To Ban or Not To Ban (Technology in the Classroom)?

Lately it seems as if the dawn of each new semester brings with it an opinion piece on laptop/smartphone/tablet/tech policies in the classroom. The most recent one that I’m aware of ran a couple days ago in the New York Times (here). Its title (“Leave Your Laptops at the Door to My Classroom”) leaves no doubt as to the author’s position on the matter: screens are not welcome, and for a number of reasons.

Pieces like this ignite numerous fires whenever they post. On the one
hand, you 70959205have those who claim that on the whole students are more effective learners when technology is absent. And this is true, for the most part; there are a number of studies that support the conclusion that we learn better when we are not distracted by a screen.

Yet on the other hand there are many who claim that a blanket ban on technology is draconian, uncreative, and problematic pedagogy. To note but one example: What about students with documented learning challenges who have learned to use their laptops to take notes more efficiently? The author of the article linked above addresses this group of students, actually. He refers to them as “medical exemptions,” and these “exemptions” are, presumably, allowed to use their laptops (or similar) in class. Basically: if you are using a laptop in class, it is because you have some flavor of learning disability. This puts some students in an awkward position, to say the least, and it amounts to an enormous breach of privacy.

Truth be told, I’ve gone back and forth on my technology policies for years, and I’m still unconvinced as to what the best solution is. I understand the rationale for banning it, for allowing it, and even for encouraging it. I’ve done all of these things, and each brings different results: some good, some bad, and some just, well, different.

My current policy is to permit technology as long as it does not distract me or others. My students are adults, so I try to treat them as such. Do some students get sucked into social media and fail to pay attention? Sure. And because they are adults they will also experience the real consequence of not doing well in the course.

But in my experience, many students use their technology in positive ways, to take notes, to look up words that are unfamiliar to them, etc. Most, I think, occupy a middle ground between diligence and distraction. These students might take notes by hand but occasionally pull out their phones to check in on the outside world. I do the same thing in faculty meetings (sshhh), so I can’t in good conscience be too hard on this group.

Another reason I’ve chosen to permit technology in my classrooms is that I find enforcement of a strict ban to be itself distracting and problematic. Most of my classes have between twenty and thirty students in them, and if I stop what we are doing every time I see a phone, it disrupts the flow of things. It punishes students who are following the rules. But there’s also the far more central issue (noted above) of students who use laptops or comparable devices because of learning difficulties. Students should be allowed and encouraged to use the tools that they need in class without fear of judgement from their peers.

All this being said, I make every effort to discourage students from using their devices purely for distraction’s sake. And I don’t do this by giving them a rule, but by giving them a break (a literal one). During longer classes (more than one hour), I let students take a five-minute respite at the midpoint so that they can check their phones, go to the restroom, or talk with their neighbor. I started this last semester and it seems to have been successful. More than a few remarked to me at the end of the semester that they were less antsy to check their phones or open Facebook on their laptops because they knew they would have an opportunity to do so before too long.

I also try to break up the content of class so that it’s not just me yammering on at the front of the room. If I had to listen to me talk for an extended period of time, I would try and distract myself as well. I’ve found that moving away from traditional lecture and more towards discussion-based and interactive class sessions encourages students to be more engaged and attentive to what’s going on around them. And technology can be an enormous help here. Put students into groups and have them use their devices to find artwork or news articles. Allow students to “live tweet” class discussions using a special hashtag so that others can revisit the conversation later. Find ways to incorporate technology into your classes in ways that show students how to use it productively, and not just as a diversion. When students are more engaged and attentive, they are less likely to seek distraction.

Of course, the dreaded “laptop culture” that develops in some classes is a reality, and it can be an enormous problem. Classes form distinct personalities over the course of the semester (many would say these personalities are cemented in the first few meetings), and I’ve had at least one in which electronic devices became toxic to the learning environment. Screens everywhere, and none of them displaying anything relevant. In this class I opted to ban electronic devices at midterm; I’m not convinced that it was the right decision (for all the reasons noted above), but it certainly woke the students up and changed our trajectory for the better. Looking back on that experience, I’m inclined to think that a discussion about what it means to be “present” in the room might have worked just as well. After all, a huge part of what we do in the classroom is help students learn how to learn. And a huge part of helping them learn how to learn is helping them learn how to use the tools available to them, and to do so appropriately.

I’m still experimenting with technology in the classroom, and as I said above, I go back and forth regarding its merits (or lack thereof). At the end of the day, I do think that it is an issue that needs to be addressed with a degree of complexity far greater than just “ban it.” Simply telling students that screens are not allowed is in many ways the equivalent of “abstinence only” sex-ed: it doesn’t work, and it often encourages the type of behavior that you are trying to prevent.

I Made a Bible Bot: How and Why?

I’ve long been fascinated by Twitter bots — those seemingly-autonomous bits of
programming that retweet, follow, compose and respond to messages, etc. Truth be told, I’ve always wanted a bot, but since I have little to no knowledge of coding/programming language, I always assumed that creating my own was just a pipe dream. Turns out I was wrong.

