4.  Set limits.  (E.g., <20 minutes per article, ≤1 page of notes per article)
5.  Carry your notes with you.  Pull them out when you have 10 minutes.  Continue conversation.
6.  Organize sources in different ways.  Arrange by topic, methodology, etc.
7.  Turn all notes into 1 page that integrates them.  Agree/disagree, tell a story, note gaps. Congratulations, you made an outline!
8.  Start turning notes into prose.  Don’t try to read every article ever.  Start writing before you feel ready.
— It can be informal.  “And then I will say the part about how XYZ…”
— explain it to someone or talk out loud

Now your outline won’t feel too stiff and you won’t ignore it or hate it.  This will actually make the writing of the paper go faster and easier, really!

*** Outline is a PROCESS, not a THING, and it needs to take place in brief daily sessions.  ***

Stimulus Control: Environment

Teach yourself that THIS LOCATION is for WORK ONLY [#2 really needs to work on this]
Minimize distraction: quiet, headphones
No interruptions: turn off phone, twitter, email pop-ups, close the door
Arrange objects for comfort & convenience
Office supplies
Don’t get lost in environmental tweaking
Use social control

Stimulus Control: Habits

Write every day (but don’t shut out family, sleep, exercise, etc.)
No time?  Do a time audit
Write when your brain is fresh
(Pre-) Write in small, frequent amounts
— Warmup time for each session increases with time since leaving project
Plan for next session at end
Keep a chart: time in, time out, work finished
Making work visible; accountability

Structures Do Not  Impede Creativity

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, unto which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.
–W. Wordsworth

The muse works for you!

Contingency strength is important: get you to write, but not to hate it
Binge writing results in fewer total pages over time, and more misery
Social contingencies: appointments

Once again, these are my own notes, summarized from other authors and a variety of sources. Please don’t copy them.  I also show my students part of this video by Anne Lamott, whose book Bird by Bird I deeply love:

Blogging Boice

Of the many people out there who try to help academics get over themselves and just write the darn thing already, the forerunner of them all, and in many ways the founder of this field, is Robert Boice.

(Note:  This advice isn’t just for academics.  It works for anyone trying to do something like writing.  In fact, Boice has a book or two just for writers and one about getting over procrastination.  His style tends to be a bit repetitive and boring, but if you couldn’t finish Getting Things Done even in the bathroom, he’s got a very different tone.  They’re pretty expensive (except Professors as Writers), so check them out from the library or Interlibrary Loan if you can.  We’re affiliated with Powells, but it looks like Amazon has Advice for New Faculty Members at an affordable $25 rather than the usual $50+.  If you’re a grad student or new faculty, buy it!)

Herein is an extremely abbreviated summary of his advice:

Work in brief daily sessions

Start before you’re ready

Stop before you’re ready

Do the thing you’re avoiding (usually writing) first in the morning (ow ow ow; I hate mornings)

He’s got some other gems that help for teaching, like:  Let others do the work for you.

Here is how we do it:

We set up a Google Site where we poke each other.  It links to a google calendar for each of us.  When we’re rolling (i.e., not during breaks or the first week of the semester), we each update our calendar every day with how much writing we have done.  The other person checks in and we prod each other if we haven’t done it.  On the site we each have a list of projects in progress (so we have a place to put handy-dandy checkmarks and feel good about how many writing tasks we have checked off).  There are countdowns in the sidebar: time to end of the semester, days until tenure binder is due.  There is also a place set up on the site where we congratulate each other when we do well.  I have taken this method a step further by inviting a few of my family and friends to share the site, too, in order to add to the accountability.  Otherwise it is private (not world-accessible).

Accountability seems to be key for me/us.

(#2 says: I like the accountability on this blog.)

Sisyphus has some excellent blog posts on the writing and publishing processes here.

Something I have not seen on other writing sites is an interesting technique that I discovered while working on my dissertation.  This technique probably won’t work for anyone except me, but it got me over a real hump in the writing process.

