Last week’s #phdchat (7.30pm UK time, 2.30pm NYC time, every Wednesday!) focused on new technologies people are using to complete their PhDs. The conversation essentially went in the direction of what particular programs, websites and so forth people were finding useful to organise their research. At one point, @klbz suggested that “it’d be interesting to hear everyone’s tech tools & how you use them together on a day to day basis. #phdchat Blog topic?”
Now, I’m a great advocate of using technology that suits you, not for the sake of the technology itself. I also have a somewhat weird brain as far as tech is concerned – and classics as a field is certainly very much its own beast. I thought I’d take @klbz’s prompt to write a blog post about how I use tech, why I use tech the way I do and where I might want to use tech in the future.
I would say that the most important tech tool for me has to be my Palm Z22 and its accompanying Palm Desktop program. I think this may actually have been the last Palm model that was available without the ability to access the internet, which was precisely what I wanted. I use the Palm to manage my diary and my to-do lists, which is what keeps me on track. The to-do list function on the Palm and the parallel desktop program is brilliant – it lets you set up parallel to-do lists, which means I have my daily to-do list along with separate lists for ‘classics’, ‘admin’, ‘teaching’, ‘personal’ and so on. My problem with keeping regular to-do lists is that I quickly get overwhelmed by all the stuff on them. Running parallel lists not only means I don’t forget things, it also means I don’t get paralysed by the total length of my list – I can look at just what I need to get done today, which helps keep things manageable. The other plus is that you can use the calendar feature to block out time for tasks (I believe the Outlook diary has a similar function, but it’s been a while since I used Outlook). This means I can timeblock my week – parcel out so many hours for work on job applications here, so many for writing the article there, a couple of hours for lunch with a friend here – thus getting a good picture of whether I’m balancing my work tasks, and whether the work-life balance is in good shape or not.
I also use MS Word on a day-to-day basis. The first document I open up every day is my ‘Word Record’ – I keep track of everything I do throughout the day, so again I can see whether I’m being productive or unproductive, and can keep an eye on whether any project is sapping my energy at the expense of others. I also do all of my writing and note taking in Word. I know I’m sounding a little hidebound here, especially when so many of my #phdchat colleages praise Scrivener to the skies. Unfortunately, my brain just doesn’t work the way Scrivener would like it to. As a Cambridge undergrad, I churned out an essay of about two thousand words each week for eight weeks in a row – a different topic each week, after a boatload of secondary reading, and on top of language supervisions and having a social life as well. My academic process thus means that I read vast amounts of material, process it and synthesise it, come up with my argument and then write it down from beginning to end – which is a process that MSWord supports brilliantly. Other people don’t have that kind of writing and research process. As one friend put it, she has more of a ‘corkscrew brain’, and so Scrivener’s capacity for moving more fluidly and randomly between parts of a composition would help her. Me, I’m a linear girl – and I said at the start of this post, I’m all about you using the tech, not the tech using you.
I should also note that I keep an Academic Otters document in MSWord format on my desktop, for when inspiration suddenly strikes. Academic Otters are like Plot Bunnies, only more intellectual.
I do use Powerpoint from time to time, but not a great deal. This is because I work on text. If I worked on things like art or geography, where I really needed images to make my point, then I’d spend a lot more time with Powerpoint, and probably also with Prezi, which comes highly recommended by parts of the #phdchat community. (Other parts say it gives them seasickness, but there we go.) However, whenever I have to present my research at the moment, 90% of the time it’s far more appropriate to use a handout than a Powerpoint. Teaching is a different kettle of fish, of course, but I want to keep this post research focused. My general point here also goes for a lot of the current work being done in digital classics, which tends to look at maps and corpuses of inscriptions and archaeological remains – but is a bit less useful for Seneca.
There are various tools for social networking and creating your academic profile. Some colleagues use Facebook, although I personally prefer to keep that as a semi-private space. I’m much more professionally active on Twitter (which I access using Tweetdeck), and now here on WordPress. I also keep a page up at academia.edu, although that’s mainly to make sure people can easily find an up-to-date CV for me via Google.
There are a ton of on-line resources for classicists, and one day I will do a special post on some of them. For now, I’m just going to mention the wonderfulness of JSTOR, the repository for online editions of journals; and L’annee Philologique, which is the major on-line database for classics articles. I would say that the realisation I could build up my own library of articles in PDF format was probably the biggest change between my MPhil and PhD research. Sadly, I’ll be losing my institutional access to both of these resources at some point over the summer now that I’ve graduated, but I’ll have to see whether I can manage to work around that if I have to. I’d also like to flag up the Perseus Digital Library, most especially because it has searchable editions of the Lewis and Short Latin dictionary and the Liddell and Scott Greek dictionary freely available. Both of these have been absolute life-savers to have easily accessible on-line.
The final online tool I use is Dropbox, an incredibly simple piece of back-up software which keeps a live sync of your data as you work with it, thus meaning that if your computer hard drive suddenly fries, you have access to all your documents. This program kept me from going mad when my laptop decided to die a week after my thesis defence. It also lets you sync across multiple computers, so you can work on the same documents in any location. There has been some kerfuffle over privacy issues with Dropbox, but personally I’m erring on the side of trusting that they won’t use my thesis for nefarious means. (Incidentally, Dropbox quickly released a new build to cope with security concerns, which is heartening.)
The final bit of tech I’ll mention is my Olympus voice recorder. I originally bought this to record my singing lessons, but it turns out to have great use for academic purposes. It means I can record myself giving a talk, or a practice talk, and then record the questions afterwards. Instead of standing at a podium frantically scribbling in an attempt to get down that salient point that will help you overcome the knotty point in your argument, you can let the recorder record while you concentrate on intellectual engagement with your interlocutors. I’ve also used it to record meetings with my supervisors and have taken notes from the recording afterwards – again, it lets you focus on the intellectual process rather than being a scribe. Think of it as a digital amanuensis.
Before I close, I should mention the tech that I don’t use and why. You’ll notice that both my tech objects are no longer produced by the manufacturers, and that I make no mention of possessing a smartphone type gadget. That’s because I don’t have one, and personally feel quite adverse to getting anything that does anything more than make calls and sends texts. This isn’t a Luddite thing, it’s a work/life balance thing – I spend enough of my life glued to the computer as it is without making it even harder for me to get away from the internet. Admittedly, I’m going to have to work out how to tweet from a regular mobile at some stage, but for now that’s not a problem.
I also don’t use any of the bibliographic software which tends to drive conversation on #phdchat – things like Zotero, Mendeley, Endnote and so forth. This is mainly because most of these programs want to be able to talk to your bibliographic database. Well, L’annee Philologique is many things, but fluent in biblio software languages it is not. The one time I tried to get one of these programs to work, Endnote as a matter of fact, it was in a workshop on how to use it; I spent ten minutes with the workshop convenor afterwards getting slowly more and more frustrated about not being able to get the database and the program talking to each other. Since the benefit these things are supposed to provide is in taking the donkeywork of citation processing off the researcher, if you find yourself having to go through piles of extra work just to enter the citation in the database to start with, I’d much rather stick with my copy-and-paste-into-Word strategy. I’m willing to experiment with my options for this, and I’ve heard good things about Papers – but for now, I’m going to carry on using the tools that suit me. The tech is only as good as the benefit it gives you – and if it doesn’t give you any benefit, then you should question why you’re using it.