A student or a scholar

One of the things I discovered about myself during the past year is that I'm a student, not a scholar. I've always thought of myself as a "lifelong student," but I'm not sure I really understood what that meant till recently.

In my view, a master's candidate is a student, a PhD candidate is a scholar. The differences are many: the difference between being an amateur (student) and a professional (scholar), between minor league and major league, between levels of commitment in terms of time, energy, passion, and dedication.

For me, a lifelong student retains the joy of learning new things and loves sampling the buffet. That's been me, that will always, probably, be me. The scholar, I think, takes a deeper interest and is best served (at least in their early years) by not flitting from flower to flower. Also, the way academe is structured, scholars are professionally groomed for a tough job market; the decisions they make today on the research they publish will have repercussions years down the line. The student, I think, lives more in the moment, or at least has a shorter time horizon for the satisfying of their desires.

As I'm sure I've said in other posts, I like taking classes. This seemed to separate the student from the scholar, in my brief experience. I think I'm one of the "Scanners' that Barbara Sher describes in her book Refuse to Choose: someone who loves the novelty and variety of learning and resists constraining themselves to a single specialty.

Reminds me of these quotes by Bill Moyers on the fun of being a journalist:

A journalist is a professional beachcomber on the shores of other people's wisdom ... A journalist is basically a chronicler, not an interpreter of events. Where else in society do you have the license to eavesdrop on so many different conversations as you have in journalism? Where else can you delve into the life of our times? I consider myself a fortunate man to have a forum for my curiosity.

Had I stuck it out in the PhD realm, my chosen research style would have been that of a journalist. The challenge for my life now, I think, is to elevate that curiosity and focus from a hobby done in my spare time to a respected place of prominence at the center of my life and how I choose to spend the rest of my years on the planet.


The end is nigh...

Of my master's degree progress, that is.

I took my comprehensive exam on Friday. At SILS, that is writing 6-8 pages on one of two essay questions that are emailed to you at the start of the day. You have until 3:30pm to finish the task. I started mine at about 10 am and wrapped up around 2:30pm, with a break for lunch. Essay questions are about the easiest task I could be given; I wound up writing 10 pages with I think good detail.

Today, Liz and I took a day trip over to Chapel Hill so I could return a stack of library books and pick up a copy of my advisor's comments on my master's paper. I thought I had done a good-enough job on the paper but that there were too many assumptions and maybe too much hand-waving and magical thinking in the Discussion and Conclusions section. I had spewed dots all over the page without seriously connecting them into a recognizable picture. But I thought the paper was at a stage where there was no more I really wanted to do with it. I could have spent days poring over the data some more, I could have done more research in the literature, and so on. That extra work would have represented the last 15-25% of effort on a paper whose value probably didn't warrant more time or energy. In any case, I'd held on to it long enough. It was time to throw it over the wall and see what my advisor had to say about it.

I was rather surprised at how minimal and non-eventful her comments were. I had rather mixed feelings looking over her comments, which were mainly to do with typos, awkward phrasings, mechanical errors, and the like. There were one or two "I don't accept your conclusion" remarks that I don't know how to address just yet; she gave no indication of what I should do to fix them. That's OK; it'll take less than 3 hours to take care of all her marked items and then format the paper per the school guidelines. Still - that's it?

I suppose what's interesting to me about the paper is how flimsy it feels to me. Had this been turned in by a doctoral student, I think it would have been held up to higher scrutiny and with calls for more justification of my statistics and assumptions. But I must remember: this is a master's paper, and the master's paper is probably the first and last research project most students will ever do. If they find they need to carry out a similar research project in their future jobs, then they have at least been introduced to the rudiments of the practice. That's the real goal of the paper. Contributing to the research dialogue is not a realistic expectation. (Though one of my professors said that many master's students look back on the paper as the most satisfying project of their academic career.)

In the end, I suppose, I believe that I did a good enough job, within my capacities and skills; better than others, perhaps, but not as good as I would like to think I could do. (And got closer to in my Chekhov paper last fall.)

Still, as with all things that have happened to me over the last few years in school, these are yet more opportunities for learning as I go.

