Experiments in Cowriting

We all have preferences for how we work. Maybe you’re the kind of person who likes to work in complete isolation, in which case this blog post is not for you. But if you’re like me, there’s something appealing about being deeply engaged in your own work in proximity to people who are also being productive. This is why I have long struggled to work at home and instead tend to write in coffee shops and libraries. I’ve also experimented with more intentional forms of co-working.  For many years, my most successful attempt was with my friend Stephen. As a DJ, Stephen would work on mixes and set lists, while I would typically revise papers – beyond the fact that we’ve been friends for years and enjoy hanging out, I think we both got a lot out of the gentle pressure/quite support of collocated work. In the last few years, I’ve made several other efforts at co-working, spanning in-person, online and inter-species collaborations (#noclickbait – it’s not as exciting as it sounds), which I thought I’d share below. If you have other ideas for coworking, feel free to share them in the comments!

Continue reading “Experiments in Cowriting”

2015 Advice for Your 856-Year-Old Ph.D.

(or, What’s New About Getting an Old Degree?)

I’m delighted to be teaching an intro seminar for all the new Ph.D. students in my department’s graduate program. One of my goals is to give these students a place to talk about the environment of graduate school itself. How does getting a Ph.D. work? What do you need to know?

This task has made me reflective. At first I thought I should pass along readings that had been inspirational for me during grad school. That sure didn’t work. Here is the advice I apparently once loved:

Once you have identified some [thesis] topics you are interested in, you can research them rapidly by spending a few hours on the telephone calling up experts in the field and pumping them for information…although it may cost you a few dollars in long-distance bills…  —Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or Ph.D., p. 182


I wrote the paper with which this book begins on a microcomputer. Though this first experience with one frightened me a little at first, writing soon seemed so much less work that I wondered how I had managed before. —Writing for Social Scientists, p. 151


Having surveyed the basics…it’s time to consider the role that electronic communication can play. The most important thing is to employ electronic media consciously and deliberately as part of a larger strategy for your career. —Networking on the Network: A Guide to Professional Skills for PhD Students


Fortunately, these days every legitimate library has a copy machine, and each copy costs about a dime. —How to Write a Thesis, p. 86

The process of getting a Ph.D. is very old. Wikipedia claims the first Ph.D. was awarded in Paris in 1150. I thought Ph.D. advice would be more likely to stand the test of time.

These days you’ll find better dissertation advice on Tumblr. Or at least you’ll find some comic relief from Tumblrs like When in Academia

when someone asks you how the diss is going

(That’s some great tagging.)

The upshot is that it looks like a fair amount of the advice about how to get a Ph.D. has to do with the available communication technology of the time.  Both the stuff that’s in everyday use, and also the scholarly communication infrastructure (which I’ve also blogged about recently).

Has anyone reading this ever attended a conference paper sale? (No, that’s not about buying pre-written term papers.) Or have you ever received an academic journal article “preprint request postcard?” Here’s an image of one:


Source: Google Scholar Blog.

So far I’ve come up with a list of things that seem to still be helpful. Caveats: I’m aiming to help the social science and humanities students interested in communication and information. Our first year students won’t be teaching yet, so I am not focusing on teaching with this list.

Hopefully there are some readers who will find this list useful too.

How to Get a Ph.D. — The Draft Reading List

Agre, P. (2002). Networking on the Network: A Guide to Professional Skills for PhD Studentshttp://vlsicad.ucsd.edu/Research/Advice/network.html  I’ll excerpt the following sections:

  • Building a Professional Identity
    • Socializing at Conferences
    • Publication and Credit
    • Recognizing Difference
  • Your Dissertation
  • Academic Language

anonymous. (ed.) (2015). “When in Academia.” http://wheninacademia.tumblr.com/

Becker, H. S. (2007). Writing for Social Scientists. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. — Don’t let the title of this book fool you, it is equally applicable to graduate students in the humanities and professional programs. I’m excerpting the following sections:

  • Freshman English for Graduate Students
  • Persona and Authority
  • Learning to Write as a Professional
  • Risk
  • Terrorized by the Literature

Cham, J. (2013, January 21). “Your Conference Presentation.” (image.) PhD Comics.

Edwards, P. N. (2014). “How to Give an Academic Talk.” http://pne.people.si.umich.edu/PDF/howtotalk.pdf (13 pp.)

