Keeping Track Of The World

Research Methods for Regular People

You have missed World Backup Day

As March 31st was World Backup Day (who decides these things?) I thought that now was as good a time as any to talk about backups. Computers, hard drives and other storage media can and do fail. Thus, it is essential that you have a viable backup plan. Here are some recommendations:
1. Set up an automated backup system with an external hard drive or other storage device (both Windows and Mac come with rudimentary backup programs that will do the job)
2. Ideally you will use multiple hard drives and rotate between them so you do not have a single point of failure. Keep one of those hard drives in a different physical location than your main backup. In my case I keep one hard drive at home and one at the office.
3. Keep both incremental backups (which allow you to return to multiple previous versions) and a clone of your hard drive (which allows you to return to work very quickly).
4. I also use cloud based storage for crucial files. I use Dropbox but there are many different options out there. If you would like to try Dropbox you can sign up and get a small amount of space for free with the use of this link. You will get a small amount of extra space when you sign up. FULL DISCLOSURE: I will also get extra space if you use this link so you may want to consider asking for a referral link from family and friends.

Use which ever system works for you, but for your own sake, please don’t rely on a single copy of your data. Backup. Backup. Backup.

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Active vs. Passive voice in writing

I often find it frustrating that Word’s grammar checker always marks the passive voice as wrong. There are good and legitimate uses of the passive voice.

While it is a bit of a judgment call in academic writing a more objective tone of voice is generally appropriate. That is sometimes understood as requiring the passive voice. In a thesis or journal article the idea is to demonstrate that actions taken were based on careful research (reading, data collection, etc.) not at the whim of the researcher.

However, the passive voice can serve to obscure rather than clarify what is going on. A researcher must be careful to let the reader know who took certain actions. A description can become confusing if there are multiple researchers all referred to in the more traditional third person. In some approaches to research, ethnographic or action research for example, knowing how the research influenced the context studied helps the reader evaluate the findings and analysis of the research.

While it is designed for people writing in the sciences I have found this article from the Duke Graduate School helpful: Passive voice in scientific writing

For a briefer summary see the University of Toronto writing centre

What the Drive to Big Data can Teach us about Good Research

Most researchers will have very little access to big data. Nonetheless, the popularization of big data does bring up issues of concern to all researchers such as who controls data, the need for some expertise in analysis, and how to use research in a way that makes a positive contribution to society.

The article Big Data. Big Obstacles discusses these concerns.

Field Work and Critical Thinking

Most of my research is field work. It is very easy to fall into the temptation that all that is necessary after data collection is to report on what you have found in the field. The advent of data analysis software with fancy charts and tables makes this temptation all the more stronger because it is easy to make an attractive report. Reporting is a necessary first step both to summarize what you actually have and to communicate the research to any affected or interested constituencies.

However, to make the data useful for decision making we have to interpret these data. What do they mean? What do they tell us about particular courses of action? Who can they be applied to? In what ways? Getting to this point requires, among other things, critical thinking skills. To apply critical thinking to data is to both analyze what is going on and to make some kind of judgment about what it means. How did you come to this interpretation? How did you determine which information was relevant? What is the evidence for this conclusion? What assumptions contributed to this analysis? What are the limitations to this conclusion?

While it is written for educators Unlocking the Mystery of Critical Thinking provides a helpful summary of how to encourage critical thinking. The included bibliography provides some sources that could be productively explored to learn more.

Humanizing Academic Citation

Over the last few years I have noticed that people increasingly struggle with giving attribution to the source of their ideas. Even when they do cite their sources they often struggle to deal with them in a civil manner—either making fun of them or presenting their own ideas as the culmination of all prior research.

I don’t have any research on why this is but it may be related to the borrowing culture of the Internet or the rise of snarky humour. Whatever the reason it negatively affects people’s contribution to the larger academic conversation.

Anne Curzan in The Chronicle of Higher Education talks about how understanding academic citation as a classroom conversation helped one class understand both its need and why a certain level of civility is necessary.

Humanizing Academic Citation – Lingua Franca – Blogs – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Learning a New Way of Learning

Most of the research I am currently involved in, and that which I encourage my students to pursue, aims not just at information collection and analysis but also at social change.

I often encounter the assumption that changing people’s perceptions or giving them new knowledge will change their actions. If we could just get people to think right social change would naturally follow. While that can and does happen the discontinuous change of the contemporary world means that any approach to social change must have the ability to adapt to the changes in its context. Furthermore, a knowledge based approach assumes that we know what we need to know before getting involved in the context.

It is for this reason that I advocate action research and its personal compatriot action learning.

