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


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.

Can I write faster?

I’m not crazy, but it is a head-game

I get more work done when I’m not crazy. I have invested wayyyy too much emotional energy into the quality of the finished thesis that I have a hard time exercising the necessary detachemnt from the writing to actually make the revisions I need to make.

I wish I could say that I didn’t pursue this degree because I wanted to prove something to myself and those around me about my intelligence. But, that would be false. I have an ego and need affirmation. I want to demonstrate my intellectual abilities and to stand apart from other people based on an ability or talent I’ve cultivated. I want to have my own place “at the table” with the other smart people, not because they like me or think I’m easy to get along with, but because they think I have a contribution to make.

These expectations about the process (and other people) are not helpful, and so I am trying to let go of them.

Revisions are harder than writing, at least for me. Sure, writing can get me down especially when I’m not clear about what I want to say. But it’s the process of doing revisions during which I have to keep at least two versions of the text in my memory—the old draft which was reviewed and commented on by outside readers and the current draft being formed by moving around and deleting portions of the text—that overwhelms me.  I’d probably be better at doing revisions if I had an outline in a separate document to which I could refer as I move stuff around.

Increasing writing fluency?

For me there is no “secret key” about improving my speed—it’s all about getting over or through or around the stuff that it keeping me from actually doing the writing or revisions.

When I am free, detached, and confident I can write. I get to this emotional space by exercising, by disengaging from the draining activities and relationships in my life, and by focusing on my goal (degree in hand). I also find it is much easier to write if I don’t fuss with “how it sounds” or whether the way I phrase something is sophisticated enough.  That is an editorial question, not a question worth getting hung up on during the writing phase.

A shared anxiety

This is an article from about increasing the speed and fluency with which we write.  I was chastened by this quote.

Like many writers, I take a lot of notes before I compose a first draft. The research verifies that taking notes makes writing easier­—as long as you don’t look at them while you are writing the draft! Doing so causes a writer to jump into reviewing/evaluating mode instead of getting on with the business of getting words on the screen.

This highlights the issue of identifying what exactly one is doing at a particular time, about doing just that one task: writing, taking notes, or evaluating and commenting on the notes. While I’m supposedly writing am guilting of spending too much time and energy back in my notes reviewing and evaluating those ideas. Is this what it takes to write?

  1. Dreaming, brainstorming, writing in my thesis journal about general issues
  2. Hunting and gathering new ideas: I try to read new publications in my field that are beyond my thesis topic.  This keeps me fresh and up-to-date, and it helps me keep my thesis in perspective.  Even just a half-hour of reading a book review can help stimulate new ideas and motivation.
  3. Planning and outlining I often skip this step or breeze through it too fast and it backfires on me every time.  It is much more helpful to realize early in the process that I need to do more research on something than later in the process when integrating new research is more complicated. Note: this is also a good time to create a few other related documents for art history papers: the list of figures with their captions and copyright info (add numbers during the writing phase), bibliography, timeline of important dates or events, list of important names with alternate spellings, etc. This is also the best time to request books and scan articles.
  4. Write out the questions I want to answer and the keywords I want to use. It makes sense to put these directly into the outline document. I like to have a hard-copy of the most up-to-date outline with me most of the time.
  5. Researching, reading, and taking notes. I try to always comment on the readings in my notes. Sometimes something I’ve read will stimulate a big thought and then I’ll go to a fresh page/document and write out the idea into a paragraph (or more). When this happens the writing goes fast and the usually the core idea is important. I try to use this time to distill only the information I need to use that relates to my research project. My weakness is to take notes on everything—trying to be responsible and  comprehensive—but that backfires because then I have tons of notes but little that is relevant! This is a major hang-up of mine that I am getting much better about not doing.
  6. Write a draft longhand using the outline and referring to my notes as little as possible. This is what I’m supposed to do, but I’m not there yet. I try to go back to my notes only when I need specific details (page numbers, dates, etc.) I have a bad habit of leaning on my notes too heavily when I’m writing which makes it really hard to be free enough to write my own ideas and arguments.
  7. Type up the draft and print it out. For longer writing it may make sense to write out a section of the outline at a time, type that section out, and then write some more. I find I loose efficiency if I do any one thing for too long!
  8. Use the hard copy for editing. Focus on cohesion in the paragraphs and coherence among paragraphs. Concision is nice and correctness is a must. Clarity comes over time and from rewriting sections that are complicated.
  9. Apply the edits and print it out again.

Much of this is based on this post. There is no perfect way, but there are better ways.

An almost unbelievable workflow

She was probably a perfect student who always did her homework and came to class prepared. Perfect students do the extra recommended readings, they write out study outlines for exam essay questions, and they finish everything before the deadline. I haven’t met many perfect students in graduate school. We tend to gripe about feeling behind, overwhelmed, and underprepared for everything.

This blog from The Chronicle of Higher Education summarizes one writer’s strategies to getting more writing done. Her list of seven “secrets” cover some familiar territory: read as much as possible, dedicate chunks of time to writing, be accountable to yourself and to others, take breaks when the you know your work is getting weak, switch between projects to prevent boredom use other parts of your brain, focus on the questions and ideas that you fine really compelling, and make writing a daily habit. The author anticipates finishing a book project that she is co-authoriing with another academic.

