James Paul Gee’s Advice to Academics

Academia is full of horror stories and advice. But this is awesome. This is James Paul Gee’s “Ramblings of an old academic: Unconfident advice for end-times academics”. It’s very much worth reading the whole thing but if you don’t then at least check out his advice:

So I have no real advice that you should take without a massive grain of salt. But here it is any way:

1. Your job as an academic is to have ideas and to put them together with other people’s ideas to make better ones with potential for real impact. This mission precedes thoughts of gain, publication, or fame.

2. Keep one foot in your college or university activities and one foot outside in a related but different activities that create fruitful and sometimes unexpected synergies.

3. Do not worry over much about protecting your ideas. Let them out in the world early and often so they can get tested and promiscuously mate with other people’s ideas. If someone steals one of your ideas and you were only going to have one good one anyway, then you would not have had a good career anyway—you have to have good ideas over the long haul.

4. Try to develop “taste”, that is, good judgment about which ideas, yours or other people’s, are tasty, deep, and have “legs” for impact into the future, even if at first they seem like weak fledglings. Champion tasty ideas even if others are skeptical and even if they are not your ideas.

5. Pick your political battles carefully. Academic politics and committees damage our minds, bodies, and souls. Pick only the battles really worth fighting for and fight them and them alone. How do you know which these are? They are the ones that when you really think about it are worth taking real risks of damage to yourself and your career for. They are the ones where winning means making the world a better place.

6. Good ideas often come from unexpected experiences, ones we are tempted not to follow up on because they might lead us away from our “field”. Every book I have written was caused by following up a lead that at first seemed marginal and strange from the perspective of how I or others construed my “field”. One example: I wrote a book on video games because my then six-year-old turned me onto them. While I was writing the book in 2001-2002 the whole idea seemed silly if I thought about it too much. I had Walter Mitty dreams of getting invited to the prestigious Game Developers Conference and creating a whole new field. None of this was likely to happen given that I was totally and utterly unknown in the world of games and given, too, at that time, no one much saw video games as relevant to literacy studies and vice-versa. But both things did happen.

7. The “game” of life is nine innings, to use another sports metaphor. Never give up if you are behind. Play out all the innings and quit only when the fat lady sings. (Sorry again for, continuing the sports metaphor that might now be seen as insensitive to over-weight people.)

8. In my life I have never worried that I was paid less or was less well known than other people. I have only asked myself if I am happy with what I have and acted to get more if and only if I wasn’t, not because other people had more. This has worked well, at least for me. I now know, having worked in education, that it is called a “mastery orientation” (competing with yourself and judging yourself by your own efforts and progress) and not an “achievement orientation” (competing to beat others and judging yourself by how you stand in relationship to others).

9. In my life, I have never cared whether I got the expected rewards others did at the same time as them or before them. I have always been a slow developer and arrived to each party, or stage of development a bit later than others. It seems only to have meant I got to savor some of the benefits later when others were already leaving the party.

10. The world is a mess. We need to at least put a finger in the collapsing dike until someone else can come up with a big idea to replace the whole thing. People will ask you how being an academic allowed you to do any real good in the world. Be sure that at the least your finger is in the dike and then tell them that’s the good you did. That is all I was and am able to do. I have just tried to put my finger in the dike. As I get older I have the fantasy that what will replace the breaking dike and stem the flood is just a wall of people side by side with their fingers in the wall. Standing there, all together, getting wet, but holding the flood at bay, they will come to realize that it is not true that individuals cannot do anything in the face of big challenges. They can put a finger in the dike and yell for others to join them. They may well come to realize then that that wall of fingers in the dike is the big idea we were all waiting for. An idea no one had but everyone contributed to. An odd picture, but the one I end with.

Ramblings of an old academic: Unconfident advice for end-times academics (PDF Download Available). Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/297675768_Ramblings_of_an_old_academic_Unconfident_advice_for_end-times_academics.


Advice to a new PhD student 3.0

My friends @benteka and @velkova have just begun their PhD studies so I decided to revamp an old text. Warning: Following advice is like entering into Phd studies. You do it at your own risk.

One: “You changed man!” – Axel Foley. Write down a list of things you want to achieve. Include ideas, expectations, dreams and hopes. Put the list into an envelope and do not open until you are halfway or two-thirds through your Phd period. Most probably you will be cynical and jaded and your advice will sound silly. Take the idealist with you.

Two: “Save it for your blog Howard.” – Leonard Hofstadter. If you have the inclination to blog – then do so. There are loads of arguments for (here) and against (here) academic blogging. Some supervisors see it as a waste of time & energy. Sure focus is good but some reasons against: You will hate your PhD project when you realize that you have no time to explore other cool stuff – blogging is a way to explore that stuff. Second, getting along in academia is all about ranking and impact. Blogging will not make you famous but it will help you push your views across. Finally, any activity which involves the formulation and presentation of ideas is an important activity for a Phd.

