Nonfiction and fiction about academic life

My student, Maciej Kos, found this syllabus for a course on academic work. It contains a pretty good listing of fiction and non-fiction books about academic life. (I would add to the list of novels Old Scores by Nicholas Delbanco, and several of the novels of Rebecca Goldstein, such as The Mind-Body Problem.) I have been giving a copy of James Lang’s memoir Life on the Tenure Track to new junior faculty.
Blanchette, “Academic Work”, Information Studies 298-C, Winter 2010, UCLA

Simple schematic for a good talk

My colleague John King sent me the diagram below. It is an easy-to-remember schematic for how to organize a talk. Start with some context (we often say “the motivation”), drilling down until you get to your specific problem, then describe in detail your contribution in solving this problem. Finish by heading back up to the surface: return to the context, reminding your audience of the connection between your problem and the broader context, this time adding the implications of what you have discovered for the broader context. This would naturally lead into a description of your ongoing research programme on this topic, if you have one. (I advocate *against* a “future work” slide unless you are actually committed too, and probably already engaged in, the future work.)

I like this, but, at least for a seminar talk (50-80 minutes rather than the 12-18 typical at many conferences), I would precede the big donut with a smaller semi-donut, which is the left half of the big donut in miniature. That is, spend the first minute (and maybe one slide) quickly setting the scene (the context), then briefly but clearly introduce the problem you tackle, state your results (without demonstrating or supporting them, then sum up your contribution. After that brief intro, get with the more detailed context – contribution – context program.
This is very similar to the classic storytelling exposition I’ve elsewhere advocated. As in a typical (not post-modern) novel or movie, immediately set the scene, identify the protagonist and the conflict he or she faces. In stories the resolution (results) often aren’t broadcast up front (though they may be foreshadowed), to build suspense. Sometimes that kind of suspense-building works in a scholarly talk, but often giving a sneak peak at the results is helpful / necessary in motivating the audience to be interested in what comes.

Guide for junior academic job seekers

The American Economic Association publishes, in Job Openings for Economists, a long (82 page!) guide and advice manual for young scholars seeking academic jobs. Though some of it is specific to the field of economics, much of it is generic. Lots of good advice in here.
(This is updated and republished annually, I believe, in the October issue of JOE, which is available online.)

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.)

“Don’t, please, please, for God’s sake, don’t.”

Deirdre McCloskey is an economic historian and rhetoritician at the University of Illinois – Chicago. She has written extensively on the rhetoric of economics and social sciences. One of her gems is a short (of course!) book called Economical Writing (2nd ed., 2000). There are a number of helpful books that guide and advise scholars on writing; this is my favorite.
One of Deirdre’s lessons I’ve embraced almost as much as William Strunk’s “Form the possessive singular of nouns with ‘s” is her condemnation of the “table of contents paragraph” (known by others as the “roadmap” paragraph):

Still another peice of boilerplate, and one which kills the momentum of most papers in economics on the second page, is the table-of-contents paragraph: “The outline of this papers is as follows” Don’t, please, please, for God’s sake, don’t. Nine out of ten readers skip to the substance, if they can find it. The few who pause on the paragraph are wasting their time. They can’t understand the paragraph until, like they author, they have read the paper, at which point they don’t need it. Usually the table-of-contents paragraph has been written with no particular audience in mind, least of all the audience of first-time readers of the paper. Even when done well it lacks a purpose. You will practically never see it in good writing, unless inserted by an editor who doesn’t know good writing. Weak writers defend it as a “roadmap.” They got the idea from Miss Jones: “Tell the reader what you’re going to say. Say it. Say that you’ve said it.” It’s exceptionally bad advice, and the person who made up this memorable phrasing of it is burning right now in Hell.” (p. 37)

Online great lectures

In this post about learning to become a great lecturer, Zaid Alsagoff posts a long list of online lectures that he thinks are outstanding, many by luminaries. He also provides an extensive list of links to online lecture resources, for many universities.
Somewhat surprisingly, his own article, for someone pursuing a PhD and wanting to “rid the world of crappy lectures”, is pretty dreadful. But this extensive link collection is useful.