I don’t think any one tip is going to make much of a difference for me as I strive to increase my productivity as an academic writer; however, I am inspired by her preliminary comments about the necessary preparatory work for the project.

we conducted the research for the book over the course of the academic year, outlined the chapters, and read all the background literature

I’m inspired because even though I’m not a perfect student, this workflow is obviously working for the blogger (or at least that’s the version of reality she wants to share). I write much better when I have a clear sense of what I want to say, when I know the research and references I want to use, and when I have a sense of how to organize the material.

I’m not great at creating outlines for my thesis chapters because every time I try to finish an outline I find myself getting all “prosey” and start writing out my ideas in full sentences and even longer chunks – not helpful for the outline! And so I haven’t devoted much to this stage of the writing recently because I’m under very real pressure to revise and polish the material I have already written. Honestly, I think I tried to write chapters way before I was ready. It would have been much better to write smaller chunks – a few sentences or paragraphs on specific issues in my research, for example. It seems like from the very beginning I’ve been under the gun to write the chapter, finish the chapter, polish the chapter, submit the chapter…

This idea of taking time (a year!) to do research, outlines, and reading is connected to some advice given by “productivity gurus” who recommend that we take the time to actually identify the tasks we are doing. Separate the reading from the outlining, and the research from the writing. It seems obvious, but when I’m feeling the pressure of deadlines I try to take shortcuts (which turn out to be detours and delays) and go directly from the reading/research to the chapter. It’s good to be reminded of what makes the process more efficient.

on why I started a new blog

After briefly editing my “About Me” page earlier this morning, I thought it might be helpful (for me) if I wrote out just what is the focus of this blog. If I can make a few connections among friends and scholars–that would be great.

My goal is to share some of my thoughts and responses to things going on in the world of art history and Byzantine studies. I’d love to document my travels, but I don’t have any research trips planned. I’d also love to be an informative source about news and changes in art history or Byzantine studies, but there are others who are much more on top of these things than me.

Writing, researching, and teaching are the things that take most of my attention every day. I also like learning about new digital technologies and how they enhance our experience with visual and material culture from the past. But new doesn’t necessarily mean better. For example, I spent a lot of time building up collections and notes in Zotero thinking this is how research is done in the new digital age.  But after years of trying to make it work I just had to say goodbye.  I was spending too much time developing good entries and taking careful notes, and not enough time actually writing. Also, my comments and questions about my research were buried within notes fields in the hierarchy of folders and files. So, I’ve reverted to spiral notebooks and ballpoint pens for taking notes and developing my research into analytical discussions. Sometimes old tech is perfect.

I watch TV, use my iPhone almost continuously everyday, tool around on Facebook several times a day, and make tons of lists (to do and must do lists, things to read, groceries, emails to send, and so on). I recently started collecting coupons because none of the other activities in my day bring in much money. And I probably spend too much time griping about challenging relationships and situations. I’ll try to edit out the downers… I am a wife and a mother as well as a graduate student, so sometimes I get a little busy and don’t have time to blog.

So that’s a bit more about the focus of this blog. I’m happy to hear from you and am always open to learning about new projects in the digital humanities. Time for more coffee!

Is it low-technology, low-tech, low tech, lo-tech, or lowtech?

A while back I decided to downshift my research process back to handwriting notes, quotes, questions, and comments in spiral notebooks.  I worked hard for a few years to develop excellent collections in Zotero based on my dissertation chapters.  (I also had a few other collections of publications related to my non-dissertation research interests.) But even with Zotero’s citation tool that formulated footnotes directly in my word-processing files, I just wasn’t spending enough time writing.

Ball-point pens and spiral notebooks don’t cost a lot of money.  The notebook can be subdivided into any number of smaller sections even if it’s just a single-subject notebook. Pages in the notebook can be used for any number of purposes.  Some pages are just for lists (bibliography, objects studied in my chapter, spelling of foreign words and names, etc.), while others are filled with detailed notes and quotations from my reading.  There is always room to write responses to what I’ve read, questions, insights, ways of applying the author’s ideas to my work. I like the directness of working on the page.

Low-tech groups abound, especially for craft-type activities, DIY enthusiasts, and even some environmentalists. In academia we sometimes accuse low-tech adherents of being Luddites. And this site collects essays written about low-tech places and things in Silicon Valley where high-tech dominates the landscape. I expect we will always be challenged to harmonize the innovation of new technologists with the authority of established scholars who are opposed to the digitization of sources and automation of activities. (Stay tuned for a post on a recent and depressing report on digital scholarship in art history.)

Low-tech research means handwriting and this report shows how we are  beginning to understand the fundamental links between handwriting and reading comprehension, composition, and overall academic performance.  Writing by hand has an impact on how we read, write, use language, and think critically.  The report I referenced above deals with research and curriculum for school-aged children, many of whom are not taught handwriting (let alone cursive) after grade 1.

I have some questions: Is keyboarding really that bad for kids? What is it about the mechanical and physical process that aids in comprehension? I wonder if one could do a study applying the work one author who focuses on schoolchildren but with university students instead, that handwriting contributes to reading fluency and improves the readers accuracy and speed for recognizing letters and words?

I haven’t had a chance to watch this lecture yet, but I have long had a strong intuition that there is a tight correlation between fast writing, fast thinking, and deeper comprehension. Which is why I think in-class handwritten exercises are a great way to teach students how to write about art.