Process vs. Product

One of my coworkers asked me recently what my best advice was for getting through the tenure and promotion and research process.

Mine: Find colleagues to work with. Don’t try to do this alone.

In my post in July, I wrote an extensive list of names with thank yous — many of them my research or project partners. There are some common themes. Most of them are women. Many of them are within about 5-7 years of me age wise. Most of them are also academics.

And many of them are Product.

This is a knitting analogy that I am borrowing from Stephanie Pearl-McPhee. She describes this extensively as it relates to the craft world in her book Stephanie Pearl-McPhee Casts Off: The Yarn Harlot’s Guide to the Land of Knitting. Summarily, she identifies two types of knitters:

  • Process Knitters — those who knit because they enjoy the process of knitting, the repetitive stitches, the calming effect, the movement of yarn.
  • Product Knitters — those who knit because they enjoy having a pair of socks or seeing the accomplishment of a cabled sweater

As with most things, knitters tend to be on a spectrum of Process v. Product. I certainly was in Product mode a couple of weeks ago as I churned through 3 hats (Mama, Papa, and Baby) for a baby shower and this also describes my usual frantic self towards the end of a Loopy Academy challenge and/or Christmas knitting. (Go see the knitting blog for more details about that).

Generally, however, I am a Process Knitter. This is why I have knit 70+ pair of 1×1 rib socks. It’s why AudioGirl sighs when she hears I’ve started yet another Log Cabin Baby Blanket. Contemplating hours of simple knitting doesn’t bother me. It’s usually to take the edge off while I’m trying to think about other things, read a paper, listen to an audiobook, pay attention to a webinar, not totally check out during a faculty meeting. It’s not that I don’t enjoy complicated knitting, but for me the primary focus of my craft is enjoying the journey.

This translates often to how I approach research projects. I’m interested in designing, gathering data, getting into the weeds of whatever it is that we’re working on. I’ll pull us back for a secondary analysis, point out an interesting tangent, and keep things rolling along.

My research partners tend to be Product people. They have an end goal (paper, curriculum, presentation) and we are getting from A->B.  They want the pair of socks.

My most productive research collaborations are when I am paired with a Product person who is happy to take that roll. I can pull them back; they can pull me forward. I catch details, they make sure we have a timely object out the door.  For myself, I struggle much more with a project when I have to be the Product person. I’m certainly capable and have done it, but it takes more effort.

We do not always get to choose who and what balance of Process/Product end up on committees, team-assigned projects, or among our coworkers. But for some of our research or projects, this is an option and I’ve found it useful to identify which of us is what.  If you’re both Process, you may need to sort out how to meet deadlines so the paper doesn’t sit forever; if you’re both Product, how do you slow down to see the changes that may need to be.

It helps too that you usually have the same end goal: a paper or a poster proposal. You may just vary on the path and direction each of you takes.  My Product colleagues have helped me find a shorter path and reach the goal and I drag them off into the weeds at times to find an interesting flower I’m sure I can just see over there.

And it means neither of us is going alone. That helps too.