Category Archives: productivity

When Software Fails; or, Don’t Believe Everything the Wizards Tell You

Today’s sheepish lesson learned entails a return to discussion of my Omeka installation process.  It’s sheepish because I persist in believing that I can use the relatively stable set of tools that have been developed by others to help ordinary historians do our work online.  And because computing machines still remain more of a black box to me that I might wish.  And finally, I read the former as a strength and the latter as a weakness.  I should probably give myself a break.  But back to the lesson.

Omeka installation requires the use of FTP (file transfer protocol), one of the older processes that I remember from the early 1990s.  I used to like watching the little dog animation that ran when you used Fetch…. But the point is that in order to show your work on the web if you are using a more recent version of Omeka than the one-click install that my hosting service offers, you need to be able to upload the application via FTP.  I’ve done it before, and I should certainly be able to do it again.

There are plenty of FTP client applications now (however much I might miss the little Fetch dog), and I learned from the pros at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media that FileZilla is a good one.  The hosting service I use also offers WebFTP through an application called AjaXplorer.  In fairness, I should note that the hosting service cautions users against relying on WebFTP as one’s only tool for this purpose.

In fairness because the webhost recently installed a new version of AjaXplorer that fails to see some users’ repositories.  Like mine.  When I ran into this problem a couple of weeks ago, I emailed the webhost’s support and learned I was not alone.  Which was a relief.  Sort of.

I had used FileZilla before, so I didn’t panic.  And since I wanted to proceed cautiously and limit the possibility of frustrating mistakes, I opened up documentation for FileZilla and FTP as well as  for Omeka.  Which was a big mistake.

Because FileZilla recommended running their very helpful Configuration Wizard to assure that the application would work smoothly on my machine.  That seemed like a reasonable recommendation, so I followed it.  And that’s where I got massively, frustratingly stuck and remained so for over a week.

Because the Configuration Wizard’s test repeatedly found a problem with an abrupt loss of the test connection and recommended that I adjust settings and try again.  And again.  And still again.  Ad infinitum.

And here was my real mistake.  I believed the Wizard.

So I spent hours trying various fixes.  Turning off my firewall.  Turing it back on, holding my cursor in the right place on the screen and quickly clicking “Allow” to give the application access to my machine.  Reading up on FTP and trying to figure out what the problem could possibly be.  Getting frustrated and going off to do something else.

Day after day, for many days.

I thought the problem might be the new Mac OS, so I read a lot of Apple Support discussions about the incompatibility of Mavericks (please) with various software.  Everything I saw on the forums seemed to indicate that FileZilla was working for others just fine.

So yesterday, when I didn’t really have time to carry out the full installation anyway, I decided that I would just try to connect to the remote server using FileZilla.  If it was working for other people, I finally reasoned, maybe it would work for me.

Maybe the Wizard was wrong.

I launched FileZilla, typed in the server name, my user name, and my password.  And I connected just fine.  No unexplained lost connection.  No problem at all.

The Wizard was wrong.

So my lesson, learned through massive frustration over the past two weeks, is this:

Do not believe everything the Wizards tell you.  Sometimes, they are wrong.

 

 

 

 

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Omeka Follow-Up

This post is inspired in part by Ryan Cordell’s ProfHacker post on developing strategies for writing productivity. He describes his current writing group’s use of Wendy Belcher‘s Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks and some of the principles he is putting into practice. Those are tools I used a few years ago, and I’m watching with interest to learn how well they work for Ryan and his colleagues.

Another inspiration for this post lies in growing interest in developing principles for evaluating digital scholarship, an interest that I see expressed not only in the American Historical Association’s ad hoc Committee on the Professional Evaluation of Digital Publications by Historians, on which I have the privilege of serving, but many other places as well. Most notable today is the Google doc that Adeline Koh has started for establishing “ideal language for assessing promotion and tenure for digital scholarship.”

And a final inspiration comes from a wish to document the kinds of work I am doing during my sabbatical and the time it takes to do them. This latter comes in part from some things I have noticed as a result of the kinds of work Ryan describes in the ProfHacker piece. For me, narrating the process of research and writing as I engage in them helps me with that engagement. A trick I developed when I was using Wendy Becker’s very helpful tools back in 2011 was just writing about the writing process as a warm-up to my daily fifteen minutes.

