Category Archives: Academia

Taming My Distracted Mind

There is mounting evidence that digital devices, screens, smartphones are a real roadblock to productivity. The very tools that are supposed to make us more productive might be robbing us of that ability.

The Modern Worker

I’m a psychology professor at a large research institution. This means that although I do spend some time teaching in a large lecture hall, mostly I’m in my office writing, reading, doing email, attending meetings, and planning…that is, spending my time like many other modern workers. I’ve been at this for a while and I can still recall a time when not everyone had an email address, when research articles had to be printed, when submitting my work to a journal meant actually mailing four identical copies of the manuscript to the publisher. But nearly all of that is now done on line. I sit at my desk to do email, to read, to analyze data, to access research papers, to grade assignments, comment on student work …everything. And lately this has expanded to me writing and managing email at home, at breakfast on my phone, reading email in a faculty meeting on my phone, in bed on my phone…in the bathroom on my phone. An really…why am I doing my work in the bathroom?

What’s more, everything is being carried out on a device or a browser that is also used for recreation media consumption and social media. I read news, play games, and watch baseball games on my laptop. I watch sports on my laptop and tweet about the game at the the same time.

What this means is that my workstation is essentially also a playstation.

A Tired Mind

Lately I’m finding that a week of desk/computer work leaves my mind feeling like mush. Much more cognitive fatigue that there used to be. I’m less able to focus on my work. I can’t read the whole way through a paper. I’ll start and email and write two lines and then my attention wanders. It did not used to be this way, and it’s not just because I’m getting older (I’m a few weeks shy of 47). I think my work habits have begun to tire me out.

Meditation does help in this regard…I can meditate for 10–15 minutes with little difficulty. And running helps too: I can run for an hour without getting bored and feel refreshed (not tired)

But the minute I’m at my desk I slide right back into the habit of having 10 browser tabs open…each one vying for my attention.  No matter what I try, the second I sit down at my university office or home office to write, I lose my ability to concentrate on my work. It starts with email, and then 10 minutes of local news, maybe twitter….some more email. And back and forth and them I’m still working on the same email.

Some remedies

I’ve started taking steps this week to create some “digital distance” at work. Small habits to try to improve my work experience. None of this is scientific: I’m just trying to retrain. And I’m not so much interested in being more productive…just less tired.

  1. I’m printing more and screen reading less. This goes for articles, student work, and editing my own work. (don’t worry: I’m recycling the paper by printing on the back of other used paper!)
  2. This is big one: After many years of running everything through a browser and Gmail, I’m switching back to an actual email client (Spark Mail App for mac). That way, when I decide to do email, I’m ONLY doing email and not tempted to read FB, Twitter, news, etc. in another tab. Gmail or Outlook webmail was killing me for that because “hey you already have Chrome open, just leave a tab open for twitter”. So Chrome is closed when I’m responding to email.
  3. My lab and my graduate students are now on Slack (not email) so that when I’m doing project management, research planning, and advising, I can concentrate on that and nothing else. I close can Chrome and email
  4. I’ve turned all the notifications off on my smart phone, except texts/calls from my wife & kids, and their school.
  5. No posting to social media in the morning, because I’ll just be thinking about whether not there are hits. This is another big one. I’ll post something at breakfast or comment and then keep checking.I’ve already completely deactivated Facebook to make this even easier. My students and I are even carrying out a research study on this specific topic (more detail on that later..when the data are in).

I’m curious if others are finding similar things. Do you think that your productivity has waned? Do you think that working all day on a screen is reducing your ability to concentrate? Have you taken steps to correct this or retrain your mind? I’d be interested in hearing.

Almost no one reads my work. Should I care?

I recently read an article that has been going around social media in which the authors argue that basically no one is reading academic journals. They argue that in order to be heard, and in order to shape policy, professors and academics should be writing Op-Eds.

