Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Research: It needs to be an Hourly job

As I see it, there are 3 main ways that jobs can pay money: by the Hour, by the Task, and Salaried. I should note that some Salaried jobs are really Hourly jobs in disguise…if you are required to keep track of the hours you work, or make up for time you missed, then it’s an Hourly job. If you get paid overtime for working extra, it’s an Hourly job. Since working on a dissertation doesn’t pay money (it actually costs money), I am allowed to choose whether I want to think of it as Hourly, by-the-Task or Salaried.

By-the-Task sounds like a good idea, but since I have yet to finish a single dissertation-related Task, I am not optimistic about this approach. Even if I break down the big Tasks into small pieces that can theoretically be done in a day, I know that frequently they will take much longer than I expect (everything does!), and I will give up in despair. If I can’t even finish my single Task of the day, why should I work on research at all?

Thinking of the dissertation as a Salaried job is an even worse idea. With a Salaried job, all I have to do is pretend to work. I’m neither required to complete certain Tasks, nor work a fixed number of Hours. So I could potentially pretend to work on my dissertation for years at a time, continuing to receive my paycheck (remember, it’s negative!), without ever getting any closer to my degree. I must confess that I have done this at times, sometimes for long stretches, but it is definitely a bad plan.

My only hope is to think of my dissertation as an Hourly job, one that requires me to work a certain number of hours each day or week. If I can’t do the scheduled hours one day, I need to make them up later that week. (I think this is called comp time, but I’m not sure, since I have almost no experience with Hourly full-time jobs.) If my paying job were an Hourly job, I would be very motivated to work the required number of hours, because I would know that if did not do so, I would get fired.

Unfortunately, the Hourly research job does not pay money, which means I will have to trick myself into meeting the Hourly requirements. I also (fortunately or unfortunately, not sure which) am unlikely to get fired from the Hourly research job, at least not for a couple more years when I reach the 10-year limit on doctoral studies. Texas A&M would be silly to fire me, as I am a reliable source of income for the university. I cheerfully pay my tuition each semester, while utilizing a very small portion of the resources which my fees support. I am probably a net taker when it comes to the Library Use Fee ($26.45), and perhaps eventually the University Writing Center Fee ($8), but I am definitely a net contributor to the Instructional Equipment Enhancement, the Transportation System, the Recreational Sports System, the Student Center Complex, Student Recreation Center, and the Career Center, for which I pay fees of $75, $72.50, $70, $101.92, $100, and $6.75, respectively, without using them at all. I pay the same $275 for parking as full-time students who are on campus every day, even though I live 70 miles away and come to campus only occasionally. Why on earth would A&M have a 10-year limit? They should be trying to keep me there forever! Of course all this sounds suspiciously like whining, which I honestly did not intend, and is completely off the point. Back to my musings on Hourly jobs….

Another problem is that I have very rarely had Hourly jobs, so I am not used to this. Being required to work a certain number of hours each week is a foreign concept to me. My newspaper-throwing job, which I held for 6 years, was a pay-by-the-Task job: I received a fixed number of pennies for each newspaper I delivered. Thus all my energy was directed into finding ways to shave a few seconds off my total paper-delivery time. Besides continually re-mapping my route, I was always trying creative new schemes, such as hauling my paper bundles to the apartments in advance, or retrofitting giant trash cans with high-tech wheels to withstand the wear and tear of hundreds of 6-pound big-city Sunday newspapers. Except for a select few who copied my schemes, most of my fellow paper carriers thought I was insane, and were satisfied to simply deliver their papers the same old way year after year, with never a thought of improvement. I did track my Hours, as one would with an Hourly job, but only so that I could track changes in my pay rate per hour and per ton of papers delivered.

In a way, the research job is a by-the-Task job, as my only required Task is to write one dissertation—when the Task is finished, I will receive a degree. But somehow having one giant Task that must be done in small pieces over a hundreds of days is far more intimidating than having hundreds of little Tasks (like newspapers) that must be done in one day.

In a way, my current paid job is a by-the-Task job, because I am required to teach a certain number of classes each semester. However, it is not a true by-the-Task job like the newspapers, because the goal in teaching classes is not to get the classes taught with a minimal amount of time and effort each week. Can you imagine a student ever saying, “Wow, that was a wonderful class! That professor did almost nothing the whole semester, what an efficient job of teaching!” For every class taught, I have probably invested more time than just the minimum to get by, but far less than I should. As a new colleague shared with me just today, “Class preparation will take as much time as you let it”. Since no one really knows how much time is “enough” when it comes to preparing a class, I really don’t know if I’ve done “enough”. Since “enough” is not well-defined, teaching is a Salaried job, not a true by-the-Task job. It is definitely not an Hourly job, as I don’t have to track my hours, or make up for days when I work fewer hours than usual, and I don’t get paid overtime. Part of the problem with making research an Hourly job is my continual uncertainty about how much is “enough” time to spend on the Salaried teaching job. I do not want to shortchange my students—it’s not their fault they happened to get an instructor who is working on a dissertation!