  • As I said, this was a learning project: not only about stats and running a research project, but about how to manage myself. I discovered the conditions I needed to produce the text, I had to confront my unease at surveying my neighborhood, I had to hit the wall of statistics with the soft nose of my data. Each gate I had to go through (executing the survey, crunching the numbers, writing up the results) required me to motivate myself, confront my anxieties about that step, ask for help when I needed it, and then ready myself for the next gate.
  • In my dream world, I had honestly expected effusive praise and qualitative feedback from my advisor on my work. And I didn't get it. These were the mixed feelings I described above. I was expecting effusive praise or high disdain, and instead received non-descript mechanical corrections. Isn't that a relief? Kind of. But I was expecting more feedback and interaction and, yes, pats on the head.
  • So the lesson here is I need to give myself my own pats on the head. My advisor is busy with tons of work, other master's papers to read and comment on (and which may need more hands-on involvement on her part), and it's not her job to praise me. I'm nearly 50 years old, for crying out loud; it's about time I learned to give myself the compliments I need.
  • The paper represents the last big thing I need to finish before leaving. And receiving the paper today was a big anti-climax. The big work is actually behind me.
  • A doc student friend of mine said, apropos of finishing the dissertation and graduating, "No one cares." No one is going to hold a parade in your honor or make a big deal out of you. This is your gig that you chose to do, so you need to celebrate it yourself in your own way.
  • Looking back on the paper and the comp exam, it seems pretty clear to me that if I ever mess up, it won't be on the big stuff. If I mess up, it'll be on the little stuff. Example: When I shifted over from PhD to master's last summer, I should have automatically been put on the master's student mailing list. I never was. As a result, I missed the announcement of the deadline for applying for graduation and only heard about the comp exam date a week before it was scheduled. Why did I assume someone would tell me these things, even when the silence was growing more eerie? A little thing - asking someone in the office "why am I not receiving announcements?" - could have caused a major disaster. This is a pattern I've noticed in myself in other contexts, and it's something I need to address.
  • As a result, I will be calling the grad school on Monday to make sure I can graduate in May. I don't want some silly little bureaucratic glitch to prevent my graduation.
  • It's time to move on. This has been a remarkably active and productive period of my life, starting with my first class in the summer of 2006. But it's time to go.

As I see my schedule open up, with very few obligations on the horizon, I am starting to swell with projects that need to be started: selling off old textbooks, clearing my files of all the printed articles i read, cleaning out my closet, fixing stuff around the house, etc.

What stops me from slapping all sorts of projects into my planner book is another lesson I learned in 2010. I had stopped my banjo lessons due to the pressure of my other responsibilities. We still met weekly, to talk through what I was experiencing and trade strategies. Sometime after the semester ended, I think, I felt much relieved and wanted to resume the lessons. But he refused. His reasoning was sound: I may be in a quiet, stable phase at the moment, but we are not sure how long it will last. It would only put more pressure on me if I were to restart my practicing and then - BAM - life is firing more fastballs at me than i can handle.

And, as I recall, things happened as he said. Not long after, we had to start planning and executing the May workshop and life got crowded indeed. Even after the workshop was over, and life had truly settled down, he held off resuming our lessons. He was right. I needed the rest and needed to come back to a sort of equilibrium. Sometime after I left the program, we started up again and I've been chugging along with the banjer ever since.

All of which to say - I'm keeping my life underscheduled for the immediate future. My top priorities are revamping my resume, starting up a job search, figuring out what the next 5 years should be, etc. But no need to rush in. Relax the taut rubber band before it snaps and breaks. Relax, and pat myself on the head.


Libra Horoscope for week of February 24, 2011

An interviewer asked me, “What is the most difficult aspect of what you do?” Here’s what I said: “Not repeating myself is the hardest thing. And yet it’s also a lot of fun. There’s nothing more exciting for me than to keep being surprised by what I write. It’s deeply enjoyable to be able to feed people clues they haven’t heard from me before. And when I focus on doing what gives me pleasure, the horoscopes write themselves.” I hope this testimony helps you in your own life right now, Libra. If you’re afraid that you’re in danger of repeating yourself, start playing more. Look for what amuses you, for what scrambles your expectations in entertaining ways. Decide that you’re going to put the emphasis on provoking delight in yourself, not preserving your image.

