This semester, I'm teaching a third-year Communication Ethics course in which students complete written responses to questions relative to a specific case study each week. My faculty/department doesn't have writing-intensive courses, which makes me wild with rage. My friends, this is a hill that I'm willing to die on. Therefore, each week I post a discussion question for students with the self-imposed requirement that it is both fun and academic. I grade them all and provide detailed feedback within a few days (note: I don't have a TA). I've found a series of common issues this term, so here begins a Dr. ABG blog series on Fierce Writing.
It's important for students to realize that writing is not talking. I'm all about making writing accessible, simple, and easy to read. However, writing takes on a different tone than speaking. For example, a few students this week wrote, "Majority of the time, reality television does not reflect reality." The word "majority" needs "the" before it, hence this sentence should read, "The majority of the time..." I always tell students that writing and speaking are different. While it might feel awkward to say, "The majority of the time", it ought to be written that way.
I'm the course instructor. I grade all of the assignments. I give consistently detailed feedback to students. Therefore, the last thing I want to read about is myself. That is, students often write, "When you consider Kant's argument in context of..." In this case, "you" is actually me, Dr. ABG, the reader of this important piece of academic work. "You" is something that English speakers might say in casual conversation, such as, "When you go outside without a coat on in Canada, you freeze your butt off." That "you" doesn't have a place in academic writing. To be a fierce writer, recast to, "If Kant's argument is considered in context of..." or better yet, "I considered Kant's argument in context of..." To take our lovely Canadian example and make it into something writing-approved, recast to, "I went outside without a coat on here in Canada, and I froze my butt off."
When we talk, we just let our sentences roll into each other, and we keep carrying on, with sometimes our inflection not really ending a sentence, they all just run on into each other, we keep talking, sometimes until someone interrupts us. Like that. I tell students that writing is not a monologue. Let sentences end. Let the reader take a break, pause, and move on to the next sentence. Be aware of run-on sentences (such as the first sentence here). These run-ons are actually multiple sentences connected with commas. Proofread like a writer, not a speaker.
My next Fierce Writing blog post will be about how writing is often how people make a first impression. Watch my Twitter account via @AcademicBatgirl for links.
I’m Gonna Get ALL My Manuscripts Written This Summer!
I say it every year, and it never happens. Soon enough, September brings its chilly mornings and I think, dang it, I shoulda sat on my porch and written at 5pm every day instead of sitting in the same blissful location having a mojito with my neighbours. And then I think, no way, those are some good times. So...
All the manuscripts did not get submitted in August. However, I do have a series of papers in a variety of stages, because I kept moving forward over the summer. Some are almost done, some are kinda sorta done (but not really), and others are shiny ideas that lure me away, just like my friend @LawProfBlawg described last week.
Now that we are about a month into school, momentum has arrived. So, too, have the colleagues who are loudmouthing that they have "a bunch of papers coming down the pike" (and I loathe that expression because I'm from Massachusetts, where everybody knows that the Pike is full of traffic and is expensive, so if my papers ever end up on the Pike, I'm totally screwed). Plus, its just an intimidation tactic, usually from people who really don't have anything "coming down the Pike" so I don't even listen to that nonsense.
When I first started my tenure stream position, I had a casual conversation with a very senior colleague (everyone was very senior to me at the time) about my plans for manuscript submissions. I can't remember if it was about grand plans for summer writing (all the things!) or still cranking through the submission process in fall. Either way, I was expecting that I'd hear that I needed to keep a writing log (a la Silvia, which definitely works for some people), create some fancyass spreadsheet to keep track of what I've written (or not), or go on some writing retreat that I couldn't afford.
Instead - and this quite literally changed my academic life - he said, "Finish what's closest to being finished." It was SO SIMPLE, yet so profound. I had maybe five papers that were in different stages of completion. The furthest from completion (that is, the newest!) had been my greatest interest, and I was desperate to work on it, because I wasn't bored with it (yet). However, I had one manuscript that was actually quite close to being done, and once I sat down to finish, didn't take nearly as long as I had expected.
The manuscript that was closest to being finished got submitted, and got published rather quickly (as academic publication goes). The deal is, these manuscripts that we feel bored writing were once our "shiny new manuscript". Further, they have merit. We have thought about them, gathered the data, analyzed it, did the lit review, and then feel "done". Except we're not.
