The day I got no research done


  1. I unpack my stuff in the SILS liberry [1] and start researching.
  2. The Maternalistical Cassidy wheels in with Anastasia and asks if I have lunch plans.
  3. I pack up my stuff and we go to lunch (very pleasant).
  4. I unpack my stuff in the SILS liberry and start researching.
  5. People people people walk by and want to chat. Very pleasant but no work is done. [2]
  6. I get an email from Dr. T saying I’ve been accepted into SILS’ doctoral program (!) and I was granted a DigCCurr II Fellowship (!!).
  7. I sit there stunned and forward her mail to various folks, like Liz and Cassidy. I also send her a thank-you mail.
  8. Not really knowing what else to do, and wanting to settle myself down, I go back to my research. About a minute later, Cassidy comes down and hugs my neck and is giddier and more excited about the news than I am. We chat a bit and process the news.
  9. She leaves to go back to her work and I return to my research. It’s a little after 3pm.
  10. Dr. T finds me in the liberry and wants me to walk with her over to Daily Grind so she can get a coffee-booster before her 3:30pm talk.
  11. I pack up my stuff and we walk and talk about the offer.
  12. I finally give up and go home after getting about 20 minutes of research work done. This will be a hard semester.

[1] Many and many a year ago I worked in one of the tech-writing gulags of Northern Telecom. A young Southern lady who managed the Interleaf publishing resources often told us about the templates and files stored in the “liberry.” Sorry, but that pronunciation just stuck in my head and I don’t want it to leave.

[2] Lori says I should get used to this.

Lavers on The Simple Life

My previous post Fred Stutzman and Facebook reminded me of an essay from the May/August 2000 issue of North American Review. The essay I tore out and kept in my "Essays" folder lo these many years was by the writer Norman Lavers, now retired from teaching English and enthusiastically maintaining a site on The Robber Flies of Crowley's Ridge, Arkansas. If you want to know all there is to know about these vicious critters, that's the site for you.

The essay he wrote, titled "On the Simple Life," is a fine personal essay that sweeps over the course of his life, the choices he made, and the choices he continues to make. It's a cranky, curmudgeonly view of the modern world. He preaches about retiring early in your life and then going to work, being frugal with your time, money, and attention ("kill your TV" advice), and generally simplifying your life by letting go of the things that aren't needed in favor of the essentials that honor you.

The reason I kept the essay, I think, was that he put into words something I'd not seen up to that point. I've seen it since (Stutzman mentions it in my previous post) but I've come back to it so much in my mind that I thought I'd put the passages here.

He compares the bombardment of TV images to the Web's bombardment of opinion, flash, etc. You can guess his opinion.

Get off the internet. Oh, how can I? It's got everything on it. Exactly, and you're letting it all into your house and into your mind. Be more selective...[O]n the net, I have my privacy. You don't, you've let the whole world in. You've let everybody in, and yet no one's there. Virtual people have invaded your privacy. They're god-awful boring, but you're too mesmerized to respond by turning them off...

An essential part of getting off the web is: Don't do e-mail. But it's so convenient, so cheap, you will tell me. That's the problem. ..I inveighed against e-mail in one of my classes and a girl said, "Oh, but this is how I've been able to keep in touch with all my friends from high school. Without e-mail I couldn't have done it." I was too polite, of course, to say, You should be leaving those kids behind and getting on with your life. If you wouldn't have kept in touch without e-mail, it means you probably shouldn't be keeping in touch now. They are getting in the way of your maturing.

If someone distant wants to get in touch with me, he's going to have to sit down and write me a letter. It takes time, it costs the price of a stamp. He's going to have to say something that will still be valid several days later when I receive his letter. If I'm not worth it to him, then his emailed Have a nice day! is not worth my receiving...If I had e-mail, I would have a sort of obligation to checked to see what I had each day, and 99% of it (to judge by what my friends say) would be trash, another invasion of privacy. With letters, they come in the box, you can open them when you're ready, read them a few times, answer at your leisure, It's a more humane rhythm. Letters can approach to literature. Can you imagine wanting to read Keats's collected e-mail notes? E-mail is like television: you do it because it is free and easy--but in return it takes away your time, and for one good thing you get from it, you get 99 things of dross. If you are actively doing literary or scientific research, where real information is being exchanged, or if it's part of your job, okay, yes. For communication with people, no.

Lavers' preferred mode of engagement is to grow one's own creative projects, having to do with art or with nature, activities that take you out of yourself and place you in a state of meditation. Hence his enthusiasm with the Robber Flies.

Yes, it's over the top, but I like his firm this-is-how-it-is tone, which is what makes reading essays fun. Certainly, junk mail is an invasion of privacy, and one is not ever obligated to return an email immediately after it's been received.

But I was struck by Lavers' point about e-mail keeping alive relationships that should probably die a natural death and Fred's point about middle-aged Facebook users reconnecting with people from their high school and college days 20 or more years before. There is the warm flush of remembering what we used to be like, and there's a pleasing nostalgia that's surely fine to experience now and then, if only to remind us that maybe those old days weren't so bad. But we aren't those people anymore, and I don't wish to go back to that foreign country anymore. (A no-prize for whoever gets that literary reference!) And the economics of energy, time, and attention are such that we only have resources for the immediate, not the distant.