In this post I’d like to first introduce you to my bot and then I’ll tell you how I made it.

After experimenting with a few different iterations over the weekend, I launched a “Bible bot” that is currently alive and well in cyberspace, tweeting its little digital heart out and gathering followers (an impressive amount so far, actually). What is it tweeting, you ask? For the most part, just gibberish that it puts together at random from the text of the King James Bible. But occasionally it comes up with something that (unbeknownst to it, of course) is really pretty clever. Here are a few examples:

I’m not sure what, if anything, I will do to hone or improve the bot in the future. It is currently doing exactly what it was designed to do, namely, amuse people in general and me in particular. It’s only been live for a few days now, so I suppose we shall see what the future holds for it.

So how did I set it up?

From start to finish, the process was actually much easier than I thought it would be, mostly because I found someone else who had already done the “heavy lifting.” That someone is Zach Whalen, an Associate Professor of English, Linguistics, and Communication at the University of Mary Washington.

Thanks to a push in the right direction from another of my Twitter pals, I stumbled upon a helpful post on Zach’s blog where he walks you through creating a Twitter bot using a Google spreadsheet that he designed. (Note that this sheet will only allow you to create a bot that posts; if you are interested in building a bot that can retweet, respond to tweets, or follow accounts, you will need to look elsewhere.) Zach’s post is remarkably clear and detailed, so I will refrain from reproducing a step-by-step here (if I can follow it, then trust me, so can you). All you need to get started is a Twitter account for your bot and a Google account for the spreadsheet.

After the initial linking up of the spreadsheet with Twitter (which can be a tad tricky, but stick with it), there are only a couple of parameters to set: frequency of posting and “data sheet.” Frequency is straightforward: how often do you want your bot to post? Every hour? Twice per hour? Once per day? Etc. “Data sheet” refers, essentially, to how you want your bot to compose its tweets.

lfmU5E0pThere are a few different options in this data sheet category, all of which are useful depending on your goals. I chose the “markov” option, meaning that my bot uses an algorithm to generate random text from a supplied body of text. The supplied body of text can be anything. The spreadsheet comes with the full text of Sense and Sensibility so that you can experiment before copying and pasting in your own text.

The text you supply the markov algorithm can be pretty much anything (I think). Because my bot is a Bible bot, my text is the Bible — King James translation. I chose King James for two reasons: 1) because I thought (rightly) that it would be funnier; and 2) because I found the King James Bible in spreadsheet form online, which meant that I could copy and paste the whole thing in about twenty minutes. Win.

With all of the text inputted, I set my bot to post a new tweet every thirty minutes (every fifteen minutes strikes me as excessive, and I got impatient having to wait an hour to see new content) and hit “start.” The results so far have been quite amusing.

And that’s why and how I made a Bible Twitter bot! Follow (or just observe) it on Twitter by clicking here.

And follow me by clicking here!

Hauerwas Goes to the Movies (Week 5)

This post is part of a series on teaching religion in film using the work of Stanley Hauerwas. You can get caught up on our progress so far by reading the posts from Week 1Week 2Week 3, and Week 4.

For this week students read the fourth chapter in Hauerwas’s A Community of Character — “The Church and Liberal Democracy: The Moral Limits of a Secular Polity.” This chapter’s central claim is that Christianity and Liberalism are characterized by competing and irreconcilable ideologies. I therefore anticipated that it would generate some pushback from students, and it did, but not to the extent that I had feared (or hoped?). Discussion at the start of class was fruitful, and I found that many students seem to appreciate the line that Hauerwas draws.

One of the things they seem to have found most compelling in this chapter is its analysis of Liberalism’s emphasis on personal freedom and self-interest as cardinal virtues of sorts. Hauerwas notes that in the early days of Liberalism (liberal democracy in the United States, specifically), the assumption underlying liberal ideology was that people were, in fact, virtuous. Yet as time progresses, the situation will change. Now, Hauerwas argues, “people feel their only public duty is to follow their own interests as far as possible, limited only by the rule that we do not unfairly limit others’ freedom” (79). “Liberalism,” Hauerwas maintains, “thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; a social order that is designed to work on the presumption that people are self-interested tends to produce that kind of people” (ibid).

Below is a word cloud generated from student essays on this chapter.

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 2.59.25 PM

Over the past few weeks one of the things I’ve noticed in essays and in our class discussion is that students have started asking serious questions about what precisely Hauerwas envisions when he speaks of “the church.” In a previous post I mentioned that one student went so far as to argue that he seemed to be advocating for a sort of “secret clubhouse” mentality.

As we’ve moved further into the book, questions about the relationship of the church to the world have become increasingly more common. Many found the section at the end of this chapter on contrasts between Liberalism and the church to be helpful, and we spent some time at the start of class going over this section.

