Beki Grinter

Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Writing, Science and Performance Appraisals

In academia, computer science, discipline, research on October 21, 2011 at 3:50 pm

I saw this article in the New York Times, about the increasing value of a science degree in terms of employment opportunities. What I want to draw attention to is the paragraph at the end, in which one of the authors of the study says the following

Mr. Carnevale said that in surveys of employers, one of the biggest complaints about technical workers is that they “can’t talk and can’t write a memo and have horrible interpersonal skills.”

Setting aside the interpersonal skills portion, I teach a class that involves a substantial writing component. I see this too. Some years are better than others, but the ability to write is not uniform. And neither is the belief that it matters. I try very hard to explain that it does, but this year I found a new way. To introduce the students to the idea of the Annual Performance Appraisal. I was surprised how few students knew about something that they will write each year as part of their retaining their employment. There’s no programming on that form but there are sections not just for written words, but for making arguments that justify their accomplishments for the previous year. I have no idea whether this will work, I’ll find out when I get my course survey responses back. But I keep trying to find ways to explain why writing matters and so far this seems to be the most concrete one I’ve found.


Writing the Dissertation: One Reason Why it is Difficult

In academia, computer science, discipline, empirical, research on August 15, 2011 at 8:39 am

I have a theory about why writing the dissertation is such a difficult experience for many people. It turns on two assumptions, the genre of the document and the process of research.

The dissertation is a reflective document. It requires its writer to reflect back on not just the results of the research but also the process by which those results were acquired. And it asks the writer to look back over an extended period of time, typically some years.

And what self-critical researcher (which of course is what the process of getting a Ph.D. has turned you into) doesn’t look back at the mistakes. Perhaps it seems very obvious now that taking a particular approach to a study was circuitous. Perhaps it also seems that in retrospect something else should have been done. Not what you proposed, but something different. And there’s this document, feeling a bit like a catelog of horrors.

This is not the writer’s fault. This is the fault of research itself, and of what has really happened during the process, which is that the author has transformed themselves from a novice to an expert in the particular topic. To get the Ph.D. the writer has actually become a world expert as judged by publications in their community of practice. And as an expert the writer sees things about the original formulation that only an expert can see.

My hypothesis is that the dissertation has to feel the way it does. If it doesn’t then one of two things is a potential concern. Either the author has not really become an expert. Or the problem picked was easy enough to predict how to solve without any trial and error that it was probably not research, because anyone could have done without any errors.

There’s nothing to be done except to ride it out. Keep writing. Follow the mantra that it doesn’t have to be perfect it has to be done. The dissertation is an unusual document that comes at a very unique time in the research career.

I’d love to know whether anyone agrees with me.

How to Write Faster

In academia, discipline, empirical on August 12, 2011 at 12:40 pm

I’ve just finished reading Michael Agger’s essay in Slate Magazine (thanks Sarita Yardi for pointing it out to me): How to write faster.

Agger reiterates the Chronicle of Higher Education’s recent piece in recounting the anxiety that people feel about writing. But then goes on to describe different approaches to writing. We don’t talk much about the process of writing. The products yes, the fact that we are writing yes, but how do we write?

I write linearly by which I mean I start a paper at the abstract and keep going until I have gotten to the conclusions. No drafting. No outlining. I just start writing text. Sounds great perhaps. But the failure modes are obvious. When I write the abstract and introduction I have inevitably started to write the paper that the conclusions and discussion won’t exactly be about. I attribute this shift in content to final steps of the analysis process occurring in the writing itself. Another cause, I’ll read something as I am writing and decide I need to incorporate its results into my paper and that inevitably changes the direction.

The product of these course corrections is that I frequently have a paper that I have written the introduction for repeatedly. And now I’m wondering whether anyone whose reviewed my papers is thinking, “oh yeah.” (This a the risk of not posting anonymously.). But, I’m going to come to my own rescue by saying that no-one is perfect and that we should all share our writing processes.

Agger also mentions Robert Boice. Boice’s advice presumably comes from his advice for New Faculty book. I’ve heard very good things about this book. I’ve read some of it, and I have to admit that it doesn’t speak to me quite as much as I think it does other people. But, one thing I do take away from the book is that it’s important not to let the stress of faculty life overwhelm you. He advocates for stepping back from and considering actions, and making time to step away and get to a point where you can make decisions that prioritize the important over the immediate, and help you move forward in reasoned ways. I think that’s great advice.

And in writing one way I do this is by turning off my email. This works pretty well for me, because if I have a lapse in concentration and move to my dock (Mac user) I don’t see the little red icon of “unread mail” (and since I am someone whose inbox is my to-do list, the unread mail icon is equivalent to the new mail to read icon. I know that’s not true for everyone, because once I studied different email habits.

