Ubiquitous capture and the ideas file

By Charles Sutton on September 28, 2013

Ubiquitous capture is a great term from Getting Things Done. Like the best ideas from GTD, it is simple, obvious in retrospect, but changes everything. Ubiquitous capture means: When you think of something, you should write it down, right away, in some place where you will check it later.

This is especially good for keeping track of ideas for new research projects. I tend to find ideas for new projects while I’m walking to work, when I’m sitting in a talk, or when I’m working intensely for a paper deadline. Hardly ever can I work on them right away, but I know that I will need them later. So, whenever I have an idea for a new project, I stop whatever I’m doing and write in down in my ideas list. If I have to stop in the street or pause a one-on-one meeting to pull out my phone, well, a benefit of being an academic is that you get to be eccentric.

I keep my ideas list in Evernote, but it doesn’t matter what you use, as long as all your ideas are on one list.

Later, usually many months later, a student will ask me for suggestions for an undergraduate, master’s, or PhD project. I go back to my ideas list and look. I also tag each idea “ug”, “msc”, or “phd”, if I think it would work well for one of those degrees.

I also look back through the list periodically to pull out ones that are especially exciting. Every idea is exciting when you first have it; the ones that are still exciting a week later are the ones to keep.

Of course I use a similar system for blog ideas.

Academic ranks in the US and UK

By Charles Sutton on August 17, 2013

The US and the UK both have a series of ranks for academics, but the names of the job titles are somewhat different.

American universities hire “professors” to do teaching and research. In your first job, you get the title of “assistant professor,” which indicates that you are an independent scholar expected to teach undergraduate and graduate courses and lead an independent research program. After a few years, if you are doing well, you can be promoted to “associate professor.” (Second prize is you’re fired.) Later on, if you are sufficiently eminent, you can finally be promoted to “Professor” (informally referred to as “full professor”). Students don’t usually understand academic ranks, as they have better things to do than to learn these games, and so will generically refer to the “professor” of their course. Professors are addressed with a special title before their name, for example, Prof. Smith.

British universities, on the other hand, hire “academic staff” to do teaching and research. In your first job, you get the title of “lecturer”, which indicates that you are an independent scholar expected to teach undergraduate and postgraduate courses and lead an independent research programme. After a few years, if you are doing well, you can be promoted to “Reader”. Later on, if you are sufficiently eminent, you can finally be promoted to “Professor”. You’ll have to ask someone else to explain what a “Senior Lecturer” is. Students don’t usually understand academic ranks, as they have better things to do than to learn these games, and so will generically refer to the “lecturer” of their course. Academics are addressed with a special title before their name, but this varies according to rank. Lecturers and readers are formally referred to as Dr Smith. Only upon receiving the highest rank of professor are they referred to as Prof Smith.

I have to say that I have a soft spot for the British titles. The American job titles don’t make much sense, as assistant professors aren’t really anyone’s assistants, and associate professors are not required to associate with all that many people. Especially in computer science. The British titles are better overall, except for the fact that “Reader” is a bit silly. Really, now, you ought to have read about your subject *before* you lecture in it, shouldn’t you?

Of course this is all just silly plumage. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that titles are symbols. What does it symbolize in the US that lecturing is the main mode of instruction in the University, but “lecturer” is typically a title reserved for lower-status, teaching-only staff? What does it symbolize in the UK that academic staff of a higher rank go so far as to have a different form of address?

Kitten

By Charles Sutton on August 14, 2013

Imagine that, by some puckish magic, overnight you gained all the strength and skill of a professional acrobat. Yesterday, you’d trip walking down the street; today, you can skip across a tightrope. All your friends are bewildered at your transformation. You’re bewildered, too, most of all because you no longer know your body, how fast you can run, how much you can lift, how high you can jump. This is what it is to be a kitten. Every day our kitten performs all kinds of preposterous stunts—leaping over the other cat in mid stride, using a wooden drying rack as a jungle gym—simply because she doesn’t know that she can’t.

Tags: hobbies, cats

Proposal Writing and the "Fuck Yeah" Factor

By Charles Sutton on July 23, 2013

I have almost recovered from submitting a grant proposal last week. When I was revising it, I realized that there’s actually an easy way to tell how good one of your proposals is.

Nobody’s going to believe your sales pitch unless you do. So, when you finish reading the introduction, do you get excited? Do you feel like pumping your fist and shouting “fuck yeah!” If so, then your proposal has the “fuck yeah” factor.

It’s possible to get a proposal funded without the “fuck yeah” factor, e.g., maybe the competition is weak for that particular call, or maybe for once you draw a set of sympathetic reviewers. But why risk it?

And can you teach me how to talk real slow?

By Charles Sutton on June 25, 2013

A switch flipped in my head at the beginning of my lectures last spring. At that point I had lectured something like 5 full university courses and maybe something like 50 research seminars. I was an experienced speaker.

But I was fast.

You’llnoticethisifyouaskmeaboutsomethingresearchrelatedthatI’llstarttogetexcitedandtalkfaster. In my personal life, I’m much more laid back, but at work, I talk fast. It is what it is, I suppose, but it’s not the best attribute for an effective lecturer.

And then last term something happened. I walked into class and started speaking twice as slow as I ordinarily did. I liked it. I felt that I still had the amount of energy that I should have, just… slower. I don’t know what I did, so I couldn’t tell you how to do it if you wanted to, but now I can turn on the slow mode whenever I want.

Actually, I just thought of a theory about what I might have been doing. In every sentence when you’re speaking, there are few key words that you emphasize. When you get to those—and you should try to anticipate those words before you say them—exaggerate your emphasis and focus on slowing those words down. Then the other words in the sentence, and the length of your pauses, will follow. That might be how I learned to switch, maybe. Let me know if you try this and it works for you.

Another nice thing about speaking slower is that it gives me more time to plan my sentences. This reduces the number of times that I get halfway through the sentence, think of a better way to say the sentence, and start the whole thing over from the beginning—a bad habit of mine.

It’s nice to know that you always have more to learn. This change sure messed up my lecture plans for that term—everything took longer than I expected—but overall a positive change, I think.

Tags: lecturing, advice