Academic Work

I was in the middle of re-reading Joel Spolsky’s 2002 essay “Strategy Letter V” and thinking about how the microeconomic notion of “commoditizing your complements” applies to the current academic situation, when I wondered what he had written about in the last few months. One of his essays is about the nature of inventory management for producers of software. (The essay is titled “Software Inventory.”)

Software inventory? you ask. What, there’s bits lying around the floors of cubicles?

Okay, bits don’t lie around floors, and they don’t cost anything to store on your hard drive, but storing them on your hard drive and not actually sending them off to your customers does cost you something, and that’s Spolsky’s point. The same is true for other content creators: that idea for an essay or article you have lying around doesn’t do you any good if it’s not under consideration at a journal and/or getting published somewhere.

Scholars have a more difficult time with making this particular metaphor work fully: unlike scientists and software producers, our products are far less iterable — in the sense that software can undergo multiple releases and/or updates and scientists often produce multiple reports out of the same research project. Scholars in the humanities often have to let one essay or book be their single output for a given project — the market isn’t necessarily keen on having multiple outputs on the same topic. One person who divided up his outputs successfully, both for himself and for the market, is Henry Glassie. His work in Ireland resulted in four distinct publications, each of which stands on its own and does not duplicate the other works in a way that the market rejects: All Silver and No Brass (1975), Irish Folk History (1982), Passing the Time in Ballymenone (1982), and Irish Folktales (1985) — and this list does not include his later revisitation of all this work in The Stars of Ballymenone (2006).

Another way of saying this is that Glassie, it seems like I am always concluding this, got it early in his career and has consistently stayed ahead of the changing academic scene.

Getting back to Spolsky, he compares software production to the factory floor in the following way:

Think of product ideas as the raw material. Depending on your process, product ideas may go through several assembly line points before they are delivered as finished features to the customer:

  1. a decision-making process (should we implement this feature?)
  2. a design process (specs, whiteboards, mockups, etc)
  3. an implementation process (writing code)
  4. a testing process (finding bugs)
  5. a debugging process (fixing bugs)
  6. a deployment process (sending code to customers, putting it on web server, etc)

Fortunately, scholars tend not to work in teams, and so we don’t face the kind of delays, aka choke points, that others do when trying to steer an idea through the process that leads from conception to publication. Unfortunately, we do not work in teams, which means we do not have others to poke us when we are ourselves the delay and/or choke point in the process. You win some; you lose some, even when you work alone. Or, maybe especially when you work alone.

We could transform the list above into one for academics, and that might be worth doing at some point, but I think Spolsky’s larger point is really the one worth dwelling upon here: “In between each of these stages, inventory can pile up.” Every scholar knows this, I bet. Almost everyone I know has folders, paper or electronic, full of stuff that might make for a future course offering or publication. Some, like me, are intellectual handymen / packrats, who find a myriad of topics interesting and sense a larger synthesis is possible … if only they had the time.

Well, let’s face it, that time rarely comes — if you work at an institution that has a reasonable (any kind of) framework for sabbaticals and/or course releases, then this probably doesn’t apply to you, or it applies to a lesser degree. And so you need to find some way to just get stuff out and move on. Spolsky’s response was to develop Trello, which is a card-based task management system for individuals and groups that allows you to see the clutter which you attract by making you confront the number of cards you deal yourself and others.

His original idea for Trello was, he notes, something he wanted to call Five Things: “It was going to be a project manager where everybody was allowed to have five things assigned to them: two things they were actively doing, one thing that was “up next”, and a couple more that they were planning.” That’s a nice division of things. How would I apply it to my own research? Like this:

  • ACTIVE 1: drafting paper for ISCLR conference
  • ACTIVE 2: writing new sections for boat book
  • UP NEXT: revising older sections of boat book
  • PLANNING 1: book on “everything is not a story”
  • PLANNING 2: second essay on AFS intellectual history with Jonathan Goodwin

Two things are about the boat book, and I’m okay with that, given how much the deadline looms in my life, and, just as importantly, it reveals my own recent willingness to hack off intellectual projects for which I had no time.

There’s a host of projects that I would like to address, but I think it’s time to let them go. Lean and mean, indeed. I don’t think I will ever be the disciplined thinker and writer that others are, but I think it’s time to get more discipline. I sense some real possibilities here. (I have to agree with my wife that even two books probably won’t be enough to get us out of our current situation, given the overall job market, but we can’t know that until we both get there. There’s always hope!)

On Expertise

A recent article in Entrepreneur magazine reminded me of my own days as a business consultant, but what really struck me was how much it sounded exactly like the kind of activities that academic faculty already engage in or are being asked to engage in:

Are you an expert? If so, you might be able to profit from your expertise in a side business apart from your everyday work. How? By selling products teaching other people about your area of expertise. You may have a hobby and find yourself answering other people’s questions about what you do in online chat rooms. Or you may have developed great ways to perform services in a particular business. You may be able to package what you know into an information product. It might take the form of traditional books, audio programs, videos or DVDs, magazines, newsletters, ebooks, membership websites, teleseminars and webinars, telecoaching programs, seminars and conferences, and combinations of these. Businesspeople and consumers alike need to learn about solutions to problems they have in a convenient and useful format.

Consulting as “side work” is quite common among business and engineering faculty, but less common in the humanities and in those sciences that are further away from the “applied” arena. Curiously, much of the discourse around web entrepreneurship — I am thinking here specifically of bloggers and others who host similar independent content creation sites — advocate a very similar set of activities: get exposure in as many channels and arenas as possible.

Let’s hope it works. I am certainly going to try for it.