After some preliminary discussion we watched M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (2004). To be honest, I actually don’t care much for the film; it’s quite tedious at points, and it’s far from Shyamalan’s best work (in my opinion). But it’s a fantastic illustration of what a truly sectarian society looks like in practice, and in my mind it is a perfect antithesis to how Hauerwas conceives of the church.

“The Village” is made up of people who seem to be living in the late-nineteenth century, deep in the forest and far from civilization. The woods that surround them are said to populated by vicious monsters who are drawn to the color red. Toward the end of the film it becomes clear that these monsters were created by “the elders,” the group of people who started the community. The stories of the monsters function to keep people in the community and to keep them at peace with one another.

At first glance the village seems like a suitable analog for the church. The people are loving, peaceful, and faithful, and they consider money the root of evil and don’t use it in their society. It is only when you consider the means by which the society is maintained that the serious issues with it become clear. In contrast to Hauerwas’s insistence that the church be formed and sustained by narratives/stories that are “sufficiently true/truthful,” the village is a society built on a series of elaborate lies.

What is more, the story of the monsters is in fact contrary to the values that the elders wish to instill in their progeny. They want their children to be peaceful and loving, but they teach them to be peaceful and loving people by surrounding them with threats of violence: “The monsters are drawn to the color red, so if you cause someone to bleed the monsters will come and get you.” Even though this threat of violence is intended as a preventative measure, it nevertheless instills in the people the belief that violence is a legitimate way to solve problems. And this ends up having disastrous consequences for more than a few characters.

Our post-film discussion was rich; students seemed to enjoy the film, and I was impressed at how effectively they were able to grasp its mythology. One of the critical differences they identified between the village and Hauerwas’s conception of the church is that the former in no way benefits the world that it has chosen to exist apart from. The elders seek to build a society of faith, hope, peace, and love, but they do so in radical isolation from the world that they perceive as violent. The church, on the other hand, seeks to cultivate similar virtue in its members, but this is always done in the context of the world. The church is an alternative to secular polities, but if it is to be a true alternative, then it must exist within sight of the polity to which it is serving as an alternative.

More next time!

SBL/AAR 2015: A Retrospective

Today is my first full day home from the 2015 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion. As is typically the case, I find myself in the aftermath experiencing a combination of exhaustion and exhilaration and, incidentally, in the mood to write a blog post (more on why at the end).

I gave two papers this year. One was on reading the death of Moses through first-century eyes and in light of the Synoptic transfiguration narratives (available here). The other was an intertextual analysis of some central themes in the Gospel of John and The Polar Express (available here). Both went well. I IMG_0698encountered some pushback on the Synoptic paper, but it was the kind of pushback that you want; several in the audience questioned parts of my analysis and offered some helpful avenues for further explanation that I’d not considered. Both of these papers happened on Saturday, more or less back to back, which made for a long day. But in retrospect, it was nice to not have them hanging over my head for the rest of the conference.
I also chaired a Christian Apocrypha session on Monday afternoon, where I got to hear phenomenal papers by Alexander Kocar (Princeton), Meghan Henning (University of Dayton), Andrew Mark Henry (Boston University), and Mark Bilby (Claremont). Tony Burke (York University) gave a response, and we closed with some discussion. I very much enjoy the Christian Apocrypha group at SBL, and not just because of my research interests. I like it because it’s relatively small, so you have a chance to get to know those who attend. And in the sea of humanity that is the annual meeting, a bit of familiarity here and there never hurts.

The book room is always a highlight, of course. This year there were actually two book rooms, on two separate floors, which was far from ideal. The “main” room upstairs housed the big publishers (Oxford, Eerdmans, Baker, Wipf and Stock, etc.), and the other room downstairs had the software people (Logos, Accordance, etc.) as well as a few other publishers (Notre Dame, etc.). I actually had no idea that the downstairs room even existed until late Saturday afternoon. I can’t remember ever seeing a divided exhibit hall like this, and I hope whoever organizes that aspect of the meeting will avoid similar situations in the future.

My goal this year was to avoid purchasing books that were not directly relevant to my teaching or research. I was actually able to avoid purchasing anything at all, but not because I didn’t find anything worth purchasing. Several publishers that I visited were interested in sending me on my way with gratis examination copies. From Oxford University Press I received a copy of Mark Noll’s In the Beginning was the Word, and from Baker I received Introducing World Religions: A Christian Engagement. And Fortress Press provided me with a new desk copy of a text I’m using next semester: Rhoads, et al., Mark as Story (3rd edition).

I also quite by chance ended up dining with Markus Vinzent on Sunday evening. We chatted for over an hour about his intriguing hypothesis on the origin of the canonical gospels, namely, that they are all in some form drawing from Marcion’s Gospel. He very graciously tracked me down the next day and gave me two of his books: Christ’s Resurrection in Early Christianity and the Making of the New Testament (Ashgate), and Marcion and the Dating of the Synoptic Gospels (Peeters). I will look forward to reading through those and then, hopefully, posting some sort of review/engagement in this space.