The article, which I’ve linked to here,  should be read with a few caveats. First of all, the authors suggest that the average academic paper is read in total by about 10 people. They provide no evidence or information about how they arrived at that estimate. Second, they are writing from the standpoint of social science and political science. In other words, the results may not apply to other disciplines. That said, I believe there are many reasons to take their idea seriously.

There are too many articles published every year.

There are so many scientific and academic journals operating right now. For example, the popular journal PLoS ONE  published 31,500  articles in 2013… That’s 86 articles a day.  In 2014, the published even more….33,000 articles. Only one of them was from my lab.  Now I happen to think that this particular article was a really good paper. It was based on my student Rachel’s master’s thesis. But it’s only one of over 30,000 articles that year. According to the statistics on their own site, there were about 1400 views of our article. So far it’s been cited twice.  Is that good? Is that enough?  Should I care? After all, it’s only one paper of many that I have published in the last few years

This is only the tip of the iceberg. As I said, this is one journal. There are other large journals like PLoSONE.  And there are many, many smaller journals with limited output. But still, it’s estimated that this year alone there will be over 2 million articles published.  Even if you assume that within your own field, it’s only a few thousand every year, finding the ones that matter can still be a problem. If you use Google scholar (and I do) to research, you may have noticed that it  it tends to place heavily cited articles at the top of the search. This is good, because it gives you a sense of which articles have had the most impact in the field. This is bad because the first thing you see is the same article that everyone else has cited for the last 20 years. Unless you take the time to adjust your search, you are not going to see any of the new work.

And as if this isn’t problem enough, there have been widely reported problems with the academic publishing world. For example some journals have even had to withdraw articles, many articles, when it was revealed that they were entirely computer-generated gibberish.  There are also hundreds and hundreds of so-called “predatory” journals in which the peer review is nonexistent, standards for publication are very low, and the journals operate solely to make money publishing papers that otherwise wouldn’t be published. You can see a list of these predatory journals here.  Even journals published by well-known companies have had difficulty recently. In some cases, editors have been accused of accepting articles with little or no to review.

Why do we do this?

I cannot speak for other academics, but within my field and for me, the reason is simple. It’s my job. As a professor in a large research institution, part of my job is to carry out scientific research, and publish the scientific research in peer-reviewed journals. Publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals was necessary for me to obtain tenure. It is necessary for me to be able to compete for federal research dollars. Other forms of communication can help in terms of getting the message out, but as it stands now, publishing a popular article, a textbook, a Op-Ed, a newspaper article, or even a popular blog essentially does not count. I might as well be doing that on my own time. Which, I suppose I am.

So in essence, we have a designed and embraced system that rewards publications in one format and does not reward publications in other formats. Unfortunately, the format that is rewarded is one in which almost no one outside of the immediate field will ever read.

What do we do about this?

I am not entirely sure what to do about this, but I do believe that it is a real problem. I’m not suggesting that scientists and academics abandon publishing in academic journals. In fact, I still think that’s exactly where primary research belongs. As long as the peer review is being carried out properly, editors are behaving properly, and editorial standards are high, this is exactly where you want your best work to appear. I also don’t want it to be the case that scientists and academics begin pursuing popular media at the expense of academic publishing.

What I would like to see, however, is an appropriate balance. It might be time for internal performance review committees and promotion and tenure committees to broaden the scope of what counts as scientific, academic, and scholarly contributions. This will provide some incentive for researchers to publicize their work. At the very least, researchers should not be penalized  for attempting to engage the public in their research. A successful research program is one that publishes in different outlets and for different audiences. We do this in my department, we work with the local public library, for example, to engage in popular science topics in psychology.  Our research communication office works long and hard to publicize and promote research. However, much of this is still considered to be secondary.

Another possibility, one that is suggested by the editorial staff at PLoSONE,  is for individual researchers to publicize their own work.  Researchers should share and Tweet their research as well as others.  And there are other formats, Google+, for example hosts a large scientific community that publicizes research, shares research, and even organizes virtual conferences. I’ve taken part in some of these, and they can be an effective way to share your work.