The blog is also my “write daily” practice. I’m not sure whether I notice the affects in my academic writing yet. I notice it in my academic thinking more. And it really helped me when I gave a talk. So, I feel that it’s generally a positive thing. The blog has also made me realize that my writing can be wordy. I spend time trimming the number of words. And I hope you’ll all be pleased to hear that I try to do the same in my email too. I also know that some of you won’t believe this, but it’s true, and for the rest I blame my education.

Shame in Academic Writing

In academia, academic management, discipline, research on August 10, 2011 at 1:33 pm

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published a piece about shame in academic writing. I read it the day it was published. It’s about writing, but it is also about the relationship of writing to a research career.

I know these feelings too. I don’t suppose they ever go away. As the career progresses each phase of assessment brings about new doubts. These doubts are compounded by the rather nebulous criteria to which one finds oneself bench-marked. Even in Industrial Research, where I had an annual performance appraisal to which my continued employment was explicitly tied, there were always the other criteria that I needed to work in, the ones that would allow me to transition back into academia. The ones that are so hard to explain but remain ever present. And even, if I imagine a time when they might disappear, I think there are a set of internal standards that most all academics I know hold themselves too. A constant assessment of their career. Is it enough, should it be more. Writing is at the heart of a lot of this, which is why I think writing becomes such a focus for these feelings.

Reviews can exacerbate these feelings (and are of course related to career assessment anxieties). Not just the ones that an advisor gives to a student, but the ones received when a paper is rejected. Research is built on a foundation of peer-review. There have been many discussions about this process as one that tends to emphasize faults rather than identifying the positive. If nothing else, this article should serve as a reminder to write constructive reviews, especially when being critical. But more generally, research is an enterprise built on a foundation of criticism, and anxiety about that criticism. No wonder then that writing becomes a source of concern, it is also a focus for that.

The author writes and I was struck by the number of the times she uses “she” to describe an encounter. But, I don’t believe it’s restricted to women. Indeed, quite by chance I had a conversation with a male colleague recently that reminded me of this article. One reason I’m blogging is to practice writing more frequently. Not all of it is scholarly writing. But, I’ve often felt that my writing was worse than colleagues I know. And been pleasantly surprised when others have told me how much they admire it.

Writing Blog Posts

In research, social media on June 24, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Recently I was asked about writing blog posts. I’ve written about some aspects of this before here and here. But I was asked for some more of the mechanics, so here they are…

I have approximately 30 draft posts that are in various states of draft. Some of them are almost finished and waiting to be published. And I am not alone in this. For example, I noticed somewhat recently, that Mark Guzdial is going away on a trip and has written some blog posts that he will, Internet connection permitting, publish while he’s traveling. I presume his reason is to maintain a consistency while he is unable to write a lot of posts. My reasons are less clear. I think I ought to be more regular in publishing content, but I am not. I am actually trying to batch some up to be published while I am in the UK. We’ll see if that happens though. (It did, but curiously this post was not among them…).

My drafts include a variety of materials. Some are extremely short, perhaps even just a link to an article that I want to write about when I have time. Some are based on an email I have sent, say to a student, and I think that perhaps the email might be useful for others. This type of draft involves taking the email and making it less wordy. I write very wordy emails. Actually, a lot of editing my drafts is de-wording them. I am a wordy person apparently.

The person who asked me saw me writing a post while I was at HCIC (the Human Computer Interaction Consortium). I actually find that writing posts related to ideas that come up at conferences to be very helpful in focusing my thoughts. This person may also have noticed that some remarks I made at HCIC were based on some blog posts I’ve previously written. I find the blog very useful for that. In fact, I checked my blog before making those remarks (I was invited to comment on a panel while at the conference so there was not a lot of time to prepare, luckily my blog helped me with that).

Conferences and academic meetings can be very inspirational. I have a series of posts that I wrote based on my attendance at Snowbird, and CHI gave me the idea for several posts too. And potentially a new blog theme, focused on sharing research instruments (a draft on that awaits publication). But I can’t usually get the piece into publishable form at the conference, so I tend to open a new draft and jot down my ideas. So, that’s the drafting process I use.

More on an Academic Blog

In academia, academic management, C@tM, computer science, crafts and craftiness, discipline, empirical, European Union, France, HCI, ICT4D, research, social media, wellness informatics on September 14, 2010 at 9:27 pm

I’ve written about academic blogging before, but recently I was asked some questions.

1) How did you get into doing a blog?
It was quite by accident. A colleague of mine created a private blog to capture her experiences of conducting fieldwork. She was using her blog to create a forum where she could get feedback from others and reflect on what she was learning. So I received an invitation to create an account and I did, and then I thought it would be an interesting experiment. It’s turned out to be an interesting experiment indeed.