One of the best parts of the annual meeting, of course, is reconnecting with old friends and meeting new ones. This year I was fortunate to be able to spend time with colleagues from graduate school, many of whom were giving papers or interviewing for jobs. I also got to meet in person several colleagues who were, until this weekend, only digital colleagues. Over the past two years or so Facebook and Twitter have clearly emerged as accepted and effective means of networking.

This leads to a question that I’d like to respond to briefly right now, but hopefully address further in a dedicated post at some point in the next few weeks. The question is that of blogging and other social media and the degree to which young scholars (graduate students, untenured faculty, etc.) should be involved, if at all. I attended the final twenty minutes or so of a session on blogging (James McGrath’s summary is here) in which several panelists argued that young scholars should not be blogging. Two reasons were cited: 1) it’s a time suck, and 2) it can attract controversy.

I agree wholeheartedly that social media can be an enormous waste of energy. Blogging in particular can demand long stretches of time that could be better spent working on other, more meaningful writing (journal articles, conference presentations, etc.). And I’ve also watched graduate students come close to committing career suicide with tweets, blog posts, etc. that aren’t particularly well thought out. Simply put: social media can be dangerous.

Yet at several points this weekend, even after attending the blogging session, I found myself advising younger colleagues to build up their social media presence. Because at least to some extent, many of the dangers of social media are avoidable ones. I say “to some extent” because there’s always some risk involved in putting yourself out there. And really, that is the case regardless of the medium: one could say the same thing about a book review, conference presentation, or journal article, and we nevertheless encourage these.

It is both possible and wise to limit the amount of time you spend engaging in social media, as academia requires that you commit a substantial portion of your energy to other, more scholarly pursuits. But I do think that social media can be a valuable tool for the young scholar, if used carefully and with an acknowledgment of its limitations. More on that in a future post, I hope (the previous four paragraphs are little more than a knee-jerk reaction to the question, so please read as such and mind the gaps).

For now, time to enjoy another cup of coffee. See you next year in San Antonio!

Using Timers for Productivity

One of my favorite bits of culture from The Office is the Wuphf, an initiative spearheaded by the great Ryan Howard. What Wuphf allows you to do is link all of your communication devices so that when one receives a message, they are all notified. The keepers of one Office Wiki describe Wuphf as follows:

If you send a Wuphf, the message goes to the recipient’s home phone, cell phone, email, Facebook, twitter, fax and homescreen at the same time, the idea being that if someone has a really important message they can send a Wuphf and know the recipient will receive it quickly.

I chuckle when I think about the Wuphf because it isn’t that far from reality. When I receive a text message, for example, my phone buzzes, my iPad lights up, and my laptop pings. It’s utterly obnoxious.

But even aside from the synchronized alert phenomenon (which I could turn off if I really wanted to), all of us are bombarded throughout the day by various sources of distraction that vie constantly for our attention: e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, text messages, academia.edu alerts, the occasional phone call (does anyone even talk on the phone anymore?), etc.

Some days, the amount of activity on the screens in my office makes it nearly impossible to accomplish anything. Some days, I can’t read, write, grade, or answer e-mails for more than one minute without being beckoned into another medium. On these types of days I find it helpful to do what I think of as a hard reboot – focus on one task, and only one task, for a manageable amount of time.

I accomplish this by using a simple timer app on my laptop. I like the Alinof timer because it is free and no frills, but really any timer will work. I choose a task for myself, be it writing, reading, grading, cleaning my office or answering e-mails, and I set my timer for 20 minutes and turn off alerts on all my devices. Until that timer sounds, I do not allow myself to do anything else outside of the task I assigned myself.

(This method is of course similar in many ways to the Pomodoro Technique, in which you divide your work into short chunks of time that are separated by scheduled breaks. The chief difference, at least for me, is that this is something I do only when I reach a point of desperation. Those who use Pomodoro tend to view it as a way of structuring all of their work time. I know several people for whom that works well, but it doesn’t work for me.)

As it turns out, you can accomplish quite a lot in 20 minutes. Assuming you keep a handle on the number of e-mails in your inbox (for me it’s a compulsion), 20 minutes is enough time to get your inbox to zero. It’s also enough to write a blog post or a page on that project you keep neglecting, grade a handful of essays, or organize your desk. When the timer sounds, I am often so pleased with what I’ve accomplished that I will set it again and keep going on whatever task I was working on. And after a few of these cycles, I typically find that I am much more focused, so much so that I eventually forget to reset the timer.

York Christian Apocrypha Symposium 2015, a Retrospective

This year I had the privilege of giving a paper at the York Christian Apocrypha Symposium, a conference on apocryphal literature put together by Tony Burke and Brent Landau at York University in Toronto.

