Tag Archives: organization

On the importance of pleasant spaces

One of the major benefits of being on fellowship is being able to write from home every day, rather than in my tiny windowless basement cubicle on campus. I know there are a lot of people who aren’t able to write at home, either because they don’t have enough space or a space that feels sufficiently work-like, or because they need people around them when they’re working. The latter folks tend to work in coffee shops and often find that the presence of other patrons, even if they are strangers, provides a sense of accountability that keeps them working. The former folks work in on-campus offices, even on days they don’t have to be on campus.

I don’t want people around when I’m working. I don’t even want music, or noise of any kind. The only company I’m willing to tolerate when I’m writing is the cat, who doesn’t really give me much of a choice:

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As I’m fortunate enough to have an office at home, that’s where I prefer to work—it’s where the books are, after all. But when I only worked at home once a week, my desk would be piled with books, papers I’d brought home to grade or file, bills that needed shredding, and a sizable accumulation of cat fur, since both cats think the desk is placed where it is to provide them with a prime outdoor-viewing spot. And when I had only one day a week to work at home, there were always pressing things I needed to do with that time, so cleaning the desk, not to mention the office, was never much of a priority.

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Notes to self: conference paper tips

I’m making fitful progress on my paper for a conference later this month. I need to be making less fitful progress, because I need to have the paper pretty well finished by the end of next week. Somewhere between now and then, I also have to do all of my end of semester grading.

I’m past the early I-have-nothing-to-say-how-am-I-going-to-fill-twenty-minutes stage, and have moved on to the holy-crap-how-am-I-going-to-cram-all-my-research-and-notes-into-twenty-minutes stage. In fact, I’m swiftly approaching the I-don’t-care-what-I-say-just-as-long-as-I-get-something-cohesive-written-down stage. This is the point when I start directing my attention to the form of the writing as well as the content, and start reminding myself that I will be reading this paper, out loud, to a group of people who I don’t want to bore to tears, and that I need to compose my words accordingly. In preparation for this stage, I thought I’d compile some of the collected wisdom I’ve picked up about writing conference papers (as well as a few tips on delivering them).

(N.B. My own conference presentation experience is relatively limited, so some of this is as-yet-untried advice that sounded good to me [to clarify: advice other people have given me]. My conference audience experience is more significant, though, and some of these tips are an attempt to remind myself of what I’ve observed from that side of the podium.)

1. Keep it short. This applies both to the paper itself (just because you have twenty minutes doesn’t mean you need to take them all), and to the sentences in the paper. Remember that your audience won’t have the opportunity to go back and re-read the first clause of a complicated sentence.

2. Map out the specific tasks your paper will undertake, and make them clear at the beginning of your talk. I like phrases like “This paper will,” or “In this talk, I will.” This can also be a good place to say what you won’t do: “I don’t have time here to cover all of x, so what I’d like to do today is talk about y and z.” If your paper will have several parts, this is the time to list them so that your audience can follow the organization of your paper as you talk.

3. Use lots of signals. This is really an extension of point two. Incorporate lots of transition phrases—way more than you might use in a written paper (unless you’re like me and already make over-liberal use of transitions). Every so often, recap what you’ve done and where you’re going: “Now that I’ve done x, I want to address y.” You can also get a lot of mileage from “In other words,” particularly following long or complicated sentences.

4. Remind your audience of information in ways that make them feel smart, rather than inadequate. “As you know,” or “As we all know,” can generate a lot of goodwill, if said in a tone that makes you audience think you genuinely think they do know. It can gently correct a questioner who isn’t making much sense or doesn’t actually seem to be asking a relevant question. It can also slap down an asshole questioner, or make you look like the asshole, so be sure to use it with the correct emphasis.

5. Don’t spend too much time on secondary sources. This is not the time for a lit review. The best tasks for conference papers are those that can be accomplished without spending very long on what other critics say about your topic. Sure, you want to look smart and like you know a lot of stuff, but the best way to do that is to make a focused, well-supported argument that reflects your own contributions, rather than to quote lots of other people. Of course, you don’t want to look like you’re not aware of important relevant work, but a brief paraphrase or a passing reference is often enough to show your audience you’re on top of things. Assume that if you’re familiar with a significant critic or argument, many of them will be, too.

6. Make your conclusion short, clear, and to the point. Remind your audience what you’ve done in your paper: “As I hope I’ve shown…” Tell them what the next step is or should be. Is there more research to be done? An obvious question your paper raises? Is this paper part of a larger work you want to put a plug in for?

7. Be funny, if you can. I usually can’t, but I think that may be at least partially because I still get really, really nervous. If you can master the nerves and insert a little levity, your audience is sure to appreciate it, and to remember your paper better because of it.

