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!

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!

Support this site by purchasing Scrivener via this link!

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.

If you found this post helpful and are considering purchasing Scrivener, please consider doing so through the following link!

Buy Scrivener 2 for Mac OS X (Education Licence)

Obligatory “Most Popular Posts of 2013” Post

Another year in the bank (almost). And that means that it’s time again to look back and see why people continue to wander to this blog that (let’s be honest) has seen better years. So without delay, I give you some of the most posts of 2013, none of which were written in 2013.

  1. Using Scrivener with Bibliographic Software — This is the single most read post on this blog, receiving more hits per day than every other post in this list combined. “Scrivener“, for the uninitiated, is one of the greatest pieces of word processing software in existence. Without it, I would still be stuck in the drafting stages of my dissertation. If writing is a part of your livelihood, you need to take a look at Scrivener. This post was intended for academic authors (like me) who use Scrivener in conjunction with bibliographic software. The title is somewhat deceptive, I suppose, as the only bibliographic software I talk about in the post is Bookends, another “must-have” for (mac-using) academic authors. I hope that the amount of traffic to this post means that people have found it useful!
  2. Ron Swanson’s Pyramid of Greatness — In second place we have an entirely non-original post from almost three years ago. So far as I can tell, the reason this post is so popular is that 1) the image I have posted is one of the higher quality ones out there and 2) a few people “pinned” this post, causing it to shoot up the ranks in Google image search. Click on the link above if you have no idea who Ron Swanson is or why you should care about his pyramid of greatness.
  3. The Shadow of the Galilean (Review) — This post receives pretty insignificant traffic for most of the year, but it peaks toward the middle and end of the fall and spring semesters (when papers are due). I think I’ve mentioned this phenomenon before. My guess is that I am not the only one who assigns it for reading in a college-level New Testament class.
  4. Why Writing a Dissertation is Harder than Having a Baby — Like post #2 (above), the content of this entry is also largely not my own work. I posted this in the fall of 2010, just over a year after entering the doctoral program at Marquette. Since that time, I have written a dissertation and watched my wife give birth. I continue to find the post amusing, but I now question the accuracy of its central claim.
  5. How to Write a Paper Proposal — This is the oldest post on this list, written in the summer of 2010. As the title implies, it’s about how to write a paper proposal. I’m not entirely sure that I was qualified in 2010 to write a post like this. Truth be told, I still have some doubts. I leave it up because about once per month I receive a kind e-mail from a stranger telling me that they’ve had a paper accepted at a professional conference and that they used this post as a guide. To me, the central points in it are 1) be bold, 2) be clear, and 3) be concise. Come to think of it, those are pretty good pieces of advice for graduate students in general.
  6. Dissertations, Fonts, and Wasting Time — And finally, a post about one of the greatest time-wasters that continues to taunt ranks of graduate students like myself: choosing a font. This post was written almost exactly two weeks before I began writing my dissertation (I know that because I wrote it on the day before my daughter was born). It originated as a sort of “aha moment”/confessional. You see, I love fonts, and at several points during my graduate career I became convinced that most people cared as much about fonts as I do. Hence, I spent an inordinate amount of time agonizing over which typeface to use for which paper. Does Garamond seem to flashy? Does Gentium Greek go well with Palatino Roman? Ugh. I remain convinced by the wisdom offered at the end of the post: nobody cares. The ironic thing is that people who find this post typically do so with search strings like “what is the best font for a dissertation” or “most impressive dissertation font.” As long as it looks nice (i.e., isn’t too big and has serifs), it just doesn’t matter. You will note that when I spoke of my love for fonts earlier I did so in the present tense (“I love fonts”). You see, I continue to live with my addiction. I still love fonts and I will, on occasion, allow myself to indulge. But then I snap back to the mantra that I used to overcome my tormenter: “Do your work. Don’t be stupid.”

Thanks as always for reading, and best wishes to you and yours in this new year.

Leaving the Laptop at Home?

Yesterday I decided to camp out at the Salzmann Library, in part because I needed a change of scenery and in part because I was eager to take advantage of the fact that all of their Loeb Classical Library volumes are located IN ONE PLACE (more on that in another post, for those who care).

I only planned to be there for a few hours, so I didn’t bring the power cord for my laptop. Little did I know that the Conclave would elect the new pope while I was there, and that I would be drawn into streaming the video feed to my laptop. Needless to say, my battery went a bit quicker than it normally does once I started in on the video. Now, because this is a Catholic seminary library, they also decided to close early so that the employees could attend a Mass in honor of the new pope … so, I found myself tossed out into the cold (literally), with about 10% battery life and about two hours of work left to do.

Rather than waste time going back home to get my power cord, I decided to head to a coffee shop and try to get some work done without my laptop. As I sat with my notepad and began to write, I was reminded of the benefits of taking an occasional break from the screen. In an hour’s time, I filled up two sheets, front and back, single spaced, with notes, brief outlines, and even a few prose paragraphs that found their way into the dissertation this morning. The absence of my laptop seems to have actually boosted my productivity.

For graduate students (like myself) who have become tied to their technology in one way or another, the idea of leaving the computer behind so that they can get work done sounds patently absurd. “Everything I need is on my laptop (or iPad, or whatever) and online,” we will say. “How can I accomplish anything without the internet?” The truth of the matter is that everything we need isn’t actually on our laptops and online. Some of what we need is already in our brains, waiting for an outlet.

To be sure, laptops provide a medium for productivity, but they also foster procrastination in all its forms, be it e-mail, Netflix, Pandora, Spotify, Hulu, Facebook, writing and reading blog posts, the dreaded Wikipedia rabbit hole, etc. Pen and paper can also serve as an outlet for our thoughts, but with the added benefit of not encouraging us to become distracted by shiny things on the internet.