Now, I also have the incentive of wanting to think through and be able to express for my colleagues in many contexts the joys and challenges that come with having chosen digital platforms as the best media for publication of the research and teaching that I have been doing for the past ten years. When I began to explore digital scholarship, I did not realize how much I would need to learn myself about the technologies that underlie pretty presentation on the inter webs. And some of my colleagues–including my co-author–have attempted to dissuade me from thinking that I need to learn XPath, XSLT, and a host of other languages that my humanist brain is less than ideally suited to understand.

But I am even more convinced now than I was in 2011 when I started to learn a little bit about WordPress that being able to do the sorts of things I want to do with and for digital scholarship entails learning how to do some technical things for myself rather than relying on technical “experts” to do them for me. (I find myself wanting to do an embarrassing girl power dance here….)

So finally, today’s sabbatical narrative is this:

After I completed the Dreamhost one-click installation of Omeka to this domain yesterday, I recalled something I had already learned when I performed the same task for encodinghfrs.org last year. That one-click installation is for Omeka 1.5.3, and Omeka 2.0+ has been operating for some time now.

As has been the case ever since I started teaching myself applications in the mid-1980s (that was WordPerfect, in case anyone is keeping score), becoming comfortable with each new tool is an iterative process. Bumbling through setting up a sub-domain and a db.ini file and the various other set-up details does get easier over time, even though I do forget how to use each tool in between moments when I take the time to engage with them.

I became reacquainted with this process when I started to learn TEI. Although I say this as though it is a joke, it really did take three times sitting through the Introduction to TEI with Julia Flanders and Syd Bauman before I began to feel comfortable enough with XML/TEI to work with the files. And taking the full week to do that at DHSI with my research assistant Lauren Pfendner helped a lot.

So having taken roughly a week to set up my new Omeka repository and still having ahead of me installing the update feels more like success than it does a setback to me. I have learned that this tortoise-like progress is progress nevertheless. The installation of the update will go more quickly, and the iterativity of my learning is simply a fact of the life of the digital humanist, or at least of the kind of digital humanist I choose to be.

Over the next couple of days, I will be installing the Omeka upgrade, converting TIFs to JPGs, uploading them, and then turning to an old version of a TEI transcription that I will need to update for compatibility with the contextual files that I have been working on with a different research assistant–John Burnett–over the past couple of years.

Doing the work of a digital humanities project happens with almost unbelievable slowness when your day job is teaching at a residential liberal arts college. I document that work here in the hope that it will serve to assist my colleagues who are transforming our understanding of scholarship for our ever more digital age.

 

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Filed under digital history, digital humanities, productivity

Sabbatical 2014: Setting Goals

This is a big year for me. As I noted in the paper I presented at the AHA annual meeting last month, January 2014 marked ten years since I began to learn about eXtensible Markup Language (XML) and the Text Encoding Initiative, the main tools that brought me from early experiments in using technology to enhance students’ learning to my present scholarly practice in digital humanities and digital history. So I am particularly thrilled to have the privilege of a sabbatical leave this spring, a leave that will give me time to bring to completion some of my first work with using TEI in teaching undergraduates how to do history and to move some more recent efforts to a next stage.

Photo on 2-3-14 at 3.00 PM

Since I work at an institution that begins its spring semester after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I spent the weeks between the end of the AHA on January 5 and the beginning of the new semester two weeks ago optimizing the physical space for my work in my home study and using goal-setting and productivity tools to do the same with mental space. I have a lot of projects at various stages of completion, and because these usually share time and focus with teaching, many of them benefited from the kind of concentrated planning that–for me at least–requires taking a deep breath, calming my puppy brain, and getting out the colored pens and notecards.

Yes, notecards.

Fancy mind-mapping programs and electronic to-do apps have had their shiny appeal for me over the past decade, and thinking on a keyboard is certainly part of my tool-kit. But my longest-used, most familiar tools for are pen and paper. And these tools sit alongside keyboard and touchscreen in all of my work spaces.

Oh, and sticky whiteboard sheets. I love using sticky whiteboard sheets on the walls to help me keep my projects and goals in sight.

The projects range from finally publishing the files from the first project my colleagues and I undertook with using TEI in teaching nineteenth-century U.S. women’s history, through creating a website based on primary sources that document an 1862 journey to London and Europe, to testing the model that my co-author and I have been developing for marking up financial records. It’s a big agenda for a relatively short period of time.

So as the first week of February begins with yet another snowfall, I sit a my desk with a fresh project inventory and stacks of “next actions” sorted by context and cross-referenced by project. I still have plenty of organizing and brainstorming and many weekly reviews ahead of me. But I have completed the first pass in this iterative process we call being “on leave.”

