Doing Academia

I’ve been listening to @tferriss interview Rick Rubin about how he helps creatives (musicians) find their muse and create excellent work. Rick makes the point that if you are in a creative pursuit then you need to surround yourself with excellent examples of creativity. Furthermore, he says it doesn’t matter where this excellence comes from – poetry, a museum, a book, a film – as long as you have access to excellence and tap into it regularly.

What stops excellence, he says, is when the creative person begins to compare themselves with others, losing the focus on what they are trying to create and becoming distracted by those things that are not the work. Once this happens, it is easy to lose confidence, to think that you are not as good as that other person, or that your work will never be as widely read/heard/seen/acknolwedged as that other person’s is. Once you go down that path, it is hard to turn it around.

Rick’s advice? Focus on doing your own work, but each day that you do it, do it a little better than you did the day before.

This advice rang true for me. When I’m not focussing on my work but instead worried about my relative success in terms of my career (will that other person get promoted before I do? Are my teaching reviews as good or better than others in my field? Is my work interesting enough? Is my writing good enough? …) my work suffers. I lose momentum. I stop writing. I obsess over the unimportant, rather than doing the work I need to do to get better.

It doesn’t help that the academy is built on a hierarchy, or that universities are brutally competitive places and that promotion within departments often comes at someone else’s expense. It’s easy to get distracted by the minutiae of promotion applications and petty jealousies (professional or otherwise).

I’m not alone when I complain about the lack of resources in our sector, or the lack of time available to undertake all the teaching, research and administrative tasks that academia calls for, but I do have a choice about how I respond to those challenges. We all do.

We can either get sucked into the vortex of doing academia or we can concentrate on being academic. One of these paths will lead to success. The other, not so much.

Developing a teaching strategy – workshop

I’m please to be able to announce that I’ll be giving a workshop on Developing a Teaching Strategy as part of a series hosted by my university and ANZAM (Australian and New Zealand Academy of Management).

In this workshop I’ll be discussing how to pull together a “teaching strategy” that includes a combination of what kinds of activities are needed and how to go about automating as many of them as possible to ensure consistent quality, timeliness and efficiency.

The session is ostensibly for Early Career Academics, however I’ll also provide an overview of the processes I go through and some of the technologies I use that more experienced academics might find useful as well.

If you are an ECA or are interested in developing a teaching strategy, then come along and say hi.

For more information and registration (free!) visit this page.


26th March, 2015


11:15-12:00 Noon


The Experimedia Room, State Library of Victoria, 328 Swanston, Melbourne, Victoria.


You can register for this workshop here. Registration is free, but places are limited.

State Library of Victoria Google Map


Accountability matters. It’s important to be able to demonstrate progress towards goals for two reasons:

  1. If people can see what your goals are, they are in a better position to advise and/or help
  2. If you publish your progress publicly, it can act as a motivating factor for completion

I’ve added a section to this blog called “project dashboards“. This is where I put the details of the the current projects that I’m working on and how far much progress I’ve made towards completing them. I’ve added a menu item to the top of this site so that anyone who wants to can see how I’m travelling. The idea that others can see at any time where I am at reminds me to keep focussed and keep moving forward.

Feel free to have a look.

Universities as Living ‘Laboratories’

Between March 11th and 13th I’ll be at the National Convention Centre in Canberra, Australia presenting our research on living laboratories. This is part of the Universities Australia Higher Education Conference. This research looks at what it takes for Universities to operate in partnership with industry and develop ‘living laboratories’ where students, academics and  industry can come together to solve complex problems. We’ve managed to do it in my strategic management course which has over 300 students per semester – getting it to work at that scale is tough. My presentation will explain what to do and what to avoid.

I’ve only been to Canberra once before and I really like the place. I can see why @thesiswhisperer moved there to work at ANU.

While I’m there I’m going to take the opportunity to further explore the maps collection at the National Library of Australia and continue on with my other stream of research – mapping. I’m interested in the activity of mapping as being a representative discourse. Specifically, I’m interested in how mapping and the practice of strategy can intersect.