When I entered NCSU in 1979, I kept in touch with a few friends from high school (some of whom were in my freshman classes) but by my sophomore year, I was in a new world with new friends. When I left college, it took longer to separate myself from that comfortable world, but I eventually landed in Rocky Mount and started a new life there. I left in 1988 and brought no one with me from my 4 years there. If email had been around then, how long would I have stayed attuned to the local gossip, the dramas? I don't know. Given my state of mind and emotions at the time, I would probably have kept up an unhealthy level of attachment. It was good for me that email and FB weren't around back then.

Instead, I did (and still do) as Lavers suggested: I wrote letters. Letters to friends served as my journal, my writing practice, my meditation time. These days, with so little time available to me to get into the mindset that letter-writing demands, I send cards instead. I even send them to friends to who live nearby. There's something just more special and personal to me when I see an envelope with a stamp and a handwritten address. I think it's special enough to send to dear friends and I do it simply because I enjoy it. I don't expect reciprocity or obligation--that's not the reason to write to friends who've stood the test of time. One does it because of love and attachment and, I think, creative expression. Selfish reasons, ultimately, but delightful ones, as well.

Unit Structures

LONDON - FEBRUARY 03: (FILE PHOTO)  In this ph...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Fred Stutzman is a PhD student at SILS and the creator of numerous good things, among them ClaimID and the Mac-based Freedom (which I used today to good effect).

He has a blog, Unit Structures, and tends to post announcements of upcoming events or good 'n' chewy postings related to his research interests of social networking and social software.

I liked today's post very much, which ties into one of my favorite aphorisms, from Louis Pasteur: "Opportunity favors the prepared mind." The lesson is that although passion for your product can pull you through the low times, you still need basic presentation skills if you want to be heard. My favorite line:

Notably, the research found that having taken public speaking lessons was a significant factor, indicating that communication skill, if not passion, was still important.

Digression 1: I've wondered about teachers who don't take public speaking or presentation classes or workshops -- or at the very least, some kind of vocal training. I know from the years I spent acting in amateur theater that a good voice was rare, but your own voice and presentation could be developed and made stronger. Certainly, professors get years of practice at speaking that most people who go to Toastmasters don't get, but still -- even in the classroom, it's all about presentation.

Whenever Facebook is in the news, Fred usually has a considered and contextual opinion on the issue, with a prescription for how FB should move forward from this. Facebook's recent misfire with its Terms of Service elicited a good-sized posting, with this as my favorite passage:

Mark Zuckerberg talks about Facebook as if it was a country. If Facebook were a country, it would more accurately resemble North Korea or China than the United States.

Fred also weighed in on the 25 Things meme that tagged all of us on FB, but uses it as a meditation on the phenomenon of refreshing or renewing dormant connections. I'm certainly seeing more people from my college years appearing on FB and connecting with me (or me touching base with them), and other friends are seeing high school chums reaching out to them. Fred wonders about the value of this activity:

We’ve all had the email or telephone reconnection with an old friend - after you have the getting-reacquainted conversation, is it really practical to re-integrate the individual into your life? More often than not, it simply isn’t practical (especially if geographic distance is a factor). This doesn’t take away from the wonder of reconnection and the warm feeling it produces - it just means that mediating technologies don’t change everything. Our everyday needs and processes exist higher up in the hierarchy of needs, and reconnection and maintenance of an extended social network is time-consuming.

Digression 2: I am, in fact, wondering how many of my current "cohort" at UNC I'll be in touch with after the next 2 years. When I think of the places I've lived and worked, I've actually carried very few people with me from those places. When I left a job, I left my co-workers there. The time we spent was productive and intense and, I hope, enjoyable, but it wasn't lasting, and the space I left behind was quickly filled.

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Is grad school a good idea?

Penelope Trunk trots out one of her regularly visited themes: why grad school is a bad idea. It rankled me a bit but I do have to remember that she’s talking to twenty-somethings and I’m a forty-odder. Her advice would be right-on to my 23-year-old self: I had very little direction, a graduate degree would have been wasted on me, and my next 25 years or so would be spent working (or not), gathering experience. and developing as a person.

The comments to her post are as opinionated, so she succeeded in stirring up some thoughts and opinions (much of it taking her to task–rightly–for her crack about the military.) Though I kind of understand her point – if you don’t have a direction, then entering grad school or the military could lead down paths that may not be right for you – it was a carelessly thought out remark.

As many of the commenters note, a graduate degree can bump up your pay grade (that’s what my employer does) and, after years of job-hopping, it can be useful to get a degree that tells the world – your bosses, your peers – that you do in fact know what you’re doing.

My manager is getting an MBA through NCSU and it’s been a transformative experience for him: he’s made great local contacts, he’s extended his skillset, and he now has a degree that qualifies him for bigger and better-paying jobs. Had he simply read the books and gone to local networking meet-ups, he would never have received the validation that he gets when he meets with his managers and with local executives in meetings set up by his school.

