for academic projects

I found a few years ago when I decided I’d like to design a postcard for a Christmas concert without fussing with the nitty-gritty details of layers, margins, and image placeholders in Adobe InDesign. I still use ID, but I’m a busy person and sometimes I just want to get the job DONE in about 10 minutes without getting sucked into the process of refining every little detail.

In an academic setting, can help an instructor create visual media that helps communicate content to students and the wider academic community in a visually effective way. makes “pretty” designs—modern, stylish, trendy. This is not “digital humanities”—there is little data, almost no analysis, and not many surprising ways of re-presenting our research. Someone could probably argue that the process of compiling and arranging the data for an infographic requires a degree of analytical processing. Regardless, this is an example of using a digital tool to compile, organize, and share something with students, which is in itself an amazing way of adding depth and more ways of connecting with our classes.’s design tools are available after you’ve created a log-in (or used another common ID like Google to log-in).  You can proceed by either choosing a pre-existing template in the Canva “marketplace” or designing something from scratch.

Here are some ways I envision using in an academic environment.

  1. bookmarks—distribute these at the beginning of the term to encourage students to spend time with physical books
  2. event posters—get the word out about your lectures, workshops, meetups, study-sessions, etc.
  3. social graphics for social media banners and event images—self-explanatory
  4. infographics—these take time to pull together but help students quickly acquire the scope and highlights of a topic
  5. planners—this may help structure or scaffold students’ progress with a big research project or it may help you think of ways of dividing the labour in a group project more fairly among the team members
  6. presentation slides—sometimes the Powerpoint and Keynote formatting options don’t do justice to the content we want to show our students
  7. programs for an end-of-term conference or another type of event on campus
  8. worksheets—use the templates to spin off your own homework or in-class activity

This evening, I quickly redesigned my Twitter header using one of Canva’s pre-loaded and free stock images. I don’t have a strong personal “brand” or visual identity, but I think this image connects with my Byzantine art background in a much better way than my previous header did. (It was a photo of the apse of San Vitale in Ravenna.)

I’d love to learn more ways of using Canva (or other desktop design tools) to visually structure our academic materials in a way that helps inspire our students to engage more deeply with our academic teaching and learning. Leave a comment with your ideas—thanks!


Slow-reading; practice reading difficult texts on paper

I listened to this audio excerpt from WNYC’s New Tech City about reading on screens versus slow reading on paper. It’s hard not to conclude that digital media (like this blog?!) is an enemy of our brains insidiously dulling our comprehension.

Digital reading leads us to skimming and jumping around on the screen. The current thinking is that this changes our brains and the ways we think. Research shows that people reading on e-readers miss important details about sequence and cause and effect.

Slow-reading means reading closely and reading on paper. I prefer this kind of reading, and, unlike Popova of Brain Pickings who is interviewed in this piece, I am not challenged by the note-taking and annotating process from paper texts. The physical and material quality of a book helps us focus our attention on difficult and demanding texts. By pushing ourselves daily to try reading challenging and deep texts on the page, we can re-gain and hone the skills and cognitive abilities to do this kind of reading. It’s like exercising the other parts of our bodies—we improve doing things by continually and daily practicing it.

The assumption in this analysis is that reading on paper is somehow normative, when really it’s only been a dominate practice for humans for about 500 years (or a few hundred years more if you count papyrus and parchment manuscripts.) Sure, I’m a medievalist and 500 years seems like it was almost yesterday, but really, if you put this in to context within the 200,000 years our species has been in existence, 500 years is almost no time at all.

The physical operations involved with holding at text, moving our eyes across the page, and processing the visual data about where words are placed on a page and within the book are all fundamental to the cognitive processes of comprehension and retention.

I wonder if anyone is doing research on the changes in cognitive processes 500 years ago when printed books emerged as a new dominate way of reading? Do you have a bi-literate brain that can jump between skimming and slow-reading? I remember things better when I read them on paper, do you?


Why visit the Aga Khan Museum and learn about Islamic art?

Today, Toronto has the first and only museum of Islamic art in North America. This excellent collection art from around the globe of over 1,000 years of Islamic culture belongs to the Aga Khan, who is the Imam of the Nizari Ismailis. This is a hereditary title currently held by Karim al-Hussain Shah. The museum and surrounding gardens are breathtaking spaces that reflect the Aga Khan’s interest in the arts. It is an honour to live in a city distinguished by its diversity and pluralism, and these aspects of our urban community are why the Aga Khan and his foundation chose to build their museum in Toronto.