The practice of finishing what is closest to being finished has never failed me. It's the simplest and most effective advice I've received in my career. Even post-tenure, I still follow this advice. When a revise and resubmit comes back, I drop everything I'm writing (obv I can't bail on teaching or service) to work on it, and when it's done, I get back to the paper that is closest to the submission door. Then I can get myself out my actual door for a hike in the Ontario Provincial Parks (my favourite is here) or that blissful mojito on the porch.
Or, What I Learned Being A Hockey Player All Summer
Disclaimer: I grew up in Massachusetts, and until I was about 16 I actually believed my dad when he said that the only way he could remember when I was born is because the Bruins won the Stanley Cup that year. Dad got me out on frozen ponds early on and this skating ability came in handy when I moved to Canada, where skating is pretty much a requirement for citizenship. When I moved here, I joined a women's hockey league and played right wing till I was four months into expecting my eldest (spoiler: that was 15 years ago, so it's clear where my on-ice prowess is these days).
Back To Life
This eldest daughter now plays competitive hockey, which means year-round ice time (together with me freezing my Yankee ass off in rinks all over the northern hemisphere, while also having gigantic respect for the student-athletes in my classes). This summer said child enrolled in an advanced skating class and dropped an epic bomb when she said, "You know, Mom, you should just take the class with me. It's better than sitting in the stands." There was no way I was doing that. Until I was. After a colossal trip to buy new equipment (shoutout to the dudes at Hockey Life!), I stepped on the ice again after 15 years.
Aaaaaaaand, I Sucked (At Least Comparatively)
This advanced skating class consists of children aged 6-16... and me. The coaches are all former OHL or NHL players, and most are involved in coaching the men's and women's hockey teams on campus. On the first day, I was feeling okay after a few strides, then the coach blew the whistle and everyone (including my own kid) left me in the dust. As in, suddenly, I felt my age (which I generally refuse to do).
One of the young girls in the class wore a practice jersey which read, "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take." (The Office joke aside, this is a classic Canadian quote.) At least I was there, at least I was trying, at least I was taking my shot. The same can be said for university students. At my university, we have many first-generation students, many of whom don't have the parental guidance or experience to get and keep them in the classroom. They're showing up, and taking their shot. Some students transfer from college into a university program. They're taking their shot. Some students show up wondering how they will work full time to make ends meet and still be a full time student. They're taking their shot. And taking a shot is not easy.
Scaffolding As A Best Practice
Many of us include scaffolding as a pedagogical practice -- start out with small exercises or assignments, and build up to a larger project. The same happens on the ice. We practiced c-cuts, added crossovers, then double crossovers, and stops. Being a student this summer in a totally different arena (literally), reminded me how important scaffolding is in an overall program (such as a university course or a hockey class).
Encourage, Encourage, Encourage
I'm no Hayley Wickenheiser, though it's great to feel awesome every so often. During one exercise, I was carrying the puck down the ice (probably very badly) and the coach said, "Go! Go score!" That very simple encouragement made me smile and let me play the part even for a short while. And I did score (on an empty net, still, it felt good). I can take that into the classroom by encouraging students to go the extra mile, providing clear feedback, and being a positive academic coach.
Acknowledge The Challenge
Coach was introducing a drill and said, "Okay, so this one is really easy." It's a good thing I had my helmet on because my eyes rolled so far back into my head I nearly fell over. NOTHING about that class is easy. And I had a reckoning in that moment. For me, writing is easy. For many students, it's not. My goal has always been to help students to develop their writing and I provide loads of personalized feedback. However, it occurred to me in that moment on the ice that some students - for any variety of reasons - will do the proverbial eye roll even when I say, "Don't worry, it's just a paragraph." There are high standards in both hockey and in writing, yet acknowledging where students are coming from, what their barriers are, and that they are trying, is helpful and right.
As I head back into the classroom in a few weeks, I will have the fresh experience of being a student of something that I found very challenging. As an instructor, I will bring in the humility of showing up, trying, and taking a shot. If I can encourage all of my students to take their shot, empower them to score, and acknowledge their academic training, then we're going to have a winning team this semester.
Or, Write For Your Life
I took this photo yesterday, after I made a gigantic breakfast before sending five kids (two of my own and three who are at the house all the time) off to school. That's my laptop, mid-manuscript, on the left. I've been asked how I manage to write in such circumstances, so here goes.