For myself, I have enjoyed my master’s experience tremendously. One of the most important things I learned was that I can apply my odd agglomeration of skills and abilities to more than the narrow band of activities I’ve grown accustomed to. The other important thing was that it awoke my intellectual side, which the last 25 years of work has rather successfully smothered (except when it was useful to the project, of course). And I’ve found my professors to be up to date on what’s happening in the big ol’ world outside of Manning and to be very generous with introductions to people they know in academe and industry, thus extending my personal network.

Still, her article is one of those goads that my reticular activating system has been sending my way as I contemplate the PhD. Does it make sense to leave a guaranteed paycheck to go to school full-time in this economy? Will I be able to find work as a 50-something PhD when I graduate? What, really, do I want to do with my life and will grad school help me get there?

That’s the real question I think Penelope means for her readers to ask themselves.

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Financiers tell their not-for-attribution account of the mortgage crisis like this: Americans undersaved and overspent for decades, relying on rising property values to bankroll their lifestyles. But nobody on Wall Street forced United States homeowners to take out loans on houses they couldn’t afford, or refinance mortgages to spend money on cars they shouldn’t have bought.

Research Journal for my 780 class

Cover of "7 Up"
Cover of 7 Up

Since our 780 Research Methods class doesn’t have a Blackboard site for the class, I’ll post my various links and thoughts to the blog, tagged with “780.”


I wonder if Michael Apted’s wonderful Up series of documentary interviews would be an example of a kinda sorta longitudinal study or panel study? When a new film comes out every 7 years with updates on these people, it’s always fascinating to see where life has -- or hasn’t -- taken them. Instead of gathering statistics about a large group of people, there's something very satisfying about getting to know a small group of people very well.


We’ve been talking about experiments, planning a study, theories, types of studies, etc. One of our last readings was about where one gets ideas for theories. This reminded me of Seth Roberts, a Berkeley researcher in psychology, who frequently touts self-experimentation as a way to generate research ideas. This is one of his more famous papers. He maintains an active and entertaining blog.

What I admire about Seth Roberts is his abundant idea-generation and his zeal for measurement and record-keeping. His goal is to experiment on himself first, then if his data indicates that there are possibly interesting results, then he proceeds with more methodical testing and inquiry, possibly leading to more formalized studies (or not).

When I’ve been thinking about possible studies I might like to try, I remember this quote from one of his blog posts:

SR: Tell me something you've learned about research design.

BW: When I was a graduate student [at the Stanford Business School], I would jog on the school track. One day on the track I met a professor who had recently gotten tenure. He had only published three articles (maybe he had 700 in the pipeline), so his getting tenure surprised me. I asked him: What's the secret? What was so great about those three papers? His answer was two words: "Cool data." Ever since then I've tried to collect cool data. Not attitude surveys, which are really common in my area. Cool data is not always the easiest data to collect but it is data that gets buzz, that people talk about.

Thinking about what “cool data” might mean in a digital curation or archival or info-science context can be tough. I think the social networks are certainly perceived as cool and you can do cool stuff with them, certainly, but I’m not that curious about them. I feel like, were I to study one of them, I’d just be chasing a parade that’s got a five-mile headstart. Better to find my own parade. :)

Curiosity is probably what drives me. Certainly, one of the itches that a researcher must scratch is his or her own personal obsession with some nagging question or detail that no one has really addressed or answered to their satisfaction. (The same way most writers have to write their own poems, stories, and plays, because no one else is publishing what they want to read.)

Check out his numerous posts tagged scientific method (though he’s more usually critical of scientists’ behavior than the method itself) and self-experimentation for more.


Another great Seth Roberts post that got my attention was this one on appreciative thinking, especially as it relates to reading journal articles. I see what he describes in the classes I attend, where we read a paper that’s 1 year, 5 years, or 10 years old, and it’s rather thoroughly shredded during the ensuing discussion for any number of reasons (and I've been guilty of trashing articles, myself).

Instead of this negative critical thinking, I like his suggested questions to ask instead, especially the simplicity of his fifth question: “What’s interesting or enjoyable about it?” Even if I find the writing of an article stilted or atrocious, I think it should be possible to at least admire a piece’s energy, its intent, its point of view, its ability to stir thoughts in me, etc. Saying something constructive is not about becoming a positive-thinking ninny; it's about seeing more sides of the issue than only one.

Even for a piece (Mabry's "Reference Interview as Partnership") that didn’t really touch me, I appreciated that this was the author's distillation of a career’s worth of lessons that she wanted to impart. In my summary of the piece, I said I could see it being used to start a conversation about one’s own personal manifesto for serving at a reference desk. We’re not often asked to reflect on our larger purpose or philosophy when it comes to our jobs, or even our career, so I saw the Mabry piece as a terrific starting point for such a conversation.


Speaking of writing up experiments so they’re repeatable -- how often does repeating an earlier experiment really happen?

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