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Erin Bedford is a PhD student in Nanotechnology Engineering at the University of Waterloo and the Pierre and Marie Curie University (Paris VI) in a co-supervised program. You can find her on Twitter @erinellyse.
I have a confession: right now, as I write this blog post, I should be writing a chapter of my thesis. And it’s not the first time that I’ve put off writing this chapter by doing something else. I also wouldn’t be at all surprised if you’re reading this when you should be writing something as well. I’ll tell both of us to get back to work soon, but first, I want to look at why this might be happening and how to keep it from happening again.
Why aren’t we writing? If you’re going to tell me that we have writer’s block, I’m going to argue that academic writer’s block doesn’t exist. In Paul Silvia’s book How to Write a Lot, he states, “I love writer's block. I love it for the same reasons I love tree spirits and talking woodland creatures—they're charming and they don't exist.” Unlike poets and fiction writers, we can’t claim that we’re waiting for “inspiration”—writer’s block in academics is simply failing to engage in the act of writing. Therefore the way to remedy it is to write.
While we might not have writer’s block, I will argue that other blocks can exist. For grad students, some common blocks are crises of confidence, messy data due to bad organization, or being stymied by how to interpret weird results. These motivational traps are legitimate reasons to be stuck; we may have to work through them before we can start, but identifying them is a first step.
These blocks aside, writing is still not easy. Here are some strategies to help:
Get rid of the blank page
While we might not be able to claim writer’s block, we can still claim fear of a blank page. That bright white screen staring back at us is practically the stuff of nightmares. So get rid of it! Fill it up with outlines, references, plots, tables, and figures. Fill it up with ideas and lists. Start in the middle of a section, start in the middle of a paragraph. Whatever comes to mind, just make the blank page gone. When that blank page is covered with thoughts, then you can turn it into a coherent piece of writing.
Writing takes a lot of mental energy, so it’s easy to say that now is not a good time and put it off until later. Unfortunately, this can lead to putting it off until the next day, or the day after that, and before we know it, the deadline is here and we’re still staring at a blank page (and calling it writer’s block!). To avoid this, make a schedule and stick to it. There are strategies that can help: keeping a record of your writing schedule or joining/making a writing group will help keep you accountable and motivated, and the Pomodoro technique (in short, 25 minutes of writing with 5 minute breaks) can help you stay focused.
Set small goals
Divide your writing goals into chunks and accomplish them one step at a time. This strategy works well in combination with scheduling writing time. Set short-term goals like finishing certain sections by the end of the day. Silvia suggests keeping a record of your writing schedule and what you’ve accomplished to hold you to your goals.
Scheduling time and setting small goals work really well if there’s a reward for success. Finish a page? Have a cookie! Or whatever it is that will keep you going.
Change your location
Not everyone will agree with me here, but I find that for long writing sessions, changing my location every few hours helps me stay focused. Having a change of scenery, noise level, and seating seems to wake up my brain. This nomadic writing style doesn’t work well if writing is replaced with constant moving and settling in, but sometimes a change of environment can give us the kick that we need to keep going. Check out GradHacker’s tips on working efficiently in any location.
Leave enough time for revision
A great strategy for writing is to start with a crappy rough draft (get rid of the blank page) then to go back, pull out your Strunk and White, and only then begin editing. The idea is to focus on the ideas first, then worry about structure, style, and grammar afterwards. If you’re doing this, make sure to leave enough time to do a really good job of revising because it will almost always take longer than you expect. Ideally, I like to also leave an additional day when I don’t look at my work to get some distance from the project—it’s easier to edit with a “fresh” set of eyes.
Finally, remember that writing is hard. It’s a skill that we have to work at to develop, but there are some great resources out there to help. I highly recommend the free online course (aka MOOC) offered by Stanford University, “Writing in the Sciences” (on Coursera or OpenEdX) for a great overview on writing well and strategies for writing, Paul Silvia’s book How to Write a Lot, and others recommended by GradHackers (here, here, and here).
Okay, now it’s time to get back to work. Happy writing!
Looking for another way to procrastinate? Share your writing tips with us!
