Should I Blog My Research?

Let me start with some Obvious Things:

Obvious Thing #1: I’m pretty good at starting and abandoning blogs. Why is that? Well, here’s an obvious reason for my obvious fact: writing is hard. I’ve come to accept that (and embrace it on my best days). This is, of course, coming from someone who likes to write, but who can be intensely critical of her own writing especially when it’s – yowza! – public!

When I teach writing, I like to analogize writing with exercise. It’s easy to talk yourself out of doing it and even easier to come up with excuses not to do it. When you do it, it is painful, but gradually (graaadually) it becomes something you like to do, even when it’s painful. I’m past stage #1: I like writing and I always have. I’m now on stage #2: how do I train myself to become a “marathon writer?” How do I keep myself writing? These are questions more for me than for you, but I’m stating them anyway in the hopes that some (many?) will relate.

Obvious Thing #2: I’m in an industry (i.e. academia) where blogging is becoming an increasingly important part of one’s identity. Web presence is not only “a thing,” but a big and important, potentially career-defining thing (The Guardian has written about this, Henry Jenkins sees blogging as a good way to connect with a broader public, and some folks from the LSE find that blogging is the best way to communicate ideas that won’t make it through the traditionally slow academic publication timeline very quickly). As someone billing herself as a specialist in digital culture and rhetoric in particular, I’ve got to be extra-super (supextra?) aware of how I present myself online, how often,and what sorts of things I’m writing (i.e. more relevant hot topics in my field, less whining probably?).

Obvious Thing #3: I’m working on a dissertation.

Given these discrete obvious things, I’m at a cross-roads where I must make a choice: should I blog my dissertation progress? I’ve read a lot about the process at this point, from this open thread on GradHacker to the Remix the Dissertation webinar last week. Because I like lists, I’ve decided to lay out some more personal pros and cons, based on info gathered and my own personal circumstances:

Pros: 

  • Re: Obvious Thing #2. Here’s a way to show people that I know how to do the blog thing! I’ve got a knack for it! I can write about my work for a “general public!” This is valuable and highly encouraged!
  • It’ll keep me reflective and thinking about my writing process the whole way through. The dissertation is a long haul, and there’s real value in having an informal space to reflect on ideas that may make their way into a project, but may not.
  • Low stakes. Let’s be real: how many people are actually going to read my work-in-progress dissertation blog (to be hosted on a site I’ve just set up with a free WordPress URL)? Probably my dissertation committee (that’s 3), and maybe my boyfriend on a day where he’s feeling particularly generous (OK, 4), and my mom will skim it and tell met that I’m smart (So, 5?). This is a good thing. It makes me feel like I’m not revealing to the entire world my trials, pitfalls, and potential mistakes.
  • It’ll give me a space to hash out nuggets of ideas that really could turn into potential articles and blog chapters.
  • Choosing which topics to blog about may help me see which ideas for my dissertation are actually useful and interesting. This seems like a potentially silly advantage, but I tend to think that everything is interesting (my co-chair had to tell me to STOP collecting primary texts for my project)… until I actually start writing about it. It’s when the metaphorical rubber hits the metaphorical road that I actually can sit back and assess my ideas more clearly.

OK, so Cons: 

  • Re: Obvious Thing #1. I don’t want to contribute more blog detritus to the world if I don’t write regularly (though this is really my own problem and not necessarily a “con” to the whole venture).
  • There’s potential for ideas to be “scooped” by random readers and could potentially jeopardize the ability to distribute ideas in things that people have to actually buy, like journal articles or books.
  • I don’t want to look like an idiot?

My pro list looks certainly more compelling than my cons (especially since 3/4 cons are enveloped in personal concerns). But what do you think? Should I blog my dissertation? Why or why not?

Tips-in-Progress for Working Independently

The greatest treat in the world for me is getting up and working in my pajamas. To roll straight from bed to computer and dig into a project is a fantastic luxury for me and it is one of the prevailing parts of an academic (and I suppose freelance) lifestyle that appeals to me.