Craig Van Gelder does a good job explaining action learning and why it is important for social change today:

Learning a New Way of Learning.

Time Management

Given how long it has been since I have posted anything I thought I should talk about time management strategies.

Very few of us are sitting around looking out the window. Nor are we spending most of our time in casual conversation and reading good books. Most of us are busy. Timothy Ferriss’ oft quoted “Being busy is a form of laziness . . .” is an overstatement but it does have a seed of truth. Busy is not necessarily a bad thing but many of us find constant busyness stressful and wonder if we are accomplishing what is really important.

I was thinking about this recently as I observed my in-laws prepare for their daughter’s wedding. We arrived at their country property the day before the wedding. There was much to done and nobody appeared to be in charge. However, nobody appeared to be anxious about it. My brother-in-law was methodically fixing the oven that would be used to cook some of the food for the next day. My sister-in-law was making much of the food. And the chairs for the wedding sat quietly in a truck. People came and went over the day and everything got done. The day of the wedding was much the same. Ten minutes before the ceremony neither the mother nor the father of the bride were dressed for the ceremony. At the reception there was nobody organized to set out the food, direct people where to go or clean up afterwards. Everything got done and nobody appeared to be worried about what had been left unplanned.

What was going on here? I don’t want to advocate a lack of advance planning or preparation and there were some missing pieces to the planning (e.g., no drinks). However, on the whole I think my in-laws had their priorities right. They spent time with family, with friends and with each other. They concentrated on ongoing relationships between people not the accomplishment of short-term tasks. They came out the other end of the wedding neither stressed nor in debt. I don’t want to push this analogy any further but I think an emphasis on identifying and concentrating on core priorities is the key factor in time management.

Some elements of a core priority approach to time management include knowing what those priorities are, scheduling them, developing a trusted system to track everything you need to do, finding efficient ways to accomplish the necessary small goals of life (e.g., email), and making sure that you do things you enjoy.

Me? I prioritize contact with students and one-on-one relationships over mass online communication. Thus, this blog has been a bit ignored. I hope to do better in the future.

Links to resources I have found helpful in this journey:

Be More Productive
David Allan’s Getting Things Done
Keeping Focus
Time Management Reminders that Boost Efficiency, Peace of Mind

World Backup Day

As March 31st is World Backup Day (who decides these things?) it is time for my annual post about backups.

Computers, hard drives and other storage media can and do fail. It is more a question of when they will fail than if they will fail. Thus, it is essential that you have a viable backup plan.

Here are some recommendations:

  1. Set up an automated backup system with an external hard drive or other storage device (both Windows and Mac come with rudimentary backup programs that will do the job)
  1. Ideally you will use multiple hard drives and rotate between them so you do not have a single point of failure. Keep one of those hard drives in a different physical location than your main backup. In my case I keep one hard drive at home and one at the office.
  2. Keep both incremental backups (which allow you to return to multiple previous versions) and a clone of your hard drive (which allows you to return to work very quickly).
  3. I also use cloud based storage for crucial files. I use Dropbox but there are many different options out there. I also use box and iCloud but have found Dropbox to be the most seamless and robust of the solutions. If you would like to try Dropbox you can sign up and get a small amount of space for FREE with the use of this link. FULL DISCLOSURE: I will also get extra space if you use this link so you may want to consider asking for a referral link from family and friends.
  4. The World Backup Day site has a variety of deals on software and hardware for your backup needs.

Use which ever system works for you, but for your own sake, please don’t rely on a single copy of your data. Backup. Backup. Backup.

Become a Better Writer

I work primarily with doctoral students. These are smart people who already have at least two degrees. As the program I work in is a professional program they are generally accomplished leaders with full time jobs. A surprising number of them can’t write well.

Writing well is not an optional skill. In todays world of email and Twitter communication clear, careful and concise writing skills are more important than ever. Good ideas are more valuable if they are communicated well. If people can’t understand you they can’t learn from you.

My advice is simple: practice, read your work out loud, get others to read it, read lots of good writing and don’t give up.

Dave Kerpen says something similar in this article:

Want To Be Taken Seriously? Become a Better Writer | LinkedIn.

How to Give a Great Presentation

This blog is primarily about research but at some point most people want to present their research orally. This could be teaching a class, presenting a paper at a conference, or just trying to convince a group of people to benefit from what you have learned.

I have read a lot of material on how to give a good presentation. The basic recommendations in the literature are relatively consistent—which makes it surprising that so few people pay any attention.

Here is a summary of one of the classics in the literature: Writing that Works.

How to Give a Great Presentation: Timeless Advice from a Legendary Adman, 1981 | Brain Pickings.

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