Our literary hero Stephen King says that writing should be a private experience, and ought to be conducted behind a closed door. I wanted to try this. So I did. And it absolutely sucked. I am WAY too social to be shut away, and being a single mama of busy (and also social) kids, a whole lot of solitude for writing wasn't going to happen.
"Can Be" Solitary
I realize that I am giving the British two-finger salute to most advice that we should (must?) write in solitude. This might be an unpopular opinion, though I suggest that it really doesn't have to be that way. I taught myself to focus in the company of others, think in the midst of peripheral conversations, and write in the context of chaos. That means writing at home when the kids are around, being part of a campus writing group, and (my nerdy fav!) Skypeing with a friend and writing with them via video on the side (glorified babysitting).
Kids And Company Create Simplicity
William Zinsser suggests that we streamline our writing. He also demands a realness from writing that lets others connect with us. For me, this sincerity is created by having my family, pets, and the general madness of life around. The practice of focus, mindfulness, or meditation in motion helps me to stay true to my argument, research question, theory, or conclusions. My yoga and mindfulness practice help with this, I'm sure.
Two Solutions: Early Writing and Consistency
I get up early to write. Pretty much no matter what. I stay up late, too bad for me, I get up and write anyway. I've got to a point where not writing causes me more anxiety than doing the writing. If I don't write, grade, revise, and give feedback to students, my teaching and scholarship suffer. So as Maya Angelou said, nothing works unless I do. For my family, that means that even though I write in the morning, I can still write or work when everyone and their friends are all home. I have never once asked my kids to leave the house, vacate the premises, or leave me the F alone while I get stuff done. I’m not sure if that’s because they’re all awesome or because I have developed tunnel vision. Either way, I’m living proof that it’s possible.
It would be very easy to say look, I have kids, I'm a single parent, I can't manage to publish more than two academic papers a year (for the last five years, I have published 7 or more refereed articles annually). Instead, I have learned to focus and be present even in the throes of a storm around me. It didn’t happen overnight, though it was a conscious decision and active practice on my part. I decided to learn to write while in the literal and physical fray of daily life, and it has worked well for me.
I like having a busy house, loads of kids around, and a general sense of wild hearts in Our House (in the middle of our street). It is true that my laptop has a quasi-permanent place on the table. However, it doesn’t mean that I work 24 hours a day. Jake Tapper advises that if you want to write (or accomplish anything professional, really) and have kids, when you have 15 minutes, you gotta take it. This focused practice helps to do just that. Working 24 hours a day -- that's real Madness and isn't for me.
I Don't Research ABOUT Snapchat. I USE Snapchat.
My kids use Snapchat. My students use Snapchat. I'm not playing the "forever young" game, and I'm not on a quest to prove my eternal youth. I just find this channel helpful in my research.
Visuals To Illustrate What Needs To Be Done
My coauthors and I are in the process of wrapping up a manuscript. As I went through it, I noticed a line gap in a table. I could have sent a longish email with an attempt to describe where the line gap was, and what needed fixed, with a whole bunch of details to describe where and what was going on. Instead, I sent a quick Snap of my screen, used the pen to circle the issue, typed out what we needed done, and within 15 minutes the table was fixed. (I blacked out and blurred content -- sorry, manuscripts in progress aren't open-access.)
Visuals For Formatting
A coauthor and I were in a friendly spar about what third level APA formatting should look like (this is sort of like the Oxford comma discussion, because there IS a right answer to both -- use it). She went in and changed the formatting, then I skulked into the manuscript, changed it back, and sent a Snap of what the formatting should look like. Bam!
I had an horrendous revise and resubmit due this month. It seemed as if it took FOREVER. Anyone who is on my Snapchat distribution list knew about it and was extra nice to me for a month or so! And now, we are currently in the throes of Canadian university "Reading Week", which is really a gigantic euphemism for Spring Break. I've spent it writing, grading, and preparing to sell my house (yeah, in the middle of the semester -- that was a great decision).