Three: “Follow that ostrich!” – Mr Fix. Leave the department. Go international if possible. Departments are microcosms of ideas, beliefs and practices. Reading others is good. Meeting them is better.

Four: “Be nice to people on your way up because you meet them on your way down.” – Jimmy Durante. Be helpful and friendly to your colleagues. I have NEVER understood the competitive side of some PhD students who attempt to suppress others. I will never understand the reason why certain people with PhD’s tend to forget the reality of the situation and bully PhD students. Picking on people who cannot fight back does not mean you are powerful. It means you are a weak human being.

Five: “Humour is also a way of saying something serious.” – T S Eliot. Pick a cartoon. For me the best are XKCD & Piled Higher and Deeper. You will be surprised where inspiration comes from.

Six: “Trust me, Cardiff is the safest place in the world.” – Dr Who. Don’t believe anything anyone tells you about the Phd. It is an experience. You make the experience.

Seven: “Recheck everything, Captain, question everything.” – Vulcan Ambassador Soval. Conducting research means questioning everything. Its like a return to childhood with the endless naive questioning of accepted values.

Eight: “Is it rude to Twitter during sex? To go “omg, omg, wtf, zzz”? Is that rude?” – Robin Williams. Twitter is a brilliant tool. Use it wisely.

Nine: “Who woulda guessed reading and writing would pay off.” – Homer. From the day you begin your PhD work. Write! Reading is important but don’t get stuck there. Don’t wait until you have read “everything” or the next important book before starting. If you do not have text you cannot re-write.

Ten: “Have fun, just don’t have amnesia.” – Samantha. If you do not enjoy what you do your text will reflect this. If your text reflects this then your thesis will not be interesting for the reader. If you do not enjoy what you do how are you ever going to find the energy to read all the texts, discuss them with others, write all your texts and beg others to discuss them with you?

Eleven: Expect procrastination, plan for it and embrace positive procrastination.

Twelve: Avoid the Seven Deadly Sins of Academia

Recommended reading:

You know you’re a Phd student when…

The dangers and joys of Academic Language

Butterworth I did a PhD and did NOT go mad

Matt Might’s The illustrated guide to a PhD

On philosophical advice

Not all intelligent sounding advice is actually good advice and most philosophical advice is on the level of a bad sound-bite. Most of it just sounds cool but is totally useless real life applications. The latest strip from Jorge Cham of PhD comics has come online:

What this means in real life thesis writing (if I now may offer some advice…) is not to dig to deeply into “how-to-write-a-phd-or-masters” books since they are filled with obvious advice and keep you busy reading the wrong things. I think that Nike had the right approach with their slogan “Just do it”.

The value of hunger

Towards the end of The Godfather (1972) Vito Corleone has handed over his business to his son and he admits to getting more tired, older and less interested. He sums it all up with the words: “I like to drink wine more than I used to.” What the old man was saying was that he had lost his edge, his competitiveness – his hunger.

Not long ago I blogged about the importance of failure on daring to fail and learning from failure, instead of trying to forget it ever happened, but what is needed before this is the desire, drive, hunger to move ahead. Now hunger in situations like this is a strange thing since it is not really the same thing as wanting something – these are easily confused.

Wanting something is easy and requires no effort. I want to run a marathon, pass an exam, write a book or travel the world. Wants are cheap and plentiful. Hunger on the other hand is the drive that is required to acheive a want. It’s easy enough to quote Nike’s old slogan: Just do it! but actually doing it is not that easy.

Hunger comes and goes – there are plenty of tips and tricks around not to let your hunger be frizzled unneccessarily due to lack of some other need (sleep, food, exercise or time) but what can be done to ensure that the hunger remains within us?

Sorry if this seems like a strange rant – its just something that bugged me today.

On pessimistic advice

Recently my mind has be returning to a quote from Cela. Not that I managed to remember it correctly more the actual sentiment. In the beginning of the week I was judging Cela as a pessimist for his words and then the further the week went the more my view of Cela changed. Today, the end of the week, I no longer feel that Cela is a pessimist. Maybe he isn’t the happiest of men, but there may be value in his advice that should not be cast aside by crying “pessimist”…

Sometimes one has frightening sensations of well-being, strong enough to move mountains; one must fight them courageously, as one would fight an enemy. And then, with the passage of time, they leave something like a drop of gall in ones heart…
Camilo Jose Cela – Journey to the Alcarria

Or maybe I am not having a good week. Thank god it’s Friday…