In Review: Academic Tools

Posted by sepoy on January 16, 2008 · 9 mins read

academiccomputing.pngI 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 history ((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")). I have used flickr with tagging for classroom - see example- but, I would still like to see an open source alternative to flickr.

In terms of class, one last recommendation is AOL's timeline tool CircaVie or my personal favorite, MIT's Simile.

Last, last recommendation: No laptops in the classroom.

Do chime in.


Jonathan Dresner | January 16, 2008

Until Apple OS is much better with regard to disability access -- we've heard that it's actually usable now, but I won't believe it until I see it. Or hear it, whatever -- we're stuck with Office, etc. at home and I'd rather not have to code-switch if I can avoid it. However, Zotero may be what pushes me over the edge to abandon Netscape in favor of Firefox, because my notetaking skills could use a big boost....

ADM | January 16, 2008

OK -- looking into some of this. I use Word because I want to be able to move between macs and PCs -- I hope to be moving to a macbook in my next purchase, but it's unlikely that SLAC will let me have a mac. So using M$ products that our woefully obstructionist IT people support makes sense. The other stuff, especially the notetaking stuff, is really useful -- thanks! And my dean swears by Google Books, too.

sepoy | January 16, 2008

Jonathan: Have you seen this? I find it hard to believe that OS X lags behind XP/Vista in anything but I am sure you would know more. As for Netscape...poor thing is dead. Let him rest in peace...come to FF!

Jonathan Dresner | January 16, 2008

I missed the Netscape announcement. Part of the issue with access -- and it's true that OS X is better than previous Apple OS -- is that there's a lot of adaptive software already written for the PC/MS environment. Even with all the stuff Apple's done to make the OS accessible, if the programs themselves can't be made accessible then it's worthless. So until there are screenreaders of some sort for the Apple environment, nothing really can get done. We're investigating: my wife has wide contacts in the adaptive tech community. There are some reports of people using Apples successfully, but we need to know more.

Desi Italiana | January 17, 2008

Accolades to Sepoy for writing this, especially since I am having a software related breakdown at the moment. Re: Open Office vs. Word, I recently found out about Open Office from the tech guy at my office, and thank god for Open Office. Right now I'm using Word, but I'm going to have to invest in a new laptop soon, and I am simply not going to buy MS Office software. Too expensive. I'm not in academia anymore, but for the field that I am currently in, MS Office is a must regardless of whether it's a MAC and PCer user, and esp for Excel and Word (v. little Power Point). People haven't taken to using Google Docs(O, I wish everyone would start using that so that I could definitively chuck MS Office!) and unless Armageddon hits, it looks like everyone is going to continue using MS Office en masse. "Last, last recommendation: No laptops in the classroom." Not in Law School. I was the only- and I repeat- the only freak who didn't bring a laptop to lectures. Come finals, and I really, really regretted it. But I am with you for non law school courses. Hand-taken notes are the way to go. BTW, is it just me or does it seem like there is a massive MAC cult, almost in a Big Brotheresque manner? Those Apples are everywhere, and to be honest, I don't see what all the fuss about MAC's is about. I bought a MAC laptop and returned it (couldn't afford it, but also I really, really disliked how MAC works. Or maybe it is a question of habit).

SP | January 17, 2008

Thanks for bringing us non-tech-savvy people up to date, sepoy. I would agree that laptops are a distraction in the classroom, but mainly because there are wireless signals everywhere, and some schools actually provide wireless in classrooms, with the result that kids spend class time IMing and god knows what else while looking all studious. It pisses me off no end. Why can't signals be blocked in classrooms? What the hell do you need wireless for in a lecture hall? DI, I'm surrounded by MAC cultists too, and it's a bit annoying,yes. I don't like the MAC user interface, though my friends assure me it's so much less problem-prone that it's worth it.

sepoy | January 17, 2008

On laptops in classrooms: They are a distraction and nothing else. A simple statement on the syllabi forbidding their usage should do the trick. Yes, I know folks have iPhones and smartphones and they can surf the web on their coffee mug. We control what we can. DI: Your Big Brother comment was insanely amusing. Please watch this.

ADM | January 17, 2008

Well, one reason to have wireless in the classroom is so *I* can use it. I really wish our classrooms weren't, but since they're in buildings with faculty offices and student work lounges, there's not much one can do about the signal. It's a real problem, and I am still trying to figure out how to deal with it. I do have students who take notes on their computers. I have other students who look up words while I'm talking or even go to wikipedia or elsewhere to get more info. I think these latter things are distracting and clearly keep students from engaging. Sadly, some of the Schools at the uni require students to use their laptops in class, and I feel awkward telling them they can't use a piece of equipment they had to buy. Mostly, I remind them they don't have to carry around an extra 5-7 pounds of stuff for my class, and that often keeps them from bringing the damned things.

Desi Italiana | January 17, 2008

"Your Big Brother comment was insanely amusing. Please watch this." Yeah, I remember that commercial ;) I just hate those glowing apples, and I now resent anyone who blathers on and on about the attributes of MAC laptops. MAC's interface sucks. It seems too cheap, like it's not worth $1,100. I also don't like the one click mouse; I don't like how the most you can maximize still comes out really, really small. Back to laptops in the classroom: they could be distracting, but again, in law courses, you're too freaked out about missing any word that comes out of the prof's mouth; so you are anything but compelled to check your e-mail and IM your friends. Also, law profs call on you and demand an answer: "Miss DI, please tell us why Iran refused to be present during the US case against them for the hostage situation." Not a ripe environment where you can surf the Web. Since we're on the subject of laptops, I advise everyone to NEVER buy Toshiba. They don't make good quality laptops anymore. My Toshiba laptop from 10 years ago is still working perfectly fine; but the Toshiba I bought in Sept 2005 has already fallen apart, and Toshiba's AC adapters suck.

