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


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.

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.





We are all hybrid-online-real-world people

I’ve encountered this myth too often: that the internet dilutes the intimacy of our relationships, shortens our focus and attention spans, and generally causes more problems than it solves. We fear that using technology is changing the fundamental structure of our minds.

Partial map of the Internet based on 15 Jan 2005 data found on Each line is drawn between two nodes representing two IP addresses. The length of the lines indicate the delay between those two nodes. This diagram represents less than 30% of the Class C networks reachable by the data collection program in 2005.
Partial map of the Internet based on 15 Jan 2005 data found on Each line is drawn between two nodes representing two IP addresses. The length of the lines indicate the delay between those two nodes. This diagram represents less than 30% of the Class C networks reachable by the data collection program in 2005.

Enter this article by Paul Miller at The Verge, who conduced a year-long experiment on himself in which he eschewed all things online for the sake of this study. He suspended his email, online reading, social media–everything.

Of course, Miller read more and wrote more. He went form 10 pages to 100 pages of reading in a single sitting. He was more physically active and even lost weight. This reminds me of vacation syndrome, when we go somewhere unplugged and have to create our own activities to spend time together. He even reports being better at relating with his sister because his attention is more focused on her instead of half-distracted by a computer or smartphone.

It seemed then, in those first few months, that my hypothesis was right. The internet had held me back from my true self, the better Paul. I had pulled the plug and found the light.

And, of course, Miller discovered that he was still himself despite changing this one aspect of his surroundings. This is similar to the phenomenon people have when they travel to new cities or countries expecting to create a totally new life and personality. No matter how far we travel, we take ourselves with us wherever we go.

In other words, Miller discovered that, in fact, the internet does make our lives easier. We use the internet to make phone calls, retrieve information, and organize our projects. He also learned that we can’t divide “real world” from “virtual world” experiences. This false dichotomy has surfaced several times recently over our dinner table as my husband and I debate how real-world and virtual-world experiences are intertwined. Perhaps the problem with this debate is the use of the term “world” to describe the different spheres of communication and activity. The word worlds implies different ground rules, populations, activities, and histories. Yet, no matter how far we go into a virtual world, we still bring ourselves and our bodies to the computer.

Miller’s description of the internet to his five-year-old niece as a network of lines connecting computers, cell phones, and televisions with one another illustrates how simplistic it is to assume that online activities are bad. I can’t help but make the leap that those networks are connecting people as well as devices, and any attempt to sever those ties between people because of their devices is short-sighted and isolating.

Would we bring the same presumptions about the internet’s futility to similar situations? For example, would it make sense to push someone with a speech problem, perhaps due to a stroke or other illness, to stop using a computer-aided communication device simply because we are dubious about the technology’s effects on her mind? I’m not accusing Miller of any shortsightedness in his experiment; I’m simply suggesting that perhaps our culture’s conservative and cautious critiques of the internet are more motivated by fears and judgment of our human flaws. The internet is the scapegoat.