I Could Tell Some Really F*&)(&ing Personal Stories. (Please weigh in.)


I write a lot about how and why to do things at work – I’ve explored the academic, the productive, and the professional. But this post is different. It’s the beginning of exploring the personal. 

The oldest writing advice in the world is “Write What You Know.” Reflecting on this, I decided to take a wild leap and begin to share the deep down dirty stuff here… the stuff that’s important to ME as a PERSON. The stuff that I know more about now – because I just went through it – than I ever will again. I feel a volcanically strong urge to bring these ideas and this temporary form of “life expertise”, opinion, and passion out into the world.

But spewing personal hot lava is not very professional and while it certainly informs me it’s not what my business is about. So I’ve built a new home for my work writings at Kickass Enterprises and am going to start taking over this blog with the rest of my ideas. And I have a lot of those ideas and opinions that I haven’t been sharing. Until now. Continue reading “I Could Tell Some Really F*&)(&ing Personal Stories. (Please weigh in.)”

How to Pick a Thesis or Dissertation Topic: Thinking by Writing

Dear Caneel,

Choosing a thesis topic is kind of crazy.  I feel like I’m committing to marriage or something. Is it the right one? Will I be happy? Will I get bored? Will it keep my interest? Is there something better out there? 

– A Masters Student

Writing at a Table (via Dylanfm on flickr)

Dear Masters Student,

I know, the decision can be crippling!!!  Don’t let it paralyze you.  The best way to pick is to write out your thought process.  Play with ideas.  Talk to yourself in your journal about the pros and cons of each idea that pops into your head, not worrying about the order.

Most importantly, free-write through your thoughts, feelings, fears, and fascinations relating to your thesis.  They are extremely relevant to your progress.  I like handwriting best as I have more access to my emotional evaluation of my ideas when pen touches paper. I go to a café where I can noodle in my journal without being lulled into the safe distractions of the internet.

THINK BY WRITING…  This is my biggest advice for the whole entire process!  15 minutes a day free-writing, every single day except Sunday. Let it flow, writing “I don’t know what to write” when you’re stuck – don’t wait till you know what you want to say. You figure out what you want to say by writing.

Feels disorderly?  That’s okay, and a necessary part of the process you need to push through.  Probably you don’t have a list of distinct dissertation topics or ideas that you could list and write pros/cons for at this stage.  There are probably many that are similar.  Or maybe you don’t have any ideas (or so you think!).  This method acknowledges that.  Instead, it allows you to investigate the blurry edges between ideas – the overlaps.

Don’t spend too much time on this process however (your subconscious wants you to procrastinate, waste time debating, because writing the dissertation is so much more threatening to the ego than indecision is… don’t give in to this temptation).  The best thing is to pick an idea and commit to it after allowing yourself a short while to debate. Any idea is always more interesting the more time you spend with it, making it yours.  So don’t worry too much about picking the right idea.

Remember the importance of constraints (the topic of my own dissertation!).  Pick a narrow enough idea that you can go in-depth in a way that is truly unique – there will be less reading to do and more room for your own creativity if you intentionally constrain yourself to a smaller scope.
A big hug to you, and best of luck!  Let me know how it goes and how/if this works for you in the comments section below.
While writing my dissertation, I joined the Academic Ladder Writing Club and found it invaluable. I also highly recommend the following books:
1. Destination Dissertation (Foss & Waters) walks you through the process from day 1 to completion, very concretely.
2. Completing your Qualitative Dissertation (Bloomberg & Volpe) walks you through what a dissertation should look like, and how the different sections should compliment each other and build on each other.
3.  Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day (Bolker) gives help with the writing process (and a reminder that the easiest and BEST way is a little writing of notes to self each day, BEFORE you are “ready to write”).

Mac Software & Workflow Tools for Academics, Writers, and other Procrastinators

This morning I sat stuck in the London Underground for about 90 minutes. I was listening to the Mac Power User Podcast – their “workflows” podcasts are great. Anyway, it got me thinking about the tools that I’ve wasted hours on over the years. I jotted down a little list on my iPhone as I waited for my train to start moving again.  Here is that list. Continue reading “Mac Software & Workflow Tools for Academics, Writers, and other Procrastinators”

The Measurement of Design (and Other Squishy Concepts), or, Why Designers Need Scholars

What do academics do that designers don’t? And why should designers care?Hanging rulers, taken by Unhindered by Talent  (Flickr)

These were some of the challenging questions asked at the Design & the Creative Industries: Working Together with Universities conference last Friday in Brighton. As a scholar and teacher, I was feeling rather unappreciated (and frankly over-valued by society, relative to all of Those Who Can Do so Don’t Teach I was surrounded by in the audience).

