My event planning template

In 2009, I was recruited by The Ineluctable Cassidy  to be an event planner for the local ASIS&T group she was leading. We had a pretty punishing schedule of four events per academic year, and planning involved mailing lists, searching out event locales, creating a flyer, sending out emails, arranging refreshments, etc. These were a lot of separate tasks that needed to be planned, managed, and tracked.

I had read at some point a post on Mark Forster's forum that made a big impression on me. When talking of productivity, the writer said to think about what needed to be done in terms of tasks, routines, and habits. Tasks require a lot of attention and energy, routines less so, and habits are automatic. The trick to being more productive at the office (or anywhere) was to routinize as many tasks as possible, and if appropriate, make them habits that required little conscious attention at all.

Events Calendar

Example 1: Working out in the morning? Establish a routine for setting out the weight bench the night before and put your sneakers and shorts right on the floor so your feet hit them when you get up the next morning.

Example 2: I have a monthly report I produce that requires multiple steps across multiple files. After creating about 7 or 8 of these reports, I finally created a 3-page procedure that walks me through every step. Until I wrote out those steps, I didn't realize how many little decisions I had to make along the way and why I kept putting off this relatively straightforward chore. This task will never be habitual, but it is now more of a routine.

So I wondered about event planning, and how I could be more systematic about the planning and tracking so that I didn't have to remember anything.

I researched various event checklists on the web and developed my own events template, with separate sections for things like contact information (all the people I had to contact for an event), copies of all the emails I sent, a screenshot of the flyer we sent out, a lessons learned section, which I filled in as part of a debrief meeting after the event, and many other informational bits and pieces.

ASIS&T required its member groups to file an annual report of its activities. So, I included blanks in the form for the data they wanted to see. My goal with the event planning document was that it would be a package of every word we sent, every person we contacted, every  problem we faced. That way, we could review them if we chose to return to a particular venue or to see what attendance was like for a specific event. These documents also  encapsulated a lot of experience so that when new members of the board came in, they could look at our historical record and see how we planned and executed events.

When I took on the National Night Out planning responsibilities again this year, I pulled out the event template and used it to capture everything related to this year's event. I can now pull out the document when it's time to plan next year's event, and most of the hard thinkwork will have already been done. I'll just need to plug in new dates and new names.

Feel free to download the template document below. I've also included a generic event planning document that I compiled from various sources around the web; it provides a week by week countdown of everything that you may need to have in place for a successful event. These are in Microsoft Word 97/2003 compatible format. Feel free to edit at will and use for your own events!

eventtemplate (Word 97/2003 compatible doc file)

eventplanningchecklist (Word 97/2003 compatible doc file)

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2010 leaving, 2011 rushing forward

2011 begins much better, in many ways, than did 2010. At this time last year, I was involved in helping to put on some events that scared me and my companions witless. My vacation time had been spent working on a paper so I could finish an incomplete. I had a full load of classes ahead of me and still no clear idea of what I was doing. January 2010 would finish with me at probably my lowest point of the entire year, wondering what had gone wrong.

The year evened out. I had the support and help of good friends and advisors and decided to leave the PhD program and finish my masters. I ticked off that earlier incomplete, staggered through the rest of the semester (which included a statistics class -- blearrrgghh) with only one incomplete, and helped execute a weeklong conference that, by all accounts, went very well.

I spent the summer finishing an incomplete from the spring (I wish I could have written that paper faster, but...). I spent the fall executing a hard-copy, hand-delivered questionnaire to my neighborhood and taking a Chekhov course that was a long, cool drink of water, and for which I wrote one of my best-ever papers.

I read, in the book Dirty Words of Wisdom, a good quote from Alanis Morrisette, that everyone has times when they go through s--- and that you always get through them. So don't worry about them. Nice thought, though it's hard to keep that perspective when reality bombards you with reasons not to get up in the morning. One of the things I learned this year were various tools to help me get through those times so that I can make it to the other side.

Other learnings:

  • Accountability gets me up in the morning. Knowing people are depending on me, or that I've committed to a deadline, spurs me to get stuff done. Filthy dirty deadlines -- hate 'em, but they work.
  • My mentor, The Unclassifiable Cassidy, advised to commit to the deadline before you're ready -- it's the only way to make sure you get the work done. If you wait till you have the data analyzed, the conference will have already taken place. In other words: you'll never be ready, so just get on with it.
  • This means, setting personal or arbitrary deadlines for yourself can work too, if I make them personal enough. For my questionnaire, I knew they needed it to be delivered at least 2 weeks before Thanksgiving, because once the holidays started people would be too busy to respond. For my Chekhov paper, I aimed to have it done the weekend before it was due and so worked on it bit by bit over several weeks (one of the few times I've done such a thing). This turned out to be a good thing, as I had two great insights occur to me in the shower the day before the paper was due; I spent that evening bolstering the paper with those insights and it really strengthened the whole thing.
  • This means, relatedly, disassociating the deadline from the project's completion, as explained by Cal at Study Hacks. He recommends starting on a project within 24 hours of receiving the assignment. I must admit, I like the idea.
  • My advisor last year had a few core principles that stick in my ind, even if I've not fully adopted them. Among them: it takes as much time to do a big project as it does a small project, so go for the bigger win - make the effort mean something. She also emphasized that no one ever told her what to do; she had to decide what were her priorities and what she wanted to accomplish with her energy, time, and career. It's about being independent rather than being a student -- or an employee.
  • I need structure. When I don't have structure (as expressed by deadlines, accountability) then I flounder and flop and end the day feeling worse rather than better. This, although there's often a voice within that screams not to be chained by these dreary and boring rules. I have not worked out trade negotiations between these voices yet, but it's coming.
  • It has to be the journey and the destination. I heard several times during my year in the academic vineyard, that if some part of you isn't perversely enjoying at least some of what you're going through, then that isn't the job for you. I'm all for delayed gratification, but it needs to come sooner rather than later in some form.

I ended 2010 way more upbeat then when I started. I spent my Christmas break reading a wonderful book and not even checking my email. There is still, at the back of my head, that niggling puritanical whisper "but you aren't accomplishing anything." I begin 2011 less sure of my path -- say what you will about the academic experience, it's run by the calendar and the pace ensure you're productive. I certainly never wrote or created as much in a short period of time as I did while working full-time and going to school. (In fact, I see now that the academic expectations of research, teaching, publications, and service formally externalizes what employees are always told to do -- but rarely do -- in their careers: work hard, network, be active in your professional association, keep your resume updated.)