Germano, W. (2013) From Dissertation to Book. (2nd ed.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press. — Note: “Passive Is Spoken Here” is a great section heading. I’ll excerpt the chapter:

  • Making Prose Speak

Sterne, J. (2014). How to Peer Review Something You Hate. ICA Newsletter. (2 pp.)

Shore, B. M. (2014). The Graduate Advisor Handbook. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. I’ll excerpt:

  • Mutual Expectations for Research Advising (pp. 143-146)

Strunk, W., Jr. & White, E. B. (2000). The Elements of Style. (4th ed.) New York: Longman. (Important: You must avoid any “Original Edition” or public domain reprint that does not include E. B. White as a co-author. The version without E. B. White is a different book.)

@yourpapersucks (ed.) (2015). “Shit My Reviewers Say.”  http://shitmyreviewerssay.tumblr.com/


I see that it’s a list woefully lacking in anything like “social media savvy for Ph.D. students” or “How new forms of scholarly communication are changing the dissertation.” I’m sure there are other newish domains I’ve left out, too. What am I missing? Can anyone help me out?  Please add a comment or e-mail me.

Yours in futurity.




(this blog post was cross-posted to Multicast.)

Should You Boycott Traditional Journals?

(Or, Should I Stay or Should I Go?)

Is it time to boycott “traditional” scholarly publishing? Perhaps you are an academic researcher, just like me. Perhaps, just like me, you think that there are a lot of exciting developments in scholarly publishing thanks to the Internet. And you want to support them. And you also want people to read your research. But you also still need to be sure that your publication venues are held in high regard.

Or maybe you just receive research funding that is subject to new open access requirements.

Ask me about OPEN ACCESS

Academia is a funny place. We are supposedly self-governing. So if we don’t like how our scholarly communications are organized we should be able to fix this ourselves. If we are dissatisfied with the journal system, we’re going to have to do something about it. The question of whether or not it is now time to eschew closed access journals is something that comes up a fair amount among my peers.

It comes up often enough that a group of us at Michigan decided to write an article on the topic. Here’s the article.  It just came out yesterday (open access, of course):

Carl Lagoze, Paul Edwards, Christian Sandvig, & Jean-Christophe Plantin. (2015). Should I stay or Should I Go? Alternative Infrastructures in Scholarly Publishing. International Journal of Communication 9: 1072-1081.

The article is intended for those who want some help figuring out the answer to the question the article title poses: Should I stay or should I go? It’s meant help you decipher the unstable landscape of scholarly publishing these days. (Note that we restrict our topic to journal publishing.)

Researching it was a lot of fun, and I learned quite a bit about how scholarly communication works.

  • It contains a mention of the first journal. Yes, the first one that we would recognize as a journal in today’s terms. It’s Philosophical Transactions published by the Royal Society of London. It’s on Volume 373.
  • It should teach you about some of the recent goings-on in this area. Do you know what a green repository is? What about an overlay journal? Or the “serials crisis“?
  • It addresses a question I’ve had for a while: What the heck are those arXiv people up to? If it’s so great, why hasn’t it spread to all disciplines?
  • There’s some fun discussion of influential experiments in scholarly publishing. Remember the daring foundation of the Electronic Journal of Communication? Vectors? Were you around way-back-in-the-day when the pioneering, Web-based JCMC looked like this hot mess below? Little did we know that we were actually looking at the future.(*)


(JCMC circa 1995)

(*): Unless we were looking at the Gopher version, then in that case we were not looking at the future.

Ultimately, we adapt a framework from Hirschman that we found to be an aid to our thinking about what is going on today in scholarly communication. Feel free to play the following song on a loop as you read it.

(This post has been cross-posted on multicast.)

How to Write a Book

The title of this post is presumptuous, because I haven’t written it yet.

I have a book contract for my dissertation. Yay! Cheers! What every graduate student dreams of while slaving away over their hot word processor, eyes glazed over as they attempt to wrangle the methods section into submission for the umpteenth time. And I’m very lucky and psyched about it. But now I’m faced with the task of actually writing the book.

