Best ballpoint pen for someone who loves to push hard? Ask the grumpies

Heavyhands asks:

Do you have a favorite kind of pen?  I am tired of using cheap Bic work pens that get blobs of ink all over my fingers and smudge all over the page.  I have some Pilot G2 when I want to write in colors, but I really like ballpoint pens [ed: the kind with tacky ink] better, except they glop all over my hands!  I read some good reviews about the uni jetstream and bought them, but I’m not liking it so far.  Yesterday I suddenly realized, “why am I using these pens that glop ink everywhere?  I can afford to buy pens,” but I don’t want to keep ordering random pens and not like them.  I can’t afford that!

NY Magazine thinks my crappy work Bic pens are good.  (The Bic roundstic)– how can I ever trust anyone?  They get globs of ink everywhere!  But… I do trust your readers.

Does grumpy nation have any advice for me?  I think I prefer ballpoint to rollerball [ed: this is what I would call flowing ink like the G2 or my favorite Tul] because I push really hard with my pens.  I also am ok with gel pens, but I’ve only used them for fancy things like writing cards.  Since I push hard with the pens, there’s less friction with a ballpoint than with a gel pen or a rollerball pen.  I think I wreck the tips on rollerballs.

I would love to hear people’s pen recommendations?  What’s your favorite pen?

Oh gee, we both have light touches with pens.  #1 prefers rollerballs and definitely has a lot less friction with a rollerball or gel pen than with a ballpoint.  #2 prefers marker tip(!)

I think my favorite was the uni jetstream 101 (the kind you get 12 to a box, not the retractable kind), but that advice is probably not at all helpful to you since we have such different writing styles and you didn’t like the uni jetstream that you got!

This article recommends the uni-ball signo 207 premier gel pen and the Pilot Dr. Grip Ballpoint.

DH loves his space pen, though I cannot imagine spending that much ($22) on something I would invariably lose.  (DH has not lost his, though it has gone through the wash a couple of times, since it is always kept in his pocket.)

Grumpy Nation, can you help Heavyhands out?  What are your favorite pens?  Do you press heavily or lightly?

February snuck up on me: February Challenge, gotta get some stuff out

I am so far behind on everything, Grumpy Nation.

But… for the first time since NOVEMBER, my computer desktop at work is finally fully functional.  Like, I can use dropbox and WinSCP and not get a BSOD 5 minutes after logging in.  So… that’s a miracle.

February is the best month for challenges, even if there’s an extra day this year.

I’m going to combine two previous annual challenges:

1. 2018’s No Devices In The Morning Challenge

and

2. 2017’s Write Every Morning Challenge

I will be taking one weekend day off for the write in the morning challenge, which is good since I didn’t realize February 1st was February 1st until Saturday afternoon.

Everything I said in that 2017 post is 100% true this February as well, up to and including the 8am office hours one day a week.

Ask the readers: How do I teach my middle-schooler writing?

While we have been impressed with the math and orchestra teaching in public schools where we are, we have been less so with the humanities.  DC1 is not learning how to write.  Zie is not getting many writing assignments, and the one that zie gets are completed in-class with minimal feedback and are mostly creative writing or opinion.  (Add to that the ELA teacher doesn’t exactly show great writing skills in hir own written communications… though I suppose my blog writing doesn’t show the same level of quality as my professional writing so I shouldn’t throw stones.  Still…)

Looking online most of the recommendations seem to be “let them read a lot and write a lot”… well, DC1 already reads a lot.  And, having looked into the “research” that claims that writing cannot be taught, I am less than impressed with the methodology.  I can believe that writing cannot be taught in a single semester, and that grammar instruction without  combined writing instruction doesn’t transfer, but I have a bright 10 year old with a growth mindset for at least another 6 years of instruction, not a fixed-mindset college student for a semester of remediation.   I have to believe that there’s something more systematic that can be done than just having DC1 write about a wedding zie has attended.

I am most interested in teaching DC1 technical writing, especially given that technical writing seems to be completely neglected in hir classes thus far.  As I’m grading my college students’ policy briefs, I find I worry that DC1 doesn’t know how to use topic sentences or craft a paragraph that supports such sentences.  I want hir to learn outlining.  And have the ability to skim an article that has been written with topic sentences and an outline.