I am joining with a few other people in creating a mastermind group, admitting which in public makes me feel like I'm coming out of the closet as a Kenny G fan or Republican or something equally shunned by society as simple-brained and noxious. Still, 2010 taught me that my old ways of believing and living were not enough to cope with the stress of what I went through. I want to experiment with and play with new methods to express (and maybe form) new beliefs.

I've set myself a deadline of January 31 to have my masters paper drafted, with the data entered and crunched, and the literature updated. It's an aggressive schedule and it's the kind of spur I need to get things done. Even if I'm not finished, I'll have accomplished more than if I'd waited for the mood to strike me.

Other goals for the year include finding work, making some money, networking, raking the leaves, cleaning my office closets from 4 years of neglect, etc. As I look at my calendar book for January, and think about what I need/want to do, I want to see how much benevolent pressure I can put on myself such that I get done what I want without stressing out too much. Journey and destination.

Another tool I plan to use is Christine Kane's Word of the Year. I've not gone through her worksheet, but I want this year's word to be ACTION. As I look back over 2010, much of my distress was caused by my worrying over a problem, journaling about it, brooding, sitting and looking out the bus window while morosely spinning dark futures about it, when only a few minutes of action was enough to dispel about 90 percent of the gloom. Taking action -- even and especially -- when I don't feel like it, is what I want 2011 to be about. I want to look back on 2011 and marvel at all that I did, all the people I met, all the things I wrote, and wonder at how I did it all while feeling on top of things the whole time.

Of course, there may be a problem with FOCUS or CLARITY. If I take action on all things, large and small, won't that dissipate my effectiveness? Maybe, but that's a problem to deal with when I'm actioning all over the place (and it's something I hope the mastermind group would help me to rein in).

Today, for example, I have 5 things written down that I'd like to accomplish by the end of the day (writing a blog post is one of them), yet I see that the dishes need to be washed and the clothes need to be put away. Do I put them on my list? Do the other more important things first? Whoa, Sparky, slow down. Those are my thought processes running amuck again, and not serving me. The thing to do is simply to take action -- wash the dishes, put away the clothes, clean my desk, take a nap, even. Don't let my thinking get in the way of taking action.

Here's to 2011.


Summarizing the past year

Sorry to disappoint my skeptically inquiring readers, but I love reading my weekly Freewill Astrology post.

Rob Brezsny's Libra posts for the last three weeks have swirled around the idea of a cycle ending, taking stock, and looking ahead. Here's how his Aug 12, 2010, reading put it:

If you and I were sitting face to face and I asked you, "What are the most important lessons you've learned these last 11 months?", what would you tell me? I think you need this type of experience: an intense and leisurely conversation with a good listener you trust -- someone who will encourage you to articulate the major developments in your life since your last birthday. Here are some other queries I'd pose: 1. How have you changed? 2. What long-term process needs to come to a climax? 3. What "school" are you ready to graduate from? (And by "school" I mean any situation that has been a hotbed of learning for you.)

Well, of course, the use of the word "school" got my attention. And I think he's right about looking at the sweep of the last year for the big lessons, rather than picking away at the details of this or that assignment., or becoming obsessed with today's details while not acknowledging what has happened to me. I think I had a bit of that conversation on my last call with Cairene, and my just recently ended coaching relationship with Christine also raised some good thoughts about the experience.

So, what are the most important lessons I've learned since August 2009? No doubt I'll come back to this post as more stuff floats to mind. No doubt I'm missing more than a few.

