Downsides of writing harder: musings on the need to pace myself

When I was thinking about whether to try to be more social about how I write, I thought about how I can run harder and further and faster and without it seeming so hard if I run with a friend. That was one of the things that led me to start a writing accountability group with some friends and to set up a write-on-site session once a week, as I described in Monday’s blog post. I think these changes have led me to write more. That’s a good thing, right?

In the weeks since adopting these new approaches, I’ve started to wonder about possible downsides. To go back to my running analogy: I can run further and faster and harder with a friend – but might end up getting hurt in the process if I push myself too much. Last week, I ran with a friend and was so distracted by our conversation that I didn’t notice that I had forgotten to put on a brace that I’m supposed to wear while I run. My back noticed, though, and that night it let me know that I had overdone it. I had to take a few days off from running afterwards to recover.

Clearly pushing myself harder while running can backfire – could the same be true of writing?

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Social aspects of writing

Intro: this is the second of a series of posts exploring some common themes in three books: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, and Tad Hills’ Rocket Writes a Story. The first post focused on getting started with a new writing project, rough drafts, and the pleasures of writing. This post focuses on social aspects of writing.

 

Writing is inherently social – at a minimum, your article is read by reviewers and, of course, we write hoping that colleagues will read and understand (and maybe even like!) our article once it comes out. But the process of actually doing the writing can sometimes feel very isolated. Certainly my general approach is to hole up in my office and try to crank out some text. I get feedback from coauthors, but that’s done at a distance and with little interaction outside Word.

So, I was interested to see that Helen Sword has social habits as one of the four components of a strong writing practice. She devotes a chapter specifically to writing among others, talking about writing groups, write-on-site boot camps and retreats, and online writing forums. Each chapter of Sword’s book ends with a “Things to Try” section; for the chapter on writing among others, it includes “start a writing group” and “retreat in the company of others” as two of the four suggestions.

Right after reading that section of Sword’s book, I read a Monday Motivator email from NCFDD (written by Kerry Ann Rockquemore) that also emphasized the social aspects of writing. That email also focused on social aspects of writing, including traditional writing groups, writing accountability groups, write-on-site groups, and boot camps.

Reading those back-to-back made me realize that I severely lacked social components in my writing. I have gotten very used to setting my own goals and not sharing them with anyone else, and to holing up in my office to write. But I also don’t feel like writing is generally a problem for me, so wasn’t sure if I really needed to address the lack of social habits. If there isn’t a problem, why try to fix it?

But then, on a solo morning run, I thought about how much further and faster and more enjoyably I can run on the days where I go with a friend. And I thought about how, when I first got into distance running, I would tell some friends and family members about my race plans, which made me more committed to sticking with my training runs. And I’m much less likely to skip a run if I am meeting a running buddy, which explains why I ended up running in a downpour recently. Could these same social habits help with writing?

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Rough drafts, getting words on the page, and the pain – and pleasure – of writing

Intro: this is the first of a series of posts exploring some common themes in three books I’ve read recently that relate to writing: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write, and Tad Hills’ Rocket Writes a Story. (And, yes, one of those is not like the other.) This post focuses on getting started with a new writing project, rough drafts, and the pleasures of writing.

The post:

Everyone I know flails around, kvetching and growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and structure that work. You are welcome to join the club.

     – Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Unfortunately, a universal experience of writing is that getting started can be hard. Rocket knows this:

The next day, Rocket returned to his classroom. It was time to begin. He looked down at the blank page and the blank page looked up at him. But no story would come.

From Tad Hills’ Rocket Writes a Story

This is something that all writers struggle with, but that can be especially problematic for new writers. The task can seem so big and daunting – and there’s a decent chance that you are feeling like an imposter who is about to be exposed.

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My lab’s new lab notebook backup system. Part 2: The system

In yesterday’s post, I talked about my motivations for seeking a new system for backing up lab notebooks and data sheets. Here, I describe the system we’re now using for backing up lab notebooks, data sheets, etc. I think it’s working well. At the end, I ask for suggestions of systems that work for backing up files on lab members’ laptops, which I think we could do a better job of.

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My lab’s new lab notebook backup system. Part 1: The backstory

Back when I was an undergrad, the fire alarm went off while I was working in the lab. As people gathered outside the building, it became clear that it wasn’t a drill – I don’t recall specifics, but I think it was actually an issue in a neighboring building that caused someone in our building to pull the fire alarm. In the end, it wasn’t a big deal (even for the neighboring building!) But while people were standing around outside, the conversation turned to how much data would be lost if there was a full-on fire. It was clear that lots of people did not have complete backups of their lab notebooks and other data files.

When I was telling about this experience to a friend, Brooks Kuykendall, he told me of his father Bill’s related horror story. In the fall of 1963, Bill had completed his PhD research at Johns Hopkins in Archaeology, and started teaching at Erskine College in rural South Carolina. In the summer and early fall of 1964, after his first year of teaching, he had managed to finish writing his dissertation. In early October, he had assembled the six copies (and these were the days of carbon copies) ready to be submitted to his committee. They were stacked on the floor of his office, needing only to be packed off to go in the mail.

And then that night Bill heard the sirens. Rushing to his office, he found that the building was on fire. The firemen had cordoned it off, but somehow two students—of whom he forever after spoke with gratitude—managed to get in through the window of his ground-floor office, recovering only 1) a single rough draft for the whole text, and 2) a box that had the originals for all of the illustrations. The copies on the floor—and virtually everything else in the office—were ruined by the water.