The conference itself was relatively IMG_0354small —  19 presenters and a handful of others in the audience — and it was therefore a nice change from the utter enormity of the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting, which has grown to the point of being almost unmanageable. Quite a few of us live-tweeted the presentations under the hashtag #YCAS2015. And James McGrath was diligent about live blogging all of the sessions, which you can access below:

Panel 1; Panel 2; Panel 3; Panel 4; Panel 5; Panel 6

Notes on Bart Ehrman’s keynote address on forgery are available here.

And an overview of the final panel on the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is available here.

IMG_0351As it turns out, this was actually the last year for the York Symposium, at least in its current form. There will be another symposium in 2017, in Ottawa, under the auspices of the newly-established North American Society for the Study of Christian Apocryphal Literature (NASSCAL). The current board of this exciting new group has some fantastic ideas for future initiatives, and I would recommend joining if you are interested in the Christian Apocrypha.

*The first photo is of the last panel of the symposium, on the reception of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. Pictured from left to right are Brent Landau, Carrie Schroeder, James McGrath, Mark Goodacre, and Janet Spittler. The second photo is of Tony Burke introducing Bart Ehrman before his keynote.

Reflections on a First Semester of Full-Time Teaching

No one can prepare you for your first full-time teaching position. You might think that the two classes per semester that you taught during graduate school have done the job — well, those and the numerous books on pedagogy, productivity, and time management that you’ve read in the past year. These things will help, but they are insufficient; nothing can accurately convey the madness of one’s first semester teaching full time. But perspectives on the madness can be helpful, hence this post.

1) Workload

The first thing about full-time teaching that will shock you is the workload. In graduate school you likely became accustomed to teaching one, maybe two classes per semester. In your first full-time teaching post you will probably be teaching three or four. The difference in time spent preparing material for these courses is minimal. How much more time does it really take to prepare a lecture/discussion for three sections of one class instead of just two? The truly noticeable change will come not with the number of classes you will be teaching, but with your grading responsibilities. And this, at least in part, will be self inflicted.

Remember how, for various reasons, you assigned three essays per semester to those classes you taught in graduate school? Yeah, you are going to do that again in your first full-time teaching position. And when you do, you will do so with the memory of having thirty, forty, or even fifty papers at once that you had to grade. You will remember that this was annoying, but that you got through it without much difficulty. The problem is that if you are teaching four classes per semester (and you probably will be, assuming the statistics are correct), you are going to be grading upwards of one hundred papers at a time at several times per semester. And there is an enormous difference between fifty papers and one hundred papers when it comes time to grade them.

As you draw near the end of the semester you might rethink your writing assignments. Dropping the number of essays from three to two means that you will have one hundred less essays per semester to grade. Your students will thank you not only because they have to write less, but because you will also be less cranky overall.

2) Subject Matter

Another thing that may throw you during your first semester of full-time teaching is the subject matter you will be responsible for. As a graduate student you aimed to discover a niche in your field that needed to be explored in greater depth or from a different angle. Your job was to become a specialist, and to focus on your niche as if nothing else came close in terms of importance. But your first teaching gig will almost certainly not be tailored to your hyper-focused research agenda. Your first teaching gig will likely require you to be a generalist and to teach at least one course that is outside of your area. Some will be familiar with this challenge from teaching general education requirements as graduate students or as adjuncts. Others will have to learn from experience.

If you teach at a small college (as I do) where virtually every faculty member teaches something outside of their primary research area, you will probably hear the following refrain during your first semester: “All you have to do is stay one class ahead.” Essentially what this means is that you are learning much of the material along with your students; you are doing all of the readings that they are doing, and in some cases you have to do some pretty heavy research to make sure that you are prepared. Granted, you have the tools and categories that your students don’t, but the process can be thoroughly exhausting, and it can easily consume most or even all of that time that you optimistically set aside for “research.” The good news is that it doesn’t last forever; you will start your second semester more prepared than you were for your first, or at least that is the hope.

3) Faculty commitments

I would remiss if I failed to mention the expectations that colleges have of faculty. I am lucky because the college I work at doesn’t really allow faculty to take on committee or advising responsibilities in their first year. But even aside from these responsibilities, my plate is still filled each week with meetings of various sorts: faculty and school meetings, learning community meetings, obligatory lunch meetings, etc. These are certainly nothing to complain about if you like the people you work with (and I do!), but they are time consuming nonetheless!

A seasoned professor in my doctoral program used to remark to new students, “Your graduate school years will be the best years of your life, and you will look back on them fondly because how much free time you had.” Of course, we all assumed she was joking. I mean, how could she be serious? Surely she had forgotten about the stresses of being a graduate student. After a semester of teaching full time I can tell you that she was neither joking nor naïve — teaching full time is serious business, and it does cause one to look back on one’s graduate school years with a certain fondness and yearning for “the good ol’ days.” But at the end of the day it is like any form of employment that is largely self-structured and self-motivated — learning how to manage and divide one’s time is at least half the battle.