Early on, my blog was unread and largely just a private (although entirely public) experiment. When I started pushing my posts to facebook and twitter it got more public. Another way I acquired audience was through timely posts where I just happened to have an early hit in Google searches. Another way, and this turns on my research interests, was to prepare a commentary on a Facebook meme. Using my research expertise I commented on the importance of this.

2) What is your blog about?
My blog is a mixture of topics. I’m aware that this is rather different from other blogs and I wonder whether it affects the readership. On the other hand, it’s a creative outlet and also within the scope of my research, so exploration is important.

Two persistent non-work themes:

  • Cross cultural adventures, for example, being British in the U.S. and encounters with my accent and living in France and coping with culture shock.
  • My family from whom I learnt skills that have morphed into my off-script crafting hobbies and a passion for family history and the way it transforms history from monarchy and war into ones of poverty and survival.

Work-related topics fall into four categories.

3) How much work is doing a blog?
As much as you want it to be!

When I’m writing about non-work related topics, the posts come pretty quickly and the only thing they do is share something with colleagues and friends. Although, like facebook, they start very interesting conversations. For example, the one about the convict in my family started discussions with several work colleagues at Georgia Tech and beyond. I’d written about it partially to document the journey of discovery and detective work that is genealogy, but by sharing it broadly I got not just advice on how to learn more, but also on literature that would help set context.

The work related ones take longer. Some of them do double duty, for example, I needed to synthesize the literature in ICT4D, and I was going to give a report about the workshop so I needed to have some means to collect all that information together. My blog helps me think about making arguments, it complements and extends my two decades of research experience. It’s not just a set of notes I draw on, but because it’s simultaneously unreviewed but read by scholars it improves my arguments.

4) What impact has it had on your professional life?
My colleagues in Computer Science and beyond have enthusiastically responded to my blog. The strength in diversity of topics has been that people have asked me to write on a variety of issues. I’ve been asked to discuss the disciplinary devolution, and asked to review manuscripts on this topic. I’ve written posts on writing for conferences and had others not explicitly invited picked up by the conference organization. I’ve been tweeted and retweeted. While I have not been asked to write about my cross-cultural experiences, I’ve had face to face conversations about them. This is also true of the sexual harassment post, it generated lots of community support.

5) How would you advise a student concerning the advantages and disadvantages of academic blogging?
I tried to answer this, and then decided that I would answer it in the form of some different questions.

What do I write about?
Things you’d feel comfortable with an audience of a) your Dad whose an academic b) your Mum who started her own business (intelligent layman with interest in “application”) c) your community of practice and d) anyone else reading. Perhaps you could explain a paper in your field? Assume that the authors are in your audience and as its been published the members of your community have not deemed to be serious.

Perhaps you could write about the related work in your area. Synthesis is a challenge in academic writing. Related work is not a stream of text that describes each paper in turn. It synthesizes the results from multiple papers, groupings form pro and con arguments that help make your case. The case is a) the aggregate findings that your research builds on and extends b) the novelty of your approach and c) the contribution of your research. Synthesis is also an exercise in being inclusive and humble, how do you engage and invest a community in your results otherwise/

What about your experiences in graduate school? What are your time management strategies? What do you know about the Ph.D. program at various points in the program.

Anonymous versus known?
There are good reasons to write an anonymous blog. Anonymity supports candor. Career experiences can fit into this category. The downside of anonymity is that no-one knows you. When it comes to your research, it’s good to be associated with it! Academic branding requires being able to associate a name to the research brand.

Writing Up Qualitative Data for an Interdisciplinary Audience

In discipline, empirical on September 14, 2010 at 7:26 am

I was asked for my thoughts on how to write up qualitative data & analysis for interdisciplinary crowd.

I am an enthusiastic of qualitative research. Well, actually, I’m an enthusiastic of many types of research, I practice qualitative research.

And I would say that some of the communication begins long before you’ve ever started writing. Knowing that the audience is open to what you might have to say is going to make a world of difference. I’ve been lucky, I’ve encountered many audiences that have found something of worth in what I have had to say. I’ve been employed by people from those audiences and invited to participate in interdisciplinary research. Working with, or just talking with, people who represent the target audience can be immensely helpful.

An Aside: I’ve also encountered a few audiences who are not receptive, and in a very few cases people who are openly dismissive and hostile. I have never encountered this sort of hostility from people with vibrant research programs, those who seek out interesting problems, and who in the end care more about getting something solved than about whether it is “appropriate.” Also, in my experience this type of circling the wagons has always begun long before I’ve arrived. But once the wagons have been discovered I’ve tended to walk away and stay away. (I guess there are some audiences that are not worth the effort).

