Awhile back, I posted about positive-to-negative ratios in meetings, and how the ideal ratio in meetings between positive and negative comments is at least 3 to 1. Danuta McCall helpfully posted a link to the original research (my information came from an interview Barbara Fredrickson did with The Sun).

My goal for graduate school has always been to enjoy the experience. At times, that has seemed impossible–even laughable. However, Fredrickson & Losada say that even fleeting positive emotions can accrue over time, giving one a storehouse of positivity that can:

  1. widen the scope of attention
  2. facilitate flexibility and a broader range of thoughts & responses
  3. increase intuition & creativity
  4. promote adaptability to new situations
  5. increase immune system functioning
  6. promote resilience to adversity
  7. reduce inflammatory responses to stress

You don’t have to be happy every moment to get these benefits–brief positive emotions help you in the present but also the future. This is partly because positive emotions trigger more positive emotions.

Let’s go back to #2 for a moment: positive people are less predictable, which indicates a greater ability to come up with original thought and meaningful insight. (Incidentally, positive people have better marriages, too, precisely because they are less predictable.)

Interestingly, there is an upper limit to how positive one should be. At a positive-to-negative ratio of 11.6 to 1, flourishing decreases. Intuitively, this makes sense to me: people who are incessantly cheery often seem fake or just ignorant. Indeed, the research shows that positivity perceived as fake is basically the same as negativity.  And you can imagine how hard it would be to learn in an environment where you were never criticized.

The Future Mister Doctor is my role model for positivity: he has a great capacity for gratitude, confidence in his accomplishments, and a tendency to dwell on the positive in conversations. Work colleagues of his frequently gush about all the wonderful things he’s told them about me. In contrast, my friends know about the Future Mister Doctor’s hot temper, his chronic lateness, etc. Indeed, during marriage preparation workshops we discovered that he was, in a sense, in a better relationship than I was. But more importantly for the purposes of productivity, the Future Mister Doctor works long hours, has a huge number of meetings and social interactions per day, and yet succeeds because he is  what he calls “actionable”–he gets his clients results. Not only that, but he has liked every job he’s ever had.

In a way, I don’t want to praise the Future Mister Doctor too much, because I don’t think he works at being positive. For whatever reason (nature/nurture), it comes easily to him. But I do think it’s possible for the more chronically negative person to build up their stores of positivity–exercising to release endorphins, keeping a “gratitude diary” of good things in one’s life, saying small prayers of thanksgiving, wearing ultra-soft socks, etc.

Productivity Porn

Is that what I write? I am not a huge fan of the phrase, but it did get my attention. And I do like reading about productivity. So does Marc Andreesen, and here are his productivity tips:

Pmarca’s Guide to Personal Productivity


I was recently discussing with the Future Doctor Anderson what has been working for her lately in terms of daycare. Her daughter is two years old now, and so she’s had time to do some experimenting with her schedule. Here’s what’s working for her right now:

  1. She really likes her daycare provider. The peace of mind that comes from knowing her child is *happy* to be spending time at daycare really helps her make the most of her child-free time.
  2. The daycare is located outside of her home. This is a big one, and as a former baby-sitter I can verify it. If someone else is taking care of your kid, but they can walk through your door at any moment to ask you a question, or your kid gets mad because she knows you’re ignoring her, or you can hear your child crying . . . it’s pretty hard to concentrate. Heck, I can hardly tolerate the Future Mister Doctor within 50 feet of me when I’m trying to dissertate.
  3. She gets up earlier than her child to get some quiet time first thing in the day. According to the Future Doctor Anderson, she is more focused while it’s quiet and her brain is fresh. Not only that, but during her “Mom” time, she feels calmer and more relaxed knowing that she has already accomplished something on the dissertation already that day.

Research & Revision

I just got out of a DSG meeting with the Future Doctor Anderson. We were discussing how we both dread doing research on a chapter now that we’re in the dissertation-revision stage. It’s discouraging to “go back” to reading after one’s been writing a lot.

Looking back on my most recent chapter revision, though, I had to admit that I did almost no unnecessary research for that draft. Unlike the first draft, where there are understandably a lot of dead ends, and one spends time writing many pages that are later cut–in a late revision, one spots relevant material almost immediately.  Research is so much easier once there’s a draft or two already completed.