If you are in Canberra at that time, come along to the Poster Hall and say hi. If you are interested in maps, maybe we can go and check out the @nlagovau collection together and nerd out (just a little bit). I’d love to hear about your research and I’ll even buy you a coffee – especially if you know where to find the best coffee in Canberra.

Upcoming Speaking Engagement – Using Video in Teaching

I’m please to announce that I’m helping facilitate a workshop for academics who wish to use video and podcasts in their teaching. The workshop is described as:

This practical workshop will introduce academic and teaching staff to the use of short films and podcasts to engage learners and support learning and teaching. It will explore how to develop an idea into a film or podcast, record it simply using a smartphone, and use it effectively in face-to-face, blended and online modes of delivery.

I’ve been using video in my teaching more and more in the past couple of years and I’m slowly figuring out how to produce (relatively) high quality video for very little cost. I’m by no means a Hollywood director, but I manage to do some passable stuff.

There is very little ‘semi-professional’ grade video out there available for people to use in their classrooms. Most of the videos that ARE available on YouTube are poorly shot, have terrible audio and aren’t focussed enough for students.

My ongoing project is to try and change that – at least for the students who are taking my course.  😉

The workshop details are:

June 30th, 2015:  3:00pm-4:00pm

Building 80, Level 4, Room 20.

I’m sure that if you wanted to come along I could arrange for guest access – just send me a tweet: @jasondowns

Upcoming speaking engagements

I’ve been lucky enough to get invited along to participate in two speaking engagements on the next week or so. While they are very different kinds of speaking engagements, the common element is that I was asked to participate because of the way I use Twitter. For the first I was approached by the good people at the CAVAL Reference Group who had seen some of my work relating to productivity hacks, while in the second, my use of Twitter in the classroom meant that I was selected for a research project which subsequently has seem me interviewed and selected for the upcoming panel session.

The details for each are:

On November 26th I’m giving the closing keynote at the CAVAL reference group’s Information Literacy Seminar titled: Information Literacy and Beyond: To boldly go where no librarian has gone before. []. It looks like a fascinating agenda covering everything from learning design, to remote research classes, to alt-metrics. I’ll be speaking about my Adventures In Extreme Productivity series and (hopefully) wrapping the day up on a positive note. I intend to break down he process of hacking the time we have to get the kinds of results we want.

On December 1st, I’m a panel member as part of the @RMIT research project looking into the practices of teachers who have gone beyond just using BlackBoard in their classes. The session will be MC’d by Tania Lacy (@tanialacy) and it should be  some good fun. If you’d like to come along, you can see the details here: [] and register here. It’s being held in RMIT Building 80, 12:30-1:30pm on December 1st.(ignore where on the registration page that says Wednesday 19th November).

If you can make it to either/both I’d love to see you. Come up and say hi (or just heckle me over Twitter).

Going beyond ‘student’ presentations

I’m so very proud of my students – the very top performers will be presenting their semester’s work to some of the executives of The Australian Red Cross Blood Service this Friday. They’ve worked incredibly hard this semester, my students, and today we gathered for a presentation masterclass with the aim of transforming what they know about giving presentations into something professional and what I like to call “boardroom ready”.

It surprises me every semester when I run these classes that the students have been able to get so far through university and no-one has taught them how to create a professional presentation. It seems no-one teaches them about structure, about the use of metaphor, about how to connect with an audience through the use of emotion. This saddens me.

So I thought I’d share two great presentations here that I show the students in the masterclass. The first one is of Nancy Duarte who gives a great introduction to what actually makes a great presentation. The video is 20 minutes long, but it’s well worth watching.

If you watch this presentation, pay close attention to not only what she is trying to say (her message) but also the way in which she is saying it. Her message is that good presentations have an identifiable structure, that if you follow this structure, then your presentation can also turn out well. If you pay attention to the process of her presentation you can see that she is modelling the ideas that she is trying to convey. This presentation is worth watching a few times and I ask my students to break it down, both content and process, to get to the heart of what makes a good presentation.