Listening and learning is a central part of the interdisciplinary experience. My advisor taught me that. He was interested in how the same words mean very different things depending on who you talk to. My experience bears this out. Whether you are participating in a project, or just going to a conference where your potential audience hangs out, attending closely to how they define terms is an essential part of the interdisciplinary communications experience.

Tell it how it is. I am sure that this is true in any discipline, I am sure that it’s especially common when new to the experience, but it’s crucial to tell it how it is. Qualitative research is not usually generalizable. It might be, but frequently that’s not what its intended to do, and nor is it the best empirical choice. So in addition to explaining what you did, explaining why you chose that method (strengths) and what the limitations are (weaknesses). It should be apparent in the write up why this method was the best for addressing the problem, despite its weaknesses. That’s a type of honesty that reviewers respect. The tiny minority who don’t respect that, don’t respect the time it took to do the research, and so they are lost before the enterprise begun.

I think those are the principles that have guided me in my research and its presentation. I’ve had so many different kinds of interdisciplinary opportunity and I count them as among the best research experiences I’ve had. I find the voyages into other research terrains fascinating, perhaps that’s because I find myself oriented towards thinking about them as human-centered research problems.

I’m not sure whether that answered the question, but that’s the best answer I have. Anyone else?

Witty or Serious? Titles for Academic Papers

In research on April 28, 2010 at 2:28 pm

It pains me to say this. Google Scholar suggests that the least witty of my paper titles appear to be the ones that are the most well cited.

It pains me because I’m from the school of pithy paper titling (I am told that it’s a British thing, I accept no responsibility for that). For a long time, I had a paper title in mind (“It’s hard to say goodbye” which was based on an observation that it’s harder to end IM conversations than face to face ones. I didn’t do the research and others have done it… but I still remember it… and the song that inspired it).

Perhaps though it’s not the title but the contents of the paper itself. I hope so. But, as I look at Google Scholar, I can’t help wondering. And if I think of search terms, then I can see a potential reason for why it might be the case. I wonder whether Google pulls titles before content on Scholar and more generally?

What do you think?

Meanwhile I think I will devote my creative attention to naming conference sessions. And for those organizing conferences I would like you to know that I am available for a modest fee. My furlough days could be well applied to this all important problem of creative conferencemanship.

What do I do in the Office?

In HCI, research on October 31, 2008 at 5:37 pm

There are several reasons to write this post.

First, this poorly maintained blog has nothing about what occupies the majority of my life (there’s a relationship between the two).  And that is, research in Human Computer Interaction (well almost). Second, because I do research, and because I work in the Academy (which is University, for some reason my American colleagues tell me that as a Brit I tend to use that word more than is normal here) I work in an institutional context which make the “office” more interesting.

OK so that’s two reasons.

Taking the second reason first. The academic context, the University, is a really interesting place to work. If it was, it is no longer the “ivory tower” of lore. No, it is a place where much time and energy is spent in outward facing activities, such as working with sponsors (from the military-industrial complex) engaged in connecting research to real-world needs. And I like that, as some might say it has the effect of “keeping it real.”

In fact meetings are a real hallmark of the academic environment. The Academy is an organization in continual flux, imagine if a 1/3 of workers arrived and disappeared each year. Well if they are students then that’s exactly what happens. We’re constantly wrapping up and recruiting new students. That’s a lot of collective work but it also means that the sheer number of people I meet is enormous. Then there’s all the regular meetings.  Teaching, one-on-ones generated by teaching, and then advising meetings. I spent around 10 hours a week in meetings and interactions generated by the standing teaching requirements.

Then there’s actually finding time for writing and reading.

I’m not complaining, please don’t get me wrong. The job is invigorating in ways that are hard to describe. This is an environment that hands those who want it as many challenges to solve as possible, provides unbounded opportunities to meet people and learn new things from them, and so forth. But, I guess where I’m headed is that I think it always surprises people that I can’t meet with them on the same day, and that’s what I’m trying to explain.

So, when I am doing research it is with my fabulous PhD students. I said that my interests are in Human Computer Interaction and that’s a reasonably accurate description. Human Computer Interaction is all about the intersection of Computing and the human world. But, I’ve also always been very open to trying to bring HCI to other areas of Computer Science, so along the way I’ve published in a surprising (to me anyway) number of areas of Computer Science including Software Engineering, Security, Networking and Robotics. OK so the last one is a little bit of a stretch, I’ve published in conferences in Human Robot Interaction, a field that spans HCI and Robotics. But anyway, there it is.

So, that’s a trailer. But not too much content. What I do in the office is try to spread the wealth of HCI to all of CS, via a set of fabulous projects with awesome student led research, and then in the remainder of my time I meet with people to do all the things that I need to get done in order to do being a faculty member. And in a few months we’ll find out whether I’ve been doing the right things to be a faculty member.