Perhaps the idea of Islamic art is intimidating and confusing? It encompasses all art made in Muslim-dominant countries, including art made by non-Muslims, and art by Muslims living in non-Muslim-dominant countries. This expansive definition emphasizes broad cultural traditions, not the spiritual or religious aspects of the art. Because the collection spans such a range of human achievement and activity, it is impossible to generalize about it except to say that the works in the Aga Khan fundamentally bear witness to our common humanity. This is art made for and used by people who loved their families, hoped and dreamed for a better future, and sometimes suffered deep loss and grief.

I’d like to direct the rest of my comments to fellow Christians who may be reluctant to make a visit or who are ambivalent about the museum’s importance within our city. There are two main reasons why Christians should make an effort to visit the museum. First, we love others by learning about them. Educating ourselves about others’ histories, beliefs, languages, and cultures is essential for us to love others, which is the greatest commandment that Jesus gave his disciples. Fearing others, however, makes it impossible for us to reach out and accept their invitation to meet and share. The reality is that although we fear terrorist organizations like ISIS, that group has distorted and corrupted Islam for their own purposes. ISIS is fundamentally different from the beliefs and practices of the 1.7 billion Muslims in the world.

Second, learning about Islamic art opens our minds to the bigness and interconnectedness of our history. It’s no surprise that many Christians tend to cherry-pick the key historical moments that shape their world views: Jesus’ lifetime in the first century, Luther and the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, and the twentieth century with wars, feminism, and rock ’n’ roll. Learning about Islamic art highlights different key moments in history, from the seventh and eighth century emergence of the Islamic caliphate that spread from the Arabian peninsula across north Africa to the Iberian peninsula, to the fifteenth century when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, the beleaguered Byzantine Empire ended and European Renaissance scholars revived maths and sciences by reading the ancient Greek sources preserved for centuries by Arabic-speaking scholars. The interconnectedness of Christian history with cultural developments among Islamic and other non-Christian groups throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia is only beginning to be more fully explored by scholars. Recent exhibitions, notably the show in 2012 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC called Byzantium and Islam, highlight some of these connections especially in the ways Christianity and Islam responded and shaped one another.

Our world is constantly changing in unexpected ways. While many North Americans are moving further away from religious practices and beliefs, and while many have assumed that we would eventually “mature” as a modern society and “outgrow” our need for religion, around the world we see that religious practices and adherence to beliefs are increasing. Obviously, you can see in the way I use scare-quotes around mature and outgrow that I disagree with this assumption, that modern societies are nonreligious societies. Evidence from the developing world shows us a different picture, and the sooner we come to terms with this, the better able we are to build productive and enriching relationships and institutions. Now more than ever our openness to and curiosity about other cultures is the way forward as we grow and deepen our connections with one another.

As a student of Byzantine art history, I am thrilled with anticipation for my first visit to this new institution in the city where I live. We are only beginning to scratch the surface in our research about the connections between Islamic  and Orthodox communities. For a long time, our understanding of the ever-changing relationships between these groups was (and, frankly, continues to be) distorted by our contemporary political sphere. Even obtaining access to Byzantine monuments and archaeological sites was made difficult. We are not yet in a utopian world of full-access and cooperation among international institutions and scholarly projects, but changes such as the opening of this museum in Toronto signal a turn toward sharing and openness.

Now is the time to open our minds and imaginations to the manifold expressions of beauty and love from around the world brought here to our doorstep. See you at the museum!

Automator Workflow: Images Linked from Webpage into iPhoto

Lots of blogs these days—must be procrastinating something big!

Have you ever wanted to speed up the process of importing a bunch of images from a website into iPhoto? I have. Sometimes when I find a page of 5 or 10 thumbnails that link to great images, I have to deliberately stop and think to myself: can I afford the time it takes to add amy of these to my image library? It takes time to do all those clicks and of course to add the labelling data and image source to the description window in iPhoto.

I figured out the workflow in Automator that makes grabbing a bunch of linked images and importing them into iPhoto much faster and easier. Combine using this workflow with the shift-command-b batch change, and you have an improved time-saving process for building an image library.

Here’s the Automator flow:

1. Get current Webpage from Safari

The top window in Safari should be the one you want to use as your source for images. It should be a window that has a bunch of thumbnails that link to higher-res images you want to bring into iPhoto.

2. Get Image URLs from Webpage

Choose “linked from these webpages.”

3. Download URLs

The destination folder needs to be specified. I typically create a folder in my Pictures folder, but because I delete the images after they’ve been added to iPhoto, it doesn’t really matter where they are stored as long as there isn’t anything else in that folder that may confuse Automator in the next steps.

4. Get Specified Finder Items

Again, the folder needs to be specified. This is the same folder you specified in the previous step.

5. Import Files into iPhoto

I usually create a new album so that I can easily find these images in iPhoto. Here, I usually choose the option to delete the source images from my pictures folder so that I don’t end up cluttering my hard drive with duplicates of images. Keep in mind, I often end up exporting images from iPhoto in my current research folder so that I have those images ready to open and share.

