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?



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!!

Higher Education Reform

Stanley Fish, Opinionator for NYTimes and Prof of Humanities & Law at Florida International University

Stanley Fish has written another essay on education reform for the NYTimes. He is especially focused on higher education reform, which is also on my mind these days. So many schools are letting their humanities programs dwindle in size and scope while they seek development in the STEM and business/finance fields. The financial theories about the costs of running higher ed programs is that the fees from students in STEM fields and business/finance programs subsidize the costs of programs in the humanities and social sciences. I’d like to see more evidence about these costs before I affirm this theory. Since when is a classics program any where near as expensive as a biology or computer science program that requires major annual investment in laboratory equipment and technology upgrades?

A recent report by Derek Bok from Harvard, the Higher Education in America, highlights the divided conclusions of those who try to explain how education works. Yes, there are aspects that can be assessed and measured, but there are also many other aspects of education that cannot be effectively assessed. Some may call these ineffable or intuitive. I hope to engage with the Harvard report more fully in the coming weeks…

By the end of his article, Fish turns to a short review of a recent book by Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, one of the many successful MOOC providers. What Fish finds in her book and in the world of online education more generally is that the online model eschews the ineffable and immeasurable benefits of physically being on campus in a university or college setting. And with this critique comes his fear that modern life with all our texting and online interactions will turn us into isolated bodies with only digital contact mediated through electronic devices. While Fish teeters close to the edge of curmudgeon-speak—”these kids today! When I was in school…,”—he affirms that the quality of education has much to do with knowledge, wisdom and insight, not just facts, skills, and information. And these qualitative aspects of education are what motivates him to turn and return again to poetry, literature, Melville.

PS-1. I love Fish’s list of anathema words and phrases: learning outcomes, stakeholders, imbricate, aporia, and performative; he even pulls critical thinking closer to the list than anyone else I’ve read!

PS-2: The feminist in me is keenly interested in embodiment. We learn and understand more in the world through our experience than perhaps we previously thought. I am somewhat surprised that our education-reform debates are beginning to engage the role of bodies in education, although, God-forbid <sarcasm> we would ever spell out  feminist pro-embodiment theories of knowledge and personhood in the same article as an education-reform proposal that deals with real money and real institutions of power.

Approaching Deadlines and the Beyond

More than three people have forwarded the same job opportunity at a divinity school to me. Each time I’ve had to assess my qualifications for the job. And each time I come up short.

What publications do I have? What record of performance and productivity can I show? Can I claim “a broad and deep knowledge of the key textual sources of the Byzantine theological traditions”? I suppose I have some expertise in “the study of Byzantine visual and material culture(s) and aesthetics.” And I’ve tried attending to the “interactions and influences between Byzantine thought and culture and other religious traditions, language groups and geographical regions, historically and/or into the present.” But I know I can—and should—do more with this. My list of research projects is short but targets rather difficult topics. (Do I really think I can learn Georgian?) Certainly I have many ideas for interdisciplinary study. I outlined these in a letter to my alma matter and have more ideas in my notes.

I was reflecting on this job earlier today as I biked down to campus this afternoon. I couldn’t help but feel some of the beauty of this not-too-hot summer day is dimmed by my anxieties about finishing my thesis and fining meaningful employment.

Only when I feel truly free can I be truly productive as a writer. All other times I am anxiously fussing over files, paperwork, bills, and schedules. What would it be like to live without anxiety? How do people unburden themselves of these worries?

Can I actually meet these deadlines? Two chapters and a conference proposal? Will I make the sacrifices? What will happen to the other pieces of life that are left undone?

Open Content

The Getty Museum announced today (12-Aug-2013) that they will start sharing freely and without restriction high-resolution digital content of their collection via their website. This is great news for the museum and for the world of art history where getting high-quality images for research, teaching, and publication can be very difficult and expensive. This is also great news because it adds some momentum to the movement that is trying to make open access the standard for museum and library image collections.

The current release of images includes the Getty Museum’s image collection. In the coming months they plan to release images from their special collections including documentation from their field projects from around the world and other knowledge resources.

Although their message underscores the social responsibility behind sharing resources freely, research has shown that the more museums make digital images of their collection available to the public, the more people will *visit and pay* to see the real thing in the museum. I’ve made some edits to my list of Open Access / Public Domain images page. We’ll see if anyone notices it.

Round-Up: Online Education

It looks like the droning question about calculating the cost and value of an undergraduate degree is beginning to result in lower applications and enrolments in undergraduate degree programs. This is particularly frustrating for someone like me who has been screaming all along: money is not the point of an undergraduate degree.

Colleges and universities were not developed to create increase the income potential of its students. In fact, personal finance is one of the last priorities of most colleges. I remember wishing, when I was a student, that my college still offered a basic personal finance course elective for all students, not just business majors. But, despite the priorities of colleges in years past where young people were challenges to become well-rounded citizens schooled in the humanities, sciences, and critical thinking, our public conversation has focused on only the small money of individual students and their families.

The point of an eduction is to change the way one reads, thinks, and communicates with others. Sure, there are technical skills that are taught and mastered as part of the process. But primarily an undergraduate degree is about broadening horizons and dedicating several years of one’s life to learning about our history, languages, conflicts, and values. If you want to learn a trade, that’s great. There are strong trade schools that specialize in training students for particular jobs and careers. But it doesn’t make sense to scrutinize the outcomes of a four-year undergraduate degree with the same criteria as a trade-school certification. The fact that many undergraduate schools have programs in nursing, education, engineering, and computer science reveals the value these industries place on the quality of education they want in their employees. They want future workers to be certified in their trade, but also to be well-rounded and educated in many other areas of life.

I’ve collected here several links to recent (and not so recent in the case of the Pew Research report) articles concerning online education and the value of higher education. Many schools see online education as a way to deliver more education/goods to more students/consumers at a reduced cost. In the case of MOOCs, the cost per student is probably particularly low. Large online courses are a modern and high-tech way for some schools to get away with cost-reduction measures, in the same way that some schools are increasing class sizes. Only the bean counters would think 200 students in a third-year course would yield quality results.

1. Nathan Heller, The New Yorker, Laptop U: Is College Moving Online (published May 20, 2013)

This extended exploration of online education looks at several models of online courses.


This author challenges us to not trust the profit-driven corporations who are trying to make a few bucks off our anxieties about how to “modernize” education.