  • Good friends are invaluable. Safe places are always needed. Even though I really couldn't afford the time to do it, I spent one day a week at my old job, where they had kept me on part-time. The extra money was valuable, of course, but simply walking into a place where I felt competent, where people were happy to see me and asked me about what was going on, where I could help out on a project in a pinch -- it did so much for my sense of wholeness. It was a cooling balm. My self-image didn't have to rely only on what was feeding back to me from school, which I often interpreted, rightly or (mostly) wrongly, as negative.
  • But you need to leave the safe places, too. There's Grace Hopper's famous quote about ships being safe in a harbor, but that's not what ships are for. As welcome as my Friday visits to the office were, one of the reasons I went for the degree was that I had reached the limits of my safe job.
  • The universal answer: "It Depends." This is the punchline to most any question posed in classroom discussions. There are too many variables to most situations and so there can be no definitive answers; but there can be better answers for some situations.
  • Be clear about why you're doing anything. There's a famous theatrical anecdote (about George S. Kaufman?) where he was brought in by the producers of a show that was in trouble. "We think there's problems with the second act," they told him. After watching the show, he said, "The problem with the second act is the first act." In my case, I was never really clear about why I wanted the PhD -- what was it going to do for me? How would it serve as a bridge from where I was to where I wanted to be? The PhD is the means, not the end. By starting out not being clear about my goal, I set myself up for the problems I faced later.
  • If your Why is strong enough, you can put up with any What. I think I first saw that phrase in one of Christine's blog posts. One of the main problems of PhD school is simply persisting in the face of many obstacles. If you know why you're doing this thing, you'll put up with whatever you must put up with to get it. It's simply the price you've agreed to pay.
  • Indecision causes suffering. My first coach was PJ Eby, and this is one of his oft-related pieces of advice that I've found useful at work, school, and even when diagnosing character motivations in short stories. I never wholeheartedly said yes to the PhD, which divided my energies and made me susceptible to the pressures. I read one economics gradschool writer who said it's actually a good idea to burn all your bridges and not have a safety net if gradschool doesn't work out -- that way, the only direction to go is forward. You are forced to commit all of your resources to the schoolwork and your research. In this case, it may be that my lifeline back to my old job did me no favors. And even through the spring, I was talking to professors and PhDs about their experiences, trying to find some inspiration or reason to keep going.
  • Know thyself. One of the things I noticed with the other students ahead of me, and other PhDs I talked to, was they all said "You'll enjoy it more when you're done with classes and can get to your own research." But but but...I like classes! That's what I like best about school! I also discovered that I was mostly curious about the PhD experience and I wanted that curiosity satisfied. Consider that desire satisfied.
  • Deadlines and accountability work wonders for your productivity. The Accomplished Dr. Cassidy taught me that lesson: you have to put pressure on yourself. Send in the poster proposal before your data is in so it forces you to do the work. Otherwise, you'll wait and spend time to make it perfect instead of getting it done. As I look back over the time I've been in school (since the summer of 2006), I'm kind of amazed at how much work I've produced, its variety, and the various experiences I've undergone because of it. Left on my own, I'd probably have spent the last years watching Green Hornet videos on YouTube and puttering in my office. And making myself more miserable about my lack of productivity in the process. One of my personal challenges now is finding the right blend of activity and rest and accountability that will keep me producing things, but without the crippling stress.
  • Time will always be wasted. No matter how busy I was, no matter how much I tried to use my commute time to good effect, I still wasted what felt like to me vast amounts of time. I never got the feeling I was working smartly or efficiently; instead, I was working effortfully. Perhaps because I was working on the wrong things? Or that I felt so busy and deadlines felt so short, I had no brainspace left to work out how to do it better?
  • I'm not as smart as I thought I was. Or maybe I'm smart at other things. I took statistics in the Sociology department (reputed to be the toughest stats course on campus) and was astonished at how smart I was not. I quickly reached the limits of my capacity and felt increasingly humiliated when I confronted homework problems that I could barely understand, let alone calculate. This was a different experience for me, as I'd been sailing through most of my other classes up to this point. This, I think, is what most adults who go back to school fear that their experience will be like. Looking back, I could have probably done better if I'd had one fewer course and an extra 20 hours in the week to read the book more closely, do the work, and find supplemental explanations for the concepts. The goal of both stats courses was simply to nudge people a little further along, no matter their starting point, and I certainly do know more now than I did then.
  • Have a support team. During my darker days of the spring, I worked weekly with an in-person counselor and carried on email conversations with an academic coach. And of course, there are the always supportive friends and family and fellow students, who are more than happy to commiserate.
  • Self-care. I learned better how to take care of myself during stressful times. One of the keys being to somehow change panic mode to problem-solving mode. I took one of Havi's ideas for the Book of Me and compiled lists of methods, quotes, ideas, questions, etc. that I could use when I needed a pick-me-up. It also helped me to see a catalog of stuff I "knew" but couldn't always bring to mind when I needed it. Some days, I looked through it often. Lately, now that I'm out of the day-to-day hard stuff, I've not picked it up. But I keep it close by. Another bountiful source of methods to use when in a personal crisis can be found in David Burns' books, Feeling Good and When Panic Attacks, both of which offer mounds of techniques and tools for reducing the anxiety caused by over-thinking and over-imagining.
  • "The end is not fixed." The quote that Ben Casnocha produces in this post summed up some of the best and simplest advice. Liz loved that idea, that the end is not yet written.
  • The experience will fulfill you. Another mantra I held on to, that came from one of my counselors and that I duly wrote in my Book of Me. One of the thoughts here being that the fulfillment may not come soon, may not come for years, but that it will come and then I'll understand the lesson the experience was teaching me. Looking back over the last decades of my adulthood, particularly the bad stuff that caused me pain at the time, I can see the truth of that statement. If nothing else, this experience forced me to deal with a lot of dirt that came up. These were issues that would not have come up otherwise, and that I would not have had to deal with. The PhD hastened my self-education, which I believe is a good thing.


Fall 2009 chicken

Taking a leaf from Havi’s Friday Chicken, this post will review the semester just past, but with a few additional headings.

The Hard

  • I never got around to writing all the blog posts documenting my semester, its ups and downs—which is one of the reasons I started the blog, so that it could serve as my diary/journal for this trip. It became one of many obligations I had to ignore as the semester limped along.
  • About 3 or 4 weeks into the semester, I said to people that I wasn’t coping with school—I was trying to get to a point where I could start coping.
  • The work, oy, the work. Mounds of it. Only some it was horrendously difficult, but it was all mostly time-consuming and came pelting on my windshield in clumpy wet blotchy gusts. And because few of the work products resembled each other, there was no way to build up any momentum so that you could leverage a day’s work on 2 projects, for example. Each task was too unique. This meant thin-slicing my attention to where nothing got my full attention (I hated this condition) or waiting till a deadline or question from a stakeholder forced me to pay attention to the thing. I was never able to work ahead to my satisfaction.
  • Statistics. The homework that soaked up hours, the 56-question midterm that I could not complete in 75 minutes, the feeling that I was 4-6 weeks behind in understanding the Niagara of information washing over me, the frequent panics and dark moments when it hit me forcefully that I wasn’t getting it.  Realizing I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. Definitely the worst experiences of my college career.
  • Dialing down my expectations. Part of what made the semester hard was the writing on the inside of my skull that said everything had to be perfect, every page of every assignment had to be read, every commitment had to be honored. Re-negotiating my expectations for what I could realistically (as opposed to idealistically) accomplish was a major hit to the ego.
  • Letting things go—and these were assignments and commitments I was on the hook for producing. It hurt to have to drop or ignore them because I didn’t have time for them.
  • Not letting things go—the snack-information pellets I continued to read, the idea that I needed to give myself frequent breaks—the trying to hold on to the old parts of my life and personality that are holding me back from embracing what I think has to be a new part of my personality.
  • Felt like I was still using too much nervous energy, not enough smarts, to get things done. I felt that I was counting too much on the Thanksgiving break and random days off to work on or finish assignments that could have been completed in a more reasonable, less nerve-wracking fashion.
  • Always predicting disaster and failure erodes my nerve-endings and makes me no fun to hang out with.
  • Found myself leading two groups and feeling very inadequate in the role of leader and project manager. Always the feeling that that I’m not measuring up and that I’m letting people down. This is a feeling that is not going away anytime soon.
  • Guilt, guilt, and more guilt for not reading enough, doing enough, staying up late enough, accomplishing enough, being enough.
  • The hours spent commuting. Some time can be filled with reading on the way to school, but I was too tired at the end of the day to get any good reading done. Still haven’t found a good way to use that down time except to relax and mull, which is probably what I need to do anyway.
  • Felt like a whiner for most of the semester.
  • Seeing my mentor graduate with her dissertation and leave the school; hers is the face I will always see first when I think of this school. Will miss her advice and availability.
  • Flipping between two and three different time management systems through the semester, never quite finding The One.
  • Forecasting mountains of hard work that makes it easy to want to give up. I have the following coming up in the spring: helping with a 3-day event in early January, helping with a student event in mid-January, conducting actual research for my advisors and writing up a draft, writing quarterly reports for our grant, helping plan and run a major week-long event in May—and did I mention I’m taking three courses (including the second statistics course)? And there will be extra impromptu projects that arise—they always do.
  • Comparing myself to others who seem to be doing this gig more effortlessly than me.
  • Trying to find 10 hours/week for my part-time job. Sometimes I couldn’t.
  • Working against my natural rhythms—I really shouldn’t try to do hard-focus work from 2-5pm.
  • Is there a good, easy, simple way to manage multiple projects that doesn’t require spending hours feeding tasks and end dates into an application? This is another case where I’m using too much brute force and brain cells instead of trusted routines and systems. I’m convinced I can manage most of these things with pen and paper or a text file and a calendar, but I haven’t found it yet.
  • Giving up the comfortable, familiar handrails of a job, of a place where I felt competent and accomplished. Struggling still with the idea of whether this academic enterprise is something I really want, or whether it wants me. The idea of a life spent working is not at all attractive to me—unless it’s work I enjoy (and that’s a new thought for me). At this point in the game, I’m still taking orders from people and struggling to meet the expectations of others, so enjoyment is not part of the agenda.
  • Fighting my distractions: YouTube, web smurfing. There’s more joy in my distractions than in the work.
  • Wanting to hide when someone suggested a new project or new task when I didn’t know how I was going to handle my current tasks. Feeling very protective of my time.
  • Discovering I’m not as smart as I thought as I was. But then, one of my goals was to get smarter, to learn to think more critically. As one of my advisors said early on, you’ll stretch and it’ll hurt.