Yet I’ve never had a moment in my life where I’ve had the opportunity to indulge in this luxury every morning until now. This summer, my days are completely unstructured. I am not teaching a single class. I have only occasional research meetings to attend for my various summer jobs (I’m juggling three different research and editing gigs this summer). Otherwise, all of the work I have to do is on my laptop at home. And I can do this work whenever I want, wherever I want.

It’s glorious and it’s harder than I thought it was going to be.

I’ve always been relatively disciplined; I hate having tasks hanging over my head. Yet the complete independence to finish work with minimal supervision requires an even more intense level of discipline than I’ve had before. I’m used to working with externally-imposed deadlines and frequent face-to-face interactions with people who can keep me on top of my game. While I’m still working and meeting with advisers, I know there’s a new expectation that I will enact enough discipline to make good choices and get work done.

Perhaps the larger challenge to being disciplined, however, is simply breaking up the length of the days. Without anyone to meet with or any places I have to go to, the days and hours stretch longer than they did before. So, there’s a monotony of routine I’m forced to shake off; I refuse to let my days feel “boring,” for the moment that I feel stuck in a rut is the moment that all of my reading, writing, and research splatters. Mightily.

So, in the spirit of the blogosphere and listicles, I offer a preliminary list of ways I’ve managed so far to keep my independent working time interesting and exciting for me. I’m still experimenting and I’m still not sure what exactly works best for me, but the preliminary “tricks” I’ve developed may hopefully be useful to someone else getting up in the morning and working in their PJs:

  • Set small goals. I feel much more motivated when I have clear concrete tasks I know I have to accomplish at each portion of the day. I typically try to set goals for my mornings, afternoons, and evenings. The most important thing I’ve noticed is to keep these goals manageable. So, I won’t try to convince myself that I’ll be able to finish a 200-page book in a morning, but I will assure myself that I can read and annotate at least two chapters of some dense theory. Another goal may be to spend two hours of my afternoon writing, but I’ll break that afternoon writing goal into manageable chunks. I like to use the Pomodoro technique for this; I’ll write and revise an article I’m drafting for 25 minutes without stopping. After the 25 minute stretch has passed, I can take a five minute break to do whatever I want. So, these small and manageable goals make me feel like I’m doing a lot and the time passes by much more quickly when I know that I’m constantly ticking items off of my list.
  • Alternate between tasks. I try not to do any one task for too long. If I feel myself getting stuck or find my mind wandering to what’s in my pantry to snack on, it’s usually a sign to myself that I need to take a step back and try doing something else. Of course, I try not to change tasks every five minutes, but I find that after an hour of doing any one thing, I’m ready to try something else for another hour. Switching up tasks at every hour and alternating between reading, writing, note-taking, and editing (my main tasks these days) help each task to feel fresh and exciting.
  • Stand and stretch frequently. This kind of advice is popular in our world of standing/walking/fetal-position desksbut I find that I’m quickly refreshed by making sure that I glance away from my computer or stand up from where I’m seated for even just a couple of minutes. I’m trying to be more mindful of my back and neck health, so I’ve been stretching my back and neck as frequently as I can to make sure I’m not building up too much tension. Again, finding ways to refresh and re-engage with the material I’m working on is key to making sure the days feel like they’re moving along and that I’m in the spirit to work.
  • Switch up working spaces. I’m lucky enough to have several spaces beyond my apartment where I can work. Typically, at a mid-point in my day, I try to switch my working spot. That sometimes means a move as small as taking my laptop from my desk to my kitchen table. Other times, that means walking across town to a coffee shop or going on campus to work in my office. Having a change of scenery really helps me to think about my work differently and it puts me in a frame of mind to work again and feel productive.
  • Take a moment and think about how awesome it is to work on stuff I like to do. Work doesn’t have to be fun, but I like to remind myself that I chose the work I’m doing. It’s a privilege to have choice. Period. I’m working towards a goal to be a writer/editor/scholar-person (I feel I can only label my work in multiple ways these days) and here I am doing it! Woo!

