What I Use (Software Edition)

Inspired by a number of others (historians and coders mostly), I offer the following “what I use” post. I write less to advertise and more as an example for any other community college faculty who are working in digital humanities.

Writing

nvALT

I do most of my short writing in nvALT. I use to keep almost all my notes, academic and personal. It stores all files in .txt files, which I can access anywhere with almost any software. It’s no longer updated and there are some other good substitutes that have emerged (see The Archive, but I work with what I know.

Sublime Text 3

When I need to write longer pieces, such as grant applications or articles, Sublime is great. I like that I can make it do whatever I want, look however I want, and it never taxes my computer. I’ve worked with Atom as well, but it’s a memory hog on my office PC.

Markdown

More than 90% of my writing I do with Markdown. It’s a format that saves in .txt files, so I’ll never lose any work to new software versions, and it lets me focus on writing, rather than formatting. For a great introduction see the Programming Historian. My words shouldn’t be trapped by software, and I teach my students the same.

Marked 2

Brett Terpstra is a bit of god to me, and his work, free and paid, has made my work so much easier. Marked 2 lets you preview, live, Markdown from oodles of different apps, and then convert it to one of the standard formats (html, pdf, word, rtf. . .). I love the idea of Pandoc and it does far more than Marked 2 can. Still, I get cleaner conversions with Marked and I can see what’s I’m getting before I convert/save it.

### Software ###

Firefox

It works, doesn’t suck memory, and respects privacy. I don’t trust google (Chrome), Safari bogs down with a privacy blocker extension, and Opera, Vivaldi, and Brave aren’t as robustly built for my needs. Firefox also works with Zotero which manages my research materials.

TweetDeck

Twitter teems with terrible people writing vile nonsense. Yet it’s also how I’ve been able to claw my way into the digital humanities. Some folks vex themselves mightily finding the best Twitter interface: I don’t. This works well enough and helps avoid Twitter’s terrible website.

Setapp

I’ve only been using Setapp for a couple weeks. That said, I already used 8 of the 100 or so apps included in this app subscription. If you work in OS X, you should check out Setapp. It includes sufficient apps that you could give a gift subscription to a high school grad and that grad would have most of the software they’d need for their college degree.

TaskPaper

We all need checklists to keep us on task. In keeping with my .txt-focussed world, I use TaskPaper, which save files as .txt files, but let’s you organize tasks by projects, with due dates.

R Studio

R Studio lets me work in R, which is increasingly important for historians doing statistics and data visualization. It can be used simply, as I do, or with incredible sophistication.

Clipboard managers

I use two clipboard managers right now: Tyke is just a place to hold text until I can stick it somewhere permanent. The app strips formatting, which I love when working with the web.

Unclutter allows me to save text, notes, or files, though I only use the text function. It keeps a list of your clipboard history, which is the main feature I use.

Clarify

For writing assignments for my students, I need to quickly put text and screen shots together and export for the web. Clarify does this faster and smoother than other apps I’ve tried. I particularly like that I can save the full document in markdown with associated images files, and then upload that to GitHub. Unfortunately, the app is only issuing maintenance updates and no new licenses, if anyone knows of a great alternative, please drop me a line.

As with all such lists, I’m leaving many applications and all of my hardware off. For those deep in the world of digital humanities, my list will seem mainstream and uninteresting, the Toyota Camry of software lists. Even so, if you’re an emerging digital humanities teacher, I hope you can find one recommendation that makes your work easier and your time freer for our students. In the end, it’s not the softare, but the human running it that matters most.

Safe home.

On fetishes in technology and education.

I’m working through a grant application. There’s a fair amount of attention to detail needed for grants, but the parts that drive me nuts are the formatting issues. As a grant reviewer, I know well the desirability of uniformly drafted grants, so that reviewers can fairly weigh the ideas of a grant, and not its font choice.

That said, much of the grant and publishing world requires a fetishistic attention to formatting. I’ve been thinking about the line between defensible attention to detail and fetishistic obsession in education and technology lately. So much of what I read is fetishism, which is unfortunate, because obsessing over the specifics of a thing can often obfuscate larger needs.

Just a couple examples. Wade into the Apple universe and you’ll discover legions of websites devoted to every feature of iPhones, along with speculation about what future changes there might be. So what one feature would you like of your next cell phone? Yeah, a better battery. I don’t need my phone to summon Thai food with my preferred spice level to a location of my choosing, or make my laundry experience next-generation social, just make the phone battery last longer.

But that’s not the Apple fetish.

In education, we see a fetishism of analytics and “data.” To be sure, as teachers we can better use formative, diagnostic, and summative assessments. That said, most software solutions incorporated into learning management systems are not based on sound educational research, at least as far I can see. Rather, there’s a data fetish that “personalized learning” will be facilitated by real-time tracking of student activity. There’s actually been a logarithmic increase in student data collection in the last 10 years. Have we seen a noticeable uptick in student learning? Nope.

There’s a fetish that more data will yield better results. I think about that as I train for a marathon. I recently purchased a new GPS watch that gives me oodles more data, including heart rate, leg cadence, and recommendations for how long to rest after a workout. And that information tells me something, but it doesn’t help me do the thing itself, which is run. There is no substitute for thing itself. Data can’t help when my kids get sick and I can’t run or tell me why certain muscles are sore. The data page that comes up on the web page associated with the watch looks like a NORAD command center. It’s a fetishistic display of what the watch company thinks will help sell more watches. But it doesn’t make me faster. In the end, I will run, and a simple timer will tell me how fast I covered a distance. Distance over time is not sexy, but it tells me far more than any fetishized data visualization.

All of this is to say, I think we need to ask for less detail in many parts of education and technology, and ask instead what really matters for meaningful learning.