The Good

  • I know a little better now how I want next semester to go, insofar as planning my schedule, managing commitments, dealing with technical courses, etc.
  • It’s probably just as well that I didn’t document on this blog everything that happened to me, as it would have been extremely tedious reading throughout the semester. Also, writing about it probably would have made me feel worse; I’d be spending the time practicing my angst rather than working on my projects.
  • I passed Statistics, but not in the way I would have liked. My homework partner carried the burden of the hours-long homework sets, and my contributions were minimal. But I passed. (“P’s make degrees.”)
  • Help is all around—fellow students, professors, friends, my wife. I just need to let them know what’s going on and ask for help or for some time to vent. I found that when I vented my fears in public, others also confessed their misgivings. So I’m not alone in this.
  • Things usually—well, pretty much always—turned out better than I expected. How about that.
  • Commuting via TTA worked out really well. I filled up my car maybe every other week, and rode the bus when possible. Mondays at home all day. Terribly essential when I needed big gobs of time to read or write or research. Discovering that one of our professors is interested in an esoteric subject that I’ve been interested in for years. I followed up on this with my advisor, who said this could perhaps be worked into a dissertation, but would require some massaging. The sooner I can find and define a dissertation topic, the better life will get.
  • I got through the semester.
  • I can look back and see how much work I produced at school while also mentoring a friend who took over my old job through the busiest time of the company’s fiscal year. One of the reasons for this career change was to improve my productivity, and I’m certainly doing that.
  • Having a part-time job to make up the income deficit, and being able to mostly squeeze it into the tiny gaps of my day.
  • My professor’s knack for assigning intermediate deadlines for term projects that forced me to create smaller products and thus engage with the material on a smaller scale over a longer period of time. When it came time to write the final paper, the ground had been well-broken and was familiar to me. This is a technique I need to remember and employ for myself. Trusting my writing instincts and creative intelligence—I know I don’t have to have it all figured out before I write things down. The very act of writing and sifting the material, and thinking about it as I walk or commute, creates the connections. I don’t have to force anything. It was good to be reminded of this.
  • Settling at last on Google Calendar and a page-per-day planner book with my Autofocus lists in the back.
  • The Pomodoro technique for breaking work into units. I would often start a work session thinking, “I need to get 3 pages written” or “I need to find 10 pieces of literature for the review”; instead, by allotting 25 minutes of focused time to the task—and then using as many of those 25-minute slots as needed or as I had time for—I still felt as if I was progressing. These were often useful at the start of a project, when I really didn’t know which way was up or how to get into the material.
  • Discovering I could produce a lot in a little amount of time. Parkinson’s Law should be remembered; impossible deadlines tend to elicit focused work from me in an annoyingly productive way. Don’t tell me you want it next month, tell me you need it by Friday. But can I do this for myself? To myself?
  • Deciding that going to bed by midnight was non-negotiable. For a while there, 1 a.m. was my limit, until I wised up. I hope to work this down to 11 pm in 2010, and then to simply going to bed when I’m tired. Never skimp on your sleep. Were I to fall ill, my empire would topple.
  • During my last week of paper-writing, I stuck a big post-it to my monitor that said “80%”. A reminder that perfection isn’t needed for some jobs, just a good effort, and sometimes good enough is good enough; even if the paper isn’t as perfect as you’d like, let it go and move to the next one. Don’t go crazy.

The Questions

  • Too much introspection and hand-wringing? Not enough action?
  • What if I went forward in all my pursuits with the expectation that I will succeed and everything will come out all right? How would that feel?
  • Can I schedule my distractions so that I can focus for longer periods of time? Knowing that I’ll have time to read or play, will that keep my attention from wandering?
  • Can I set myself impossible deadlines so I can get routine work done faster?
  • Can I make Cal Newport’s 9-to5 schedule work for me? Maybe on some days, not so much on class days. But in order to stem the flood of work and build in some down-time, the only way to do that, it seems to me, is to establish pretty rigid time boundaries and say, “I’ll commit to doing the work at this time for this duration, and then I stop.” Even so, I’m still at the early point in my career when I’m not as in control of my schedule as I will be in 2 years. Also, I’m way too overcommitted—but no way to get out of them for a while, so must grit my teeth…

