Productivity Moment by Moment

It has become clear to me that pursuing full-time academic or research work revolves around writing. There’s thinking, reading, musing, but writing is the central activity that binds all the activities of scholarship and knowledge finding and creation into a visible, searchable, reflect-able artifact.

To be able to understand my writing and reading patterns, and to track the work I have been doing and need to do in the next steps, I have created a writing/reading log. It is an excel spreadsheet (I use Google Sheets) with columns for date, time, activity and comments. I was skeptical that I could keep up with a mundane task as this but after a few days into logging, I can see the benefits.

First, it helps me to track how long I spend on various tasks. By logging the start and end time of a particular activity, I can see how long I have taken to write a few paragraphs, or clarify a thought. With this log, I realise that it can take all of two hours to write three paragraphs, and part of me wants to shorten that time, but the other part of me is thinking that I need to allocate that time in order to think and write.

Second, with the comments column, I write down what follow-up work I need to do, for example, extend the argument or find more references. These comments are important so that I don’t forget what I need to do when I start the next writing activity. Previously, I used to spend time figuring out what I had thought about the previous night before I could carry on.

Thirdly, this log helps me track my overall progress and serves as an encouragement to keep on writing and reading! It also helps with planning what to do and when do do it in order to meet deadlines.

With a busy household of three school going children, I welcome tools to increase my productivity but more importantly, to help me improve my writing habits. This blog post, for example, will be logged as an activity so that I can track how often I blog and how long it takes me to write.

Seize the day! Tomorrow may throw you a curve ball but take each available moment and make it count. Having a log will help you count that moment!

The more we get together, the happier we’ll be

The UK-style phd program can lead to an isolating experience with the phd student engaged in solo acts of reading and writing. Having study groups may fill that lonely gap, but how can this be done?

Oh, the more we get together,
Together, together,
Oh, the more we get together,
The happier we’ll be.

For your friends are my friends,
And my friends are your friends.
Oh, the more we get together,
The happier we’ll be!

Being isolated is a common perception of phd studies and it is not an exaggerated one. The UK-style phd program as it is here in New Zealand, does not have any formally taught courses as you would expect in the first two years in a US doctoral program. Learning about theories, concepts, and various other topics is primarily through copious amount of reading. And how does one read? Well, alone, as I’ve experienced. How often would other phd students you personally know be reading the same book or article or even related articles? Not often at all! And if you did find them, would they be interested in discussing the readings? Would they be forthcoming in their interpretations and application of what they’ve read? Of course I would like the answers to those questions to be a resounding yes but I’ve yet to find like-minded individuals who are in the same stage as I am, exploring the same area as I am, to be able to test this notion of study group.

meeting_group

I wonder if self-formed study groups would materialise in the absence of taught classes. I wonder if serendipity would link the right people at the right time to be in the right mood to learn together. I wonder if others feel the same way I do about how learning together is better than learning alone, that two heads are better than one, and that the sociocultural theory of learning is a power in theory as it is in practice.

My Master of Arts in Teaching experience at USC was premised on sociocultural learning. Every course had a compulsory study group component which required members to jointly prepare and present on topics, work on assignments, and in several instances, record the online video conferencing meetings that the group had and send the link to the professor. And we knew the professors watched them because some of them made references to them during our lectures! Peer evaluation among study group members was common and it was important to choose members who had similar levels of commitment toward their studies.

My schooling experience had little group work and the majority of assignments were individually carried out and graded by the teacher. Study groups comprised friends you studied with before exams. So having my Masters program hinged on the success of my study groups was at first disconcerting, but later as I became more comfortable with the idea, and more importantly, had found a group of dependable and hardworking classmates to form groups with, I realised how much less I would have learnt had I not been in study groups.

Four months into my phd studies, I’m reading much more than I ever have, but I wonder if I’m learning just as much. Writing helps to clarify my thinking, chatting with others helps with bits of thinking here and there, but I’m missing the focused and purposeful discussions around common topics from the study group experience I had.

I’ve heard that there are groups at the Faculty of Education that meet monthly to discuss various topics and I’d be keen to find out more. But I think more formally organised groups with specific goals, e.g. jointly present on qualitative methods, would generate high quality discussion and academic work that could benefit the faculty’s phd community.

The phd may appear to be a singular endeavour but it is really the harnessing of multiple resources and the support of others that enable this intellectual pursuit to see fruition.

Getting started, getting somewhere

I’m into the fourth month of my Phd journey. Here’s what it’s been like:

1st month – December 2014

The first month was a slow month since it was December and the university was heading towards the semester break. I got my office space set up, had a few initial meetings with my supervisors, and was reading around the various topics related to my proposal.

It was a quiet month with few people in the office but I did manage to meet a fellow Singaporean Phd student (the only Singaporean I know in the Faculty of Education), attend an end-of-year social gathering with other Education Phd students, and get to know staff at the faculty.

The holiday came soon enough and I was not about to return to a ghost town for any sort of scholarly work. So I borrowed a few books to read over the break and enjoy the time with my family. It was also a good break from the stress of having just arrived and settling in the kids, getting to know people and learning how to run a household (e.g. school lunches, recycling waste, tending to the garden).