The issue is balance…balancing the needs of job, school, and family, balancing short-term goals versus long-term goals, and so on, and becoming at peace with the fact that not everything will be done optimally. Doing one thing optimally usually means doing another sub-optimally, and that’s okay, as long as we are optimizing the most important thing for that time. We must make careful choices, counting the cost of each choice, and praying continually for wisdom, from him who gives it generously and without reproach (James 1:5). So, well-wishing friends, let’s all remind one another that it’s okay for some things to be done imperfectly, as long as those things are chosen with wisdom. And let's be patient with one another, realizing another person's priority may not coincide with our own.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Time-Wasting Experimental Blog Post

Why on earth would I spend two hours trying to fix my blog so the archives show on the side where they belong, instead of at the bottom where no one can find them? I have no idea. I don't know why I should care about this, but I do. It's not as if I expect anyone to read this blog--it was created purely as a motivational tool for myself, so that I could practice writing and hopefully learn to enjoy it.

So, the purpose of this particular post is so that I can see whether Blogger simply didn't like my previous entry, about progress and bad days, or whether it doesn't like anything I write. Whatever happens, no matter how badly my page is messed up, I will force myself to abandon, at least for this evening, the silly task of trying to fix my unread blog.

Instead, I will watch the first lesson from the Remedial Swimming video I just received from eBay, then go to the gym to try it out. I can go play guilt-free, because I already kept my writing appointment for the day!!

The reason I spent over 2 hours trying to fix a blog no one reads is that I am too dumb, proud, or something, to scroll through the Blogger help forums to see if anyone else has ever had the same problem. Once I did that, I discovered the culprit was a stray </div>. Once it was obliterated, not only did my archives come running back home, but all the links, stubbornly unclickable in Firefox, magically came to life. If my time-wasting resulted in a lesson learned, then it wasn't totally wasted...hopefully I learned my lesson. Here, I got two lessons for the price of one: a Remedial HTML lesson, and a Read the Tech Help lesson. Thank you, Blogger techies!

Progress = Redefining Bad Days

After a couple weeks of excellent writing progress, I’ve fizzled…or at least, my momentum has lessened. When things were going well, I could easily spend at least a couple consecutive hours writing, generating and editing quite a few paragraphs, enjoying it at least somewhat, and feeling pretty good about what I’d written. The last week or so, the paragraphs have been painful to come by. Sometimes I have found myself watching the clock, in hopes that the slow-moving writing minutes would slide by a little more quickly.

The beginning of my good writing stretch coincided with my resolution to work on my dissertation four hours each day (it is a full-time job, after all!). Some of the bad writing days occurred when, due to circumstance or poor planning, I did not get in my 4 hours, or I waited until 10:00 p.m. to start, resulting in an even more screwed-up sleep schedule than usual and decreasing the probability of doing well the next day.

However, this rough writing patch has served to point out just how far I have really come. My last few bad writing days have each still resulted in over an hour of actual writing!! Wow! A few months ago, a lousy writing day was actually a no-writing day, surrounded on either side by 7 other no-writing days. And a lousy dissertation day, instead of being a day in which all I do is read a couple articles or organize my references, was a hiding-from-my-dissertation day in which I made no progress at all. (Actually, I’m convinced that a no-dissertation-work day is actually a negative-progress day…if I stay away from it for even a day, I lose touch with my train of thought and plans for my study, and I have to go backwards when I restart.)

We recently spent a weekend in Corpus Christi for a mini-vacation (yes, I worked on my dissertation and maintained my writing streak in the hotel room). One afternoon, I went for a run on the seawall jogging trail. Expecting to get in 5 miles, I found myself totally wiped out after less than 2. I was hot and miserable, and the whole thing just felt like it was uphill (it wasn’t, flat as a pancake). I started taking walk breaks at 2 miles, and whenever I started running again, it didn’t last long. Eventually I gave it up and walked back to the hotel, feeling pretty unhappy about my lack of discipline, and having serious second thoughts about letting Dave Mows Grass talk me into the Winslow Half-Marathon next month. According to the technology genie on my wrist, I went 4 miles before turning it off, but I’m sure I only ran 3 of those.

The more I thought about it, the less discouraged I became. Hey, I just ran three-fourths of a 4-mile stretch of sun-baked concrete, no shade, at 95ºF, and who-knows-how-high humidity. Three years ago, would I have ever dreamed I could do such a thing? Heck, I couldn’t run to the end of the block! So this bad day, far from being cause for hopelessness, is actually a miraculous victory.