Lessons Learned

  • Front-load the semester—do as much work as possible as early in the semester as possible. This is particularly the case for long-term projects. As the semester wears on, there is less and less time to devote to big projects. One of the old project management sayings I remember is, “There’s always more time at the beginning of a project than there is at the end.” Don’t wait; I’m kinder to myself tomorrow when I get something done today.
  • Leverage asynchronous communications. I don’t have to respond to most emails immediately, and I shouldn’t expect other people to do so. I can usually tell when a phone call will work better.
  • I experimented with one composition book per class, but that fell by the wayside for the seminar classes. I now use a single Moleskine large-format cahier to take all class and meeting notes. I date each page. As I process each page into meeting minutes or, in the case of my Statistics class, into a separate notebook where my scribbles are cleaned up, I draw a slash through the page to indicate that it’s “done.” This becomes my everything book and user-capture device. (I don’t always carry my MacBook with me, but I always have this book with me.) I also kept a separate notebook for statistics homework, but I may incorporate it into the flow of my class notes next semester. I think keeping too many things in separate buckets fragments my attention.
  • Learn as I go. This is especially true with statistics, where I trusted that I would have time and intelligence enough to figure it out later. That did not work. Next semester, take frequent office-hours meetings with the professor or TA (if the TA is helpful) starting the first week, start the homework early early early, ask the questions early, and make as much use of YouTube and web stats tutorials as I can. I believe that stats, for me, is a case of both hard-focus and lots of time. Don’t expect I can cram 14 weeks of conceptual material into a weekend. Also—I can understand things if they’re explained clearly enough and if I practice them often enough.
  • Skimming is OK to do and I can still contribute in class.
  • Feeling scared and intimidated is OK and is almost encouraged. These are feelings that have to be negotiated with no matter where you are in life.
  • The Ineradicable Cassidy’s dissertation defense illuminated what had been often said: it’s up to the student. The student drives the process because the advisor is too busy to look after him/her. The student has to dog the advisor, the student has to harangue the committee, the student has to seek help if help is needed. Also, the student has to learn to put the pressure on themselves via deadlines—send in a poster proposal before the results are in, set a date with your advisor for the draft even if you haven’t started it. Without that pressure, none of us would get anything done. And this is in part how an academic must progress in their career. (Whether you want to continually be tricking yourself this way for the next 20-30 years, well, that’s a different discussion and part of my lingering discontent with this academic project. But that might also be a part of my old self resisting the changes to my new life.)
  • When I had to push something out quickly—a lit review, research for a presentation—I was able to clear my calendar and do it. And, weirdly, the sooner I did this work, the more in control I felt of what was happening to me. The feeling of being on top of things is so powerful. There’s no reason to wait to start working on a project; some progress can always be made.

Writing the Lit Review for Research Methods

Research. Olin Warner (completed by Herbert Ad...

I recently finished a pretty big, for me, literature review that totaled about 17 pages, including the title page and two pages of references. Here are some scattered thoughts and lessons learned, at my customarily hideous length:

  • I saw the wisdom of The Scholarly Cassidy's advice to begin the search haphazardly. I spent much early time floundering but tried various keywords that eventually led me to articles of interest. Have to get used to the feeling of confusion at beginning and make friends with it.
  • As with most of the work at SILS, what I did wasn't really hard so much as it was time consuming. The keys are starting early (a lesson I'm always re-learning) and letting the work marinate. Because I'm deeply into self-justification, I am obliged to tell you that I started late because I was finishing up a different assignment and dealing with my full-time job, of course, so my research was tucked into the margins of my daily schedule (i.e., at night before bedtime) or relegated to weekends.
  • I remembered advice to break the writing into three fairly equal time-sized chunks: a third searching, a third compiling and sifting, and a third writing. I altered that to make the writing take only one day, but this division let me know when to stop active searching and when to start writing. Although I did occasional follow-up searches, the bulk of my active searching had stopped days before I started writing.
  • I adapted Cal Newton's Newport's Excel-based research database. I added a worksheet to track the lists of keywords I searched against. I kept a list of all of my sources in the main tab, with their citation (if it was easy to get), a URL to the abstract or document, the year it was published, its abstract, a theme or category to which the article belonged (such as "Community Attachment" or "Personal Networks") and a link to a PDF of the full-text article I'd downloaded to my hard drive. I pretty quickly compiled about 125 sources (plus some duplicates). I started scanning for quotations, but discerned that precise quoting wasn't called for (though page references to specific ideas were). I didn't need quotes so much as synthesis. That said, I still had way too many quotes -- the old reporter habits of tucking the evidence into the story die hard.
  • I used the spreadsheet to scan the abstracts and judge immediately whether an article had relevance to me. (I kept reminding myself this was a short paper, not written to last 20 years.) Instead of deleting those rows, I colored the citation cell red. If I liked the abstract, I assigned a theme or category (and duplicated the row if the article fit into more than one category). This got me familiar with the breadth of my article grabs. Then I sorted on the Year Published column (earliest at the top), and auto-filtered by theme. I could then see this haphazard list snap into place: all the articles for the themes sorted from earliest to most recent, and the progression of thought visible in the abstracts. I'd already decided I only needed about 3-4 themes for this paper, so this process helped me identify weak themes (only one or two articles) and combine similar themes for later processing.
  • When it was clear that I had too many articles for a category (about 25 for the Sense of Community theme, for example), I reduced the number to 3-5, which forced me to generate selection criteria and think about how they would fit into the story I was telling. I then printed out only these articles and read them more closely since they would form the spine of the lit review.
  • I spent most of the days leading up to my writing in working this spreadsheet, finding new sources until I reached saturation (the same titles or authors cropping up), and in thinking about the story -- or as some may call it, "building an argument." Same thing, really. Set up the foundation with the themes you'll come back to, remind the reader of them as you go into the middle introducing new concepts, and by the end, you twine and braid the concepts, draw analogies, point out disagreement or overlap, and so on. As always, I found that these connections leapt out at me as I was writing or during my editing. They weren't there to start with.
  • I took a day of vacation to do the actual writing, and the day went smoothly, without much stress. (Had there been an emergency that had taken me away from my home office, though, I would have been doomed.) I suppose, though, that I had a secret weapon, which is that I've been writing in one form or another since 1984. Most of the lit review writing advice I researched struck me as assuming you don't have much writing experience. I, however, know my writing process pretty well. I figured that if I soaked myself in the literature, and could come up with a logical storyline, then the writing would take care of itself. And I'm relieved to say that is, indeed, what happened (to my satisfaction, anyway).
  • One section I left out of the first draft was the conclusion. I felt it was better to wait and do that after I had let the paper cool down and I had put in my edits. Having spent the day intensely with my chosen material, I was able to write a more coherent conclusion that reflected connections that developed during the first-draft writing.
  • Still, I was up till, oh, the wee small hours. After I finished my draft, I took a two-hour break to do a workout, eat, watch a TV show, and practice my banjo. I edited a hardcopy printout, made notes to myself, and then typed in the edits and my conclusion. Ensuring the paper adhered to the APA style guide (and formatting my citations accordingly) actually was more time-consuming or felt like it.
  • The night of the day I finished the assignment, still tired but unable to sleep, I started reading my assignments for the next week. Taking time to pause and rest was probably as much celebration as I could emotionally afford. The best thing to do, I'm learning, is to have another project or task to pour that nervous energy into. (And this has implications for the night of graduation day, whenever that will arrive.)
  • I realized afterward my brain can make the connections between ideas all on its own without me having to force them, and that's rather a relief to discover. If I've stated the problem correctly, I'm interested in the question, and I'm not in a hurry, then all goes well. I don't have to be an expert, but I can be a sense-maker.
  • Always interesting to reflect that any piece of writing is the tip of an iceberg hiding the hours and pages of thinking and drafts. Would be interesting to study the ratio of material/effort expended for a paper to the final page count, so you could calculate that a page of manuscript will require 12-24 hours of effort, or something like that. I imagine someone's already done that.
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The day I got no research done