SP | January 18, 2008

ADM, surely there can be an internet connection at the instructor's desk, attached to a projector screen or whatever if needed for instructional purposes, but I really don't think wireless in the undergraduate classroom adds more than it takes away. Toshiba laptops suck? My sister's (from 2003) is so sturdy that it's still going, long after my Dell POC (Piece of Crap) bought at the same time has died after having to be serviced on three continents every six months, with the world's rudest and worst customer service (they email you instructions on how to fix your own broken laptop - forgetting that you can't read email if your laptop is broken).

sepoy | January 18, 2008

ADM, I just don't see the utility of laptops - and I certainly don't appreciate anyone quote a wiki-entry back to me. And the ban on laptops is a ban on student laptops - I use mine (if I am using the projector etc.) I don't see any contradiction or problem in banning laptop usage during the class - they may be required to use it on-campus or in their other classes. But, I simply see it as a distraction. Also, we are not teaching law. So whatever happens in law classes or business classes can happen there. This here be humanities. We roll our own way.

Desi Italiana | January 18, 2008

"Also, we are not teaching law. So whatever happens in law classes or business classes CAN happen there." You mean "can'T'? I can't remember the last time a humanities professor gave out assigned seating and then barked at everyone in a really professional tone to "grace the class with the explanation," only to know that if you slip up JUST ONCE, you will be punished via searing criticism. :) "This here be humanities. We roll our own way." Ooh, spoken roughly. I like. SP: Yes, the recent and current models of Toshiba are cheap, cheap, cheap as hell. It's so janky that I can't believe they put a price tag of over a grand (which is what I paid). And the adapters die by the second year. Re: Dell, good info you provided. I've been thinking about getting a Dell laptop, but am too scared in light of the negative comments I hear from others. Maybe a ThinkPad, though I've heard people complaining that ever since Lenovo took over, the quality has begun to spiral downwards....

Another Damned Medievalist | January 18, 2008

Seconded on the Toshiba thing, although the one I bought a year ago is not awful, it's far from perfect. OTOH, $800. Sepoy and SP -- I really didn't mean to imply that I disagreed. I think students using laptops are pimples on the face of academic thought. But I'm teaching in a very 'keep the student customer happy' environment (strangely, this seems to apply only to faculty), so have to come up with some way of justifying allowing the damned things. Although given Sepoy's last very stroppy comment, I have to say I could be persuaded to just say no! After all, I say the same thing about them having to use Chicago Manual of Style rather than MLA!

Desi Italiana | January 18, 2008

Asus is really damn cute. No optical drive, but hey. Still adorable, nonetheless. Re: biblios, I should have used some program to do it for me; if I recall, the U of C library had something on it. I hated doing biblios with a passion and did them grudgingly, which resulted in appallingly sloppy biblios. Bless the profs who let me get away with it.

elizabeth | January 19, 2008

These look very fetching indeed, especially the alternative composition tools. I look forward to making use of them. (Alas, at work we are forced to use MS only--why an organization that's created an awesome plone-based global intranet/knowledge management system with extensive web 2.0 toolage is simultaneously too conservative to let any of its employees use Macs or Google Desktop is beyond me.) The flickr project is delightful. I am also very keen on assorted mapping resources, and what might be done with them: imagine the bastard child of Perry-Castaneda and wikimapia! Risking DI's ire, I will say that I am very fond of the OSX interface. But it's a matter of personal taste and habit more than anything else. I have also found apple laptops to be a good investment--my old ibook, bought in Sept 2002, has outlasted 2 batteries and a power cord and still runs fine (my teenage sister has it now). In all that time we've never lost a single file, which is lucky given my lame-ass approach to backup. There was a serious problem with the video card about three years in, but Apple fixed it for free--and overseas to boot. (The international service is a plus, in contrast to the experience of some friends in the UK who had to ship laptops back to the US for under-warranty care. Coverage in the Middle East is still sparse, tho.) My current macbook has also been good; this one did have a hard drive failure, but again, was fixed swiftly at no charge. which brings me to a question for sepoy--panther yet? I am wavering--not inclined to spend money, but my ladyfriend has it and is pleased. finally, wireless in the classroom is just bad news. I've certainly had many googlechat conversations in which the other party was sitting in a law school lecture hall.

Desi Italiana | January 20, 2008

"Risking DI's ire, I will say that I am very fond of the OSX interface. But it's a matter of personal taste and habit more than anything else." No ire :) It is absolutely a question of taste and habit; and I am sure, over time, I would have gotten used to MAC's. But since I've been a PC user for decades, I'm basically a PC whore now. "I've certainly had many googlechat conversations in which the other party was sitting in a law school lecture hall." That couldn't have been I didn't have my laptop :( [PS my law prof told me not to feel bad about that, he said: "It's good that you are 'old school'']

sepoy | January 20, 2008

e: you must mean leopard, and yes, it is worth the cash. If only for the amazing backup utility.