Don't overthink it (Installment #247)

I volunteered to do a tedious job at work -- copy/paste about maybe 200-400 parameters scattered throughout a group of FORTRAN files. The parameters may be in one of maybe 3 different formats. Also, the parameters came with multiline comments (with each commented line starting with !), and sometimes just big wodges of comments on their own that serve as documentation. The goal was to transform these snippets into something our customer could scan using Excel.

I volunteered to do it because it made no sense for a highly paid developer to do such a menial job; also, I kind of like taking on little challenges like this, developing a new technique or learn some new tools, and seeing how quickly I can rip through them. Then it's just a matter of putting on the headphones, pressing a few keys repetitively so the computer does most of the work, and voila.

I realized that my initial solution for this would be overly complicated, as it always is, and that the exploration process as I groped my way toward simpledom would be haphazard, as it always is. I thought "How can I use Applescript to parse the text? Should I just copy the fragments into Word and use Word's formatting functions? Should I use a text editor with some text formatting Services?" (DevonThink makes a killer set of text-formatting services available to Mac users for free; DevonThink not required to use them.)

I spent about 5 hours over the weekend scarfing up text-formatting Applescript code, messing with text editors, messing with Automator, messing with some copied fragments that I was using as my test case, messing with Applescript in Word (which adds its own complications), and seeing possible workflows getting more complicated.

Sometime around Monday evening my brain settled down and I decided on my workflow:

  1. Copy each parameter and comment into a Word file.
  2. Fix the formatting of each snippet to remove the extra lines, excess ! marks, and insert tab marks judiciously to make importing into Excel easier.
  3. Transform the tab-delimited text into a table using Word's Table>Convert>Text to Table command.
  4. Copy and paste the tables into Excel and format accordingly.

The intent of this workflow brings in what I've mentioned before, about batching similar actions together. With this workflow, I could check each line off as done and move fully to the next set of operations. I could do each set of operations more quickly and efficiently than transitioning from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 within each file.

#2 gave me the headache, of course, and is where I spent the bulk of my think time. I had on blinders as I was sure I could use some sort of Applescript in Word that would reformat everything in one go, without needing multiple passes. And because I thought it could be done, I thought I had to do it that way.

However, I had set myself a time limit for the R&D, and I had passed it. Time to drop that all-in-one solution. As I looked at the line fragments, I noticed that the bulk of the work would be done in the first line of each multi-line fragment. OK, let's start there.

That shift brought me back to the Agile programming maxim of, "Do the simplest thing that could possibly work." This is when I turned back to Keyboard Maestro; it's not as powerful as QuicKeys (or my beloved Macro Express in the Windows world), but it's quick, dependable, and does the job. In this case, I was using it as a robot typing the keyboard, but that keeps it simple.

That's when I cobbled together my workflow for #2:

  • With the text in Word, select the lines that will be reformatted.
  • Run Joe Kissel's great Clean Up Text script (scroll down the page to read about how to coy and paste his code into the Applescript editor). This script removes all spaces and tabs and removes multiple line breaks, making each fragment a unified paragraph. Kissell's article also tells you how to assign a keystroke to a script.
  • For a multi-line parameter with comments, the bulk of the delete symbols/insert tab action happens in the first line of the reformatted paragraph. So, position the cursor on the first line, and run the Keyboard Maestro macro (assigned to the F19 key) that manually moves the cursor, deletes a character, inserts a tab, etc. and then stops. Because the macro is working within Word, I added keystrokes to take advantage of Word's keyboard-based cursor movements.
  • For the remainder of the ! comment marks now studding the reformatted paragraph, select the entire document and use a simple Word find-and-replace to replace all the ! with " ".

Hm. Well, that still looks pretty complicated, doesn't it? But it's faster than me burning hours to get my head deep into Applescript territory, with delimiters, variables, if-thens, and so on.

