How to Produce Research at a Teaching School

Yeah right, like I know the answer to that question. But it doesn’t mean I won’t speculate. And my speculations led to me develop the following strategies that should help one be a (more) productive scholar while teaching 3-4 courses per semester:

  1. Accept you won’t be that productive.
  2. Spend almost all your time working and thinking and writing.
  3. Avoid teaching many new courses (i.e. new preps).
  4. Design your research around small projects (articles, book chapters, encyclopedia articles, book reviews…).
  5. Design you research around edited projects. Let other people do most of the thinking and researching and you just get to react to it.
  6. Collect as many primary sources as you can, while you can. You never know when you’ll be able to get back into the archives.
  7. Design your research around questions that can be answered with published primary sources.
  8. Explore an old subject from a new angle or perspective.
  9. Recycle and renew half-written drafts from your past, even stretching back to grad school.
  10. Focus on subjects that aren’t incredibly popular, so as to avoid having to keep up with a large and ever-burgeoning literature.
  11. Focus on subjects that aren’t incredibly popular, so as to avoid getting scooped by PhD students and faculty at Research I institutions.
  12. Speed up parts of the research process through software (particularly bibliographic and note-taking).
  13. Analyze historiographical trends, by counting titles and keywords.
  14. Write crappy history. Specifically, avoid delving into the complexity of real human lives (and real human interactions), and instead generalize about an entire continent over a generation by referring to one published theoretical treatise on the topic, or one single case study.

Guess which one I choose? Actually all of the above, though I’d like to think I’ve avoided #15.

But now is the time to focus on:

16. Waste some of your time trying to figure out a way to systematize and atomize your research process, so that you can complete bits of your research during the normally-busy school year.

And how would one do this exactly? I don’t know, but here are my first ruminations on the puzzle. All framed by, you guessed it, that damn Getting Things Done cult. Read More…

GTD in Pocket Informant Usage Scenarios

So what’s the point, you might ask, of fiddling around with all these arcane beasts like Context and Action? And why should we care about the Parent Task-Child Task relationship? Read on for how my setup in PI is used.

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Checklists for the Academic Grind

With all the preparatory discussion of Getting Things Done out of the way, here are a variety of work-related projects and tasks that I use in Pocket Informant, most of which can be reused regularly. These are largely glorified checklists, which, recent research has shown, are extremely useful. Even experts (like experienced doctors and pilots) benefit from them when time is short and focus is too easily distracted. Remember that the point of these GTD-themed task checklists is to do all of the thinking about the process once, when you make the list (though you can obviously revise it). So GTD checklists should be slightly different from “trigger” lists (lists of things that trigger you to remember other things), in that the GTD tasks should be explicit physical actions. This way you don’t have to reconstruct the process every time, usually right before the thing is due. You don’t have to, for example, spend the mental energy (as small as it might be – it adds up) to remember what exactly you’re supposed to do with the ‘receipts’ entry on that list. These lists are made even more useful with additional metadata à la GTD, and the ability to integrate them into your calendar. Read More…

Organizing GTD in Pocket Informant

Only read further if you want to learn, in gory detail, about how I implement Getting Things Done. You’ve been warned. Read More…

This academic historian pledges to Get Things Done

After reading the new edition of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD), and with a year or two’s distance from my first imperfect implementation, I’ve decided to embrace the system whole heartedly, rather than just adopt a few of the ideas. Because I’m a nerd historian, first time around I focused on the digital calendar/task list (aka Pocket Informant). It has been very helpful in allowing me to capture all my projects and ideas, but I didn’t really implement the other stages of clarifying, organizing and reflecting on my projects and tasks. I clearly need to focus on the mental side of the equation: applying the two-minute rule, asking “What’s the next action I need to take?”, phrasing projects as outcomes I want to achieve, making tasks actionable, deciding which tasks to perform (horizontal thinking) based off of my Next Action list, and reviewing my system regularly – I ended up doing about 4 weekly reviews last year, which is suboptimal. So, yeah, I was kinda using GTD before, but not the most important parts.