This is my third major writing project. The first was my MA thesis (200 pages). The second was my dissertation (500 pages). (I also wrote a very bad NanoWriMo novel in 2002 which shall remain hidden forever.) Clearly, my problem is not actually WRITING. The problem is GOOD WRITING. And GOOD WRITING only comes from butt in chair focus, day after day.

So here are my tips for those of you struggling with book-length projects:

1. Write every day. Even if it’s only 200 or 500 words. I got a job while I was writing my dissertation so I had to compress a year’s amount of work into four months. I set myself a very aggressive goal of 2,000 words a day, which I usually made. The advantage of writing every day (even if it’s only a few paragraphs) is that it keeps the project in the front of your head and your consciousness all the time, and it prevents the dreaded “I’m scared of my book/dissertation so I don’t even want to open the .doc file ” problem, which is what REALLY causes trouble.

During my diss, if I made my 2000 word count I considered myself done for the day and rewarded myself with a trip to the library to take out more YA books, an iced coffee, or what have you. Those of us writing while still working or juggling other projects probably can’t skive off like that, but the idea is there: you don’t need to work on something for 12 hours a day, day in and day out, to make it happen.

(Some people do hourly goals, but I find it’s too easy to spend that time rewriting a few pesky sentences or staring off into the distance.)

2. While you’re working on your daily goal, do not do anything else. This includes: Facebook, Twitter, cleaning your kitchen, wandering over to the refrigerator to see if anything tasty has appeared there since the last time you looked, reorganizing your iTunes library, taking a pair of shoes to the cobbler, falling into a Wikipedia k-hole, etc. There are a lot of tools you can use for this purpose. SMC affiliate and all-around nice guy (Dr.) Fred Stutzman wrote a piece of software called Freedom which will cut off your internet access for X amount of time so you can write. There’s also a great Firefox extension called LeechBlock, which will block a list of websites for an allotted block of time. I use it to block Tumblr, Go Fug Yourself, and anything else potentially fun from 10-12 and 1-6 every day.

3. Use the Pomodoro Technique to keep yourself focused. A pomodoro is a tomato, in this instance, a tomato-shaped kitchen timer. (I do not use a tomato. I use a Windows desktop gadget called “Work Break Cycle Timer”. I’m sure there is something sexier for the Mac. You can also use your cell phone.)

picture of a tomato-shaped kitchen timer

Set the timer for 15 minutes. Work straight until those 15 minutes are over. Then take a FIVE MINUTE break– here’s your opportunity to check that fridge again. Then get back to work. 3 pomodoros = 45 minutes of work. You can extend the amount of work time as your concentration progresses. If you get in the zone and don’t want to stop, don’t. This is super useful if you’re terrified of a certain task and will do anything to avoid working on it. 15 minutes isn’t very long, and usually that’s enough to make you realize that it’s not that scary and you can do it.

4. Stay positive and have faith in your abilities. After writing a few chapters I noticed a cycle:

– Research.
– Research. OMG what an idea, I am a genius.
– Writing.
– Writing.
– Writing. OMG this is a disaster. My ideas are ridiculous. This chapter is a tangled mess. I am a failure.
– Writing.
– Writing.
– Writing. OK, this is decent. I’m happy with it.

You need to get through the “OMG this is a tangled mess” phase. Just trust that you’re smart enough to figure it out. Because you are!

5. Carry around a notebook or a piece of paper, and sleep with it next to your bed. I woke up out of a dead sleep in the middle of the night and wrote down the entire outline for my third chapter. I had an idea for a thesis statement while crossing the street. If there’s something bugging you, you WILL figure it out. It just might need a few days to percolate. Talking problems out also helps. I often find that just by trying to clarify my thoughts to someone else, they become more clear to me, as well.

6. Finally, I switched from Word to Scrivener for this project. Scrivener is a program specifically designed for writing novels, non-fiction books and screenplays. I am probably one of the only Word fangirls out there, but Word kept hacking up my manuscript because it was too big. Scrivener is good for moving around sections, reorganizing stuff, writing things in the margins, and they finally released a Windows version (I’m also a Windows 7 fangirl). Scrivener is a bit fiddly, and I’d recommend reading the tutorial. I’m also not very excited about its Zotero integration (e.g. there is none), but I’m willing to overlook this because it’s so much better than my old method of Word + a million “notes” files + OneNote.

So GOOD LUCK! And with that I’m going to spend the next hour working on the book.