Thursday, March 22, 2018

I am Michelle Thompson and This is How I Work

Today, I am interviewing Michelle Thompson for the "How I Work" series. Michelle Dionne Thompson coaches women writers, academics, and lawyers to implement their biggest visions for their lives and society. You can find out more about her at

Current job
: Coach, Writer, and Professor
Current location: New York City, NY, USA
Current mobile device: Apple iPhone
Current computer: Apple MacBook Pro

Can you briefly explain your current situation and research to us?

I wear many hats. I teach part time at City College of New York where I teach a Caribbean/Brazilian history survey course, a survey course of the History of the African Diaspora and Women in the African Diaspora. I am converting my dissertation into a monograph for publication. Finally, and the hat that takes up most of the room in the closet, I am the Founder and CEO of Michelle Dionne Thompson Coaching and Consulting where I work with women nonfiction writers and lawyers to take their writings/individual case work and convert it to the social change they really dream of.

For my monograph, I focus on the descendants of a runaway slave community in Jamaica called Maroons after slavery ended in the nineteenth century. Jamaica tried to get rid of the communities and failed miserably. The Maroons’ ability to retool the methods of resistance they used were central in preserving the community they built starting in the seventeenth century.

What tools, apps and software are essential to your workflow?

Evernote is so important to me. When I get ideas, when I need a template to answer emails, or any number of other thoughts, I turn to Evernote. Asana helps me keep track of tasks with deadlines. While I have not sorted out how to use Streak’s pipelines, I LOVE setting up emails in advance and Streak sending them when I tell it.

Then there are the anti-distraction tools. I am a big fan of that prevents me from using social media and email while writing (you can tell it what websites to block) and Forest. Forest functions both as a timer and prevents me from using my cell phone while writing by growing a tree when I’m on the timer. If I use my phone, the tree stops growing. You earn coins that allows you to grow a real tree once you’ve earned enough.

What does your workspace setup look like?

I work in my son’s room (before he was born, it was my office) and sometimes different coffee shops. I have a desk there that has a vision board and an altar so I can have a constant reminder of what I’m trying to do and what my values are. The altar has a candle so that I can stay grounded when things are going well and when things get hard. The altar also serves as a way of keeping me on my path.

What is your best advice for productive academic work?
Do a little bit daily. I, personally, would never write anything if I waited for a day to write. Further, my mind is mush after two hours and the following day I don’t write as well. It’s better for me to work anywhere from 45 minutes to one and a half hours daily.

How do you keep an overview of projects and tasks?
I use Asana to do that. It has projects (each article I’m working on, the book proposal, etc.) and then the respective tasks that need to be finished along with deadlines.

Besides phone and computer, do you use other technological tools in work and daily life?
If this isn’t redundant, I use a tablet. It’s funny, my partner prints papers to read and edit. I can’t stand having all of that PAPER everywhere. I download the papers onto my tablet and I have the feel of editing on paper because it’s the right size. I also have an Apple watch. Reminders get sent to it and I use the timer functions.

Which skill makes you stand out as an academic?
I’m not sure I would say skill or characteristic. I am headstrong. Perhaps I should say bull headed. This translates into being persistent and consistent. While I get devastated with feedback from academic journals, I take the advice and do it anyway. And when I get more feedback, I incorporate that. Wendy Laura Belcher, in her book How to Write a Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, writes about the importance of being persistent when you are trying to publish in academic publications.

What do you listen to when you work?

Nothing if I am at home. If I’m in a coffee shop, the music proves too distracting, so I actually have an app of binaural beats that is supposed to facilitate concentration (actually it does).

What are you currently reading? How do you find time for reading?
I have three books that I’m currently reading. When it’s Sunday (my day of complete rest), I am reading Anne Lamot’s Traveling Mercies. For self-improvement, I am reading Valerie Young’s The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, a book that delves deeply into imposter syndrome. I tend to read this when I am commuting to and from teaching if I don’t feel too brain dead. Academically, I am reading Abigail Bakan’s Ideology and Class Conflict in Jamaica. I do need to carve out more time for academic reading, but I insert this reading into my writing time as it is connected to my journal article that I am revising.