I vaguely remember learning in 3rd grade about topic sentences, diagramming sentences in 4th grade, and outlining in 5th grade.  (My juvenilia is actually pretty good… at least compared to the writings of many of my college students…)  A high school history teacher taught the art of transitions (though in college I learned that not all disciplines appreciate them, so I have stopped doing that final step except when writing in more historical sub-fields).  My mom did a lot of teaching me how to fix my grammar, clarity, and so on.  #2 also helped form my writing (her mom is a professional editor).  One of my grad advisors taught me discipline-specific tricks for writing in my main field.

Students at elite private schools get a lot of technical instruction in writing.  The results are impressive.  And I can’t believe it’s just their socioeconomic status or a greater propensity to read that’s the cause of it.  My sister got actual technical writing instruction at the private school she went to for high school and her writing ability and writing enjoyment improved tremendously (despite heavy amounts of constructive feedback).  There are rules that can be taught.

So I’m asking you:  How do I teach writing to my kids?  Is there a curriculum that would be good?  A workbook series or set of prompts that would guide them through the basics of technical writing? A Kumon-style academy that does a particularly good job?  How did you learn how to write?

Please use more topic sentences

In your technical writing.  Please!

What is a topic sentence, you ask?  Since they no longer seem to cover that in third grade…

A topic sentence is the first sentence in a paragraph that provides the main idea of the paragraph.  Essentially it introduces a paragraph and summarizes what the paragraph is going to say.  It isn’t, “Now we turn to Table 2”.   It isn’t, “[Author (DATE)] studies X.”  What does Table 2 say?  Why is it there?  Why are you talking about Author (DATE)?  What is the relationship to your paper?  Convey this information in the first sentence of each paragraph.

The topic sentence should tell you why that paragraph is there.  If you don’t know why that paragraph is there, then maybe it shouldn’t be.

This PSA brought to you by a grumpy rumbler who has had to do waaay too many referee reports recently.

Stocks and bonds, Writing and outreach

I had an idea.  Follow me, here:

For academic careers, writing is like investing in stocks.  Outreach and translational research are like investing in bonds.

Stocks and writing:  Get lots while you’re young.  You need to write prolifically enough to get tenure, and gain the national or international reputation you need for those outside letters.  Spread your name, become known in your field.  Start early.  Because the return is uncertain, put a lot of writing out there in the world (and buy stocks).  Stocks are a good investment when you have a long timeline until retirement; you have time to weather the ups-and-downs of the market and can have a higher tolerance for risk, in exchange for possibly higher returns.

Bonds and outreach/translation:  These are more effective when you’re older.  When you’re more experienced in your field, you have more experience and a reputation that you can leverage for influence.  Research-wise, you’ve got a better idea of what works and what’s worth developing further, as well as potential pitfalls and objections.  You also know people who can help spread your ideas.  You may have more time to devote to making the world a better place.  When you’re closer to retirement, you also want the safety and security of bonds: potentially lower return, but steady.

In financial investing, as in an academic career, you’ll need a balance and variety throughout your life.  You might want to be doing both of these things (and more!) at all times, but in varying ratios.  Diversify and rebalance your portfolio and life.

This idea: off the wall, or right on target?  Tell me, Grumpeteers.

How to write a power-point discussion (economics-specific)

The goal of a good discussion is to explain to the audience where the paper fits into the general social science/policy framework and to help the paper improve for the future.  The goal is not to destroy a paper but to improve it (see exception below).  Discussants are serving science!