I enjoyed researching for my chapters, but the process took a long time. The research I have to do to revise my next chapter is touch-up research: just a few little spots need filling in. I don’t have to scrape off all the old paint and start over with primer.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

I’m serious. Is there anything more glorious than a professor? Forget about his molding the minds, the future of a nation–a dubious assertion; there’s little you can do when they tend to emerge from the womb predestined for Grant Theft Auto Vice City. No. What I mean is, a professor is the only person on earth with the power to put a veritable frame around life–not the whole thing, God no–simply a fragment of it, a small wedge. He organizes the unorganizable. Nimbly partitions it into modern and postmodern, renaissance, baroque, primitivism, imperialism and so on. Splice that up with Research Papers, Vacation, Midterms. All that order–simply divine. The symmetry of a semester course. Consider the words themselves: the seminar, the tutorial, the advanced whatever workshop accessible only to seniors, to graduate fellows, to doctoral candidates, the practicum–what a marvelous word: practicum! You think me crazy. Consider a Kandinsky. Utterly muddled, put a frame around it, voila–looks rather quaint above the fireplace. And so it is with the curriculum. That celestial, sweet set of instructions, culminating in the scary wonder of the Final Exam. And what is the Final Exam? A test of one’s deepest understanding of giant concepts.  No wonder so many adults long to return to university, to all those deadlines–ahhh, that structure! Scaffolding to which we may cling! Even if it is arbitrary, without it, we’re lost, wholly incapable of separating the Romantic from the Victorian in our sad, bewildering lives . . .

The above excerpt is from the delightful coming-of-age/who-dunnit novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl (pages 11-12). The table of contents actually says “Core Curriculum” and is organized like a syllabus. This novel has as many references as any good work of scholarship, but unlike a good work of scholarships, they inspire laughter. Plus, how awesome is the title?

Chipped Shoulder

I got an e-mail from my friend L. that said, “I realized I have been walking around with a chip on my shoulder, angry and mad that I ‘have to finish’ my dissertation.”

Oh, I know that feeling! It’s so easy to think that you’re only going forward because you’re trapped, or you’ve gone too far to turn back. It can start to seem like there’s no way out but through. That fate or God or the economy or your student loans won’t let you out of grad school.

But, as L. went on to say, it’s possible to let that anger go. To realize that you are finishing, ultimately, because you want to.  Maybe you don’t want to finish all of the time, with every fiber of your being. But you are the one who is making yourself work–not because you’re a masochist but because you want it.

Experiment Results Part 2

The other half of my experiment, exercising five days a week, was a brilliant success.

I don’t look dramatically different, and I’m still basically a weakling, but I feel physically and mentally much better.  I barely took any naps for the whole month, so I know I had more energy. I didn’t cry at all, about anything — except in yoga class, which I consider to be cathartic and healthy. In general, I was less anxious and felt more positive about the state of my life.

I should say feel, because I have continued to exercise five days a week beyond my public commitment to do so. I think this is working for me because:

  1. I didn’t specify a type of exercise or duration, so if I’m really squeezed for time, I can do push-ups and sit-ups for fifteen minutes.
  2. It pushes me to move beyond my much-loved story-time (TV, books, movies) for recreation. The Future Mister Doctor and I took a memorable walk last weekend during which we outlined our plan to get rich, make an awesome charity portfolio, and lend our expertise to our community. The conversation was a vivid reminder of why we got married in the first place, and–though I won’t belittle the joy we get from watching football together–it was a needed injection of deeper, bigger-picture connection into our relationship.
  3. Since exercise is a “must-do”–I have more structure in my day. If I know I need to go to yoga at 5pm, it can get me moving on the dissertation because I have a deadline.

Experiment Results Part 1

Well, my month of exercising and writing my dissertation 5 days a week is up–in fact, I finished on September 13.

In the sense that I dissertated for 42 hours in a month, the experiment was a success. Even though I knew it was an arbitrary goal, I held on to a sense of urgency and convinced myself that it was important to finish at all costs.

But that sense of urgency wasn’t always my friend. There were three weekdays that I did not work–and not because I was lazy or unmotivated. They were days when I had a lot of time-sensitive work to do for my part-time job. And once I missed a day, it was very hard for me to make it up. I was truly working as hard as I could. During the second, third, and fourth weekends of the month, I had an underlying sense of stress because I knew I had days to make up, but I wasn’t able to alleviate any of it until the very end of my experiment.