It’s my hope that I can avoid putting on real pants in the morning for the rest of the summer. Wish me luck.

Dabbling in Text Visualization, Part 1

It’s no news that decision-making in academia is slow. Journals, conferences, edited collections, new haircuts – all of these things seem to take a while to happen in academic settings. So far, I’ve had the most experiences with waiting for conference acceptances (oh, and haircuts); I was shocked the first time I had to submit a proposal for a conference application nearly a year before the conference would actually happen.

The problem (problem?) is that I’m a bit of an opportunist when it comes to applying for things. So, I applied for a major conference in the rhetoric/composition community last year (read: CCCC) and got accepted! Hooray happy day!

But when that acceptance came in, it felt like – you know – it wouldn’t happen for a very long time. So, of course, that feeling that this very important thing is actually very far away was simply the beginning of a typical procrastination narrative: “Surely, I’ll have a much better idea of what exactly to do for this presentation if I wait, right?”

 

I mean, really, what was I thinking? Image courtesy of: HaHaStop.com.

 

Now, to be fair, I had done a little bit of work on this project for the UC Writing Conference, and Katie Arosteguy, a member from the panel I was on, put together a pretty sweet-looking Wix site for us to put up our contributions (i.e. I posted a PowerPoint with my presentation on it).

So, I had something to get me started, but the PowerPoint struck me as a bit anemic, even as I was presenting it.

A little bit of context: the presentation is trying to answer the question of whether students see the value in acquiring digital literacy skills, and whether these skills seem useful for them (from their perspective). I’m defining digital literacy skills as the ability to create a website (e.g. a WordPress page or a blog, not anything requiring coding knowledge), to read texts closely in virtual spaces (e.g. online, in PDF readers), and to navigate web-based research through library databases. I realize others have more nuanced definitions of what digital literacy means, but I developed mine based on the NCTE’s definition. Their definition is (rightfully, purposefully) broad, and I know that the skills I associate with “digital literacy” now will likely change over time.

OK, that said: after doing some interviews, organizing a focus group, and close reading some digital literacy narrative I ask them to write (more on that in a moment…), I’m finding that a lot of students are not really seeing the same importance of learning digital literacy as – well – many of their instructors are. In fact, the digital literacy narratives (yes, more on this in a moment, really) seem to reveal that a lot of students have (or are at least performing for the sake of assignment) a certain kind of shame about their use of digital devices to read, write, and communicate, calling their use of computers “addictive” and “unproductive.” Sure, activity like going on Facebook 24/7 is probably not the most productive use of time, but the kind of work they do on Facebook is often rhetorical and (seriously), many of them will probably need to navigate more social networks in the future to find jobs and network with people. 21st century stuff.

Now, I don’t want to assert that it’s a problem that students think/feel this way; I want to make some bigger claims about why they might be feeling this way. I’m not going to talk about those “why” claims here (perhaps they’ll appear in a post to come and/or I’ll post my presentation materials from CCCC here), but what I do want to write about here (and what has taken me a really long time to get to; sorry!) is how I want to represent these ideas.

Students from five different sections of freshman writing have to write a digital literacy narrative, and I wanted to see if the repeated tropes in the narratives I read in my section were similar to the ones in other sections. I really wanted to see whether there were any trends in the things those students were writing about.

So, I did something I had never done before: I entered the big bad world of data. I took an afternoon to mine a bunch of past UWP portfolios and put together a huge corpus of digital literacy narratives. How did I do that?

Why, through Voyant Tools!

voyant tools

Now, this tool is awesome. After entering in the URLs of a bunch of student portfolios, I was able to create an insta-corpus where I could look at lists of the most-often-repeating words and create visualizations of the data, like Word Clouds and Collocations. Once you enter in all of your data, your page looks something like this:

voyant tools2
I was looking at the patterns of a frequently used word, “obsession,” at the moment when I took this screen shot.