The other advantage of this workflow is that this should cover about 80% of the code I'll have to reformat. I now have a base set of actions that I can clone and customize to handle the exceptions.

Anyway, the lesson as always: don't overthink it. Keep it simple.


The New Yorker has suffocated at times beneath a mask of wry gentility. For all its glossy reputation, the magazine still turns up its nose at stories and poems that make too many demands on the reader. It’s a middlebrow journal for people who would like to be highbrows — and perhaps for highbrows who love a little slumming. The cartoons, as Biele notes, provide an antiphonal chorus to the reckless consumerism of the ads. Just as the literature is for those who want to think themselves literary, the ads are for those who want to think themselves rich. (If you were old money, you’d already own Tiffany by the trunkload.) Bishop’s close association with the magazine, almost all her best poems appearing there after 1945, probably contributed to her struggle to be taken seriously. To be a New Yorker poet was sometimes a deal with the devil.

I went to a “mindfulness” group at the psychological clinic here. I don’t know much about the topic yet, but it struck me that one definition would be using your own mind to your benefit rather than to your detriment. In other words, don’t outthink yourself. Notice the thoughts and emotions you are having and allow them to pass through you without overstaying their welcome. I’ve always thought the best way of dealing with negative emotions is to pay no attention to them at all and hope they would go away, but I’m open to new approaches.

Writing in the library

I had an excellent ~6 hours of solid writing/wrestling with my master's paper one day last week. At this stage, I'm still drafting raw text and am not in the polish stage where I'm honing the thoughts in the sentences and paragraphs, and ensuring my themes and the story I'm telling are all working together, which is what I would call "the writing phase". Right now, I'm at the "vomit text" stage, if I may be forgiven for such a phrase.

Here's how I structured my time and my environment to encourage me to work:

  • I staked out a table in Davis Library, 7th floor. There are plenty of big tables that are hardly used, wall plugs are nearby for the MikeBook, and -- most importantly -- the books on the shelves are from the Asian collection, printed in Chinese and Japanese -- so I'm not tempted to browse them during my breaks!
  • I have MacBreakz set to annoy me every 50 minutes with some simple ergonomic exercises. In the preferences, I removed the ability to banish the window, so that I have to force myself to stand, stretch, walk, go to the bathroom -- anything but sit and stare at the screen. The breaks last 10 minutes.
  • During that break, I put some Genteal drops in my eyes to keep them my moist. My cataract doctor said that, when you work on a computer, you tend to not blink, which dries out your eyes, causing strain. The regular breaks to look out the window and away from the screen (MacBreakz includes eye exercises) and the wetting drops help keep my eyes healthy.
  • Most important -- Fred Stutzman's Freedom app, to keep me from surfing the web when I should be working. I usually set it for 125 minutes, to really enforce that I should be working.
  • For the paper, I had some clear goals defined: insert the new stats graphs, write text describing the graphs, create new stats tables as needed from my original data. Instead of floundering, I had specific tasks in mind.
  • Also important: work in batch mode. When adding graphics into my Word file, insert one, got to the next page, insert one, etc. When applying the Figure style, walk through the file and apply it to each graphic. I like a lined border around each graphic, so do that action for each graphic before moving on to the next task; this enables me to run the command once and then select the next graphic, press Command+Y to repeat the previous command, and move on to the next. Trying to do all of those actions at one time for each graphic -- insert graphic, format, write text, insert caption, etc. -- would have meant too much fiddling and interruption for each operation. By breaking the separate tasks into separate streams, as it were, I was able to move more quickly. It also meant that when it was time to write, the figures were exquisitely formatted so that didn't distract me.
  • When writing, know when you're creating text and when you're editing text. That workday was dedicated to creating text and not to wordsmithing. I didn't try to push my argument too heavily, I tried not to get too nervous when I could see some ideas not quite aligning as I'd hoped or that I hadn't written as much as I'd hoped. The goal was to just get the words down in a rough draft, which is the hardest part of writing (at the start anyway!). I knew that the several passes through the text I still had to make would bring tweaks and additions and polish, so there was no need to get too stressed about expression and articulacy just yet.
  • Others might not be able to do this, but I had a good breakfast and skipped lunch. Once I plopped myself down, unpacked my stuff, set up the computer, etc. I really didn't want to interrupt the flow to pack up, eat, walk back, unpack, set up, and then hope I'd get back into the flow. I fueled up at the top of the day and it powered me well into the afternoon. Once I got in the flow of working on the paper, time did indeed both stand still and whiz by.