For those living under various rocks (i.e. most of us in the humanities), GTD is a comprehensive, flexible, generic system to organize and manage your various commitments. In my reading, the fundamental question that Allen wants everyone to ask and answer is: “Why am I doing this, how does this relate to what do I want to be doing, and how do I achieve that?” If we have a robust system that allows us to acquire a significant degree of control over the hurly-burly of our daily activities, we will have the time to make informed reflections on what we are doing and what we want to do, whether you’re assessing your life at 10,000-foot increments, or using different horizons of perspective, or whatever life-work metaphor you want to use.

The system is much more concrete and practical than the previous sentences might suggest, however. You use categorized lists of projects and tasks (pointing to reference materials you store digitally or on paper) to see which tasks you can choose to do at any given time in any given context (horizontal thinking), and to plan any specific project (vertical thinking) in as much detail as you’d like. You sort your lists with the metadata, using it to decide which actions to perform at any given moment, as well as to review and plan during your Weekly Reviews. If you capture, clarify and organize all your projects in the right kind of system, you’ll be able to align the projects you’re working on with what you want to be working on. As Allen describes it: you externalize all your projects into a trusted system to get your head clear (capture), you then clarify the meaning and importance of those projects by dividing them into discrete tasks (clarify), you organize your lists to help you decide which tasks to perform when (organize), and assess your progress on a regular basis (reflect).

Most of the details of his system are self-evident and his suggestions seem obvious when you read them, but we humans are really bad at being consistently self-aware and following through on good ideas, particularly when we have lots of things competing for our attention. GTD is a rationalized system for our monkey minds, in other words.

HAVE BLOG, WILL ARGUE

Various internauts have debated whether GTD is even relevant for academics or “knowledge workers” or “creatives.” I’ll let others hash that out (see for example here and here and here), but I will briefly summarize my own thoughts:

  • Many parts of the system can be adopted piecemeal without going whole-hog.  Just capturing all the ideas floating around in my head about things I’d like to do in months or years, and facilitating a quick check of my projects anytime concern wells up in my mind, has alone been worth it.
  • GTD is probably less useful/less necessary in the summer, if you’re an academic like myself who has the summer “off”, when it’s easier to find large blocks of time and there isn’t the pressure of teaching and serving and administering. But maybe GTD is even more important then, because it’s too easy to waste away the summer without external obligations forcing deadlines upon you.
  • GTD is probably less useful (given laptops, smartphones and the Cloud) than it was 10 years ago, but it’s still extremely useful, and managing all those lists is even easier with apps. Some IT-types undoubtedly have all their tools with them at all times or only work from home. But I, like most academics, teach in some contexts and not others, have certain equipment and software only in specific contexts (what I can do on a plane vs. in my home office vs. in the library), have certain documents and books one place but not another, and so on.
  • All that said, GTD is more useful for academics than our idealized view of ourselves as thinkers might lead us to believe. Much of life isn’t about research; much academic work isn’t research (especially if you’re at a teaching school); and a surprising amount of research is busywork rather than thinking deep thoughts.
  • It turns out GTD is based on the same principles that I’ve been trying to practice (and preach, in class and on this blog) for a few decades, with tools like argument mapping and note-taking systems like Devonthink. It doesn’t hurt that a lot of the recent cognitive research about the human mind backs up the main principles (the new edition has a chapter on that). To wit: At least start thinking about whatever’s worrying you. Externalize. Organize. Avoid multi-tasking. Convert unknown unknowns and known unknowns into known knowns, by converting a project into an outcome with concrete tasks to perform.
  • At the least, GTD allows you to see how many and what kinds of research projects you need to decide to do (or not do), and how these research projects relate to all the other projects in your life.

I’m not particularly concerned about enforcing a GTD orthodoxy or debating whether David Allen first developed each of these points, much less what the core of his “system” exactly is. The only important question is whether the system (in part or in toto) achieves its stated goal, assuming you’re busy enough to even need that goal: do you feel more in control, cope with your obligations better, and have a better perspective on your life? To the extent GTD lets you do this, use part of it or all of it. If it does most of it, tweak it where you want while trying to stay consistent with the broad principles (e.g. getting clear by avoiding using your brain to rethink what you’ve already thought and avoiding using your brain as the main memory place…). Or ignore it altogether. As always, I’d recommend reading the (new edition) of the book – it’s cheap – before relying too much on what people online say about it.