Some questions I ask my students include:

  • What is the main theme in this presentation?
  • What techniques does Nancy use to improve the power of her presentation?
  • What do you notice about her slides?
  • How does Nancy connect the beginning of the presentation with the end?

Often it comes as a surprise to my students that the art of crafting a good presentation is as complex as it is presented here. They are often so very keen to dive right into the design of the slides and start to pull the Powerpoint deck together that they underdo the thinking and planning of the presentation. The designing of the slides (if they are going to be used at all) should come at the end, not the beginning.

Another example of a good presentation that I like to show is one of Ben Zander talking about classical music. Ben is clearly a master presenter. He is charismatic, talented, funny and so very engaged.  It’s clear that Ben has given this presentation many many times (or one very much like it) and he is truly comfortable in front of the audience. But like Nancy’s presentation above, if you analyse what Ben is doing throughout his presentation, you can begin to see familiar themes arising. Ben uses cadence and rhythm to give structure to his presentation and he uses humour to great effect, punctuating his presentation with jokes and stories to keep the audience interested. However, the strength of Ben’s presentation is not the techniques that he uses to structure a great talk, but his use of emotion to connect with his audience.

On Friday my students will be trying to get their big ideas across to our industry representatives. They’ll have 15 minutes to present their findings and they’ll have 10 minutes of QandA to answer any tricky questions. All the work we have been doing throughout the semester comes to a very sharp point. I’m confident that they know their stuff, the trick will be if can they communicate it effectively. Ultimately the main lesson on Friday will not be how ‘good’ their presentation is, but how much they learn about making a good presentation as they prepare. It’s the same lesson that they tackled throughout the semester with their reports. It’s not the final report that matters, but what they had to learn in order to make the final report.

Process matters.

The Experiential Turn – Mapping and research

On Wednesday 12th November I was a “conversationalist” in an event sponsored by the Design Research Institute at RMIT University. A bunch of experienced and early career researchers (ECRs) came together to talk about our research, explore what each of us are doing and to have a larger conversation about the experience of research. My role was to facilitate the discussion and prompt, prod and ask questions and generally kept things moving along in an interesting way.

To help with this task I brought along some artefacts, some maps, from An Atlas of Radical Cartography. Inside are ten maps that serve to challenge our conceptions of what a map is and also force us to ask questions about such things as legitimacy, agency and power.

Our table discussed such issues as:

  • how, as researchers, do we conceive our audiences for our research. Who is our research for?
  • do we make transparent in our research that which is normally hidden? Do we surface our micro-decisions?
  • how do we account for the fact that research design and method selection have an inextricable link with what we eventually ‘show’?
  • If we were to represent our research in map form, would we draw maps of that which already exists, or would we be drawing maps of that which is yet to be?
  • what does it mean when our maps (research) gets published? Is unpublished research somehow illegitimate?

It was a fascinating 90 minutes and it flew by. All too soon it was over.

You can scroll through the photos above to get a sense of what occurred on our table. I would love to have been a ‘roving conversationalist’ – it seemed that there were extremely interesting conversations happening all around the room.

Many thanks to Jeremy Yuille for inviting me along to participate!

The Turn – Exploring with maps

I’m pleased to announce that I’m one of the ‘conversationalists’ at the Design Research Institute seminar @RMIT next Wednesday, 12th November.

My role is to prod, prompt and help the participants to explore their (our!) roles as early career researchers with a focus on cross-disciplinarity.

I’ll be bringing some maps along and I’m really looking forward to seeing what my ‘table’ comes up with. I think this is a great initiative from the uni.

If you want to pop in for a look, or even better, join the conversation, you can see all the details on the invitation which I’ve included below.

I hope to see you there!

The Turn: Experiential Discourse – (invitation)