The most important thing I learned how to do while creating a textual visualization of my data was to use a “stop list.” This is a list of words that the corpus will ignore in its analysis, so that the analysis is not just spitting out data like, “Hey, look, the most frequently-used word in these narratives is ‘I’!” Isn’t that neat??”

Voyant Tools has its own stop list (in English and other languages), but I found myself adapting the stop list a lot, making sure that words appearing in WordPress templates (like the word, “WordPress”) were not analyzed. It was fun going through and pruning, making sure I could make as much sense of a large body of texts as possible (hey, is this what they all mean when they’re talking about Digital Humanities work? Side note for another time as well).

I’m really new to any kind of textual and linguistic analysis, so I’m sure there’s still a lot for me to learn, but I was surprised at how easy it was to find this tool and how simple it was to use. Check out how cool this word cloud is!

dignarrativewordle2

The collocation is actually even more interesting than this, but again, I think the analysis (and my impressions of how different doing analysis based on large bodies of text and visualizations) will have to wait for a Part 2 to this post…

Life in the Cube

For the first time in my life, I have a punch card.

That’s right: my hours inside an office are tracked.

Punch in. Punch out. Present. Absent. Working. Not working.

Shifting from a life of complete flexibility and fluidity to one with rules and set hours is jarring. But this kind of experience – a life where work is at work and coming home means actually being at home and no longer thinking about work – is something I’ve always kind of longed to experience. It’s funny; there’s a part of me that had this glorified vision of what it would mean to work an office. I’ve perhaps seen one too many films where nicely-dressed women in crisply-pressed suits flounce into desk chairs, receive incredible praise for writing memos and reports, and then earning oodles of cash at the end of the day. I somehow imagined that I could be this kind of “career woman,” one with professionalism, grace, and intelligence!

Of course, I chose a life of academia, one where I don’t ever wear crisply-pressed suits (and if I did, I’d likely garner more than a few strange looks) and one where my professionalism is not reflected through the ways I interact with my co-workers, but through the intellectual labor that I produce. So, to have this opportunity to live another life, to be another “Jenae” who negotiates office politics, who sits at a cubicle, and who does work that is not concerned with literacy, literature, or abstract theories, is one that’s important for me (if for no other reason than to dispel myself of that office life myth).

As it turns out, working in an office is kind of like working anywhere else, except that you don’t get to see too much sunshine during the day (though I have scouted out a prime lunch spot overlooking a canyon). Oh, and you’re also in front of computers a lot. That’s hard. But my tolerance for screens has improved, so that’s a plus?

In spite of the fact that this internship is very much a way for me to do some career exploration, a week on this job has inevitably informed my academic interests. My mind can’t help but veer to digital literacy concerns!

Help documentation, as it turns out, is still something very much rooted in a logic of the print age: I spent two of my four days on the job simply combing through pre-existing help information in the form of “QuickStart” guides (which are basically step-by-step directions for how to complete certain functions within the software this company sells), “TechNotes” (which tend to give suggestions for “efficient workflow” processes using said software), and more traditional online “Help” supplements (remember Clippy? Like that, but not as invasive).

The company has tried implementing some Online Tutorials, too, which are Flash-powered slideshows with moving screenshots of different functions in the software, but even these cater to a logic that seems somehow incongruous with an experience working on a computer. All of these help guides suggest that there is one very particular way to go about completing certain tasks and using this software.

Now, again, as a newb on the job, perhaps I’m making a certain amount of unfair assumptions: indeed, it may be true that these kinds of linear, step-by-step manuals are the best way to teach people how to use software. However, given the fact that I’ve been so invested in pedagogy for the past… several years, I cannot help but scoff at the idea that this kind of passive learning could be effective.

Let me get this straight: the manuals are incredibly well-written and detailed. They contain so much valuable information for a new user. But is a user who relies upon this kind of help actually going to learn the ins and outs of the software? It seems to me that tinkering, toying, and getting your hands dirty in the process is the only way to truly – well – LEARN.

