Category Archives: tech

My Friend, the Fitbit

Over at 11D, Laura asked, Do you Fitbit? My answer could be summed up as “heck, yeah!” I received a Fitbit for my birthday in the spring and promptly fell in love with what it could do for me. Not only did it replace my rather generic watch in functionality and the annoyance of carrying my phone as a step counter, but it does so much more that I find useful.

Who needs an alarm clock when you can program your Fitbit to buzz you awake in the morning as you need? I haven’t used this for naps but this would also be a great way to ensure that if I do fall asleep on the sofa, I don’t let it go on too long!

My Fitbit alerts me to appointments and texts with a buzz followed by a scrolling short text description when I cock my wrist to see what’s up. So if a text comes through while I’m cleaning the kitchen, I don’t have to have my phone on me to know what’s happening. This is helpful as my phone is almost always muted and vibrations are my only alerts to incoming messages. But it’s also great for all of my Google calendar reminders to come through on my Fitbit.

I also love the Fitbit’s reminders to get up and get active every hour. I don’t always make the goals, especially during seminar classes or writing sprints, but my reminders run from 10-6 and I usually achieve at least six hours out of ten.

I know that the Fitbit isn’t a magic tool but it keeps exercise as a priority by giving me the reminders and incentives. It may seem silly to be motivated by a small piece of technology but when it does so much, it works for me!

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Everloving Evernote

This spring I started using Evernote which, if you don’t already know it, is a multi-platform notetaking system. I’m pretty certain that I got interested in using it via Profhacker which is about the smartest group blog out there for academics of any stripe.

Anyway, I installed Evernote on my laptop and my tablet. I poked around with it and was semi-sort-of meh about the whole thing. I mean, what was in it for me? How should I use it? I made a few notes, kept track of a few things and not much else happened. My world was definitely not rocked.

Then the super-smart Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega recommended a book for academics on how to use the software: Work Smarter With Evernote by Alexandra Samuel. I bought the book because, dangit!, the software really sounded helpful but I knew that I was missing the point. I read the brief book and, wow, world has definitely been rocked. My new phone has Evernote installed and it’s become a universal constant in my life, thanks to the book and other useful guides. Another Twitter star and historian, Liz Covart, cemented the deal for me with her 3 Ways Evernote Makes Research Easier. (Also see this only slightly-outdated list of Evernote power-user tips from PCWorld.)

Samuel highlighted some of the tools and organizational elements existing within Evernote that you can use to cluster your life or work in “stacks” that are easily and intuitively accessible. She showed how webpages can be clipped, documents appended and photos added to turn Evernote from a simple note tool into a total reference system.

I’m still only a novice but, wow, Evernote is so amazing. I’m putting together reading lists and class plans in course-specific notebooks that reside within my teaching stack. Tagging allows me to bridge the research and teaching aspects of the system where appropriate (which is surprisingly more and more now that I think about it). I have a personal to-do always floating around at the top to help me remember errands. Post office tomorrow to mail a small parcel, thank you, Evernote!

I’ve Evernote screenshot become an Evernote enthusiast but the real joy of the software didn’t hit home until Wednesday, during the grad class. One of the students was leading the discussion and I was making notes in Evernote on my tablet, all about the presentation when a handout materialized in front of me. Without thinking, I pulled out my phone, used the camera to snap shots of the two sides and pull them into Evernote. Then back to the tablet where I could now start making notes on how the handout and discussion intermixed. Oh, and if I’d pulled the document file out of the accompanying email or sent it to my evernote account, I could have included that there as well. In the end, I had a helpful note about the grad student’s work, incorporating their material, already labelled with the class (because Evernote reads my schedule and knows where I am at any given point in the day), that I could then tag and file appropriately. I’m now going to do one better and import my presentation rubrics into Evernote so that grading becomes more streamlined as well.

Do you use Evernote? If so, what do you love about it? If not, have I convinced you to take a second look?

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Assignment Policies: They Matter

I opened up my email this evening to see yet another student email with the familiar attachment icon. Oh, joy: another unwanted emailed assignment.

You’d think I wouldn’t receive those since I have an across-the-board policy in all of my undergraduate classes that I do not accept assignments via email. Students may hand in a hard-copy at any time (there’s a late penalty that starts to accrue after the due date) or submit an electronic copy through our university’s online dropbox up to the due date. I will even, if there are special circumstances, open the dropbox to a later date for a student. I don’t want emailed assignments. I have a policy that clearly says that and, yet, every term, every year? I get emailed assignments.

Augh!

Emailed assignments are the hangnails of my academic life. They disrupt my well-oiled system to track and respond to assignments. They irk me enormously.

I can’t integrate emailed assignments into our dropbox. It only permits feedback for assignments submitted through the system. In fact, recent upgrades present me only those students who submitted online when I go into the grading mode for any given group of papers. That’s efficient but not adaptable to these emailed drop-ins.

I can’t integrate emailed assignments into my hard-copy marking unless I print them out. So now I have to track the student email until I’m able to print the paper. Considering how much I work on the road, that could be a good day or two. It’s really annoying to think at 11pm “Oh, yeah, now I have that paper to print that I didn’t ask to get via email” and go traipsing down the stairs to fire up the old printer.

How about I do it all on email? Now you’re asking me to set up a third system that I’ll have to manage. I have to make sure to save the emails, download the assignments, unzip the files, track them until I have time to mark them, mark them up as well as recording my additional comments, then save the lot. After that, I have to log back into email (let’s hope it’s up!), make sure I’m emailing the right student (which is a challenge in and of itself), and finally send them their marked-up assignment and the additional comments.