  1. I unpack my stuff in the SILS liberry [1] and start researching.
  2. The Maternalistical Cassidy wheels in with Anastasia and asks if I have lunch plans.
  3. I pack up my stuff and we go to lunch (very pleasant).
  4. I unpack my stuff in the SILS liberry and start researching.
  5. People people people walk by and want to chat. Very pleasant but no work is done. [2]
  6. I get an email from Dr. T saying I've been accepted into SILS' doctoral program (!) and I was granted a DigCCurr II Fellowship (!!).
  7. I sit there stunned and forward her mail to various folks, like Liz and Cassidy. I also send her a thank-you mail.
  8. Not really knowing what else to do, and wanting to settle myself down, I go back to my research. About a minute later, Cassidy comes down and hugs my neck and is giddier and more excited about the news than I am. We chat a bit and process the news.
  9. She leaves to go back to her work and I return to my research. It's a little after 3pm.
  10. Dr. T finds me in the liberry and wants me to walk with her over to Daily Grind so she can get a coffee-booster before her 3:30pm talk.
  11. I pack up my stuff and we walk and talk about the offer.
  12. I finally give up and go home after getting about 20 minutes of research work done. This will be a hard semester.

[1] Many and many a year ago I worked in one of the tech-writing gulags of Northern Telecom. A young Southern lady who managed the Interleaf publishing resources often told us about the templates and files stored in the "liberry." Sorry, but that pronunciation just stuck in my head and I don't want it to leave.

[2] Lori says I should get used to this.

Spring 2009 - Independent Study

Different types of peer-reviewed research journals
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I was not terribly interested in the spring courses being offered, and The Ineluctable Cassidy suggested an independent study might be an option.

I poked around and discovered that another friend, Carolyn, could supervise it. Because Carolyn is a doc student of some years standing in the school’s digital curation discipline, knowledgeable, energetic, and incredibly savvy about making the most of opportunities, this is a tremendous way to jump-start an academic career. I hope to learn as much about how she looks at life and work as I do about digital curation.

Anyway, she is an excellent guide to this strange new world of academe and to this field. We decided to work on a research study and she sent me several links to follow up on, read, and think about; suggested I start a research journal; and asked me to suggest some possible areas of interest where we could do some work. The output will be an article, or paper, or poster, or something that can be put on a CV.

This research was, in fact, another drain on my attention as I tried to finish up my fall assignments. I barfed out some ideas an in email to Carolyn but they struck me as too big, too vague--showing, no doubt, my unfamiliarity with the field. No matter. That’s why I’m doing the research.

When January comes, I’ll be taking the Research Methods course and the independent study. We decided the indie study should count for 3 hours credit, which means about 9 hours/wk of work. Because I’m not having to travel to campus for this extra class, I expect that should fit into my schedule OK.

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Status of the Ph.D.

  • I interviewed with two prospective references at SILS, who agreed to write letters of reference (still waiting on the third to write hers and the application is done). They were good, tough interviews that asked the simple questions--Why do you want to do this? Why do you want to do it here? What do you want to do with a Ph.D.?--that are always hard to answer. Fortunately, my work on the entrance essay had primed my head with some thoughts to trot out and show off, so I didn't fum-fuh my way through the conversations.
  • As I settle into the idea, the big question of course is the economy and the prospect of leaving my job to focus on my studies. On the face of it, it seems pretty foolish to leave a guaranteed job to go to school for an outcome that is not at all certain. But my holistic spiritual side tells me that this fear is one of the guardians of the gates whose job is to scare me off the path. The only way through is to confront the guardian and continue walking.
  • As my friend, The Indecipherable Cassidy, reminds me, don’t say no before the school says no. I still have until late next summer to decide whether or not this is the path for me. In the meantime, keep taking my classes, keep thinking and writing, and let the wheels of the academic bureaucracy grind along.

Update, 11-Jan-2008: All reference letters were submitted. All transcripts have been sent to the gradschool and the SILS office. All over now, but the waiting.

Late night thoughts on getting a Ph.D.

Aquatint of a Doctor of Divinity at the Univer...

Anthonio. In sooth I know not why I am so sad, It wearies me: you say it wearies you; But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, What stuffe 'tis made of, whereof it is borne, I am to learne: and such a Want-wit sadnesse makes of me, That I have much ado to know my self.

(Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 1)

OK, OK, it's not that bad. I dramatize. I soliloquize. But that lament pretty much reflects my state of mind for most of August and into September, where I had a storm in my head as I debated why I was in school and what I wanted out of it. It was all I could think of or talk about, and I look back at myself now and wonder at the mental and emotional fits I was giving myself. I'm sure I became a bit of a bore to my friends as this topic drove other more earthly concerns out of the limited crawlspace that is my head.