And I look forward to narrating the process over the next several months, using this space to write informally about the professional effort that goes into building websites, updating a longterm teaching project, and demonstrating how digital publication is an ideal way to express the fruits of ten years’ teaching and research in digital history.

Let the sabbatical begin.

 

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Immersion

Ahhh. This morning I achieved a goal that has eluded me this week. I spent the whole morning immersed in the world of digital humanities, text encoding, and general scholarly contemplation of the Wheaton College Digital History Project. No small achievement since much of my energy has been focused on my father’s health for the past month. We discovered on October 5 that a seemingly simple physical annoyance–foot pain associated with a nail infection–in fact had a more disturbing explanation. Dad has Stage III melanoma. He had surgery on October 21 and will have another on November 17. I spent the two and a half weeks between October 19 and November 7 in Austin, and though I did steal a full day for work on proposals for DH2011, I have been feeling quite distant from my scholar-self while I have been operating primarily as my daughter-self.

The distance was only magnified as I tried to replicate my usual work patterns during the past all-too-brief week I’ve been spending at home. I’ve sat down at the computer each morning after taking the dog out and making coffee, going online before truly waking, and feeling frustrated that I could not find the immersion point. I’ve known intellectually of course that my brain and body were simply deploying the defense mechanisms that would get them the rest they have needed, a response to the physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion that comes with trying to support aging parents as they confront one of the most frightening and bewildering experiences of their lives.

I don’t begrudge them any of that, and in fact I feel lucky to have the flexibility that comes with working outside the classroom for these few months so that I can help in whatever ways are useful as they begin their journey through the medical system and establish a treatment plan. At the same time, it feels so good to have been at the computer productively for these past few hours. To have been inside my scholar-self and usefully exploring ideas about how to use these last few sabbatical months to positive effect. So much better than the feeling of hammering on the door to that self from the outside, chasing specters of deadlines and expectations from the exhausted basic-self and wanting to flee in despair.

Aah. Immersion feels good.

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Working in the Garden

Today–the day after hurricane Earl missed the coast of New England–the weather is sunny, breezy, dry. It has been a beautiful day to sit in the garden with the dog and read about women’s work in the nineteenth-century United States. This is a history that is often romanticized and one that we often think we know better than we actually do.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been discovering how much I have idealized a pleasant work pattern that I established for a few weeks in July and August, one in which I spent much of the day outdoors with the dog, following the shade around the garden, reading and beginning to poke at an article project that has been on the back burner for longer than I care to think about. There was pleasure and hope in those weeks, at least in part because they came before the drudgery, anxiety and–most significantly–perplexity that have characterized this particular writing project more recently. Clearly, a heavy overtone of nostalgia colors my mental picture of those summer days so recently past. Now, as the weather begins to cool and I note how challenging I have found productivity on days when I have been unable to practice my idealized work pattern, I realize that I must establish alternate sites for reading, thinking, and productivity.

The living room holds several comfy reading spots, but my mind turns more convincingly to the landing at the top of the stairs, a space with good light and enough room for a cozy reading nook. That space degenerated when I was focusing on clearing the spare room so that guests could stay there comfortably over the summer, so now it’s time once again to establish a new order in a portion of my living space.

Such order need not be pristine nor finished by any means. A quick look at my beloved garden workspace demonstrates this point. The dog looks cleaner than she has in weeks, mostly because–before her hurricane bath and during the very hot weeks that preceded today’s halcyon weather–I allowed her to dig holes at will so that she could follow her dog nature and keep cool by lying in dirt only recently exposed to hot surface air. Among the spots in which I allowed the digging was the future brick terrace, currently a 9′ x 13′ patch of dirt outside the back door.

Straight ahead of me, as I sit in my reading, writing, thinking chair, a mature garden of shrubs and perennials rewards the years of planting and tending that I have given this space since I bought this house in 2002. But to my right, the area one friend kindly designated my “workspace” attests to the tasks that remain before the garden I survey becomes the garden I see in my mind’s eye. The hole in the tarmac that covers a full one-third of this suburban oasis witnesses my determination to unpave the area and plant it as lushly in the next eight years as I have the other two-thirds of the space in the past.

The chaotic “workspace” reminds me to honor process, to appreciate the annoying drudgery and anxieties and perplexities of a project’s many middles and to have the patience to persevere. That I can turn away from the chaos and focus my attention on the pleasures of gazing on the results of my earlier labors reminds me that such patience and perseverance will be rewarded.