But how does one really learn tasks that are almost entirely reliant upon memorization and experience? After all, I’m used to helping people learn about writing, a nebulous process enveloped primarily in critical thinking and analytic skills. Using software like the one I’ve been learning does not require critical thinking per se; it just requires a little bit of logic (“So, when you press the ExamType button, you see codes for different exam types. Who knew?”) and some memorization.

I’ve been tasked with making a particular “modality” (i.e. mammography functions) within the software my company represents more “interactive.” I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that means (without suggesting the extreme intervention of a programmer to make me something awesome). Thus far, much of my time has been spent simply trying to use the pre-existing help myself to learn how to use this software. And you know what? I’ve actually found that a balance between the linear help and my non-linear playing has been the most useful for me. What has really helped me to learn this software is both reading, playing with the program, and re-purposing the information myself from taking notes to categorizing the software functions to imagining myself in different user roles using the program.

The only role I can’t seem to escape is one of a “digital native;” I’m unafraid to press buttons, to see what certain links do and do not do. I can imagine that many of the people using this software (i.e. radiologists transferring from print records to electronic) may not feel the same way. This, however, is the audience I have to remember as I consider re-purposing this work.

As I continue to punch in and punch out each day for the following five weeks, I’m hoping I’ll experience increasing clarity about how to best spend that time punched in, and keep myself even more “punched in” to thinking in an entirely new way.

In Which I Will Not Be Afraid!

“You’re going to come running back to academia,” a colleague assured me when I described to her my summer internship working in a Technical Communications department at a company in San Diego.

Maybe so. I received a whole packet of documents today with the types of reports I’ll be expected to write. And now? I kind of feel like this:

As in, wait: am I prepared to do something at which I could potentially fail?

So, OK. Wait. You need more information before you can understand my quick surge of panic this evening.

Potential projects for me include improving the usability of help information for breast cancer imaging software, creating a more interactive, educational platform for understanding electronic health records software, and collating a series of articles about electronic health records use into one more cohesive space.

This is all very cool stuff! These are the sorts of projects that could:

  • Make doctors’ lives easier!
  • Improve patients’ ability to get the results they need to be healthy!
  • Save HR departments from having to lead terrible training sessions!

So, real world solutions! Cool! I don’t often get to say that my work inspires tangible change in a working environment that – and we’re about to get real – SAVES LIVES. (Though come on, my understanding of esoteric literary theory should clearly impact your outlook on your digital reading/writing practices. I wrote this great essay on lolcats, you should read it some time).

But I’ll admit it: I’m scared of doing in a field with which I am not comfortable and familiar. This anxiety is clearly the vestige of some serious “straight A student syndrome;” I’m compelled to pursue projects in which I feel that success is within my reach. This is the first job I’ve undertaken where I don’t feel like I am comfortable with what I’m diong. I’m going to have to learn on the job and – well – maybe fail a few times.

I could go into any number of hackneyed aphorisms about this. One must not try; one must DO. (I’m on a Yoda kick tonight if you didn’t get that already. Looking for inspiration in all of the right places).

What am I going to do?

1.  Get over myself. And promptly.

2.  Look for some points of familiarity. I will say that upon looking through the project documents sent to me, I did see some places that I could contribute my knowledge. Many of the documents (especially the step-by-step help guides for using the mammogram software) were driven very much by the logic of a page. That is, while they are conversational in tone (typically a good start to making help text accessible), they’re a little – well – verbose. Clearly, I can sympathize. Verbosity is always my inclination.

But I thought a lot about my discussions in my Literacy and Technology class concerning the relationship between content and design and there are certainly design issues at stake here. So, I could certainly do some re-design work if nothing else.