I was forced to grapple with the value of my own line of work. This is what I came up with: Scholars are good at certain things that designers and artists need, and vice versa. Continue reading “The Measurement of Design (and Other Squishy Concepts), or, Why Designers Need Scholars”

Open Notebook Science & Sharing the Messy Process of Creating

In searching for motivations / reasons / justifications for writing and sharing more freely, I’ve stumbled upon the idea of Open Notebook Science, a practice of the Open Research community and inspired by open-source programming and open innovation.  The Wikipedia entry explains,

The term Open Notebook Science was first used in a blog post by Jean-Claude Bradley, an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Drexel University. Bradley described Open Notebook Science as follows

… there is a URL to a laboratory notebook that is freely available and indexed on common search engines. It does not necessarily have to look like a paper notebook but it is essential that all of the information available to the researchers to make their conclusions is equally available to the rest of the world
Jean-Claude Bradley

From a creativity standpoint, I like the idea that ideas get better by making the process transparent.  So many research projects and creative works don’t ever make it to print (or screen, or stage, or gallery…) but it’s ridiculous to think that nothing could be learned from seeing them. So why don’t we share all of our projects – done, undone, and wish I’d never done?

The problem is that the dirty laundry of one’s
failed or unfinished work is so much less fun to share than their neat and tidy Perfect Pieces.  More painful, more tedious, more revealing.

Good news is that we don’t know what projects are going to fail while we’re working on them.  They are still exciting and new – until they start going sour.  So to encourage the sharing of failures (important, because how can we learn if we don’t see failures?) we should encourage the sharing of PROGRESS and PROCESS.

The mess of the in-between is still beautifully optimistic and glittery with fresh enthusiasm.

To inspire you to share here are some photos of my messy work from before I really could call my dissertation a dissertation.

Open Research Notebook, 4 years apart (1)Open Research Notebook, 4 years apart (2)Open Research Notebook, 4 years apart (3)Open Research Notebook, 4 years apart (4)Open Research Notebook, 4 years apart (5)

The messy notebooks of artists, writers, and scientists have always been my favorite part of the world of academia.  It’s fair to say that I would never have joined the academic world if it weren’t such a perfect setting for scribbling quickly in my Moleskine(s).  (And it’s Awesome how when I trace back through old notebooks, I see that on those late and confused nights I was actually onto something that eventually became real.)

Getting Set Up to Dive into Dissertation Mode: Organizing, Inboxes, and Software

I’m currently spending some time getting myself organized and ‘set up’ to write my dissertation – the process, my time, my stuff, my articles, etc etc etc…

I must confess that I felt guilty about compulsively doing this and little else, until a generally prudent friend assured me that I’m not OCD and that this is an important step in the dissertation process and a valid use of my time.

So I’m giving myself three days to get organized and all set up. What does that involve?

Making decisions about where stuff goes and where stuff happens.

By “stuff” I mean scraps of paper, tasks, project flowcharts, random ideas, daily freewrites, lists of my decisions and finalized plans, etc.
By “where” I mean programs on the computer and physical collection points, which I want to minimize unless it’s useful to have it in physical format.

I’m playing with a lot of collection points right now (a calendar, post-it lists of tasks, my email inbox, my voicemail inbox, my SMS inbox, a voice recorder, a paper notebook, and random odds and ends like mail, physical reminders of tasks such as parking tickets, etc.) but I want to reduce the size of that list, or at least take a mental inventory of it so that I don’t forget to process all of these inboxes.

Software for Capture of Notes

For capture I’m considering Evernote (great for in-context tasks, ubiquitous capture including voicenotes and photos via iphone, but you can’t really export your stuff and you have to pay!), Devonthink (amazing and time-tested, but it misses Evernote’s ubiquitous capture and doesn’t have a task feature that I can see… not sure if it should however), and Scrivener (which is too project-specific to be my inbox), and Circus Ponies Notebook (which I love because of the in-context notes, auto indexing, handwriting recognition, ability to draw with a tablet and pen, ability put notes anywhere next to each other, etc…. but which is not as seamlessly integrated into the rest of my workflow as the others could be – might just be too much software for me).


My goal is to limit the number of contact points. Here’s my planned workflow, after testing each: I think i’ll use evernote as my inbox and capture things on the run, but I will not use it as a storage system. Just like email, whatever goes into the inbox must come out and go to the appropriate place. Devonthink is where I’ll put my text tidbits from writing. Scrivener is where I’ll compile all the good stuff and turn it into a manuscript, and Word is where I’ll do the final draft. I’ll keep my articles in Papers (and maybe also in Devonthink?) and export the bibliographic info from Papers to Word to do the bibliography.

I still need a long-term project planning process (though I’m reading The Clockwork Muse which may help), nor do I have a good tickler system (a simple email sent to myself in the future would probably be best). Any ideas on that would be great!