Was it worth it? I don’t think so. I worked hard all month–I deserved peaceful weekends. Instead, the dissertating I did on the weekends felt like a punishment.

Also, remember how I judged myself on hours spent? That was a bad idea too. I was acutely aware, every day, of the minutes ticking by–I practically jumped out of my chair at the two-hour mark.

Joan Bolker, as usual, is right about everything. It’s far better to have a goal for the day, and reward yourself for completing it instead of punishing yourself for not completing it. The risk of setting a goal for the day is that it will take too long or too short of time to constitute a good day’s work, and for me, it is harder to figure out a reasonable goal during the revision process. Still, the task-related goal gives a better sense of purpose than the time-logged one.

I want to keep the consistency that I developed over the month. So I’ve decided to try a reward-based system. If I work five days a week, I get to buy a new-old romance novel from the used book store. I think this is brilliant for a few reasons:

  1. It facilitates happy, relaxed weekends.
  2. My reward is not expensive–only a few dollars per week.
  3. I am not in the habit of buying pleasure-reading books for myself, so I don’t think it will be difficult for me to refrain from buying books when  I haven’t met my goal.
  4. I can gloat over the fact that I haven’t become snotty about books just because I’m about to be a doctor of literature.

On the flip side, if I don’t meet my goal, it won’t have an effect on the next week of work. I can still take the weekend to recuperate and start all over on Monday. The “you’ve been bad, and now you have to be extra good to make up for it” philosophy doesn’t work in child rearing, dieting, dog-training, or dissertating.

Vivid, Enjoyable Prose

Reading Gail A. Hornstein’s Chronicle Review article, “Prune that Prose: Learning to Write for Readers Beyond Acadme,” made me sad.

I wanted, as Hornstein suggests, for someone to say about my dissertation “It was riveting.” Can you imagine? Riveting? I have read precious, precious few books in grad school that I would call riveting. She asserts that simplicity can be a virtue in academic writing, rejecting the assumption that complex sentences and multi-syllabic words are needed to express smart ideas.

Hornstein also quotes our old friend Gerald Graff as saying “don’t kid yourself. If you could not explain it to your parents or your most mediocre student, the chances are you don’t understand it yourself.”

Shortly after reading this article, I got an e-mail from an advisor asking for “more footnotes” in a chapter draft. I don’t want to distort his advice, so let me say that what he really is asking for is more conversation with other scholars. I don’t think conversing/referencing other scholars necessarily prevents my work from being riveting.

But recent versions of the diss that have been footnote-heavy and employed more jargon have been received much better by my committee. When non-academic people ask me what I’m writing about, I get a lump in my throat. I really wanted to write a dissertation with no footnotes and no “vocabulary.” I worry that all the changes I’ve made are narrowing my potential audience further and further.

And yet, and yet, this draft of the dissertation is definitely better than it was before. How much did I need those footnotes and that vocabulary to form my ideas? And, now that I’ve improved the draft, can I take the jargon out without weakening it?


I’ve been impressed with Gerald Graff before (see here and here). His 2008 Presidential Address to the MLA also contains some interesting food for thought (PMLA Volume 124, # 3, May 2009 pgs. 727-743).

Graff says that we professors “still think of teaching in ways that are narrowly private and individualistic, as something we do in isolated classrooms while knowing little about what our colleagues are doing in the next classroom or the next building.” I know that feeling of isolation well. I can teach exactly what I think is appropriate, but I have no way of knowing how well the class is jiving with the students’ other courses.

Graff argues that “there is reason to think that the quality of education students receive is determined as much by the curriculum’s shape as by its content.” Intuitively, this seems true to me, because the best part of my college education was a well-shaped humanities, social science, and physical science curriculum called Core. The Core professors designed the program in dialogue with one another. The lectures were given by about a dozen different faculty members and guest lecturers per semester, and all the professors of the program attended the lectures. They decided as a group which texts to include on the syllabi. Students were encouraged to connect the material of one course to that of another.

When a student complains to me about the different expectations of different teachers, I see the student’s complaint as a lack of ability to think critically, and occasionally grumble about Texas public high schools. However, as Graff points out, the students who can’t understand how to handle conflicting ideas taught in different courses need to be educated the most; they are also the students most harmed by the isolationist approach to teaching.