Are you more of an introvert or extrovert? How does this influence your working habits?
I actually think I’m a little bit of both. I can rise to the occasion and meet with people. I know how to work a room and can take a little bit of energy from that. However, if I don’t plan how to do it, I easily feel overwhelmed and withdraw. And after I have these connections, I need time by myself... or time to stare at a screen because when you have a child and partner, you can’t completely withdraw.

This has meant that I have been setting up coffee dates with people to discuss both my academic and business-related work. It has taken me YEARS to get to the point where I will do that. It is paying off. To make sure that I am not always writing by myself, I run a couple of Meetups for academic writers and lawyers, and I do enjoy being with them. We have some contact, but it’s not a completely social setup.

However, what I like the most is staying at home writing, planning, and posting on social media for work-related reasons. I find that to be much less draining.

What's your sleep routine like?
As much as I value sleep, it’s a work in process. I’m doing well when I am on a streak of 7 – 8 hour nights. Often, however, I find myself getting closer to 6 hours of sleep. Since the current resident of the White House was elected in the United States, it’s really thrown a wrench in my sleep routine. I can’t resist the news. There was a period immediately following the election where I just avoided the news. While I hoped that my sleep would improve, I was too scared to sleep well.

In order to fall and stay asleep, I often use the practice of gratitude and deep breathing. That also helps if I wake up in the middle of the night.

This may be too much information, but perimenopause negatively impacts my ability to sleep as much as I would like. There are times when I am wide awake and there’s nothing I can do about it.

What's your work routine like?
Every Sunday evening, I take time to write a list of what I want to accomplish during the upcoming week and then I take that list and put what parts of the work will get done on a given day and time in my calendar. That way, during the week, I don’t spend time wondering what I should be doing.

Generally, every weekday morning I wake up at 5 a.m. I watch the video Darren Hardy sends out and then I write until my son wakes up. At that point, although he does most of the work, I help get him out of the door while walking the dog. If I’m not teaching on that day, I do yoga and meditate so that my mind can quiet down and I can focus for the rest of the day (I find that this greatly helps my ability to sleep). I pick up work again around 9 or 10 when I devote time to my business or I teach. The afternoon is also spent on my business or teaching, depending on my schedule. I read when I’m commuting. I aim to finish my workday by 5 p.m. Generally, I succeed.

What's the best advice you ever received?

I think it was my Mom who always said that “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” I have a new appreciation of what that means now that I have such huge projects that compete for my time and attention. You have to break the big projects down into little pieces and do a little piece every day.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Field assessment of a concrete bridge

I recenlty published a chapter titled "Field assessment of a concrete bridge" in the book "Eco-efficient Repair and Rehabilitation of Concrete Infrastructures", edited by Fernando Pacheco-Torgal, Robert Melchers, Nele de Belie, Xianming Shi, Kim Van Tittelboom, and Andres Saez Perez. This book is part of the Woodhead Publishing series in Civil and Structural Engineering.

The description of the book is as follows:

Eco-efficient Repair and Rehabilitation of Concrete Infrastructures provides an updated state-of-the-art review on eco-efficient repair and rehabilitation of concrete infrastructure. The first section focuses on deterioration assessment methods, and includes chapters on stress wave assessment, ground-penetrating radar, monitoring of corrosion, SHM using acoustic emission and optical fiber sensors. Other sections discuss the development and application of several new innovative repair and rehabilitation materials, including geopolymer concrete, sulfoaluminate cement-based concrete, engineered cementitious composites (ECC) based concrete, bacteria-based concrete, concrete with encapsulated polyurethane, and concrete with super absorbent polymer (SAPs), amongst other topics.