I call it WTF:  Writing Through Fury.  I don’t know how I psyched myself into this, but it seems awesome.  One night in grad school I was watching my friend’s baby while she and her husband went on a rare and well-deserved date night.  The baby was asleep and I was alone in an unfamiliar house.  I had brought my dissertation stuff to work on.  I was also really mad at someone that night.  Not a friend or partner, but someone else; I honestly don’t even remember why I was angry.  I thought, “That jerk!  I’ll show him!  I’ll write my methods chapter!”  I channeled my rage and pounded out most of that chapter before my friend got home that night.

I realize this strategy makes no sense (especially as the so-called jerk had nothing at all to do with my dissertation), but you may wish to give it a try anyway if it appeals to you.

#2  I do not write through fury… but my placement on the job market did cause many of my graduate school professors and fellow students to think less of me as a researcher.  (Never mind that I solved the two body problem … that just means I’m a less serious researcher, obviously.  Plus I had that kid.)  So much of my ambition has been to SHOW THEM, though I have to balance that out with the extra stress and misery that actually showing them would bring.  So in the end… I’m not sure if it spurs additional productivity or not.

ETA:  Get Rich Slowly’s post today is on exactly this topic.  In the past I think JD has done exactly what Boice recommends never doing:  Binging and collapsing.  People *think* they’re more productive when they work in big lumps, but they’re really not.  Getting bingers to move to brief daily sessions increases their productivity and has no effect or a positive effect on things like citation rank, etc.  Turns out they’re just as creative when they let the subconscious do the heavy lifting when they’re in the shower rather than when locked in an office.

What do you do to keep yourself from procrastinating?  Did you have as much trouble as I did reading Getting Things Done?  Academics– did we do a reasonable job summarizing Boice?  Are you willing to convert to a Boice lifestyle (or at least read his research on productivity)?

Ask the grumpies: Advice for a new faculty member?

Steph asks:

What advice do you have for a new faculty member?

Here are some book recommendations that we found useful.

Some things to ponder.

First year on the tenure track.

Should you write a book or stick to articles?

Summarizing Boice.

But I think the main main thing is to remember academia is just a job.  It’s a job with nice perks, but it’s still a job and if you got a TT job, chances are you have valuable skills that could transfer elsewhere.  Remind yourself of this fact when things get to be stressful or when you’re at a faculty meeting where mountains are being made of molehills (because the stakes are so small).

Grumpy Nation:  Do you have advice for new faculty members?  What would you suggest?

Link Love

Not doing social media in the morning has been majorly crimping the link love.  I haven’t been perfect about writing in the mornings but I’ve been better.  There’s just so much that needs to get done.  Currently I’m trying to anti-Boice by doing a project a day instead of a little bit from each.  I just can’t keep 5 projects in my head at the same time and there’s set-up costs each day.  (Second half of the day is moving to service/class prep of which there’s a lot.)  I’d really like to go back to focusing on only two projects at a time, but it’ll be a while before I can do that, I think.

A major news poll sponsored by NBC and the Wall Street Journal just failed to ask questions about Elizabeth Warren even though she’s got the third most delegates.  They did ask about lower ranked candidates– either they think that only one woman can be in a poll at any time (they included Klobuchar) or, much more likely, the owners are truly worried about her proposed wealth tax and other anti-corruption things she’s likely to bring into office.  The anti-Warren junk email we’ve been getting has been getting worse too.  Bad guys are afraid.

Stop and Frisk is enough reason to not vote for Bloomberg.  Unfortunately he’s been spending a lot of money on advertising– my students tell me they know folks who have already voted for him in primaries because of his Facebook ads.  He’s sent us a bunch of mail already (straight to recycling).


An article about the Netflix show Cheer from the view of someone who used to be a cheerleader in high school.



Link love

Suggestions for making classes more interactive

One of my introverted junior colleagues asked for suggestions on how to keep students engaged for a 3 hour block class without completely exhausting him and also to make sure they don’t skip the readings before class.  Here’s some of my suggestions.

I really like Boice’s suggestion with teaching, “get them to do the work,” and keep that in mind when I’m coming up with new class preps.