[Image by Flickr user daitoZen and used under Creative Commons licensing.]
The successes of educational technology (edtech) will no doubt be celebrated once again at this year’s EDUCAUSE Annual Conference (9/29 to 10/2 in Orlando).
We will talk about all the ways that technology has catalyzed discussions of learning on campus.
We will enumerate the various ways that technology can contribute to mission, along dimensions of improving student learning, lowering costs, and improving student access.
We will celebrate the healthy ecosystem of edtech vendors, all eager to partner with your school and mine to help us meet our educational and institutional objectives.
What we will not hear so much about are our edtech failures.
All the ways that our discipline continues to fall short, under-delivering on our promises and our potential.
7 EdTech Failures:
1. We Don’t Talk Enough About the Costs of Public Disinvestment in Higher Education:
Everyone attending EDUCAUSE 2014 should be able to speak authoritatively about public policy trends relating to the funding and support of postsecondary education. Whenever we in the edtech community have an opportunity to speak publicly (and those opportunities have grown with the hype around MOOCs and online learning), we should try to steer the conversation towards the systemic disinvestment in public education that we have been witnessing.
Many conversations at EDUCAUSE will be around tight budgets, rising student costs, and increasing institutional (including technology) demands. These conversations are good to have, but they need to be understood within a larger policy framework.
The crisis of costs that higher ed is experiencing is a largely self-inflicted political wound.
There are no good reasons why our society cannot support public higher education, provide ample and affordable opportunities for students, and adequate resources for our institutions.
Our edtech community needs to become a good deal more savvy, and good deal more active, in the policy debates around higher ed.
2.. We Have An Uneven Record of Achieving Institutional Strategic Decision Making Authority:
The edtech leaders as strategist vs. the edtech leader as technocrat is amongst the oldest of discussions at EDUCAUSE. Everybody seems to say the same thing. Senior academic technology leadership should have a seat at the strategic table. Nobody thinks that there is any future in solely keeping the network / applications lights on.
So why is our track record of gaining a strategic seat at the table so spotty?
Why have so few CIOs become Presidents? (I know of one). Why are so few Provosts or Presidents attending the EDUCAUSE meeting?
Maybe we need specific metrics and goals to achieve influence and leadership.
3. We Have Done A Poor Job of Building Coalitions With Faculty:
Faculty should be our biggest cheerleaders. They aren’t.
The entire reason for our existence should be to make the core tasks of teaching, learning and research easier and more productive. We should be viewed as a resource and a partner for faculty at every level.
Too often, however, faculty are not exactly sure what we do or how we do it. They see campus resources as zero sum, with any dollars spent on IT as now unavailable for academics.
This picture is, of course, oversimplified. Many strong faculty / IT relationships exist on many campuses. Many faculty serve on IT oversight committees. Many faculty will champion the work of their academic IT department.
The key is to honestly assess where our relationships with faculty can be improved, and then make it an overriding organizational priority to do so.
We need to develop our IT cultures so that they match and conform to the prevailing academic culture.
We need to actively seek out our biggest faculty critics, as well as our biggest boosters, and listen to what they have to say.
4. While Improving, We Have Not Done Enough to Infuse the Research on Learning Into Our Core Culture, Practices, and Mission:
Learning is hot. Once marginalized on campus, he scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL), is suddenly on everyone’s mind.
This is great. We see discussions of learning theory percolate up to Deans, Provosts and Presidents - circulate around faculty discussions - and land in newly re-designed residential, blended, and online courses.
New investments are being made in Teaching and Learning Centers. Talk of learning analytics is in the air.
The question is, how much time is your IT staff spending reading the literature on learning? Probably not enough.
You are all too busy. Too many things going on. Too much to keep up with in your own technical fields.
We need to find a way to bring the research on learning to everyone in academic IT. Not just the instructional designers need to be fluent in this literature. We all do.
Getting up to speed with the research on learning will help us align our organizations and practices, our technologies and tools, to better support learning.
We can only become better partners to our faculty if we have a good idea of where we want to go.