  1. Frame question— why is it important?  (You can mention your own work here if applicable.)
  2. Briefly summarize paper.  If the presenter is great, you will be able to skip the summary or only go over what you see as the most important parts.  If the presenter is terrible, your audience will really appreciate figuring out what they just heard, so it’s good to be thorough on your slides if you don’t know a priori how good the presenter will be.  If applicable, here would be a great place to take the author’s work through a “sniff test”– Bridgette Madrian is one of the best discussants I’ve seen, and one of my favorite discussions of hers was where she took a person’s paper (on whether or not we need 70% of our income after retirement) and applied it to her own life with a spreadsheet and came to the conclusion that the paper’s thesis was plausible.  Sometimes discussants will call up experts in the industry to ask their qualitative opinion.  Really great discussants will sometimes replicate or extend with another dataset.  None of these things are necessary, but if they’re easy for you or an RA to do, they can really push you to be memorable (though being invited to discuss more papers is not necessarily something you want to do!).
  3. Constructively point out problems with the paper and suggest solutions (if any).  Don’t be a dick.  Frame these as questions to think about, how big a problem you think they are etc . Don’t use this part as a place to talk about why your work is awesome and theirs sucks.  If you do mention your work in this spot, use it only as a place to commiserate with standard problems and suggest solutions that could work for them.
  4. Extensions for the future, broader impact.  Here’s a place where you can talk up your own work if it is related and can speak to the paper you’re discussing.

How many slides do you want?  Fewer than the number of minutes you have to present.  It is better to go short than to go long.

Special cases:

  1.  The authors haven’t actually done anything yet:  Spent the majority of your time on why this is an interesting question and suggestions for future work.  (Also ok to use a chunk of your time talking about your own related work.)  Use the word “preliminary” a lot.
  2. The authors clearly haven’t addressed causality but causality needs to be addressed (or any other major elephant in the paper issue):  Spent the majority of your time on why this is an interesting question.  Talk about the problems of getting to causality and (if easy for you to do) what other authors have done and (if easy for you to do) the problems with what they’ve done (or if not problematic, then suggest these authors follow).  Gently mention that causality is something that these authors need to think about.  The audience will understand.  Then suggest future work (which will include really nailing down causality).
  3. You don’t get the paper to discuss until the night before at 3am:  Feel free to spend the entire time talking about your own work, or to come up with something off the cuff while they’re giving the presentation (it is AOK to note that you did not get the paper until the night before, but that should be the extent of your dickishness).
  4. The paper is poorly done and the results, if taken at face value, will do real harm to people, particularly those from marginalized groups:  In this case, it is ok to firmly and politely destroy the paper for shoddy craftsmanship.  You can do so in a professional manner in steps 2 and 3. You’re still not being a dick, but you don’t have to frame things as questions to think about but as real methodological problems.   It’s ok to throw around the terms “dangerous” and “needs stronger proof”.  It’s a shame that there are still guys (and the occasional woman) who write papers with sexist/racist agendas who ignore basic science in order to prove that wealthy white men are superior and deserve their privilege, but there are.  They shouldn’t be allowed to do bad science.

Academic readers– is this about right?  What things are the same or different in your discipline?  Any other tips?

How to do a powerpoint presentation (social sciences, economics)

I LOVE me some powerpoints.

Think about what you want your audience to take away.  Use the rule of 3 to emphasize those points (say what you’re going to say, say it, then tell people that you said it).  Depending on how much time you have you won’t be able to get through every point in the paper, so think about what subset you want to present, what slides you want to keep in case of questions but not actually present, and so on.

Use the powerpoint as a guide to remind you what to talk about, so brief bullets/phrases instead of full sentences.  Do not read off the slides.

Some people will only want to read your slides, some people will only want to listen to what you say.  Make sure that people who do one or the other will still get the gist of your presentation.

Make sure your fontsize is big enough that the people in the back can see it if they’re wearing glasses.   My heuristic is to not go below 28 point Calibri if it’s something I want them to read.  (Table notes can go smaller)

Graphs are often more compelling than regression output.  (But keep the regression output as a backup)

Don’t use fancy wipes/fade-outs/etc.  Anything that distracts without a purpose is useless.

Development economists, behavioral economists, psychologists, antrhopologists, etc. use a lot of photos/pictures/drawings and occasionally movies.  Do that if it is common in your field.  If it isn’t, then only sex it up like that if it helps improve understanding.

DO NOT USE PREZI.  Or if you do, use it like you would Powerpoint or Beemer.  You do not want to give members of your audience migraines.

