I haven’t really rolled the mental rolodex over into 2008. Something scares me about that number. It portends change, maybe dislocation, perhaps an end to the way things were. I embrace change with the same fatalism as when a human, lacking the natural means to flight, jumps out of a plane strapped to a parachute. There is something comical about our faith in technologies.
Speaking of technology ….
I imagine that a solid percentage of my gentle readers are academics, and teachers [I imagine it because the writer's audience is always a fiction (Walter Ong didn't know about access logs, of course.)]. As academics, we are a fairly conservative bunch when it comes to technology. Often, because the archipelagos of university bureaucracies keeps technology services safely ensconced away. Often, because we really couldn’t find the time to go out and test and acquire new skillsets that are merely cursory to our engagements. Certainly, I have argued for a change in that attitude but things are what they are. So, I felt that instead of simply pontificating, I could introduce some of the tools that I think can make your life better, dear Professors.
There are three types of technological front-ends that are necessary for our work: researching, composing and sharing.
researching: The past few years – since 2003 – have changed the very notion of ‘archive’ – though, our theorists haven’t caught up yet. Ignoring for a moment the glaring non-Roman-script shaped hole in the soul of massive scanning projects, it is incontestable that Amazon and Google have changed our lives. Google Books perhaps more so, with major libraries signing up every day (not a good idea, but again, that’s a separate discussion). Use the Advanced Search options to find full texts of anything published before 1901. You can now download the whole pdf. It is scanned, indexed and searchable. Writing a paper? Need to look up a quote from a secondary source? Don’t have it bookmarked? Look for the search string in Google Books.
There are many other key online archives but one that I make heavy usage of – and SAists seem oblivious of – is the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers which contain an enormous swath of East India Company reports and commissions. Again, all scanned, indexed and searchable. And you can save a pdf.
The other aspect of online research is the ability to actually keep track of materials. Citations, downloads, bookmarks, etc. There is no better tool at the moment than Zotero. Zotero is a Firefox extension that can query, capture and re-publish citations and materials from the vast swath of accessible web and catalogs. It really is one of the things that you will not be able to live without, once you start using it. You can export bibliographies in the blink of an eye and in multiple formats. You can archive the ever-fleeting web safely on your hard-drive. However, Zotero has one glaring deficiency: It is currently tied to your local browser. Which means, if you work on your office computer and create your citation archive there, you cannot easily move it to your laptop or your home computer or access it through a work-station at a library etc. [Yes, you can export the Zotero library and re-import it at a different machine but, thats not really feasible.] What Zotero needs is some old-fashioned Web2.0 magic … an online network – the ability to store one’s references with one’s account and maybe even related tags through a tag cloud. Eh? I like the thought of that. While I hear that a server-based Zotero is in the work, I recommend that you download and make use of it right away. Get it into your workflow. Trust me.
Speaking of bibliographies, another alternative that I have used, now and then, is Otto Bib. It is good for quickly assembling formatted bibs.
composing: I hear that people still use Microsoft Word to write. On the PC end, the only alternative worth considering is Open Office. On the Mac side, I don’t even know why anyone would use M$ products. Virginia Hefferman recently wrote in NYT about abandoning Word for far more attractive options like WriteRoom, CopyWrite, Scrivener and Ulysses. While all the listed apps do have some key benefits – full screen toggle is indeed heaven, if you have never experienced it (hello Word Perfect readers!) – none are really geared towards academic writing. I personally use LaTeX (in its wonderful OS X wrap, TeXshop) but that may not be every one’s cup of tea, either. [NB: Scrivener can be used with MultiMarkdown for footnotes.]. For academic, wysiwyg, writing alternative to Word, I recommed trying out Mellel or Nisus Writer – they both support unicode and left-to-right input and have some really nice features on top of all that.
Yet, everyone is not really writing entire books all the time. What about less formal compositions? For that, I exclusively use Google Docs. Mac, PC, whatever – I can save, track changes, share or publish any document and it is all accessible from Multan. Keeps the headache of multiple copies away. Still, a lot of my colleagues send me .doc files (and expect .doc files in turn). Pages works great for all that.
sharing: On the one hand, we share a lot of documents with each other. Email or Google Docs or Scribd can take care of most of the sharing needs. But there is another aspect: our classes. I can take this opportunity to rail against the monopoly of Blackboard‘s insanely bad software that most faculty and students have to suffer from. There are alternatives, of course. Chalk Site or Moodle are both excellent for classroom usage. If you can run your own web services – which is as easy as owning a Mac – I recommend running your own WP blog. CM friend, Jeremy is co-author of an excellent plug-in Courseware for WP which makes it easy to set up a class blog. He has also developed a facebook app for classroom. I am, though, less than enthusiastic about extending our classroom to facebook. They have a rather grim policy on materials uploaded to their servers (they own it) and, for being one of the most popular social networking sites, their social network is absurdly simplistic. Every one is a friend. I don’t really think it is advisable for one’s student to be one’s “friend” and facebook is fast losing credibility (hello, beacon), in any case.
Similarly, new initiatives for sharing photos are incorporating flickr – see, for example, Library of Congress. It is a remarkable effort to expand the work of public history1. I have used flickr with tagging for classroom – see example- but, I would still like to see an open source alternative to flickr.
Last, last recommendation: No laptops in the classroom.
Do chime in.———
- via LOC blog: “The real magic comes when the power of the Flickr community takes over. We want people to tag, comment and make notes on the images, just like any other Flickr photo, which will benefit not only the community but also the collections themselves. For instance, many photos are missing key caption information such as where the photo was taken and who is pictured. If such information is collected via Flickr members, it can potentially enhance the quality of the bibliographic records for the images” [↩]