Daniel Dennett’s seven tools for thinking

Daniel Dennett is one of the leading philosophers of our generation. Here he offers seven tools for thinking.
One that I thought especially good advice for young scholars was first offered by Anatol Rappaport: how to compose a successful critical commentary:

1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said). Following Rapoport’s rules is always, for me, something of a struggle…

Communicating, not presenting

I gave a “skills workshop” today to our students. I was asked to give a session on presentations. I told them the assignment had it wrong. We need to learn to become better communicators, and stop worry so much about presenting.
The take-home points were two: To communicate better, focus on story telling, and on story perceiving (or the application of standard human cognitive principles the way in which you tell the story). The focus on applying cognitive principles to design is fairly conventional these days, but I think the value of using a story telling approach is overlooked. I don’t mean litter a presentation with personal anecdotes, but to consciously develop and design the entire presentation as a single story, following classic story structure and tropes.
I prepared a handout summarizing the points I made during the session, and adding some additional tips, citations to further reading, and an example of how I develop my stories (before I even open my slide software), following the method described by Cliff Atkinson. (Having a take-away handout is one strong recommendation for an effective presentation.)
I’m also putting up my slides, though the way I use slides to illustrate my talks, the slides are useless without the speaker notes, and even then they are not very effective as a PDF file. They do demonstrate my commitment to using media to illustrate and emphasize and stimulate, rather than as set of on-screen lecture notes. (I only checked the screen momentarily during the talk, to verify synchronization.)
(My bad: The images are all either Creative Commons licensed photos from Flickr, or shots found via Google Images on the open web, but I was behind in my preparation and I neglected to write down sources. Usually I try to be better about giving attribution.)

Effective bulletpoint presentations

I’m generally pretty critical of the traditional bulletpoint style for a presentation. But most people, of course, use them anyway. They might as well do it well.
Here is a presentation by former SI communications manager, Frank DeSanto, that he did for our summer undergraduate research program (REU) last year. He makes a number of good suggestions.

Scattered thoughts on academic job seeking

As I’ve advised my students seeking academic positions last year and this, it has occurred to me that I should jot down the tidbits I offer, at least for my own benefit (I can remind myself what I thought was important next year!)
Here are a few thoughts that came up in a meeting with one student today. I’m not trying to write a clever or even very cogent essay; just gathering some unorganized bits that I remember mentioning.

  1. We all know how important it is to have an “elevator speech” (30 second summary of your current, most interesting research). From the time one is about a year from going on the market, until the time one receives tenure, it is also hugely important to have a “5 minute 5 year” speech. You will be asked many times (in job interviews, at third review, during mentoring sessions, annual performance reviews, and in a research statement for your tenure review package, at least!) what your research plans are for the next five years. Think hard about this, sketch it out, practice it (but don’t sound too rehearsed!). It’s really important!
  2. Be sure some of your time in interviews and other professional advancement meetings is not about you. People — especially those thinking about whether to hire you as a multi-year colleague — want to know if you are interested in them, and their research. Genuinely interested (not just “oh yeah, I thought about that a year ago, and here is what I wrote about it”). More like “What are you working on? Sounds hard: how is it going? What have been the challenges? Results?” Etc.
  3. Prepare a self-evaluation rubric matrix, and fill it out soon after each interview (before the next). That is, come up with a list of evaluation criteria that you think are important (how well did I motivate my research? state the research question? explain my methods? illustrate with compelling and intuitive examples? did I answer questions carefully and gracefully? how good was my 5 minute 5 year speech? etc.), rate yourself on them, with suggestions for improvement, and then use the matrix to prepare for subsequent interviews.
  4. Prepare a job-evaluation rubric matrix: what are the things that are important to you about a potential job? Fill it out shortly after each interview, before the next. For example: dept’s commitment to research / teaching / goofing off; funding support for new faculty; collegiality; frequency of co-authorship among colleagues; teaching load; intellectual / cultural / ethnic diversity of faculty / students; quality of graduate students; average class size; support for teaching assistants; location; urban/rural setting; etc.

LaTeX for new scholars

In my primary research fields (economics and computer science) most scholars use LaTeX for text processing, as in many other fields. It’s a fabulous tool for those who write scholarly text, especially if the work involves formulas, tables or figures.
It is not a WYSIWYG word processor, but a markup language backed by the world’s best automatic typesetting system (the underlying program, TeX, was written by the god of algorithms, Donald Knuth). On most platforms, however, there are integrator programs that do a nice job of providing an editor, a compiler and a previewer, which on today’s fast machines means that you can see the result of what you’re doing almost instantly. The advantages over word processors (like Word) is that the system is built soundly on scientific principles of typesetting so its default output is gorgeous, and it is infinitely configurable and extensible. (I produce essentially all of my papers in LaTeX; go download one of my recent papers to see an example of how it looks.) And the community of professionals who have written packages and extensions for it is huge and dedicated. The learning curve is a bit steep, though the defaults are so fine that to get up and started on basic term papers, etc., does not take long, especially for anyone with the skills and intelligence of a Ph.D. student.
There are a huge number of guides for starting to learn LaTeX. I still find that my first reference is often the original (though revised) by Leslie Lamport. A widely regarded online guide for learners is Nicola Talbot’s LaTeX for Complete Novices. One you get the basics, the two go-to guides I most often consult are by Mittelbach et al., and The Not So Short Guide to LaTeX 2&epsilon by Oetiker et al.
Nicola Talbot has written (still in process but current draft is available online) a new guide, specifically for Ph.D. students: Using LaTeX to Write a Ph.D. Thesis.

Time to write

Over the years, I have frequently seen advice from professional writers that to get writing done, it is best to:

  • set aside some time to write every day, and
  • force yourself to write something during that time.

One recent example was advice my colleague Yan Chen shared from a workshop she attended given by Jayne London, an “academic coach” who advises faculty members on writing. London advised that “Writing in short, regular sessions, e.g., 30-60 minutes every work day,leads to higher productivity than binge writing. Even ten minute sessions are better than binge writing.”
Another academic coach, Mary McKinney, recommends:

The Tolerable Ten
If you’ve been putting something off, it helps to start small. Begin working for just ten minutes on the daunting tasks of your life.
Almost any task, no matter how unpleasant, or anxiety provoking, can be tolerated for a short amount of time.
When you are having difficulty sitting down to work, set yourself the small but significant goal of working for just ten minutes on the project. After you’ve fulfilled that promise to yourself, you are free to either continue working or to stop.

For more of Mary’s thoughts, see “Overcoming Procrastination”.
Yet another coach, who focuses on advising college students, is Cal Newport, who writes the “Study Hacks” blog. In a 15 October 2007 article, he extracted writing advice from interviews (by others) of ten successful non-fiction writers.

  • 9 out of 10 write in the morning, 4 in the afternoon, 3 at night. Only one reported writing all three times.
  • Most set a specific starting time, and for most it is 8.30 am or earlier.