I have often found it helpful to have different versions of the same information in the powerpoint that I can skip over depending on how pressed for time I am.  So I will have a pretty chart, regression output, and summary bullets (or two out of the three) and I will use combinations of one or two of these depending on how much time I have left.  It is also helpful to know which sections can be skipped without losing the main themes of the presentation.

Practice your talk.  Know how the talk is going to differ if questions are allowed vs. no questions being allowed.

It is better to go a little under than a little over.  It is better to skip parts than to talk so quickly nobody can understand you.

Join us next Tuesday for:  How to write a powerpoint discussion(!)

Academic readers– is this about right?  What things are the same or different in your discipline?  Any other tips?

Your Ideal Work Day

A few years ago, get a life phd asked readers to think about what their ideal day would look like.

My ideal work day definitely does NOT include teaching or ANY emails from students.  It does, however, include research and friends.

I was at this conference when I realized I was having my ideal work day.  No students.  No student emails.  I talked to colleagues about research:  theirs, mine.  I got inspired to learn about a new statistical technique.

I saw good friends I hadn’t seen in a long time.  I ate good food.  I had time for a nap in the middle.

I met a new research collaborator and we talked about what research we do and could share.
I could choose what was most interesting to go hear talks about.  Setting my own schedule is awesome.
That is an ideal work day.

#2

I think mine would start off with me checking my email to find a desk accept.  :)  Or an R&R from a top 2 journal.  Follow it up with a request to do something relatively trivial using my expertise for a large sum of money (like reading a proposal or giving a discussion).

These ideal day exercises aren’t so useful to me because my fantasy scenarios mainly depend on things that are outside of my control (last week was not an ideal week– the summer started with two conference rejections and a journal rejection, also our unscoopable paper that coauthor sat on for two years got scooped), and because I’m pretty happy with my life as it is and trying to optimize instead of satisfice just makes me grumpy.  It may not be a perfect life, but spending time and mental energy trying to make it better tends to make it worse and take time and energy away from things that actually help my life improve.  I remember the morning that I first heard about the willpower research on only being able to make a limited number of decisions each day, I was completely useless because I’d second guess making any decision instead of just making it, thus adding to my mental load.

Now, if I were miserable or unhappy, then the amount of time thinking about what makes me happy would be totally worth it.  A little bit of introspection might be able to make big short-term changes.  Fortunately for me, that’s not where I am right now (rejections aside).  We will see what the future brings.

What’s your ideal work day?

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.

Readers?

So much to do! A busy summer ahead

OMG, I am so overextended this summer, but if I can pull it off, it will be AWESOME.

What happened, in case you’re wondering, is that I submitted a bunch of short-term grants and got three of them.  On top of that, there’s regular submitted papers coming back from journals and so on.

So I have 4 big projects that need major work for the summer.  Mentally I’m only capable of keeping track of two or three, so this is going to need extra organization.

I have:

1.  The R&R paper that is getting split into 2 papers (a small one for the journal I sent it to, and a regular-sized one for the journal I’m sending the main paper to).

2.  Restricted data project for which only I am allowed to touch the data.  I was supposed to have access to these data last summer but SNAFU FUBAR @##@.  But I have it now, and am going to need to get a no-cost extension to keep it.

3.  Pilot study needs to get done for grant proposal for big grant.  Coauthor moved slowly so we’re behind schedule.   Lab manager graduated.  New lab members.  Do not want to talk about the weeks of administrative SNAFUs.

4.  Stupid NSF thing I got added to for the $.

[update]:  #5.  Mildly crappy paper that I sent into a conference got accepted unexpectedly.  I guess I passed the threshold from being accepted too infrequently to being accepted too frequently, at least in some venues.  No more crappy submissions to this conference in the future!  It’s going to be hard getting an hour and 15 min talk out of the material.

I have a small army of RAs of varying quality to manage, including one guy who just got a low C on the final for his methods class.  Damn it.  He did well on the midterm, but ugh.  Fortunately he won’t be working the entire summer.

So, that’s my story.  I’m doing Dame Eleanor‘s thingy for #1, and I’ve got RAs to keep me going for 3 and 4 and a coauthor whose sabbatical is ending for #2.  Who needs sleep or weekends?