I have found that using Snapchat as a form of accountability for writing progress really works. It's kind of like an asynchronous Shut Up And Write, which is great because writing is a lonely job. I have a habit of early morning writing, so at the end of my daily stint, I take a Snap of my word count, evidence of what I did, or some sort of "proof" that I showed up for my writing job, and send it to my Aca-Snappers. One of my students and I commiserate about writing via Snapchat, and she told me that if she doesn't have a snap from me by the time she wakes up, she worries if I'm ok! Friends who write in the evening or throughout the day send Snaps when they're done with their daily writing goals. I find that Snapchat is great for a daily check-in.
Bonus: It's Fun
If you've not barfed a rainbow before, Snapchat is your place. Just send a Snap of your writing progress to me: AcademicBatgirl!
Or, Be That Person
Have One, Be One
So much for punching today in the face (really, I had the best intentions). After sitting in a series of meetings all day, one (yup, one) of my colleagues asked how I was doing, how is my summer, what's going on. With that, I told him the truth. It hasn't been an easy one (I keep telling myself that there's still time to resurrect my favourite time of year).
A few weeks ago, I received two revise and resubmit notifications. By the grace of all that is good in the world, I finished them both inside of ten days. However, I must be clear. That's not why I've been so uncharacteristically quiet on Twitter. Lordy knows I would have a great deal to say about the frustrations of the requisite joy and pain of revise and resubmits. Also, the weather here in Ontario has been more rotten than not, so I haven't been sitting on the beach and swimming in lakes like we thought we'd be. It's because some personal stuff has blown up in my face.
My Colleague Was There.
So, this lovely colleague asked how things were going, and how awesome is it that none of the news or struggles about the revise and resubmits even came up. He assured me that I'm not as horrible as this drama has made me feel, and that I didn't need to consider myself an idiot for being totally vulnerable when he asked - with sincerity - how I was doing. I have lots of friends, though most are not academics, and somehow there was something beautiful about this colleague asking after me (and not running away when I didn't say, "I'm great!").
Silence and Fear
I wasn't anticipating sharing much of my personal struggle with my colleague, probably because I wasn't sure how I could without melting down. Nor was I really planning on saying anything here about how I'm having a hard time figuring out the joy and pain of my personal life (revise and resubmits are way easier). And yet. Audre Lorde (1977) wisely tells us that breaking silence takes courage, and comes with a sense of danger. This danger looks like fear of criticism, of judgement, of being challenged or injured or hurt. I broke the silence with my colleague. And what do you know, there was no judgment, no criticism, no injury.
Be That Person
Let's face it, academia is an interesting place. We have the opportunity to stay in our offices, our silos, our own academic niches. Today, a difference for me was one colleague asking what was up. And breaking the silence made all of the difference. In the virtual #AcademicTwitter community, take the lead from my friend Ellie Mackin and spread academic kindness. So many academics work to create, find, and share beauty in this crazy place -- here are a few: Raul Pacheco-Vega, Rissa Sorensen-Unruh, Aaron Langille. All I need to say here is that we all can be a difference to a colleague. And if someone in your hallway or on your messaging app tells you their story, just give them a hug (even virtually), tell them they're courageous, and know that academia is full of real people having real lives outside of this so-called Ivory Tower.
This job is odd. Keep it real.
Or, November is a hard month, but whatever.
#AcWriMo starts on November 1.
Academic Writing Month, or for us Twitter folk, #AcWriMo, is a movement started by PhD2Published which helps academics to stay motivated and accountable to their writing. Obviously, we should be writing, like, all the time. All. The. Time. But, teaching happens, sleep happens, and so do necessary things like walking the dog and eating pizza. We academics need each other - yes, even (and sometimes especially) online presence helps productivity.
Why I'm doing it.
While #AcWriMo is pitched by PhD2Published, it's for all academics at all stages -- from undergraduate to "the most distinguished of professors." While I still think of myself as an undergraduate at times (imposter syndrome and an occasional loathing of adulting will do that), I'm a senior faculty member. I have a full teaching load (because I'm not ridiculous enough to be an @AssDean). I've got grants, book chapters, conference presentations, and full-on manuscripts to write. However...
I have empathy for my students.
My undergraduate students are awesome. And they deserve the best of my academic life. I'm at a research university, so not everyone shares this sentiment. I believe that my research informs my teaching. So I see writing as an investment in my teaching for many reasons. One of the most important is that I sit and write just like my students do (or, just like they should). It's simply a challenge to write, no matter what one's academic rank.