Here’s some more targeted suggestions:

– Provide them with discussion questions to go along with their readings, then hit those discussion questions in class discussion. Since everybody will have something written down, you can cold-call and/or round robin around the table to get everyone’s answers.
– Have them come up with discussion questions.  Have them post the discussion questions online prior to class for everyone to read.
– Ask them to present on specific topics. (I find presenting about the details of different public programs to be kind of boring, so I’ll let them pick off a list for one of my classes. It’s something they can present on without a huge amount of econ knowledge.)
– Have them find literature or news stories that directly relate to the topic for the week.
– Have them follow people of interest on Twitter and pick a tweet or two that deal with the topics of interest in you class. You can start class going around the table and asking them about what’s going on in current events based on their twitter feeds.
– Cancel regular class prior to a major written assignment but require them to stop by your office individually to get feedback on their papers prior to submission.
– Have them workshop each other’s papers in class. (Your campus writing center may have resources to help you do this.)
– Debate
– In-class exercises
– Guest lecture
– Ask the library for help on research
– Show videos, discuss the videos

What suggestions do you have for breaking up long classes and keeping students engaged?

Ask the grumpies: getting out of unproductive funks

First Gen American asks:

How do you suck yourself out of an unproductive funk. Do you find that allowing yourself to wallow in it for awhile is actually is more helpful than beating yourself up about being unproductive.

Yes, with the caveat that beating oneself up about being unproductive can sometimes be an important component of wallowing in it.  To get the full wallow a little self-hatred is necessary.

To get out:  Just Do IT.  Sometimes I will ask #2 to remind me about vans by rivers and request a kick in the posterior.

#2 says:  I think the how getting-out part for me has involved meeting people at coffee shops.  I haven’t done much of that recently.  Hard deadlines also make me ridiculously productive.   Unfortunately last-minute deadline blitz is unsustainable, if for no other reason than RSI.

We here at grumpy rumblings love to cross things off lovely lovely lists.  Sometimes even if I can’t be productive, I can write a list about what it would take to be productive.  Then day two I can cross one of the things off the list.  Breaking up tasks into smaller tasks is great for goal motivation.  Doing them from smallest to largest is also good for motivation, though one of us works best when she has an important goal that she doesn’t want to do hanging over her head– it makes all the other tasks on the to-do list seem so much more worthy of doing by comparison.

I guess it depends on WHY the funk.  I have anxiety which I manage with meds and awareness of it.

It’s also important to ATTEMPT to realize that it’s really not so bad once I get going.  Starting is hard! But starting is often the hardest part. Like Boice says, tell yourself to do it for 30 min– if that’s too long, then 10 min, or even 5 min. You can do almost anything for 5 min, and once you’re started it usually isn’t so bad.

What do you do, Grumpy World?

Small change is ok

I can’t stop rape by myself, but I can refuse to tolerate inappropriate and disrespectful behavior from the men (and women) in my classes.  I can show students resources, and issues, and hope to inspire a new generation of activists.

I can’t fix the American education system, but I can tutor and give scholarships.  And I can fix math anxiety in my own students.  I can present them with research about the advantages of a growth mindset.

I can’t fix the problems with unwanted animals in the country, but I can donate to shelters and save a couple of kitties.  Of course, we have our own fixed, too.

I can’t feed the world, or give everybody books to read, but I can donate to the local food shelter and local book program.

While it’s true that where you live and what you drive will have bigger impacts on your wallet and on the planet than the latte factor, if the latte factor is all you feel able to address right now, start with that.

Some flossing is better than none; it’s not quite but almost as good as daily flossing.

Writing 1 sentence a day may be a suboptimal way to write a paper, but it’s hella better than waiting for the perfect time or inspiration, and sometimes it leads to an entire paragraph.  Boice is all about this with his daily sessions.  15 min of writing is better than none and leads to greater things.

All-or-nothing thinking leads to burnout, discouragement, apathy.  One thing at a time.

Snowball your debt– even small contributions will add up over the long term when you have high interest.

Instead of the bestest blog post ever, we’ll post this one now, so you can all start the conversation with us.