When I have a really bad day, whether it involves writing, running, losing my temper, or whatever, I need to remember where I started. If the current bad day looks better than the good days once looked, then I’m on the right track. (I’m sure the reverse is also true…if the current good days look worse than the bad days used to look, something probably needs to change.)

One more thing: guess what happened the very next day after the aborted run on the seawall? Scott dropped me off at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, and I ran 11 miles back to the hotel! And enjoyed most of it!

In spite of a few bad writing days, my writing streak now numbers 31 days, exactly 15.5 times longer than my previous longest writing streak. And while today was not a great day dissertation-wise, as I spent a good chunk of it being a lazy bum, I still got in over an hour of productive writing. Even better, I didn’t mind doing it, and quit while I still had some momentum. Hopefully that will carry over into tomorrow’s session.

So, well-wishing friends, remember that we all need to think long-term trajectory, not short-term current state. If we catch each other wanting to give up because of a bad day, or a bad week, let’s remind each other just how far we’ve come! (Of course, sometimes a well-placed kick in the rear is in order instead, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

My Theory of Dissertation Momentum

A couple weeks ago, I was really excited about my progress. I was consistently working 4-6 hours each day, including at least a couple hours of writing, and mostly enjoying it. I actually felt there was hope for me as an academic writer. Then, everything slowed down. It became hard to write even a paragraph. I’ve been keeping at it, and have been writing each day, but it isn’t fun lately, and I’m feeling frustrated. So, instead of despairing, I reminded myself that this entire dissertation journey is an experiment, with n = 1, and I went about the task of analysis.

In part, I attribute my decreased writing momentum to the fact that I’m working on a different section of my paper, one I enjoy less. I have devised a theoretical model of how the process will work: for each section, I’ll struggle at the beginning, just getting it organized and off the ground. Then hopefully, I’ll get some momentum and go faster. Then I’ll run out of steam on that part and it will go slow again (by the time I got done writing about propensity scores, I was sick and tired of writing about statistical analysis, and so found it very difficult to dredge up enthusiasm to explain my logistic regression and chi-squared procedures.) It’s like pushing off from the wall in swimming or pushing a sled across the snow—you start from a standstill, then get some momentum and pick up speed, then the momentum dies and you have to start over. Only time will tell if my model is supported by actual practice, but it sure makes sense!

If I think of my dissertation rate of progress as a function of time, there is no reason to expect it to be constant. There is also no reason to think it will be an increasing function, in which I get better and better, and progress gets faster and faster. So, since I don’t expect an upward trajectory, I shouldn’t get down when I hit an occasional low spot, as long as progress is continuing. I need to learn to distinguish the occasional low spot, which is no cause for alarm, from an actual quitting/fizzling, which would indeed be a bad thing.  

I suspect that writing progress will be a series of peaks and troughs. Screwtape, in his Letters VIII and IX, describes the Law of Undulation and warns junior tempter Wormwood to never let his human suspect that peaks and troughs are a normal part of the spiritual journey (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 1961). According to Screwtape, the Law of Undulation applies to every area of life, including interest in work and affection for friends. He doesn’t specifically mention writing, but I am sure it applies there too. Screwtape says that the best growth (from our perspective and God's, not Screwtape’s!) actually occurs in the troughs. If that’s the case with writing, I should be in great shape!

Friday, August 5, 2011

I’m streaking!!!

I know it’s hard to believe, but this expert writing avoider has now written for at least 30 minutes on 17 consecutive days. At first, I didn’t want to call it a “writing streak” even to myself, much less announce it on a public blog. I don’t believe in jinxes, but I knew how humiliated I would feel if my writing streak fizzled out and died right after I told all my friends about it. Once I cracked the 2-week mark, I started to feel I might be able to keep it up.

I realized that if I were going to track a writing streak, I needed a good definition. It drives me batty when people write about a construct without clearly defining it. I knew there should be a minimum requirement for a writing day to count as part of a streak….five minutes of writing just wouldn’t cut it. The United States Running Streak Association defines a running streak as running “at least one continuous mile each calendar day under one’s own power”, then clarifies some details, including the legality of prosthetic devices and the illegality of crutches and pools. When I read that a running streak doesn’t even count until it reaches a year in length, I was dismayed—I had been pretty proud of my 18 miles across three consecutive running days over the weekend. When I found out they were worthless as a running streak, I decided there was no point trying to add to it and I might as well laze on the couch for a few days.