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Journals have a responsibility to ensure ethical oversight of mental health research (and we do not currently have evidence that grad students are 6x as likely as the general population to have depression and anxiety)

I care deeply about mental health in academia (and have blogged about it in the past, including here and here and here). Given that, I was really interested when a recent paper by Evans et al. came out on graduate student mental health. However, when I read it, two things stood out to me: it didn’t mention IRB approval, and the most striking conclusion – that graduate students experience anxiety and depression at 6x the rate of the general population – is not supported by the study. The key messages of this blog post are:

  1. the authors did have IRB approval to do this work, but Nature Biotechnology did not know that when they published the study. The editor of Nature Biotechnology claims that, since they published this in their Career & Recruitment section, it is not a research article and therefore didn’t require peer review or questions about IRB. This is problematic, as the study is clearly written and presented as presenting new findings, and journals have a responsibility to ensure ethical oversight of work they publish.
  2. While the Evans et al. paper claims “Our results show that graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population,” that claim is not supported by their study. Their survey was not a representative sample of the graduate student body (it was a voluntary survey, distributed via social media and email), but they compare it to a representative survey of the general population to get the 6x statistic.

Again, I want to be clear: the authors did have IRB approval for the work, but I only know that because I wrote the authors directly (after being dissatisfied with the responsiveness at Nature Biotechnology), and Nature Biotechnology did not know they had IRB approval when they published the study. In addition, this study does not provide evidence that grad students are six times as likely as the general population to experience depression and anxiety.

Graduate student mental health is really important, so we need to get as accurate a picture as we can of the current situation regarding graduate student mental health. As discussed below, a study (by Levecque et al.) with a more carefully controlled comparison group found a 2.4 increase in risk in graduate students compared to the highly educated general population. This is definitely something that is still a problem and that still needs to be addressed, but it’s not a 6 times greater risk.

To expand on these points more:

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What if we make a class better for student learning but unsustainable for faculty?

I wrote a few years ago about our overhaul of Intro Bio at Michigan. We substantially reduced the amount of content we cover in the course (though I suspect current students would be surprised to realize that – it still feels like more than enough). We also added in more in class activities (clicker questions as well as other things such as in class short answer problems and exercises aimed at increasing students’ comfort levels with figures). And, most notably for this post, we added in frequent quizzing. Students are expected to take a quiz before every class, with more basic questions related to the readings for that day, as well as higher order questions related to previous classes. Writing the questions for the quizzes the first semester was overwhelming, but my hope was that, in future semesters, it would be much less work. While it’s been less work, it’s still quite a stressful part of the course for me. After teaching the course multiple times after the semester where we overhauled things, I still feel like I am crawling across the finish line at the end of the semester – and that’s with teaching only half the semester! When I teach Intro Bio the next time, I will teach the whole semester, and I am pretty concerned about what state I will be in by the end of the semester if I teach the course the same way we have in recent years. The current course does not feel sustainable.

In talking with others who use similar approaches, I know I’m not alone in this feeling. Teaching this way takes up a huge amount of time, and we still have our other responsibilities (mentoring students, keeping our research programs going, department service, editorial responsibilities, etc.) Lately, I’ve been in multiple conversations with others where we wondered: what do we do if we’ve made a course demonstrably better for student learning but, at the same time, not sustainable for the faculty teaching it?

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There is Shit Going On but it’s not my story to tell

As I mentioned in my post last week, just before I headed to the airport, Terry McGlynn posted a list of topics that he wishes people would blog about. Given that I was already planning on doing some #airportblogging, this was really tempting! A couple of his ideas especially stood out to me. The first was about how graduate students can get experience that will prepare them for non-academic positions; I wrote about that last week. The second was this:

-Thoughts about parenting and doing science and academia. (I have written about being a parent and a spouse on the rare occasion, but at a very young age, my son asked for privacy about these matters, and I’ve respected this.) I realize I should be talking about being a parent-in-science more often, because this is a huge part of our lives, and keeping this sequestered just amplifies gender inequities.

I’ve written regularly about the juggling act of parenting and doing science and academia, so it wasn’t the first part that really caught my attention. It was the parenthetical bit. Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how quite a few people I know are juggling so many big things but, for the most part, only close friends or colleagues know about what they’re dealing with. A partial list of the issues includes personal health conditions; aging parents (or death of a parent); partners who have a chronic illness or major injury; non-trivial things with children; infertility; financial struggles; harassment and/or bullying; and major work upheaval.

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How my student has explored career interests outside academia

Last week, Terry McGlynn wrote a post with a list of things he wishes other people would write posts about. I read this minutes before heading to the airport, and this was like catnip given my #airportblogging habit. So, I sat in the airport thinking about this topic Terry suggested:

How PhD students and postdocs are getting professional development to do things other than become a tenure-track faculty member

This is something I’ve been discussing a lot on seminar trips, with prospective grad students, and with colleagues, but I hadn’t thought about writing a post on it before. So, with thanks to Terry for the prompt, here’s the story of how one of my students has explored career interests outside academia.

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When writing, tell us your biological results!

Quick quiz! Let’s imagine you are reading the results section of a manuscript. Which of these is the most useful/interesting/compelling/informative?:

  1. Figure 2 shows the relationship between infection and lifespan.
  2. Our experiment on the relationship between infection and lifespan found unambiguous results (Figure 2).
  3. Including infection treatment as a predictor improved model fit for lifespan (stats, Figure 2).
  4. Infected hosts lived, on average, half as long as uninfected hosts (20 days vs. 40 days; stats, Figure 2).

I think we’d mostly agree that option 4 is the most informative and interesting by a long shot. It focuses on the biological results, which, as ecologists, are usually our primary interest – presumably you did the experiment because you wanted to know whether and how infection impacted reproduction, not because you just really like making figures or doing stats!

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