Worst of all is that these emailed assignments only come because the student missed the deadline. That’s the deadline they’ve had on the syllabus since the very first day of the term. These emails almost never are accompanied by an acknowledgement of that except a comment to the effect that “the dropbox was closed so here’s my assignment”. A student who emails me with an honest query “I tried to submit my paper online but the dropbox closed” will get a chance at sympathy and a link to the newly reopened dropbox. A student who emails the assignment? Gets my eternal irk. And is that what anyone wants at marking time? I think not.

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Picture Perfect Mother’s Day

I have a digital picture frame that I’ve finally set up. I loaded the SD card with a hundred or so images off of my computer: pets, kids, vacations, the garden. Then I plugged it in, programmed it and left it to run on the end table in the living room, just beside my customary seat.

It’s not hi-res but it’s engrossing to see the pictures refresh through an endless cycle: our old sheltie in the shady backyard of our last house, younger daughter in the Teletubbies costume she wore for her first trick-or-treating (and my mother, who’s since passed away, there in the picture with her), Odo, our gigantic cat when he was a tiny ball of fluff who’d just come home with us, elder daughter riding a horse, all four of us together at Christmas. . . .

My husband says it’s like living in the future. I’d agree and add, a pretty good one at that.

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Pinteresting Books

I’ve joined Pinterest so I have a place to brainstorm about course readings. Seriously: it’s turning out to be a great tool as I plan for the fall term by pinning all the possible texts.

It was easy to start – I requested an invitation and received it later that same day. Now I have a couple of “boards” (i.e. subtopics) to which I can add images & links. So? Meet my history books lineup: mostly a listing of possibilities for the Tudor/Stuart senior seminars I’ll be teaching in Fall/Winter with a few other notes, here and there adding in a few prospects for western civ and the grad historical methods classes.

It’s a great way to consider a bunch of options at a glance – I can add and add to my heart’s content but I won’t be overwhelmed by long and unwieldy lists I fail to properly track for each course. And aren’t all those covers pretty? (Or at least most of them!)

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My Love Letter to a Press

Oh, University of Chicago Press, let me count the ways in which I love thee. . . . Ah, scratch the pseudo-archaism. I love this press for many reasons but the one I’m blogging about today is their embrace of the digital. UCPress rocks the ebook world and other presses should be following suit. Here are three key reasons why they’re awesome. You might even say that I’ve gone ‘ape’ for their ebook policies. Maybe you’d be right!

  1. Availability: The press isn’t only making new releases available in electronic format, it’s tackling some of its backlist. I’ve been able to grab a number of books that were useful to me and choose from all the major electronic formats, including a short-term rental option. You can even browse their ebook listing separately from their regular catalogue with just a click of a radio button (upper left part of the History Catalogue web page.
  2. Pricing: You can rent most any digital title from the University of Chicago Press for only $7USD. You can purchase a lot of fabulous titles even more cheaply. Germano’s Getting It Published (2e) only set me back $5.13 via Amazon. Booth, Colomb & Williams The Craft of Research (3e) runs even less. And every month? They offer a new ebook for free.
  3. Essentials: Chief among the Press’s electronic offerings are a number of key reference titles, especially those aimed at students and junior scholars. Booth et al., Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists, Lipson’s Cite Right (2e) and other reference works abound on their ebook list. When you’re comfortable with annotating and searching digital texts, going digital isn’t only cheaper, it can be much more efficient!

Of course, while the University of Chicago Press has won my admiration, I’m not ready to be monogamous. I’m happily enjoying ebooks from other academic presses: Oxford University Press recently had a great deal on the Lockwoods’ The Siege of Washington so I know they’re reaching out to the ebook readers. Sad to say, though, they don’t seem to be nearly so digitally-savvy as Chicago, at least not yet – there’s no easy way to find their ebook catalogue nor do they seem to have a sustained digital pricing policy.

What press is your favourite these days and why?

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What About Workspace?

Last year I got an ergonomic redesign of my university office. It didn’t go smoothly at first but after getting them to move the keyboard shelf to the orientation I’d originally requested and then moving the desk to the other side of my office, I made it work. I now have a pretty good modus operandi at the university, although I’d love to get rid of the filing cabinet that eats up too much floor space. (Sadly, there are many papers I have to keep, including an entire drawer full of exams and unclaimed course papers that must be retained for twelve months.)

What’s important for my workspace to feel, well, workable? Here’s a short list of my must-haves:

  • I have to SEE you: I can get really engrossed in my reading and writing. A quiet visitor stepping in, with my back turned toward them? Freaks me the heck out. Not to mention that some visitors will then proceed across the room to read the paper I’m marking or the text on my computer screen. So my desk has to face the door. It does increase the distraction level as my office is on a very busy hallway, but it’s a worthwhile pay-off to eliminate the paranoia.
  • I need a blank slate: For many years, I worked with piles of papers abounding. I cleared all of that out about six years ago and immediately wondered what had taken me so long. A clean desk invites possibilities. You can spread everything out to plan out a new project or you can leave it empty to limit distractions. Sadly, I haven’t been able to entirely banish piles of paper from my office, as I currently have over a metre high pile of outdated student exams and other confidential paperwork that need to be shredded. As the old shredder died in the flood of August 2010 and there’s no money in the department budget for the mandatory shredding, these have been piling up in my office for over a year, now. So not impressed
  • I love my toys: Well, yes, there is a Starbuck action figure hanging out in my office. But more than that, I find a few good tools help make the work environment better. Isn’t Levenger one of the best things ever? I have a bookstand from there which is a wonderful aid for note-taking and transcription. I also find my keyboard shelf and external keyboard great once I went through the hassle of getting them properly arranged.

What makes your workspace work for you? What are your dealbreakers?

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