Final sections focus on crucial design aspects, such as quality control, including lifecycle and cost analysis with several related case studies on repair and rehabilitation. The book will be an essential reference resource for materials scientists, civil and structural engineers, architects, structural designers and contractors working in the construction industry.

The abstract of Chapter 9 on Field assessment of a concrete bridge is:

Chapter 9, Field assessment of a concrete bridge, presents a case study of the field assessment: visual inspection and load testing of a reinforced concrete bridge, with cracking caused by alkali-silica reaction. It encompasses the preparation, execution, and post-processing of the load test. It also includes a discussion of the cost-savings (economic, environmental, and social) that are obtained through this procedure compared to a replacement of the super-structure.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

On writing habits

I ran a poll about the writing habits of academics on Twitter, as I was curious to see if most people write every day, or if they do a major writing effort when a deadline approaches.

The results are in, and you can find more information about the following discussion in the Storify below:

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Research and breastfeeding: My story (part 4)

Before I start to tell you my story about how I combine research and breastfeeding my baby girl, I need to tell you that it is my deepest wish that all parents are respected for whatever choice they make to feed their child. Breastfeeding, exclusive pumping, donor milk, formula… if your choice is what you want, it is the right thing to do for you and your family. In my opinion, choices empower families, and there is no “one size fits all” solution. I hope that in the future policy makers will enable a wide range of choices to accommodate the different needs of different families.

With that said, my goal from the beginning was to breastfeed my baby. I had no idea what this would actually be like, and how this would work out practically as I’d return to work. I’ve been blessed to have great support in the hospital and at home with a midwife to start with breastfeeding, and I was lucky that my husband could bring me the pump I needed when he went on a trip to the USA. I fully realize that I am speaking from a privileged position.

There’s been challenges along the way. My baby wasn’t gaining enough weight in the beginning for us to get cleared to travel with her, and we supplemented with formula for a while. I had mastitis 10 days postpartum. The first two pumps I bought (a manual and electric one) didn’t work very well for me. I never managed to extract a single drop with the manual pump, and the electric one didn’t give me good results at the beginning. I read every possible website out there and watched every youtube video of pumping moms to learn how to make it work. It had to work, as right at the end of my maternity leave, after 12 weeks, I had to travel to a conference, so I had to freeze enough pumped milk to feed my baby. I ended up getting up at stupid-o-clock to pump in the middle of the night, as that was the time when I could pump the largest volume.

Besides these challenges, it has been a beautiful journey. It took me some effort, but by now I have established good routines. Here’s what has helped me to keep breastfeeding my child after returning to work and while I was separated from her for a conference:

1. A good pump and fitting (spare) parts
After struggling with pumps that didn't work well, getting a double electric pump suitable for pumping several times a day was a life-changer for me. It also came just in time before my trip abroad for a conference. I can't imagine sitting in between meetings for an hour with a single electric pump. Make sure you have spare parts with you when you travel. Get the right size of flanges. This may be a small (and cheap) detail, but it will make all the difference in terms of comfort.

2. Start pumping early
If you will need to pump at work, don't wait until your first day back at work to pump. Start pumping early to get used to it, and to start building your freezer stock. Don't panic if the first few times you pump very little at all. Just relax, and know that you have time to get used to it. It's a different sensation and your body needs to get used to it.

3. Get help when in doubt
When in doubt, consult a midwife or lactation consultant. In Ecuador, there is less support for breastfeeding working moms, so I read a lot online, asked a friend of mine for advice all the time, and went through a lot of trial and error. Inform about who you can turn to when you have questions, and also inform what your insurance can provide you with. Some insurances in some countries cover the cost of a breastpump.

4. Find out where you'll pump at work or when traveling
Find out in advance where you will be able to pump. You'll need a clean space to pump (pumping in a bathroom is uncomfortable and significantly increases the risk for mastitis - nobody should shame you into hiding in the bathroom), somewhere to clean your pump parts, and a fridge or cooler to store the pumped milk. When you travel to a conference, ask if they have a nursing room available. Don't be afraid to ask - the organizers can't think of everybody's needs.