Stuff is going on.
So, #AcWriMo starts on November 1 and I hereby commit myself to writing a book chapter. This includes lit review, rationale, methods, results, discussion, conclusion, references, formatting, and all the requisite APA stuff. Now, this coming weekend, I will be at my eldest kid's hockey tournament, which is a nice way of saying that I will be (happily, mind you) freezing my Yankee ass off in a variety of ice arenas here in the Great White North. The following weekend I will be at an academic conference. However, I'm going to be writing every day. If that means it's early in the morning, for 30 min at a coffee shop, or on a piece of paper, well, it's getting done. Now I'm changing topics before I change my mind about this whole thing.
Being a flexible writer.
Writing every day isn't easy. I mean, there's always pizza to be eaten, dogs to walk, and ice arenas in which to freeze. I find that it's easier to write every day because I save everything to Google Drive or Dropbox. In this case, I can revise documents on my phone or iPad if I don't have access to my computer. I realize that this sounds like it's taken from a page in the Universal Guide to Nerdhood, though it does maintain my ability to be flexible and to adhere to the discipline of writing every day.
Trying vs. doing
As the great sage Yoda says, "There is no try..." In other words, you're either doing it or you're not. That's some slap-in-the-face accountability. I'm doing it.
On Collaboration, Cooperation, and Competition in the Academy.
I'm currently serving on my department's Tenure and Promotion Committee. An interesting conversation came from all the tenure and third-year review files that we reviewed last week: The desirable balance between single-authored and multi-authored publications.
What to do? Collaborate and have more publications? Have a few less sole authored papers/chapters/books?
I qualify this post: I'm in social science. I'm also at a research-intensive university. Folks in psychology, sociology, and the like may find these behind-the-curtain musings at a research institution helpful. If you're in engineering, law, natural/life science, or at a teaching college, you're likely to march to a different tune, though here's what the fly on the wall observed in our closed-door discussions.
Social Science Likes Collaboration.
It reflects positively on scholars at all levels to have peer-reviewed articles, edited volumes, or book chapters with others. It shows that you can work as a team member, collaborate with others, and take turns in the sandbox. Anyone without collaborative publications would be very suspect indeed.
Find Your Own Voice.
Our committee discussed the need for early career scholars to cut the proverbial cord from their doctoral supervisors. One third year review candidate had five publications (on target), though all of them were coauthored with the doctoral supervisor (ooh, not good). While the influence of expertise, theory, and methodology of a supervisor is helpful, it's essential for scholars to find their own voices in publications. As we learned from Mr. Trump this week, no one likes a puppet.
Have Some Sole-Authored Publications.
The majority of one's research dossier (again, in social science) is likely to be co- or multi-authored publications. For us, that means 2-5 authors. (I've seen 15 authors on engineering papers, and that's a different deal.) However, having sole-authored papers is essential to a sound third-year review and tenure dossier. If all you've done is collaborative work, you risk being "the data one" or "the one who writes lit reviews". Sole authored publications are important in social science to demonstrate your mastery of the holistic research process from idea to data analysis to writing up.
Find Your Squad.
The best thing about research collaboration, in my humble superhero opinion, is that it's fun. I am a gigantic nerd and I love research (if you're reading this, you probably are, too). While I am still buddies with my grad school squad, I've moved on to collaborate with many other cool folks. I have met enthusiastic, talented research collaborators on #AcademicTwitter. This week I submitted a SSHRC application with a scholar I met at a very un-academic party. I once answered a completely cold listserv Call for Papers from someone I didn't know and she's since become a beautifully close friend. We need collaborators. We also need trusted, academically-minded folks to read sole-authored manuscripts or offer advice. The squad is key. And it is always growing.
Tenure Is Not A Zero-Sum Game.
However, it's a fuzzy, nebulous endeavour. When I went for tenure, no one told me how many articles I needed. All I was told was, "It depends." It depends upon in which journals your articles are published, with whom, and the reputed rigour of the peer review process. I began to know my ceiling very well, for I spent many a night staring at it in lack of sleep.
What I have learned is that tenure and promotion is not a zero-sum game. Just because your next-office-door colleague got tenure doesn't mean that you can't. The key is to have a diversified dossier which includes both collaborative and sole-authored works. It's also key to have support, collaborators, and advisors. If you have cool people to talk nerdy with, if you can delegate work and rotate responsibilities in collaborative endeavours, and if someone's there to share your wine/coffee/kombucha/tea, then the academic sandbox is a very fine place indeed.