SBL/AAR 2014: A Retrospective

The SBL/AAR annual meeting is always exhausting. A combination of too little sleep, too much walking, possibly forgetting about a meal or two, schmoozing, and thinking too hard all day is enough to wear anyone out.

Yet we press on, because for many of us the annual meeting is a highlight. It is a time to get together with old friends and to meet some new ones. It is a time to browse (mostly) beautiful books, dreaming that you may one day be able to afford some of them (I’m looking at you, Brill and Mohr Siebeck), and purchasing others because you’ve forgotten that they are always cheaper on Amazon. It is a time to sometimes catch a glimpse of a scholar whose work essentially changed everything about how you understand your field.

This year my beloved spouse Tweeted and Facebooked about my adventures in San Diego using the hashtag, #BibleNerdConference2014. I love it, because in my view, it captures the spirit of what the annual meeting is all about.

Conferences are where nerds go to feel normal. Those of us who spend the majority of our teaching workload in general education courses sometimes need a reminder that there are others out there who are ridiculously interested in what we do, or at the very least, that there are people out there who understand why we do what we do.

We need to spend time in an environment where you can overhear casual conversations on textual criticism, ancient material culture, or the newest trends in research on the Apocalypse. We need to be in a room that erupts in laughter alongside us when someone cracks a clever joke about Rudolf Bultmann or the Synoptic Problem (especially if it involves Q — let the reader understand). We need to spend time in a giant bookstore that is filled with books that don’t make us angry (looking at you now, Barnes and Noble).

So now that NerdFest 2014 has come to a close, we look forward already to next year in Atlanta. See you there.

Using Scrivener to Write a Dissertation – Why I’m Glad I Did and What I Would do Differently Next Time

My younger colleagues often ask me for dissertation advice. How do you keep your research and notes straight? How do you structure and restructure your argument? How do you motivate yourself to write on a regular basis? How do you do all of this without losing your precious sanity? Regardless of which question I am being asked, my response almost always involves a common refrain: Scrivener.

Developed initially for novelists and other creative types, Scrivener is writing software that has earned quite the following in the academic community. In this post I would like to outline why I chose to use it while writing my dissertation, why I am glad that I did, and what I would do differently if I had to do it all over again.

[N.B. — Initially designed for Mac, Scrivener is currently available for Mac and Windows. Everything in this post is in reference to the Mac version. I have never used Scrivener for Windows.]

Why did I choose Scrivener initially?

A fellow graduate student introduced me to Scrivener years ago. I will confess that while he was explaining several of its features, I found myself wondering why he was so excited. How could this software be useful to ME, someone responsible for writing serious and scholarly things? I already had Microsoft Word, and it had brought me through college and two masters degrees, right? So what, I asked, was the point? I concluded (hastily, in hindsight) that it should be placed alongside font selection as one more way that graduate students could procrastinate while still appearing productive.

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About two years later and after several other encounters with devotees of the software, I passed my comprehensive exams and jumped headfirst into the dissertation. And because I was a graduate student, I also began to search for clever and efficient ways to procrastinate: I started printing out test pages to determine which font I was going to use; I began experimenting with alternative/therapeutic lighting schemes and furniture/book arrangements in my study; I discovered that not all note-taking paper is created equal; and I learned that Microsoft Word is neither the only nor the best word processor for long, book-length documents. Realizing that I was deceiving myself into thinking that such pursuits were good uses of my precious time, I devoted one day—and one day only—to figuring out which font, paper, and word processing software I was going to use.

I downloaded a few options to start with: Nisus, Mellel, Bean, LaTex (which I never did figure out). After toying around with these a bit, I remembered Scrivener. I’m not sure why, but when I opened up the software for the first time something about it just clicked with me. Perhaps it was because I found the programs I had looked at thus far to be downright clunky, but Scrivener’s user interface struck me immediately as clean, well organized, and intuitive in many ways. After about an hour with it I was hooked; I took a few of the tutorials and had a detailed outline set up in no time. So yes—ironically, what began as an attempt to procrastinate ended up yielding what I now consider to be the single most important tool in my toolbox.

Why am I glad that I chose Scrivener?

Anyone who uses Scrivener on a regular basis has an opinion regarding its most useful components. Below are three of the features of Scrivener that I found to be the most helpful in the process of writing a dissertation. The list is not intended to be exhaustive.

1) Outlining — One of the things that takes a bit of getting used to in Scrivener is the “binder” that is situated to the left of the text input window. The binder is divided initially into three sections: draft, research, and trash. The draft and research sections allowScreen Shot 2014-05-30 at 2.58.21 PM you to create outlines to guide you in the process of writing and research. These can be about as detailed or broad as you want.

