Managing the sluff



As a family we recently signed up to Netflix. Or as we call it in our house – ‘Netcrack’.

Work is, as usual, insanely busy, and the Canberra winters can be bitterly cold, so I find myself on the couch with the remote in my hand most weeknights. The problem great thing about endless, on demand film and TV is you find yourself watching things you would never, ever choose to watch on TV , borrow from a video store(remember those?) or buy as a DVD.

This is why, one evening last week, while my boys amused themselves with video games, I found myself watching a couple of Jeremy Jones documentaries.

For those of you not familiar with his work, Jones is a ‘free-rider’ who climbs mountains and snowboards down them for a living. Can you see Jones trudging up this slope?

Yeah. He’s tiny right?

That’s one serious whack of mountain. Jones spends hours and hours, flying around the world, climbing these kinds of mountains and speeding back down them on his snowboard (and producing perfectly crafted product placement shots).

It makes for thrilling TV. The images are beautiful, and startlingly clear – thanks to those new digital cameras, which he straps on his body. It’s like watching footage of a rollercoaster, but you know – with snow and rocks and stuff. Since I can manage to fall over on flat snow while standing still on my skis, from my perspective it’s much better than actually being there.

But it’s not just the thrills, these films are a window on to the snowboarding world, of which I know next to nothing. As a would be anthropologist, I nerd out on all the details, especially the particular use of language. Take for instance the word ‘sluff’, which the Urban Dictionary defines as:

“The snow that is set into movement when snowboarding or skiing in steep terrain (above 40 degrees)… If the slope is sufficiently steep for a couple hundred meters, the sluff can get very fast. One turn on top of a steep face can cause a sluff that reaches avalanche-like proportions. A relatively small sluff can knock a snowboarder/skier off his feet and take him for a fast and dangerous ride down to the end of the slope or over a cliff.

Sluff looks like this:


See that cloud behind him? If Jones isn’t agile, and doesn’t move quickly enough, he will be engulfed in the sluff he has created and fall off the board – or worse. Some of the shots of this actually happening when he is moving at 70 miles an hour are heart stopping. A lot of the narration on Jeremy Jones films is about ‘sluff management’.

Sluff. What a fun word. Take a moment to say it aloud: “sluff”.

I love finding new words, especially ones that perfectly describe a phenomena you experience all the time but don’t have a name for. You see, I’m always getting caught in my own research sluff.

I tend to work fast – generating findings, making connections, thinking of ideas. Along the way I make many small pieces of writing. If you don’t take steps to manage the little bits and pieces of text as you go, that writing sluff is going to bury you.

One of the most obvious forms of writing sluff is references. I’ll admit I tend to pop references in a bracket with a note to myself rather than use the cite-while-you-write function. Sometimes I pause long enough to run a highlighter over it, but often I don’t. Later I have to spend hours, wading through my referencing sluff to find the right paper and get all the commas in order. In a thesis sized project that sluff will kill you (use a referencing system).

Note-taking sluff is perhaps the most dangerous. By the time you get to a thesis you will have what my colleague Shaun Lehmann calls ‘fossilised habits’. If you continue to unreflectively scribble stuff in margins, or on scraps of paper, that note-taking sluff is going to engulf you before too long.

Online databases are one answer. I’m a huge Evernote fan, but I don’t think it’s the whole solution. The trick to not being engulfed in your own note taking sluff is to recognise the types of notes you are making.

Have you noticed that some great ideas happen when you are doing something else? I thought up the Thesis Whisperer blog while I was in the shower. Old fashioned technology of pen and paper is the quickest way to get random thoughts on paper (after you have dried yourself off of course!).

The interesting thing about the ‘frozen thought’ kind of note taking is that I rarely, if ever, read them later. The act of note taking is more important than the note itself. Taking the note slows the thought down for long enough for me to see if it’s any good.

The notes you take for your literature sections are different. The form of the note and where you keep it is very important. I now write literature notes directly into my paper or chapter instead of into a database or separate document where it can easily get lost.

By writing notes straight into your paper or chapter, you avoid making unfocussed observations about what you are reading. You are forced to read more carefully and relate the note you are making to your own work, rather than just generate unfocussed observations. A pile of unfocussed observations is just sluff you will have to deal with later.

There’s a more detailed outline of how this writing method works here and I’ve put a verb cheat sheet that I use to help me do this online in my downloadable worksheet section.

But now I’m wondering what you think? Do you generate research sluff? Does it ever engulf you? What do you do to manage the sluff? Love to hear about it in the comments.