1. It all started with a friend...
Well, a couple of different friends, actually. My buddy Raul Pacheco-Vega is the king of early mornings. When we started our Academic Twitter friendship, I got to thinking that this early morning stuff might work. Then, nearly simultaneously, the universe presented to me another friend. This friend wears a suit, wheels and deals, and commutes across Toronto so he LEAVES HIS HOUSE AT 5AM (yeah, he is questionably sane and gets up even before 5am). I thought, well heck, if he can do it, so can I. So I did. And...
2. It Works.
Word up, people, no one is texting me at 5am. No one is ringing the Bat Phone. No one is even twitter messaging me. Heck, my dog even stays in bed at that hour. So, there's no interruptions, which is gold.
3. I Have Batlings.
When I first started my tenure-track job, my Dean told me (I swear I'm quoting exact words), "Well, you've made your decision. You have two kids. I only have one, and that's even too much for an academic sometimes." Spoiler alert: I disproved said Dean. And guess what -- I like taking my kids to hockey, dance, and whatever else they're doing. So there. I get up early and accomplish academic-ness so at 5pm I can drive all over creation for everyone's activities (which keep them fit and social, to boot). Maybe that makes me a cool mom, or maybe it just makes me a busy one.
4. I'm a Single Batgirl.
Mr. Business Markie notwithstanding (because we are legit just friends), I am on my own with the Batlings. This leaves me exactly eff-all time to do much besides the essentials. I suppose I could have stayed with my cheating ex-husband and had more support around the house. I would rather get up at 4.30 a.m., thank you very much.
I am healthy. I have an iPhone with an alarm app that can wake me up. I have a nice kettle to make caffeinated beverages. I can physically get myself out of bed to make research contributions, give students detailed feedback, and work on grant applications. I have running water, heat for when it's cold here in Canada, and lots of friends and colleagues who ask, "So what are you working on?" That's worth getting up for.
Most of us academics have deep and meaningful experience in matters of commitment. I mean heck, doing a Ph.D. is arguably commitment of the highest order. Then there's getting tenure (did that, thank the gods and the universe and all good things). I also separated from a repeatedly unfaithful husband (while I was still untenured). Yup, I get commitment. So what about this meme, then?
New research projects are just so darn tempting. Maybe it's a colleague's proposal to join a project or a team. For me, it's reading the news and seeing a pressing issue of some wild importance and becoming convinced that the research I've been doing for the last 10 years is meaningless in relation to this fleeting news story. Alas. Everyone's time will come.
Academics are clever folk. We get bored easily. In my case, once I draft out a paper, I feel like I'm "done" with it. My mind is purged, I've said what I want to say, and I'm finished. Sometimes I even feel this way after I collect data. I've got it, I know what it means, and okay, done. Hey, what? Now I've gotta write this stuff up? Revisions? Save me. I've talked to my aca-twitter pal @johncarter about this, and he has assured me that I'm a normal academic (ish).
One of the best pieces of advice that a colleague gave me years ago was to make a list of my research projects, and finish the one I'm closest to finishing. How simple. Yet how difficult. Because the vast landscape of summer is ahead, and if i just start on this new one, I'll have something exciting going on this fall! I have to remind myself to park that new idea(s) and keep pushing on the one that's nearly out the door.
Of course, multiple research projects are a necessity. No academic can work on one paper, finish it, and then start anew with the next. Still, managing multiple research projects isn't easy. It's especially not easy if you don't have a lab manager or a lab full of grad students who are plugging away at your future publications (I have neither such blessing/curse). I make a list of my research projects and then work on the one I'm closest to finishing. I can certainly allocate time to additional data collection and projects in the works. However, my main focus is to follow the sage words of Van Halen and finish what ya started.
I've got my list of papers, list of deadlines, list of tasks, and list of lists. In my case, I've got one more paper to draft out before I park myself on a Cape Cod beach. Sure, I'd like to have collected the data for a new project. And I will. However, the fireworks on the Fourth of July will be all the more enjoyable because I know that my paper is under review while I've got salt in my hair and I'm sipping a Cape Cod beer.
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