Ever since I started grad school, I've collected various links in my delicious account tagged gradschool and academic. I've been bemused by the number of writers who describe the PhD experience as depressing, dispiriting, a slog, something to be managed rigorously or die, etc. (Maybe only the folks who really hated the experience blogged about it?) At the very least, it's a serious business. Here are links to what I mean:

Now, to be fair, the advice most of these folks have runs along the same lines and it sounds pretty sensible: Know what you want and why you're there. You're on your own. Be focused. The job market is tough and getting tougher. Manage your adviser. Be prepared to be frustrated.

The first person who suggested the idea to me was a professor from Spring 2007, who ended his email with, "Stop laughing! I'm serious!"

My mentor, The Indefatigable Cassidy, makes it a point to bring it up in conversation at least once a semester and she has promised to step up that cycle as time goes on.

And when I mention the idea to peers at the school or even to civilians, their response is very positive. (See my earlier post on hallway conversations.) My social reality is echoing back to me, with a puzzled expression on its face, "I thought you were already a doc student. It suits you." For whatever reason -- my posture, my insane good looks, my carelessly thrown together wardrobe -- I give off the doctoral vibe like cheap aftershave. So maybe the folks around me know something about me that I don't.

But ever since I've started grad school, my reply has been a firm "No." The PhD involves work and activity far beyond what I thought I wanted to or could do, beyond what I thought I wanted out of a degree, and beyond my chosen performance level. Why make life harder by investing immense hours and energies for what may be only marginal value? Why bang my head against an ivory wall for 5 years and then face the cold cruel world of academic careerdom, where my previous 20+ years of workforce experience would add little to my reputation?

Some of my friends and advisers are saying, "You think too much. Just do it." That's a valid point. But I do feel I have a little more to lose by doing a PhD now than in, say, my 20s or 30s. Apart from the monetary loss, there is less time to make a course correction if I make the wrong bet.

I have many reasons why I should say "Yes."

  • My current career has sputtered to its end. My jobs over the last decade carried me away from the latest technologies and trends, so I'm very much out of step technically and methodologically.
  • My current job, though perfectly OK as a job, and was there for us when I really needed work, has not much more to offer me these days. Advancing in the company means selling out more of myself.
  • I think the risk of staying where I am is greater than the risk of trying something new. This is a prime motivator.
  • The professor I would be working with has basically invited me to join her and her team. This is hugely flattering and validating to me. I would still have to apply and compete for a position, of course, but I'm a known quantity and I'm sure I would make a strong candidate.
  • Honestly, I'm in my natural element in a classroom. Also, I've acquired very good self-management and other skills that enable me to make the most of my talents and skills without also fighting against myself so much.
  • I've always seen myself as a lifelong student. This transition would certainly solidify that image.
  • The friends I'm starting to make and the people I come into contact with are all tremendously supportive of me. So while the PhD is a solo effort, I'm not going into this alone.

Why am I hesitating?

  • Is this the subject area I want to pursue? I'll know more in the spring, when I take an independent study.
  • Can I picture myself doing professorial/research-y things? I'm having trouble with that. I had hoped to have 6-12 months to settle into the idea (I'm a slow learner).
  • It's hard for me to decouple the idea of acquiring the degree from how to pay for it. Yes, there's the fellowship, but I'm not living in an apartment with 3 other roommates. There's our personal infrastructure (car, house) to maintain.
  • My coach had a great question for me when I started this master's project. He asked me what my goal was. "To get my master's degree," I said. "No," he said. "That's what happens on the way to your goal. Who will you be the day after you graduate? What will you be doing? That's your goal." I must admit, I never had a clear picture of what the day after would look like until recently, when I'd decided that, yes, the PhD looks better now than it did before.
  • I'd long decided that I'd graduate in May 2010. The robes, the hat, the family pictures, everything. But. Fellowships for this program have been announced that run from 2009-2011. I've been advised (and it's good advice) to skip the master's, transfer in the hours I've already completed, and I'll be more than halfway done with the course requirements. This means giving up the 2010 plan, which provided us time to get things ready for the day after graduation. The timetable has moved up and my plans have to be shifted, and I'm traditionally ill at ease when things don't go according to plan or I feel that I'm rushed.

One of my advisors (I have an informal board of advisors -- friends who I can talk to about serious decisions and who provide a range of valuable advice on these matters) said to take the opportunity, hide out in academe while the economy sorts itself out, and get started on the next phase of my life.

There is also the feeling that the wave is cresting. I need to ride this wave while it's building and let its energy sweep me along. I need to trust that the resources I need will be there when I need them.

That said -- why do I not feel excited? This scenario is what I was welcoming 18 months from now -- why is it not so welcoming today? Because I feel I'm not ready? Because it seems too big of a step? Because because because...

Thinking too much! The curse of the late-night intellectual...

Update: Hill reminds me of something I should add: I have absolutely no illusions that the academy offers a workplace that's any different from the workplaces I've experienced over the last 25 years. There will be different stressors, friendly and difficult personalities, arbitrary authority to answer to, etc. I've worked as a staff member at both a small and a large college, and when you pass through the veil from student to staff (and faculty are staff, in my opinion), you start seeing a lot of activity that was hidden from view, rather like the way Disneyworld elves surreptitiously clean up after you on Main Street.

As Hill reminds me, the sooner I kill the romantic illusions that academe fosters, the more I'll benefit from what the experience can offer.

Update: "Just because you can do something doesn't mean you have to do it." Also: "Ride the horse in the direction it's going."

Update: (You know, at some point, I should just start a new post...) NCSU (my alma mater -- LWE, 1983) offers some juicy graduate programs through its College of Humanities and Social Sciences , especially this one, which looks quite exciting. This is one I should investigate, simply on its own merits.

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Fall Review

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During 2007's fall break, I took a breather and penned (odd word for a blog post, but I'll use it) an update on how the semester was going and the changes I was going through at that time.