5 Steps to get linked images from Safari into iPhoto
5 Steps to get linked images from Safari into iPhoto


Magic Motivation Bullets

Earlier this week I was thinking: I need a big dose of motivation! When I’m in good shape for research and writing, I can get a ton of work done; but when I’m exhausted, feeling resentful and unsupported, getting my butt in my office chair at 10pm after a long day can be a real bitch.

Sooo, along comes this handy little post on Lifehacker (reposted from Pick the Brain, a website I’ve never visited…) with three basic questions about motivation.

  1. Why do I want to achieve this? – (Write down 5 reasons why you HAVE to get it done.)
  2. How will I feel when I have overcome every obstacle and achieved the goal? (Get in touch with how amazing it will feel.)
  3. What will it cost me in 10 years time if I give up? (Really feel the pain associated with how your life will suffer in the future.)

I’m not going to spell out in this public space why I want to complete this degree. My goals used to be too closely linked with my self-image, which meant my struggles felt like deeply personal symptoms of failure on a very basic level—never a good place to be. And as a result, that meant feedback, no matter how well expressed or kindly given, felt like biting criticisms.

I will say that the process of visualizing the emotional result of achieving my goal (and, conversely, the emotional result of how I’ll feel if I don’t complete this goal) are strong motivators for me. I’ve always been a strong feeler, maybe even too much of a feeler and not enough of a thinker. Now, however, I am beginning to feel not just the desire to be in the spotlight, but also the confidence to handle it reasonably well.

I wish I could identify incentives that await me after I finish my thesis; this would make it easier for me to stay motivated on such a large project. There are few jobs in my field and few post-docs for which I’m eligible. Blurgh.

N.B. I heard the idea of motivation bullets from the authors of Freakonomics, who write about incentives as magic bullets to get people do do things. Leave it to the Americans to use gun metaphors!!

Before Reading Academic Writing Advice

Before learning about the importance of crafting strong paragraphs, and before doing reverse outlines to reflect on the organization of my argument, I had to learn two important lessons about being an academic writer. There are so many technical aspects to crafting a well-written text, but all the technique in the world can’t make up for trying to write about ideas that are too big or impossible to prove.

I needed to learn what kinds of things I could say about my project before I could actually write anything meaningful. What kinds of claims have been made about these objects? What kinds of discourses are they a part of? With which part of that discourse am I willing to engage? That my project touches on well-known and heavily published material only puts more pressure on these issues.

I also had to figure out what I actually wanted to say before writing too much. There is nothing worse than getting lost inside 40 pages of a text having persuaded myself that there is something important mixed in with those ramblings. All the tips and advice about academic writing were useless to me until I figured out what I actually wanted to say.

I’m also choosing to write with a confident voice, even though another voice in the back of my head asks, “what if you are missing something really big?!” I have to just focus on my work and let go of my low-confidence-crutch as I try to figure out what is an arguable claim.

These are the hard lessons for me, and I feel like I was on my own for much of this struggle. I may be wrong about being alone, but, well, feelings aren’t really right or wrong. In reality, if I had been able to identify and articulate these as the challenges I was facing, I could have asked for more direct help from those around me who would certainly have delivered it. But because I couldn’t see that my problem was that I was asking questions that focused on issues that were either too big to prove or not the most important and relevant aspects of the project, I couldn’t explain where  my energy was being wasted.


Homework, housework, work, work, work

I recently saw a link to this article about how students often feel pulled between their homework and housework. My first thought was, “of course I feel I am being pushed or pulled in these two directions. I’m a mom, and the housework feels unending—especially the laundry!”

My homework also feels limitless, but it’s just mine. No one else has to eat dinner prepared in my messy bibliography, let alone to find a clean outfit in my stack of library books. My dissertation homework is mine alone, which is what makes it so fun but also impossible to prioritize.

Add to this the fact that my spouse’s work is connected to a whole community of people who all have a stake in his success. There’s nothing like having a spouse who’s in the middle of a big community development project to make my dissertation work feel incredibly selfish and irrelevant!

Sure, lists of tips for navigating this balancing act are helpful. But understanding and changing the triggers for this conflict would be more helpful for me. I think there is something in there about being raised with a certain mindset about women and moms who do most of the cleaning and organizing of the home. Plus, there’s something about how I am motivated by my emotions; how I feel is too often what causes me to make certain decisions. I want to feel useful, productive, and connected. But I also want to feel like I’ve accomplished something significant.

In the meantime, it’s back to the dissertation so I can FINISH and graduate, get a decent job, and earn enough money to hire someone to do the cleaning chores for me!