8. Don’t improvise, but if you must, be sure to allot time for improvisation. Nobody likes to hear someone read the last three pages of their paper a mile a minute to try to make up for a digression. And it’s a shame to have to cut a section you worked hard on to make up for a stuttery tangent. If you’re actually good at speaking on the fly, you probably don’t need any of this advice. But if you’re not a confident and accomplished improviser, stick to what you’ve got on the page.

9. Never underestimate the benefit of a good handout. I’ve also seen people use PowerPoint really effectively to display longer quotations, especially ones they were close reading. One presenter had significant words show up in different colors to emphasize what was important in his reading. I’m thinking about trying that out some time, but until then, I rely on handouts to help my audience follow my argument. Some people use the handout to outline the argument itself, but I find them most helpful for evidentiary purposes. The paper I’m working on now is drawn from fifty some-odd reviews of a novel. I don’t have the time to read all the relevant quotations (and my audience would probably claw their eyes out if I did), so I’m planning on putting together a handout of the most important ones so the audience can have a sense of the evidence that supports the claims I’m making. I’m going to try to keep the handout to a page, front and back, though—a good handout is a short handout.

10. Stand still and stand up straight. I had a mock trial coach in high school who used to make me deliver my arguments from across the very large conference room. He’d stand on the other end and yell down to me, “Louder,” and, “Be a tree.” He yelled, “Be a tree,” over and over again until I stopped slouching, stopped fidgeting, stopped stepping up and down on my toes, stopped leaning to one side or the other. Every time I get up in front of a group of people, I remind myself, “Louder,” and, “Be a tree.”

11. Practice. Duh. But seriously, practice reading the paper as much as you can. It gets a lot harder when you’re standing up in front of a bunch of people.

This is a fairly haphazard compilation, so any other conference paper tips, particularly on writing them with speaking in mind, would be greatly appreciated.

On organization

There’s not a lot I can say about organization software and methods that hasn’t been said many times over around the web, but in establishing and tweaking my own organization system one of the things I found most helpful was reading a number of different accounts of people’s organization systems, how they worked, and why the worked well for them. In that vein, here’s how I try to keep track of things.

I know a lot of people swear by David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach, and I’ve periodically considered giving it a try, but its always seemed a little more intense than I was really willing to commit to. At the same time, my Google tasks list was not cutting it. There was not good system for assigning priority, or for breaking down large tasks into smaller ones. “Write prospectus” is not a useful entry to have on my to-do list, but the million small tasks that make up that large one would overwhelm both the list and me.

There are several popular GTD software options (Lifehacker has a run-down here), particularly OmniFocus, but I found them either not customizable enough or, in the case of OmniFocus, too expensive and too daunting. I finally settled on Things, in large part because of this ProfHacker review. The review has a lot of great tips that I won’t repeat, except to say that I adopted the method for hacking conferences and CFP’s whole cloth and have found it exceptionally helpful.

Things lets you organize your to-do lists into areas (for me these include Teaching, Dissertation, Conferences, Home, etc.), and then organize those areas into subdivided projects (I set up a different project for each class I teach, for my prospectus and each chapter of my dissertation, for my writing group, and so on). You can select a due date and priority for each item in your to-do list, as well as assign it tags and include extended notes. You can also set up recurring tasks, a feature I use to remind myself to pick up the CSA box each week, as well as to respond to student comments every MWF morning. All of your tasks get organized into an easily-navigable inbox:

You can view tasks that are due today, or see upcoming tasks organized either by project or by due date. You can also view all the tasks in any given project or area. In addition, Cultured Code also sells a Things app for iPod/iPhone. This is key for me, because it lets me add tasks whenever I think of them. On the bus this morning, I remembered that I absolutely have to do laundry this weekend or else I will be teaching class on Monday in either a bridesmaid’s dress from two years ago or a pair of jeans that I’ve had since high school and a John Deere t-shirt. I pulled out my iPod and added laundry to my task list, significantly reducing the chance that I will forget about washing clothes until Sunday night.

Externalizing every single tiny thing I need to do helps keep my anxiety level down and lets me focus on whatever I’m working on at the minute, because I don’t have the constant nagging feeling that there’s something else I need to be doing. If it’s not on the list, I don’t need to worry about it. This is, I think, the major innovation of the GTD approach, and for certain personality types, it makes all the difference. The downside, of course, is that if I forget to add a task to the list, there’s a very strong chance it won’t get done. I’ve forgotten to take the trash to the curb two weeks in a row. But the slight decrease in short-term retention, which was never all that great in my case anyway, is well worth the peace of mind that comes with systematic externalization.

I’ve found that, like writing, an organization system is most productive when it’s habitual. It took some time to find a system that worked and integrate it into my daily workflow, but once I’d done that, I felt more comfortable committing to more responsibilities and was willing to step up and organize various groups and meetings without the worry that I’d fall behind or forget something important. In other words, I’m more confident in my ability to actually behave as a professional in a professional setting.