A question from Brother Thomas and my friend Rani's firing up of her own blog about her academic struggles and successes compelled me to do another mini-review of how the semester is going. So, some random thoughts in random order:

  • The semester's academic work is going just fine, though I do always seem to be about a week behind, with two large projects looming like giant looming things. Despite all the work that's piling up, I feel mostly on top of it all. I have the 500-Human Information Interaction class (the "intellectual fun" class) and the 523-Introduction to Relational Databases class (the rock-logic technical class that is torquing my intuitive English-major brain). They're a good balance of subjects for me to have. And both of the teachers are excellent.
  • The index card trick alluded to in this post didn't survive. It duplicated the hardcopy monthly calendars I keep in my binder; also, it's too easy to check the class reading schedule on the web. I prefer the calendars since I can see a bigger swath of date-related information at a glance; my planner book tracks my daily to-dos. Small piles of index cards were just one more thing I didn't want to track.
  • The binder, by the way, is my secret weapon. It holds a master academic calendar, all the syllabi, assignments, class notes, etc. for both classes, with tabs separating things here and there. I take notes on generic grid paper, hole punch it, and add it to the binder later. I should probably re-write the notes to really cement it all in my head, but -- no. No, I won't be doing that.
  • My day job sucked up all life, space, time, and peanut butter pie out of my life during September, which made completing the schoolwork esp. challenging. Fortunately, I faced this predicament last year and prepared better for the crunch this year, so it went as smoothly as it could go. But there was still no peanut butter pie.
  • My time management changed at some point this year; I can't pinpoint where or when. I've rather quietly (to me) adopted the injunction to "start early." This is the secret weapon of accomplishing grad-school work. I think it happened when I looked at my master calendar and saw that I had multiple major deliverables due at work and in both classes during the same week. But look at all that empty calendar time just sitting there the week before! So I've started pushing this stuff out earlier. Even if I can't get it finished early, I can at least get it started early and so the ideas compost while I do other things. So going back to the task is more a matter of keeping the ball rolling, rather than getting it started.
  • Starting early also helps my projects "to accrue" rather than "to be worked on." I found myself doing this last spring and am doing it as often as I can this fall. A time management tactic by Mark Forster is this: when faced with projects stretching out for some time ahead of you, start work on the most distant project first. It sounds counter-intuitive, but getting that big project started early gets your subconscious involved in sifting and shaping the material, solving the problem, etc. If I can touch the project regularly over the coming weeks, I find that I add a little more to it each time with very little strain. (This is very much a blend of Forster's continuous revision and little and often processes.) There are inevitable hours-long work sessions, of course, including the finishing of the piece, but I get more satisfaction out of those sessions knowing that good-sized chunks of the work have already been done.
  • I recall a week when the deadlines were so lock-stepped that I had to finish a task or project before resuming or even starting the next project. Had I gotten sick, or dropped one of those projects, I'd have never caught up and my empire would have collapsed.
  • At times like that, I remember my co-worker Richard's advice. He'd finished a hard 2 years getting a master's in bioinformatics, and sometimes took unpaid leave from the day-job to get his schoolwork done. When my manager and I started our master's programs, he said: "Don't skimp on your sleep; you can't afford to get sick and fall behind." And: "Just accept that no one will get 100% -- not school, not family, not home, not work. If you can give them 90%, you're doing outstanding."
  • I saw my mentor, The Improbable Cassidy, in the hallway and, teasingly, asked her how many groups and committees she was a member of this semester. She shook her head and said if she stopped to think about it all, she would freeze. We agreed that denial is an often underrated coping mechanism.
  • Cassidy has a new baby, The Wondrous Anastasia, and what with feedings and naps, Cassidy has adopted the "work when you can" method and testifies herself to be more productive even than before. During crunch times, this is a good strategy and, though it's a filthy habit, it does work. I find myself using it with distressing regularity.
  • Speaking of Cassidy, she persuaded me to join the Carolinas Chapter of the American Society for Information Science & Technology (cc:ASIS&T) as the Program Chair. I felt I owed her some tremendous back-payments on favors she's done for me the last 2 years, and that's a large part of why I agreed to do it. Also, I felt it was time to start getting a little more involved in the life of the school and meet more of my peers. (I've volunteered on special projects in the past, but have never held a board position before.) Since joining, I've sent out typical Mike-Brown over-the-top emails (rather like these hideously long blog posts that are dinosaurs in the Twitter Age) on program and publications ideas, disgorged a flurry of emails to help organize a recent talk, and spent several hours creating an event-planning template to make these things go a little more smoothly in future, I hope. (Slow-learner that I am, I finally twigged that "program chair" = "event planner.")
  • A luxury once sampled becomes a necessity. For the last two semesters, I've parked in a park-and-ride lot and taken the bus. This semester, after sampling the parking deck behind the post office (only for dire emergencies at the beginning), I'm now parking there regularly and willingly paying the $3 for 3 hours. No more waiting for or missing the bus, and I can now linger for after-class conversations or meetings. And if I don't linger, I get to the office a half-hour earlier, which more than pays for the parking fee.
  • No. Exercise. At. All. Apart from walking across campus or up stairs and, sorry, they don't really count. A 45-hour-per-week job, with school -- plus the homework and the commuting to and from -- as basically my second job, crowds out exercise time. I started the Hundred Push Ups program but did not make it past the first week. I'm such a marshmallow.
  • The Beauteous Liz, as per usual, minds the store at home and picks up the slack of household management since my attention is always elsewhere.
  • The Ph.D. Oh Lord. That's another blog post. Maybe later.
  • In the past, while waiting for the bus, I'd pull out cards and write to friends, since I don't have time to write long letters anymore. (They'd be happy with long emails, but I think cards and letters arriving in the mailbox are more fun.) This semester, I've not had time nor brainspace to write any cards at all. I hope to get back to this soon, before Cara & Andy leave Seattle for NC in November and before Sue & family leave California for Sweden very soon.
  • Last fall, I stopped my banjo lessons because it was one rock too many. I restarted the lessons in May with a new teacher and have continued them through this fall. Music lessons are a metaphor for lots of things related to life and learning and growth, and my teacher is an excellent guide for all of those things. The learning is hand-eye, rhythmic, and uses different parts of my brain than the verbal/technical parts that are way overused. I can feel myself getting better as I practice, and that's a good feeling. Also, good practice requires total focus, which helps distract me when the black dog of melancholia follows me home.
  • I started this program officially in Spring 2007. Now, I find myself recognizing more folks in the halls, chatting with them, getting their stories. It's socially comforting to be recognized. It's happening slowly for me, given my schedule, but it's happening.
  • Viewing that paragraph on cc:ASIS&T and this exponentially expanding blog post should tell you that I must not be busy enough. It's all, as Rani sez, "structured procrastination."
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