In the end, I wonder if we should all slow down, work more carefully, and think long and hard about the quality of our research versus the quantity of our publication output.  Otherwise, I think there is a real concern that the signal will be completely drowned out by the noise.

The Fine Print in the Syllabus

The end of July brings the realization that that I’ll be teaching graduate and undergraduate courses again in the fall, and that I need to prepare readings, lectures, and an official course outline for each course. In addition to being distributed to students on the first day of class, these outlines are archived and publicly available on the web. For example, here is the outline for the summer distance course that I am teaching this year . Here is the outline from the last time I taught the Introduction to Cognition course. My graduate courses use a similar format, and here is the outline from last fall’s graduate seminar on cognition. As you can see, there is a lot of information about the course, but also a lot of slightly silly stuff directing them to websites about other policies.

Fine Print

Every year, when I send these course outlines to the department’s undergraduate coordinator, I am informed that I have used the wrong template or have forgotten something.

For example. Last year, I forgot this:

“Computer-marked multiple-choice tests and/or exams may be subject to submission for similarity review by software that will check for unusual coincidences in answer patterns that may indicate cheating.”

Do the students need to know this up front? Is it not enough that we tell them not to cheat? Can they file an appeal if they were caught cheating and did not know that I was going to check ?

Not So Fine Print

Every year the list of non academic information that is required gets longer and longer. For example, this year I forgot to include a mental health statement. According to the university, I need to include the following statement in all course outlines:

“If you or someone you know is experiencing emotional /mental distress, there are several resources here at Western to assist you.  Please visit:  http://www.uwo.ca/uwocom/mentalhealth/ for more information on these resources and on mental health.”

I think this is a very strange thing to have in a course outline. It has nothing to do with my class. Surely students already know about non academic services, like mental health services?  And why stop there, maybe I should also consider a referral to the student health services if they or someone they know is experiencing a pain in their foot? Or to the gym if they are experiencing weakness in the upper torso? Or to a cooking class if they are malnourished. We have not yet been asked to issue “trigger warnings”  but I know that’s probably coming…

What is the intent here? I’m not suggesting that student not be informed of all the options available to them in terms of university life. I just wonder how relevant it is to the course outline. I id not think this kind of information belongs in my course outline.

Is it about control?

I think much of this is about the university exerting top down control. Requiring a series of statements for each course outline is a subtle power play. Academics sometimes like feel immune to the “TPS report” mentality, but we get it, and it gets worse each year.

In 2003, when I began teaching at Western, I created a syllabus, handed it out, taught the class, turned in the grades. Now, 11 years later, I use information from an official template for the syllabus, I send it for “approval” by the undergraduate office (it might be sent back), I sent it to IT to be posted, I  teach the course, I approve alternative exam dates at the request of the academic counsellor, when I turn in the grades, these are checked also to make sure they are not too high or too low. Ten years ago we had a chair… Now we have a chair plus 2 1/2 associate chairs (I was one of them for 4 years). Ten years ago, departments ran nearly every aspect of their own graduate programs, Now we have a central authority that has control over how exams are run, the thesis, and even the specific offer of admission. The letter that we write to students to offer admission to our graduate program is from a template, and any changes must to be approved. This letter gets longer and more confusing each year. It’s our TPS report. One of many TPS reports.

University, Inc.

The university is a business. I know it, everyone knows it.

Every year, we are informed  that we need to meet targets for enrolment, to put “bums in seats”. We are required to continually be seeking external funding and grants, to teach courses that will have appeal to student registered in different programs, to attach more graduate students. We’ve been asked to “sex up” the title of a course to see if more people will sign up. We now need to report on “internationalization” activities. That’s a buzzword, folks. We’re doing buzzword reports.

I’m not naive, I know the pressures. I’m just disappointed. And worried that it’s getting worse each year.