5. Plan your breaks
How often does your baby eat at home? You will have to pump more or less with the same frequency if you are not around your baby. For me, that means pumping every 2 hours, otherwise I will get uncomfortable. Plan your schedule around your pumping breaks, and figure out if you can do something while you pump, for example: replying emails, or reading articles. I credit the fact that our breastfeeding is going well mostly to planning for pumping and pumping for the future. I also *like* being able to plan ahead and calculate how much milk she will need for when I'm away, and steadily working towards building supplies for her.

6. Eat and drink enough
It should be a no-brainer, but the lactation period is not a time for drastic diets. Feed yourself so you can feed your child. It takes 85 kcal to produce 100 ml of breastmilk, so you need your calories. You also need to drink enough fluids. Eat a variety of foods rich in micronutrients to support your body - producing and feeding for your child is hard work, and your body needs all the help it can get.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The End of Average - or how to tailor higher education to the individual student

In "The End of Average", Todd Rose explores how "averagerianism" has impacted our society. In this book, he discusses how companies do better when they look at the individual worker instead of the average worker, and he gives ideas for tailoring higher education to the individual student rather than to the average student. You can find interviews with Rose on this topic here and here. This post describes an example of personalized higher education for an accountant. You can find a good summary of the ideas on higher education here.

I've been wrestling with the idea of how to accommodate different learning styles in the classroom in the past. When I was a student, there were courses that I preferred to study on my own - I did not attend the lectures, but sat with the material, and then just showed up for the exam. In the traditional view of higher education, that would be considered as "bad" behavior - but I prefer to sit down in silence and sketch and figure out things on my own for certain subjects. As a professor, I feel it would be strange to demand class attendance from my students when I did not always attend class myself. But I'm completely at a loss on how to fit different learning styles into my teaching and into a typical semester. A solution to this, as suggested by Rose, would be to throw away the notion of "slow" and "fast" learners, and to evaluate students when they have completed the course material. To make this possible, however, we would need to break down the semester system, and the traditional lectures.

Another topic that Rose brings up is the idea of "credentials" - certifications of certain skills that are directly applicable to job seekers. To get to a certain profile for a job you want, you can stack credentials and develop a portofolio of specific skills. I'm not so sure that this may be a good idea, for three reasons. Rose argues that traditional higher education fits into Taylorism, and the idea of laborers as average workers that can be easily replaced. However, by changing higher education so that it solely suits the needs of the industry, we may not be honoring students as individuals in the end. The second problem that I see here is that some people like myself, who love studying for the sake of studying, would never leave university. If there is no final degree, then when do you know you are "done" and can move onto the next level (MSc. or Ph.D level)? A final issue with credentials is the loss of general topics in college related to communicating and critical thinking. Unless every student is required to get a basic credential in these topics, the very heart of the university as a place for debate, lingering on thoughts, and interchange, seems to get lost.

With these aforementioned elements that I like and dislike about "The End of Average" in mind, I do would like to continue the discussion about how we can fit higher education better to the needs, learning styles, and interests of every single student instead of to the average student. What should we evaluate? How should we evaluate students? How should we teach them? In short, what can we do better?

In short - if you want to read a thought-provoking book about how to change higher education, I recommend you pick up a copy of "The End of Average".

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Maternity leave in academia

I recently ran a poll on Twitter about maternity leave in academia. I can't draw a main conclusion about the length of leave, as I learned through the interactions that there are many different schemes: paid versus unpaid, no leave versus up to a year of leave, ...

Here you can find the Storify of the discussion that followed from the poll:

Thursday, March 1, 2018

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: How to author academic books

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!