I started baking (muffins and cookies), made dishes (mac n cheese, roast chicken) and was amazed how an oven and recipes can turn the kitchen klutz into, well, not a kitchen goddess (nowhere near there), but at least a regular baker and an occasional cook for now.

2nd month – January 2015

It was timely that a workshop on organising and writing a literature review took place once the university re-opened, giving me a framework to wort out the many ideas that was starting to make my mind map look like a scary multiple-legged monster.

The workshop also gave me the opportunity to meet fellow Phd students start to make connections with them. It was serendipitous that I sat next to an Icelandic student (Bryndis G.) who was also seated next to me at my office, but only now met her since she wasn’t usually at the office. Our proximity meant that I had more conversations with her than others and through our chatting, we realised we had similar experiences of being recent arrivals and still trying to find our way around.

It was this encounter that led us to set up a Facebook group for the Phd Students at the Faculty of Education (yes, that’s the name of the group and that’s who it’s for) to try to connect the various people who were scattered between offices and homes. We also decided to have a regular mid-week lunch gathering at the common room, hoping it would be a space to meet fellow students.

Study wise, I was still meandering around ideas and my supervisors highlighted how I had veered away from the main ideas that were coming out of meetings and going off on a tangent on relatively less important things. I was a bit upset with myself for letting myself get into this but was grateful that others saw my blind spots.

3rd month – February 2015

I spend the first two weeks working on a literature review on the topic of brokering which took me to unfamiliar territory. I read works from anthropology, sociology, bilingual education, health care in immigrant communities and knowledge brokering of health care related research. It was a whirlwind tour and I wanted to satisfy my need to know how brokering has been conceptualised in different areas, and in doing so, find a concept that would fit my research focus on international students.

At the end of that exercise, I had a very long essay and wished I had spent more time on other areas but it was a good exercise to flex my mental capabilities for understanding a diverse range of disciplines and approaches. I’m not sure if I want to do that again, because a large part of what I found out was going to be immediately relevant or relevant at all, and I realise I still had to expand on the relevant areas that were there. But had I not been set the task, I would not have done it so extensively.

Having completed a mentally draining task, I felt free to engage in socialising and the next day after I submitted my work to my supervisors, I went round the offices to invite Phd students to the Wednesday lunch gathering (which in the past weeks were quiet with just me and Bryndis having lunch). It also happened that Bryndis decided to print out invitations to the lunch and place it on people’s desks. So it was another serendipitous coincidence and that led to a record turnout of nine students. Yay!

It was also a relief that the deadline for the lit review was just before the Chinese New Year so I could celebrate it with my family and friends (a Malaysian couple came over to our place for reunion dinner) without the weight on my shoulders. Chinese New Year is not a big deal in Hamilton, so I did feel a little homesick for the usual festivities and food (and lots and lots of food) that are common back home. But I was blessed with a container of homemade Chinese New Year goodies from my Singaporean friend’s wife. That certainly added colour and taste to our dining table!

4th month – March 2014

This month, the first semester of the year started and so the campus began to come to life. Also, the Doctoral Writing Conversations (regular academic writing support meetings) started and that meant connecting with phd students from other faculties and getting serious tips on serious writing! We also had a morning tea organised by the postgrad department at the faculty and that was a great opportunity to meet others. Also enjoyed the muffins and crackers with cheese and hummus!

Personal life wise, I signed up for the uni gym membership and having paid $385 for the year, I’m motivated to visit the gym at least once a week. So far I’m doing a class called Express Train which lasts just 30 minutes and takes us through the machines for a muscle straining workout!

Just yesterday, I completed another lit review, this time for my research proposal, and I think it is more focused and my research ideas are beginning to take shape. It is the writing, the painstaking work of writing, reading, thinking, over and over again, that produce claims and argument. Not reading around and thinking about things, but serious writing!

Also yesterday, while having lunch with Bryndis, that we talked about getting involved with the Postgraduate Student Association and hope to start a Faculty of Education chapter, or at least, start organising, and getting people involved in organising, study groups, expert presentations, social events for phd students at the faculty.

We also talked about documenting our phd journey through blogging and encouraged each other to get back to what we set out to do in the first place, that is, to blog! (Bryndis blogs as the Running Researcher.) And that is why I am writing this post today, the result of yet another serendipitous encounter.

Learning points

A quarter of the year has passed and there has been ups and downs in my personal / family life and academic life. A few things I have learnt along the way:

  • Talking about issues with others helps to relieve the load.
  • Making time for myself and my family is just as important as making time to think and write.
  • I am not a lean, mean, writing machine. It is important to include in my phd life, connecting with others, discussing ideas not related to my research, and of course, keeping fit!
  • Finding like-minded peers to solve problems is more fruitful than having solutions handed to you on a silver platter. (No silver platters around here in New Zealand, I assure you!). It forces you to think collectively and for the group.
  • I need to set aside time to blog, otherwise, it will just not get done. And having a fellow academic blogger sit next to me is a great encouragement!
  • Routine works for me. I’ve just sorted out a routine that takes me from studying to working out to having coffee with friends. Blocking out time to do things makes things happen! But also be prepared for plans to awry, then get over it, and carry on!