3. Employ my love of organizing and re-organizing. There’s probably nothing I love more than a great spreadsheet or a clean table. A lot of the writing could probably be organized into the sweet, sweet symmetry of a table! I suppose this is still an issue of design, but if my background in literature has provided me with one practical skill it is the ability to distinguish main points from blocks of dense text. So, while the language of these documents is difficult for me to understand, I can typically distinguish the purpose of the pieces I read.

So, those are my strategies for not being such a fail-fearing wimp. Who knows? Thinking though ways to work through these challenges is compelling. Plus, I have a new work environment to anticipate. I happen to crave novelty. Maybe the office will even feel like this:

One can only hope.

The Shortcut Divide

“Wait, wait, what is it that you highlighted? Do I click here?”

“Do I need to get the YouTube BEFORE I make the post?”

“Hold on: what are you doing exactly? What button did you press?”

These are questions I hadn’t thought about.

“Oh, um, you just highlight the URL. You know, the long series of words that are in this bar – yes, this one.”

“It’s the button with the music note and the camera. You see that? There?”

“So, I just clicked the ‘video’ button. Yeah, where it says ‘video.'”

It’s easy to take for granted the processes online that feel so natural to those of us who have used computers for as long as we can remember.

Yesterday, I attended the last portion of a WordPress workshop for middle school and high school history teachers led by UC Davis Digital History developer Phillip Barron. I was asked to give a small presentation on the functional literacy project I developed for UWP 270 as well as any tips or experiences I had about working with WordPress.

Frankly, I’m not sure I had too much to offer (I still have so much to learn myself!). The main piece of advice I gave was not to have fear. Looking out at the group, mostly absorbed in their laptops, I couldn’t help but remember that feeling I get almost every time I sit in front of a computer and start a new project. For the most part, when I sit with my hands upon the keys, trying to figure out how to tweak the code of a webpage, I alternate between fear, frustration, and impatience. I know that it is within my control to change whatever it is that I want to change, but I do not intuitively know how to manipulate space on a screen. It takes me a long time to figure out how to do something new.

I felt really impressed with the group that was there because I know how challenging it is to change the way that we think about our work. Learning is fun. Learning is exhilarating. But much of the time, learning is also really, really hard.

So, there was a part of me that felt like a huge hypocrite standing at the front of the room, speaking about pushing past fears as if it was something I had already done. But after I gave my “talk,” I helped individual teachers work on their webpages, and I realized that I did have something to offer: patience. If there’s something that teaching has taught me, it is the patience to help people when they’re struggling, to listen through struggles, and to find solutions.

I realized that even as I struggle and complain about my own technical incompetency, I still have the major advantage of being young, of growing up knowing how to copy and paste, of understanding what a hyperlink and a URL is, of opening up millions of tabs on my screen and being able to effortlessly click among them. The concept I found I helped the participants with the most was just that: copying, pasting, choosing the right buttons to do certain actions.

For many of the things participants wanted to do, I had already found shortcuts. And that, I realized, was the source of the divide between my experience with computers and many of these workshop participants’ experience with computers: I felt comfortable enough with the fluid processes of using a computer and browsing the Web that I wasn’t afraid to take shortcuts and cut corners. The workshop participants, however, wanted every step laid out in sequential order; they wanted to know exactly what to press and when to press it.

There’s clearly no wrong way to use a computer, but the desire for linearity, for seeing all of the steps, for making the process of using a computer transparent surprised me a little bit. It shouldn’t have, of course. After all, what have I been reading about all year? The inherent discomfort in our postmodern tendencies to shake up the order of our lives, to see our lives and experiences as disconnected and fragmented. The shortcuts might seem easier, but for someone entering a new world and a new way of thinking, they can simply be baffling.

If nothing else, yesterday was a good reminder of why I’m so fascinated with and interested in the intersections between literacy technology: the way we use the devices so central to our lives changes the ways that we think about leading our lives. I think after yesterday, I’m even more motivated now to think closely this summer about how I’m going to adapt to teaching in a computer classroom and how I might consider integrating 21st century literacies into my formal writing class.