If there is a United States Writing Streak Association, I didn’t find it. Perhaps it exists, but is just not sufficiently popular to make it to the front of the search pages. Thus I was left to my own devices for a writing streak definition. In keeping with the spirit of the running streak definition, I felt the writing requirement needed to be sufficiently stringent that it would accomplish something worthwhile, yet reasonable and not so demanding as to be unrealistic. Rather arbitrarily, I settled on 30 minutes. If I were trying to maintain a running streak (which I’m not!), it would probably take me about 30 minutes to squeeze in a mile, counting clothes-changing and post-run shower, if I ran out the front door instead of going to a nice running place. Knowing my night-owl tendencies, I opted to define the day as ending whenever I went to bed, regardless of which date is actually on the calendar. Thus if I write at 2:00-2:30 a.m. Thursday morning, that counts as Wednesday writing. The 30 minutes has to be “pretty much continuous” (how’s that for a clear definition?), meaning that it’s okay to pause and scratch my head occasionally, or look up a reference, or to read a bit of an article and then write about it, as long as the primary activity is still writing. If the session morphs into a reading or database-searching session, it now qualifies as non-writing dissertation activity and doesn’t count as part of the writing streak.One more very important note: Only dissertation-related writing counts for the streak or gets put in my writing log. Recreational writing, such as this blog, doesn't count!!

After I officially defined what must occur to add a day to my writing streak, I looked at my writing log, and was disappointed to find out that the first three days of my streak had dropped off. Day 3 was only 28 minutes, so my alleged streak had to start over from 1. I briefly considered changing the definition so I could get my three days back, but thought better of it. Researchers are not allowed to change their hypotheses after the experiment is underway. So what I thought was a 20-day writing streak became a 17-day writing streak. That’s okay. When I created a spreadsheet formula to add a writing streak column to my writing log, guess what I discovered was my previous record for a writing streak?  To my shame, it was 2 days. Yes, a lousy 2 days is the best I had ever managed since I started the writing log a little over a year ago, when I went to my first writing workshop. I knew I had been terribly inconsistent, but I really expected to find some several-day streaks in there.

Oh well, there’s no point in lamenting over the past. All I can do now is go forward. Hopefully the current streak will go for a while. I’m glad I decided to count it as a streak now instead of waiting for a year like the running streak people!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Remedial Swimming

Yes, I still cannot believe it, but I actually enrolled in Remedial Swimming. That is not the official name given to it by the swim/scuba business, but that is what it is. I refuse to call it Developmental Swimming or Transitional Swimming, as if it were a math or English class offered by an institution of higher learning. Such euphemisms have no place in this blog. The only reason I signed up for it is because my friend Yegan (who also teaches developmental math) talked me into it. Once again, I discover I am just like my students—I am going to school simply because my friends are! (Gee, we’re all humans…why shouldn’t we be alike?) Actually, while being able to share lessons with a friend is a nice plus and is the reason I chose this particular summer to learn to swim, it is in fact something I have considered before, because I always wished I could swim, but as with so many other things, I’ve just never gotten around to it.

I have managed (at least mostly) to get over my ego and not feel self-conscious about my total lack of skill in this area. I am even willing to practice in the lap pool at my gym, splashing around the shallow end and coughing up water, while other people gracefully swim lap after lap, or sit on the bench in front of the steam room talking (I’m sure they have more interesting things to talk about than the ineptitude of people in the pool). There is nothing whatsoever wrong with being enrolled in Remedial Swimming, or Remedial Anything (at least that’s what I keep telling myself). Remedial Anything simply means that you did not learn Anything at the time Anything is typically learned, so you have to learn it later. I have known outstanding students, excelling in calculus and above, who began their college careers in developmental math. Every time I teach a developmental math class, I remind myself that I may have a few future rocket engineers in the bunch, who are way smarter at math than me. I wonder if it has ever occurred to my Remedial Swimming instructor that perhaps Yegan or I will be a future Olympic swimming champ?

Yegan started Remedial Swimming at least a couple of weeks before me (talking me into it was a difficult and time-consuming project). She said that she was absolutely terrible at swimming, sank like a rock, and flailed her arms and legs without going anywhere. So I thought I would be ahead of her, because at least I could float on my back and dog-paddle across the short length of the pool. But this apparent head start did me no good whatsoever, because on my first day of class, the instructor didn’t ask me to dog-paddle across the pool or float on my back. She asked me to lay horizontally on the water with my face in it, and kick my legs. On the second lesson, she added arms. I am supposed to stroke through the water with my arms, turning my head to breathe with each stroke, all while continuously kicking my legs and staying horizontal. This is, of course, impossible. I have never even been able to pat my head and rub my stomach at the same time. How could I possibly move my arms one way, my legs another, and my head another, all while laying face-down in a substance that has been known to kill people? As I discovered last night, I cannot even run on a treadmill while watching Xtreme Skateboarding (whenever a skateboarder wipes out at the top of the halfpipe, I step off the side of the treadmill).

Remedial Swimming Lesson #3 is tomorrow. We shall see what it holds. After upping her Remedial Swimming attendance to four times a week, Yegan can now swim halfway across the lap pool without stopping. I am only attending Remedial Swimming once a week, so it may take me until Christmas to be able to swim across the pool. I certainly hope not—I don’t think my ego can take a beating for that long!