Next up: my system as implemented in Pocket Informant.
After that: a variety of checklists (implemented in PI but broadly applicable) that I’ve made for common academic tasks, teaching and research particularly.

Get clear

Blogs are inherently narcissistic vehicles – Look at me, world! Let me tell you what I think! So why wouldn’t everyone be interested in looking at my new office setup? Think of it as an extension of note-taking. And yes, I’ll post next on my tweaked GTD setup.

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War narrative

An edited collection from a few years back that I missed until now:

Mondini, Marco, and Massimo Rospocher, eds. Narrating War. Early Modern and Contemporary Perspectives. Bologna-Berlin: Il Mulino-Duncker & Humblot, 2013.

Abstract:

One of the most significant aspects of recent historiography on war has been the attention paid to the cultural images of conflict: the visual representation and its memory, language and rhetoric. This approach has brought new attention to ways of representing war and the languages used to recount it. This collection of the essays contributes to this historiographical debate focusing on two paradigmatic periods. The First World War is usually seen as marking a new era; the unusual nature of the violence of this conflict and the mechanization of death, signalling the end of war as a place for generating men’s honour. But so too other moments in the history of Western culture have seen the paradigm of war changing in the accounts and narratives of contemporaries. Among these, the crucial period of the Italian Wars of the sixteenth century, when the image of war transformed from a theatre of conflict between noble-chivalric heroes to the encounters of anonymous armies. Leading North American and European scholars turn here their attention on discourses and narratives without neglecting the reality of war and its dramatic effects on civilian population in order to understand when and in what form the Western narrative of war as generative of individual and collective valour declined.

We historians sure do like to generalize. Something big and amorphous always seems to be rising or declining…

Early modern chapters include:

  • Martines, Lauro. “Notes on War and Social History.” In Narrating War. Early Modern and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Marco Mondini and Massimo Rospocher, 31–44. Bologna-Berlin: Il Mulino-Duncker & Humblot, 2013.
    As much a criticism of the meager fruits of war & society studies as a dismissal of traditional military history. A bit outdated already (especially since his “early modern” period ends in the late 17C), but worth perusing.
  • Fournel, Jean-Louis. “Narrating the Italian Wars (1494-1540). Contamination, Models, and Knowledge.” In Narrating War. Early Modern and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Marco Mondini and Massimo Rospocher, 45–62. Bologna-Berlin: Il Mulino-Duncker & Humblot, 2013.
  • Shaw, Christine. “Wartime Propaganda during Charles VIII’s Expedition to Italy, 1494/95.” In Narrating War. Early Modern and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Marco Mondini and Massimo Rospocher, 63–79. Bologna-Berlin: Il Mulino-Duncker & Humblot, 2013.
  • Rospocher, Massimo. “Songs of War. Historical and Literary Narratives of the «Horrendous Italian Wars» (1494-1559).” In Narrating War. Early Modern and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Marco Mondini and Massimo Rospocher, 79–98. Bologna-Berlin: Il Mulino-Duncker & Humblot, 2013.
  • Lavenia, Vincenzo. “In God’s Fields. Military Chaplains and Soldiers in Flanders during the Eighty Years’ War.” In Narrating War. Early Modern and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Marco Mondini and Massimo Rospocher, 99–112. Bologna-Berlin: Il Mulino-Duncker & Humblot, 2013.
  • Stermole, Krystina. “Chivalric Combat in a Modern Landscape. Depicting Battle in Venetian Prints during the War of the League of Cambrai (1509-1516).” In Narrating War. Early Modern and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Marco Mondini and Massimo Rospocher, 113–32. Bologna-Berlin: Il Mulino-Duncker & Humblot, 2013.

Personally I find it a bit odd, though, to couch the book in terms of a fundamental change in the Western narrative of war, yet the book only focuses on the 16th and 20th centuries. I truly appreciate the case studies, but we historians appear preternaturally averse to the idea of representative sampling whenever we start talking about big ideas. Not only our tendency to present a single country as the paradigm for an age, but chronologically as well, when we draw a straight line between points A and F, forgetting about B, C, D, and E in between. Or as a mathematician might say, linear trends are the only option if you only plot two points.

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