5. We Have Under-Invested in Communications, Outreach, and Listening:
Communications is the thing that I think about the most and have the smallest idea of how to do well.
How to effectively communicate about digital learning initiatives, both internally and externally, feels both massively important and completely impossible.
Knowing that it is important to be open, transparent, collaborative and communicative is very different from understanding how to do so. As with most aspects of my job, I have many questions but few answers.
My intuition is that we need to hang-out with, co-opt, make friends with, and hire the people who are experts at communicating. We need to realize that effective communications skills are not common sense. That the people with training and experience in this world know what they are doing, and we would be wise to listen to them.
Beyond bonding with the communications pros, we also need to find ways to make time in our days to devote to communications. Communications can’t be an extra. Something we do on top of everything else. We need to find ways to stop some of the things that we are doing so that we can communicate more, and more effectively. This is going to be very hard.
6. We Have Too Often Played It Safe:
The longer my academic tech career progresses, and the higher levels of responsibility and authority that I reach, the less risks I feel able to take. This is somewhat personal. My girls will be going to off to college in 2015 and 2017, and as you may have heard, college is not cheap. There are mortgages to pay and car loans to service. Risk taking doesn’t feel like a sound career move.
But all of us need to get more comfortable with risk.
This goes double for our edtech community. The ways we have been doing things are no longer good enough. We need to find ways of leveraging technology to improve student learning, lower educational costs, and improve postsecondary access.
Non-incremental improvements in higher ed productivity, (and we need move past an incremental approach) will require many of us to take some risks.
These risks may involve a hard push to move towards cloud-based / variable cost tech platforms. Or they may involve pairing down extraneous services, saying no to some constituents and stakeholders. These risks may involve the pain of moving resources away from administrative and towards academic services. These risks may be about the courage to make the case for more resources and a larger institutional role for academic IT. These risks may be about the pain of evolving our cultures.
How do we screw our courage to the sticking place?
7. We Have Been Too Slow To Re-Allocate Investments and Priorities Towards Mission (Teaching and Research), and Away From Non-Differentiating IT Administrative Operations:
Let’s start with a question. Where does campus IT spend its money? Where does the money go?
Money seems to be one of those things that we seem to talk about all the time and not at all. How can that be?
We worry about money but we don’t know the specifics. Budgets represent power, control, and authority. Transparency is risky, maybe subversive.
My hypothesis is that higher education spends too much of our money on administrative IT, not enough on academic IT.
That running campus operations is really expensive. Everything from the network to the financial and student information systems that our institutions depend on is really expensive to run well. That demands to run the IT business side of academe are increasing faster than resources. There is not much slack in the system, and finding dollars to transition from administrative to academic computing will be difficult and painful.
The scope of this challenge, however, does not mean that it does not need to be undertaken.
The next generation of IT leaders will need to find precious recourses to devote to academic mission. To teaching, learning and research. These will be the differentiating attributes that will enable schools to thrive in a very competitive postsecondary market. Solid infrastructure is essential, but will not provide any comparative advantage.
The edtech community needs to take on larger challenges, develop a larger voice, and embrace a larger set of responsibilities.
EDUCAUSE 2014 seems as good a place as any to start.
Where do you see edtech coming up short?
You know how there’s a special circle of hell reserved for people at conferences who stand up during the q-and-a and start with “this is really more of a comment than a question”? This is really more of a question than a post. I hope that doesn’t consign me to the flames.
For the folks who recently taught online for the first time: what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
Selfish motive disclosure: I’m hoping to improve the ways we prepare new faculty to teach online. Any constructive, helpful feedback would be appreciated. Thanks!
The University of California System is creating UC Ventures, a $250 million fund that will seek to invest in research developed by faculty members and students. The fund will be a stand-alone division of the university system's endowment operations, and has been directed to take a long-term approach.
Many Yale University student groups opposed the idea that Ayaan Hirsi Ali -- a women's rights activist and a vocal, often controversial critic of Islam -- would speak there Monday without a speaker to counter her views. But she was warmly received by her audience, spoke without incident and received a standing ovation, The New Haven Register reported.