The outlines you create are actually systems of tiered text files. So, let’s say you make an outline for “Chapter 1.” Under this broad rubric you construct five headings, and under each of these headings you create three subheadings. The benefit of this—aside from more or less requiring you to outline your project before you start writing it—is that the system of text files allows you to skip quickly from one section to another, which helps move you away from thinking of the whole thing in strictly linear terms. Most of us don’t think in straight lines from start to finish, yet the expectation (for whatever reason) is that we need to write this way. No wonder the experience of staring at a blank page is such a common one!

Scrivener’s outlining feature certainly does not eliminate writer’s block, but it does remind you that your larger project is made up of individual components, and that you don’t necessarily have to work on them in order. In fact, the whole thing may move along more quickly if you don’t work on them in order!

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2) Automatic Writing Goals — If you know roughly how long your project should be, and you know when you want to have it completed by, Scrivener can help you figure out how many words per day you need to write every day in order to reach your goal on time. I am aware of no other program on the market that has a feature like this.

I knew that my dissertation needed to be around 65,000 words, not including footnotes, and I also knew that I wanted to finish writing it in one year (that didn’t happen, but that’s a story for another day). So I opened up Project Targets, entered my figures, told Scrivener to Screen Shot 2013-06-03 at 2.25.44 PM“automatically calculate from draft deadline,” selected the days on which I planned to write, and that’s it. Turns out that if you want to write 65,000 words in one year, and you only want to write on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, you can accomplish your goal by writing 414 words per day. If you set a more aggressive schedule, i.e., write on every day of the work week, that figure drops to 249 words per day. Either of these is entirely manageable and a lot easier than sitting down every day not knowing if you are ahead or behind. If you get inspired one day and write more than you are supposed to, Scrivener will update your goals so that you will write less the next time. Alternately, if you take a week off of writing, Scrivener will have you write a few more words to catch up.

This feature was valuable to me because it showed me that the only way to complete long writing projects is one piece at a time. And it reminded me throughout the process that regardless of how small an accomplishment it seemed at the time, writing 400 words was in fact bringing me closer to my ultimate goal, namely, finishing.

3) Design and Stability — One of the first things that really struck me about Scrivener was just how smart the layout is. It’s clear that the software was designed, from start to finish, by people who could imagine themselves using it on a regular basis. Nearly every aspect of the user interface, from the layout of the toolbar to the color of your backgrounds, can be easily customized to fit your own needs and preferences.Like any software, there are some learning curves. But if you are willing to spend a little bit of time working through the tutorials that come packaged with it, you will figure things out quickly.

One final point of praise, related to design, is that Scrivener is a remarkably stable program. In the two years that I spent using it to write my dissertation, it NEVER CRASHED ONCE. Anyone who uses Word will marvel at that last sentence. Go ahead. Marvel. I imagine there are ways to crash Scrivener—the point is that you are going to have to work at it. Even if you did crash it, however, Scrivener automatically saves your work every two seconds. So even in the unlikely event that you throw more at it than it can catch, odds are you will lose maybe a total of five words.

What would I do differently next time?

By now you can tell that I’m a huge fan of this software. I could certainly have written a dissertation without it, but the task would have been much more arduous. To close out this post, I thought it might be helpful to reflect on what I would do differently next time. While I will never (ever) have to write another dissertation, I have recently started work on another project in Scrivener that should keep me entertained for at least the next year. So what am I doing differently now?

1) Use the research section of the binder more — Scrivener is first and foremost a writing tool. But it also sports a number of features that can help you organize the nuts and bolts of your project. One of these is the research section of the binder (mentioned above). This section can support pretty much any sort of file that you can imagine. In the project I’m working on currently I am keeping images and article .pdfs in the research section as well as outlines and notes. Scrivener’s split screen mode makes switching between your writing window and .pdf viewer unnecessary; you can have both open at once. While I am still using bibliography software for citations, I’ve found that using the research section is helping me stay more organized.

2) Take more snapshots — A snapshot enables you to save a version of your project that you can later go back and compare against newer versions. It is similar in many ways to Word’s “track changes” feature, though more smoothly executed (surprised?). I knew that this feature existed when I started using Scrivener, but I didn’t start using it until I was Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 3.00.18 PMfinishing the final chapter and beginning to edit. To be sure, the editing phase is the point at which snapshots are most valuable; if you find that you were a bit too zealous in your cutting, you can always go back and retrieve what you have chopped out.

In the project I am working on right now, the first thing I do EVERY TIME I open the file is take a snapshot. It takes seconds, and I have peace of mind knowing that there is a limit to how bad I can screw things up if I’m having a bad/off day.

 

3) Use the scratch pad. This is a feature that I rarely spend time telling others about because I don’t think all that many people would understand the idea behind it. The scratch pad is tucked away in Scrivener’s “window” menu (I think it is also possible to assign a keyboard shortcut that will open it). When you select it, a little text entry window appears. In this window you can do some free writing, record a stray thought that may have entered your mind, or sketch an idea you have about reorganizing a chapter, etc. You could use it to write out a grocery list if you want.