I'm now at the point where i'm trying to generate text for the last part of the paper, the discussion and conclusion, and find myself somewhat lacking for words. I've started with random ideas and sentences i put under those headings as I worked on other sections of the paper and so this has provided me a starting point. But the section still feels anemic.

I think the solution here is, again, to trust the process. As my favorite book on writing says, use the words you have to attract the words you want. So, let the the sections feel thin for now and as I continue sweeping through and reading and re-reading, let any other words or ideas bubble up when they're ready.

I should say, this is also the time when it's helpful to have another pair of eyes look at the text, so I'm trying to get a draft finished for my advisor to review so she can tell me where I've gone too far or not far enough.


Little steps

In trying to implement some new behaviors, I'm finally listening to advice and looking at how to piggyback the new behaviors on existing behaviors. The best way to introduce a new habit being to start small and link the new behavior to an existing behavior. These are basically implementation intentions [1], as introduced to me by the Psychology Today blogger on procrastination, Dr. Timothy Pychyl [2] (who also has an extensive site devoted to his procrastination research, an affordable e-book on the topic, and scads of podcasts subscribable through iTunes).

An implementation intention basically says. "I will do behavior x when y happens so that I can achieve z." The objective is to have your environment deliver the cue for the behavior you want to encourage. In addition to supporting your goals, implementation intentions can support something called prospective memory, which I'll blog about someday (after putting it off for nearly a year!).

If a task I need or want to do is a one-off, or requires extra will-power to motivate myself to do it, then that's a task I'm not likely to do. Therefore, I need to plan how to make more routine the things that I that I think will be beneficial to me. So here are some behaviors I'm trying to implement now:

  • Liz always goes to bed an hour or so before I do. After I kiss her good night, I always walk past the bathroom on my way to my office. So, an obvious intention would be, "When I walk past the bathroom, floss and brush my teeth so I can have better gum health and keep the dentist far away from me." I'm very bad about flossing regularly.
  • I have my banjo lesson on Friday mornings. When I come back home, I always leave the banjo in its case until the next time I decide to practice, which may not be till Monday or Tuesday. And I leave the case sitting off to the side even though Liz gave me a banjo stand for my birthday. So, to encourage me getting my banjo out and ready to play, my new intention is: "When I get home from my lesson on Friday morning, I will remove the banjo from its case and put it on the stand so I can quickly pick up the instrument when I want to practice." Even though removing the banjo from its case involves tiny effort, it's just enough resistance to keep me from practicing. By making this new behavior a policy or rule, I remove the need to use emotions or will power to get the task done.
  • On a related note (heh): I often practice my banjo immediately after I get home from work or school and before I pull my MacBook out of my backpack. I do this because once I have the MacBook out and plugged in, I get lost checking email, blogs, etc. With my desk clear of the computer, I have more room to set up my music, I can sit in my chair, swivel around to the banjo stand, pick up the banjer, and start plunking away. Little steps, and probably silly to someone who's more disciplined, but the more I can clear my path of little stones like this, the easier the journey.
  • A long-standing rule of mine has been to fill up the car when the gas gauge indicates there's a quarter of a tank left. Lately, though, I've come close to running on fumes so I needed to change this. There's nothing worse than being in a hurry to get to the next town and then discovering you have to divert to get some gas. My new rule now is to fill up every Friday on my way home from grocery shopping, no matter how much gas is in the tank. This lets me start off the next week with a full tank.

Now, will these intentions work every time? Maybe not. But by thinking about how to work around my natural resistance, I increase the chance that I'll do them more often. And more often is better than not at all.

Links [1] http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/dont-delay/201001/implementation-intentions-facilitate-action-control [2] http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/dont-delay