How Noam Ostrander Works


Location:  Blue Sky Bakery on Lincoln Ave.  It’s a tasty bakery with a social justice mission.

Current Gig:  Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Social Work, Psychotherapist, Maker of Noise.

One word that best describes how you work:  Caffeinated

Current mobile device:  iPhone 6+

Current computer: Dell desktop in my office, MacBook Pro Laptop and/or iPad for community days.

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without? For iPhone: Pandora, Starbucks, Reminders, Snapseed, and Songsterr.  For MacBook: Word, Excel, Chrome, PowerPoint

What’s your workspace setup like?I try my best to avoid my official workspace.  I learned early on that I can’t sit in an office for more than 2-3 hours at a stretch.  I easily go stir crazy, so I usually work part of the day at home, part of the day in my office, and part of the day at random locations throughout the city.

What’s your best time-saving shortcut/life hack? Do you automate something that used to be a time sink? Do you relegate email to an hour a day? Unless an email requires an immediate response, I usually restrict emails sessions to a half hour in the late morning and a half hour in the late afternoon.  Given my current administrative gig, my schedule isn’t always my own. To combat this reality, I have instituted two rules: 1) I take Fridays for my own work, and 2) I only do one campus per day.  A few years ago Social Work moved to the Loop campus, however all of the college meetings are on the Lincoln Park campus.  I refuse to shuttle back and forth for meetings in a given day, so I stay on whichever campus has the meetings for that day.

As for time saving activities and hacks, there are a few that I have adopted/stolen from friends.  First, I’ve outsourced my short-term memory.  A friend of mine observed that he spent a lot of mental energy trying to remember to do this or that task.  So he started immediately putting those things into the iPhone reminders app to preserve his mental energy. I’ve adopted that perspective and it frees me up for more whimsical thinking. Second, I utilize PowerPoint to organize my writing projects.  The PowerPoint slides help me outline my manuscript and figure out the flow of my writing.  I suppose it’s the newer version of using index cards for outlining.  Lastly, when I have to be in the office, I write down three things on a post-it note that absolutely must get finished before leaving the office.  The small size of the post-it note forces me to focus on the really key things that need to get accomplished. Given that I am not an office kind of guy, this process also helps me to zero in so I can get out of the office more quickly.

What’s your favorite to-do list manager? I stick with the standard issue iPhone reminders app.  I’m basic like that.

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?  Looking over my gear, there are a few things that are mainstays.noam's gear

  • My Kershaw pocket knife has proven invaluable more times than I can recall.
  • A Shinola notebook. These notebooks are made in Detroit, which is not far from my hometown of Flint, Michigan.  While I utilize the notebooks to jot down ideas for research or songs, it also helps me to stay grounded in my roots.
  • Sennheiser Earbuds. These earbuds are fantastic and durable.  I’ve accidentally put them through the laundry a few times and they survived.  Unfortunately, my current pair has now given up the ghost after a number of years, so I’m using the standard iPhone earbuds until my new pair of Sennheisers arrive.   

What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What’s your secret?  I’m really good at keeping things in perspective.  The saying goes that politics are so rough in academia because there is so little at stake.  Having come from a hard scrabble background and working in communities where people are struggling to meet basic needs, I am able to keep work in it’s proper perspective and be kind to folks who are doing the best they can with what they have available.

 What do you listen to while you work? Currently, I rotate through a few main Pandora stations: Mark Lanegan radio, 90s Hip Hop, Outlaw Country, Tom Waits, and PJ Harvey.  The Outlaw Country station is particularly important.  That station gives me all the Johnny, Willie, Merle, and Hank songs that I grew up listening to on the turntable.  This is the music that makes me feel at home regardless of where I am.  If I’m writing, however, the Massive Attack station gives me the right groove to knock out a few pages.

What do you do to stay inspired? Who are some of your favorite artists? To stay inspired I play musical instruments – guitar, bass guitar, and banjo. Playing music allows me to hang out on a different mental frequency that resets my thinking.  I continue to debate the possibility of bringing in a guitar to keep in my office.  The value of being able to take a quick work break to commune with a song could be a beautiful thing.  Aside from that, I enjoy talking to people who love what they do – whether that’s an academic, an auto mechanic, or a bartender.  Folks who have been lucky enough to find their niche in the world inspire me.

What sort of work are you up to now? I recently discovered that I could conceptualize my work along the lines of the different seasons from “The Wire,” except instead of drugs, I look at gun violence. I began with the street level and working with members of street gangs in Chicago.  I then moved on to look at the issue from the hospital level and the trauma desert that exists on the south side of Chicago.  I’m now moving into enforcement.  Aside from enforcement, I’m also starting a project examining the ways the weather affects violent crime across the country.  Having lived in Chicago long enough and working for years in a hospital, I realize that one of the best crime deterrents the city has is winter.  I want to see if that’s true for Chicago and other major cities across the country. 

What are you currently reading? I’ve taken to using to help increase my reading.  During my train ride in to work I can listen to a book AND people watch, so it’s a win-win.  I most recently finished Charlie Leduff’s book, Detroit: An American Autopsy. I tried listening to one of Hunter S. Thompson’s books on Audible, but the person reading the book irritated me.  I guess that’s the hazard of audiobooks.  I remain drawn to the multisensory delight of reading books.  I’m currently working through Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, along with re-reading Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure and Charles Bukowski’s Love is a Dog from Hell.

Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert? Maybe both?  Unquestionably, I’m an introvert.  Acquaintances often seem surprised by that.  I think I can fake the public thing for a while, but I’m ready to retreat before too long.  I prefer one-on-one or small groups to large gatherings.

What’s your sleep routine like?  I’m serious about sleep.  I try to make sure I get 7-8 hours a night.  The best thing you can do for your mental health is get good sleep.

Fill in the blank: I’d love to see (                          ) answer these same questions. Robyn Brown.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? I have three:

  • “Be kind: for everyone you meet is fighting a struggle you know nothing about.” During my travels, I encounter people who do fantastically dumb things all the time. This quote helps me keep things in perspective.
  • “It is better to keep your mouth closed and have people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” I originally encountered this quote when I was about 10 years old. It was on a bar napkin at a joint where my mom worked.  I’m not sure I understood it then, but it’s stuck with me as vital guidance.
  • “Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes, well, the bear eats you.” People who know me would be shocked if I didn’t reference “The Big Lebowski” here somewhere. This is the advice from the Stranger has a lot of wisdom in it.  You gotta recognize when it’s your turn to be the bear and when it’s your turn to get eaten.

The How I Work series featured on the re/search blog is shamelessly stolen from Life Hacker’s How I Work series.   The SSRC’s version asks DePaul’s heroes, experts, and individuals of note to share their shortcuts, workspaces, routines, and more. Have someone you want to see featured, or questions you think we should ask?


Author: Jessica Bishop-Royse

Jessica Bishop-Royse is the SSRC’s Senior Research Methodologist. Her areas of interest include: health disparities, demography, crime, methods, and statistics. She often finds herself navigating the fields of sociology, demography, epidemiology, medicine, public health, and policy. She was broadly trained in data collection, Stata, quantitative research methodology, as well as statistics. She has experience with multi-level analyses, survival analyses, and multivariate regression. Outside of the work context, Jessi is interested in writing, reading, travel, photography, and sport.

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