When you finish your dissertation, you may be wondering what is next. Have you considered turning your thesis into a book, either an academic book or perhaps a non-fiction book? Or when you have taken on a large project as a post-doc, and published several papers on the topic, you may feel ready to take the next step and write a book about this topic.

Granted, after finishing your dissertation or after turning in a manuscript, writing a book may be the last thing on your mind. You'd rather not type out any word again. But writing books is part of academic life, a skill to master, and a way to share your knowledge. Depending on your field, it may be a requirement for tenure, or it may simply be a step to take to grow your reputation as an authority in your field.

There are several ways to develop ideas for books to write. Your first step is always to pitch the idea to a publisher. Inquire first about the formats they use for writing a book proposal, so that you have an idea on which information you need to present your idea. Most book proposals require you to describe what the book will be about, who the book will be useful for, which other titles on the topic already exist and how your book is different, and a short chapter-by-chapter description or table of contents.

In this post, we'll zoom in to the very first step of writing a book: how can you turn a research project or other work you did into an idea for a book? There are several categories you can consider:

1. From thesis to academic book
You may think that turning your thesis into an academic book is overdone. If somebody wants to know about your research, they can read your dissertation, right? In fact, you should consider the audience. Researchers, especially those in your field, will read your dissertation. If you turn the work of your dissertation into an academic book, it should serve a broader audience. Think about the way your work can benefit practitioners and a broader academic audience. Can you include case studies, design examples, or discuss the way forward for your field based on your work? You write a dissertation as the answer to a research question, and a book as a tool for its readers - keep that in mind when you decide which topics to include.

2. From thesis to non-fiction book
If you like writing and are willing to chew on every sentence, writing a non-fiction book for the broader public can be the way to go. Go from "answering your research question" as you did in your dissertation to "telling a story" and/or "giving insights and advice" based on your research. Did you come across interesting people or anecdotes during your research? Take a storyline as the center of your narrative and move away from purely answering your research question.

3. From research project to book
A research project other than your PhD research can become a book too. If you are in the post-doc phase or are an early career researcher on the tenure track, you will not be combining the insights of your new research into a thesis anymore. Instead, you can bundle your knowledge into a book. Again, you should write the book (and of course, the book proposal first) with your reader in mind: what can they learn and use from the work you have been carrying out? Take that as your main point, and develop your work around what serves your reader.

4. From blog to book
If you write a blog about research, you can turn your posts into an e-book. With PhD Talk and AcademicTransfer, we have done this already and made our best work available as a free e-book. You too can decide to either turn your most-read posts into a "best of" e-book, or you can decide to select a number of posts around the same topic and work these into a book focused on one element.

5. From class notes to coursebook
If you are teaching, you will develop your own classnotes. You may be using a classic textbook, and develop your notes based on the textbook. If you are in a new field, if the available textbooks are outdated, or if no textbooks are applicable to the context of your location, then you will have to develop your classnotes by bringing together information from different publications, invent examples, and synthesize the information as you prepare your lectures. The next step can be to turn the information you developed yourself into a coursebook and publish it.

6. Become editor of a technical book
Being an editor to a book written with experts in your field is a whole different beast, and I certainly could devote an entire post to this. However, in this post our focus is on getting ideas for books and book proposals. If you have a number of colleagues you often see at conferences or work together with at certain occasions, you can ask for their effort in the form of contributing a chapter to an edited volume. The advantage of an edited volume is that it can shine different lights on a hot topic.

7. Become editor of a collection of essays
Besides the nitty-gritty of the technical content that you find in an edited volume, you can also act as editor of a collection of essays. Sometimes, such books are published to honor a giant in your field, and all past students and collaborators contribute with an essay on their collaboration with this giant, on life lessons he/she gave the author, or by discussing several important elements of the work of this giant. An other option for a collection of essays is combining efforts with colleagues and sharing your points of view related to higher education, foreign policy, teaching techniques...

With this list of ideas, which book project will you tackle?