I sound pretty disgustingly hopeful here, eh?

Some days you dismantle patriarchy; other days, the most radical action you have energy for is turning off the TV.

What radical action did you do today?

Ask the grumpies: First year on the tt

SP asks:

Any advice for my husband, who is starting his first TT job in January? He’s in a science field, if that matters. He’s read this article: How I learned to stop worrying and love the tenure-track faculty life if you have any opinion on it.

One area his struggles is with time management and deadlines. He meets his deadlines, but often will work on new research until he absolutely has to start preparing a paper, then is working until the very last minute. “If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute!” He’s done fine in grad school and post-doc, but he is worried that his style won’t translate well to balancing teaching and advising with research.

My first advice is for your husband to ask for advice himself.  :-)  Specifically, he should ask his mentors and senior colleagues (respectfully) for advice when he gets on campus.

He’s right to be worried!  You can do everything last-minute on the TT, but it will destroy your health and your family life, and could be less-than-great for tenure.  One book he could read is On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching by James Lang.  This would be especially helpful if he hasn’t combined teaching and research before.

#2 points out that the excellent Advice for New Faculty Members by Robert Boice is pretty convincing on the not binging and crashing research or teaching and also has great tips.  She has definitely found that starting early and doing a bit at the time really helps her subconscious to figure out tricky problems for her seemingly in her sleep, resulting in her spending less time on teaching and writing overall with higher quality results than when she last-minutes things.

It’s kind of ok to prep your teaching at the last minute, but there will be less sleep and probably more stress than necessary.  Doing a last-minute class prep is less likely to be successful when you have very little experience doing it and at figuring out how long it takes you, personally, to prep one class period from scratch.  Some of this may be inevitable in the first year, but after that it should be more measured.

#2 liked to spend her Sundays doing lecture prep that first year.  She also did a bunch of up-front prep work before school started getting the bones of the class down.  After each lecture she either changed her notes right then or she left herself post-it notes for what to change or keep– this helped her amazingly the next time she taught the course.

I wonder if his papers have been successful in getting published if he always does them at the last minute?  I would be concerned that they will get rejected rather than R&R because they are likely sloppy and do not show revisions or clear explanations, do not anticipate reviewer objections, etc.  Perhaps setting up a writing accountability program or group would help him be more productive in the long run  (click on our writing tag to see what we think about this).  Meeting deadlines is good, but having enough time to ask for feedback before the deadline may be more successful.

#2 notes that one of Boice’s big things is to “let others do the work for you”– that’s something you can’t do if you leave things to the last minute.  A grant is going to be more successful if someone proofreads it.  Reviewers will like your papers better if they make sense and are error-free.  He can always set himself earlier deadlines that will allow him to put down the completed paper or proposal while someone else looks at it so he can polish it at the last minute.

New research is shiny, I admit, and way more fun than revising the intro to the paper you just wrote about your previous results!  What’s his R&R success rate?  His grant funding rate?  Sometimes last-minute grant-writing will work, but it puts a big strain on the support staff and you might not be able to get it through the relevant campus offices as fast as you think.  At the very least, last-minute grant work will burn goodwill in the sponsored programs office on your campus, and you might need that later.  Again, it totally does happen sometimes, but if EVERY grant is last-second hair-on-fire sign-this-form-today, you may start to encounter resistance.

#2 notes that many faculty put grants off to the last minute.  If you get a reputation for *not* doing that, they will often love you and be more willing to go the extra mile for you.  I speak from experience.


Book recommendations for new faculty

Wanna get your friend/family/colleague/buddy/department/library a gift?  Here’s what we found useful:

Anything by Robert Boice is good. Try these:

Teach like a Champion by Doug Lemov:  Our posts here.

Crucial conversations (our review coming soon!)

Your money or your life: Everyone needs this.

Women Don’t Ask: useful for both genders.

Ms. Mentor solves all…

PhD comics if you don’t have them from grad school!

On Course by James M. Lang if you don’t have teaching experience (or not much)

Aaaannnnd…. Academic murder mysteries! So many fun ones to choose from.

What else?