What the scratch pad does is give you a blank document quickly, before you have to waste a whole lot of time deciding where to type whatever might be on your mind. It’s akin in many ways to keeping an index card and a pen with you at all times, just in case something pops into your mind and you don’t want to forget it.

What makes the scratch pad different from all other text entry windows (as I understand things) is that the text you enter in it isn’t really linked to any project in particular. If you have a Scrivener file set up for your dissertation, another for your blog, and another for, say, teaching resources, all of these would share a scratch pad. So, if you are in your dissertation and open the scratch pad to make a few notes, those notes will be there when you open up the scratch pad while you are working on your blog. I use this feature when I am in the middle of writing for one project but have a thought related to another; the scratch pad lets me record that thought quickly without worrying about getting too sidetracked or forgetting where I put the note to myself.

At the end of the day, being a successful writer, i.e., completing what you set out to write without losing your mind, is as much about having the determination to sit in one place for long periods of time as it is about anything else. But coupling this determination with the right tools can make your task a little more pleasant.

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Paper Extensions and Death, or: Leave Grandma Out of It

Most of my students would be shocked to hear how many of their classmates’ relatives, friends, and acquaintances die in the days before papers are due. These dangerous points in the semester bring car accidents, hospital visits, possibly life-threatening illnesses (e.g., flesh-eating virus, bot flies, ebola), anxiety attacks, printer/hard drive malfunctions/explosions, etc. Enrollment in one of my classes over the past year almost guaranteed—at least statistically—that you, your entire family, and in fact all whom you hold dear were in for a dangerous ride that may kill at least one of you. And chances of death almost always increase dramatically in the weeks between Thanksgiving and winter break.

Because nearly all reports of carnage arrive via e-mail within 24 hours before a paper or some other important assignment is due, and because every report includes a request for an extension on that assignment, it’s easy to see what’s happening. One of the frustrating things for professors (at least for me) is that these types of requests are difficult to refuse. What if someone’s grandmother did pass away? What if your student was in a car accident? What if your student does suffer from anxiety issues? No one wants to be the professor who asks for a death certificate and then receives one along with a nasty letter filled with accusations of insensitivity. And no one wants to charge a student with faking an anxiety disorder and then discover, after the student has been talked down off the roof of the library by the campus police, that the student was telling the truth.

Some professors demand proof when they receive one of these seemingly fantastic excuses for not getting a paper in on time, but I am not one of them. It’s not because I am naïve or non-confrontational; it’s because I’ve concluded that extensions don’t make papers better. Students who are going to write a bad or mediocre paper aren’t going to miraculously crank out a good one with an extra week’s worth of time. And the student who worked hard on her paper and got it in on time would have written a good paper regardless of how much time she had. This is why I don’t worry about identifying “legitimate” excuses in a veritable sea of illegitimate ones; because I am unconvinced that an extended due date provides any sort of advantage. The data would suggest, in fact, that extensions most often yield lower scoring papers, not higher ones.

At the end of the semester I find myself longing not for these requests to go away—although that would be perfectly fine—but for my students to be candid with me. This spring I received nine pleas for extensions on the final paper: four grandparents and one friend dead (all in one day), a friend in the hospital, one car accident, and two illnesses (one life-threatening and one minor but still “the sucks”). I responded to each of them in the same way: I’m sorry for what you must be going through…please get your paper to me by the end of the semester so I have time to grade it before everything is due. As I typed these words over and over I kept thinking, Why won’t you just admit that you need an extension because you are busy and because you don’t budget your time well?

God knows that I empathize with the student who feels that there are not enough hours in the day. I understand feeling as though your professors are loading you up with work just for the heck of it, and that all of them have somehow collaborated to ensure that all of your papers are due on the same day. I get it because I have been a student. The rest of your professors should get it because all of them have also, at one point in their lives, been students. And any professor who says they have never missed a deadline is lying (sorry to throw us all under the bus with that one). We have all needed to ask for an extension in one form or another. We all miss deadlines on occasion.

The point of all this is not to suggest that students should request more extensions or that professors are obligated to grant every request that they receive; policies are policies, and you should make every effort to abide by the rules of the class that you have chosen to be a part of. What I am suggesting is that if you find yourself in need of an extension for whatever reason, attempt to be honest rather than to deceive. Instead of killing off friends and family members because you didn’t finish a paper on time, why not at least try the truth?

My reasoning is simple: as a group (I am talking to students now), you are horrible liars. As individuals you aren’t bad (some are better than others), but you aren’t asking for extensions as individuals; you are asking for them alongside others from your classes. And you are all using the same over-the-top excuses, which gives you away. So why not distinguish yourself from the falsely bereaved? When you need more time, for whatever reason, ask your professor for it. Worst case? She or he will refuse, at which point you have no choice but to finish your work on time. Best case? She or he will know, like you, what it is to be busy, and, inspired by your honesty, will grant your request.

But regardless of what happens, the honest path is ultimately the winning one, for it keeps your integrity intact and your grandmother alive.