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How many words?

Yesterday, I was thinking about choosing to count all of the email I write for various projects towards my 200-word goal for the day. This has everything to do with my currently being all too distracted from the scheduled writing that I have been trying to learn with Wendy Belcher’s workbook. Of course, lowering my standard in this way is a slimy trick to play on myself, and I won’t do it. But it does recall to me a set of issues I’ve struggled with just about ever since I began teaching: academics write all the time. We write syllabi and email and course websites and responses to student work and recommendation letters and committee agendas and grant proposals and and and and and and and…. Writing up our research is only one kind of writing we do.

Which of course is why we need sabbaticals to focus on writing about our research. The more experience I pile on as a faculty member, the more I understand the seven-year cycle of teaching and sabbatical as being about an ongoing process of building productive habits of reading, research, and writing, watching them degrade as we turn our focus to teaching, and rebuilding them during a semester or year of sabbatical. We all know that there is evidence suggesting that teachers who make time to read and research are more successful in the classroom than those who don’t. (Sadly, I don’t have time to look up a citation right now.) One thing I’m noticing this particular sabbatical is how many of Belcher’s pieces of advice are things I say to my students about writing and how surprised I am to think about applying them to my own work.

In fact, it’s been a particular challenge for me to move my thinking from the teaching space in my brain to the writing space, and I find myself having to continue to make the shift consciously much more often than I would like now that–according to my own definition–I am already three months into this sabbatical. And I’m wondering how much of that difficulty is related to the fact that part of the entropic effect on my work processes over the past six years has occurred through my unfortunate redefinition of writing to include all of that other writing that goes with the classroom part of my career.

So. This time last week, ProfHacker recommended “The Rule of 200”, which is about writing 200 words on a project every single day, including weekends, holidays, and even on your birthday. That rule reminds me of a recommendation I heard from a colleague several years ago, which one might call “The Rule of 1000.” In this model, you write four pages every day before you leave the office. Not really a workable marker, of course, if you write at home, like I do.

I think what I’m trying to do right now is to use this blog and the many other ways and places in which I am writing during this sabbatical to think through a bit of a block that distractions have built for me over the past two weeks. First, I spent three full days away from my current article project and doing heavy brainwork in a TEI workshop. That was fun because it gave me a chance to access the math part of my brain, which goes sadly underused most of the time since I spend so much of my life with words. And then, I spent a lot of time either writing or talking about various grant projects, which also require the kind of attention that I would on a “normal” writing day give to my main article project.

I guess what I would like to learn in the next few months is how to be able to bring at least half that level of brainwork to at least 200 words on the article project every day, no matter what other brainwork I’m doing, so that I will be able to produce as many finished pieces as I would like by the end of January. Wish me luck. Or better yet, light a candle for me.

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On Sabbatical

I’m impressed with how many of my colleagues, near and far, are also on sabbatical this fall. Several times in the past couple of weeks, I’ve learned that I have companions in the solitary tasks of research and writing, and that feels good. It also presents uncommon opportunities, and I’m taking advantage–both here at home and online–to make various research and writing projects social, which helps me with productivity and is easier to maintain during sabbatical than it is during a regular teaching semester.


Many of these sabbatical colleagues seem to be thinking of their time to focus on research and writing as starting now, with the beginning of the academic year. In contrast, I’ve been trying since about April to think about my sabbatical as beginning in May or June. In fact, there were moments–joyful moments–throughout the spring semester when I could mark my impending absence from the classroom in the fall. When my department was planning the course schedule for this year, when students were registering for fall courses, when the bookstore called for book orders. And of course there were ways in which the academic year extended into May and June. Commencement never happens until the weekend before Memorial Day, and this year a search bled into June. I’m very pleased with the success of that search, by the way, and the promise it holds for the future of the college.

So now, as my colleagues not on sabbatical are gearing up for fall classes, I can take this moment to look back on the first three months of my sabbatical, which are almost complete. And I can say with some pride that I have begun to establish a pattern of research and writing that I hope to continue to make into habits that I will be able to maintain when I return to the classroom in the spring. I have been using an iPhone/iPad app, Daily Deeds, to fix habits for both scholarship and housekeeping. And Hiveminder has become my app of choice for managing my long and ever-growing to-do lists.

Putting all of these together, I hope that during this sabbatical I will be able to imprint some new patterns for writing and other work, thus making my process of living as an academic both more productive and more fulfilling once the sabbatical is over.

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Sabbatical Resolutions


Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s ProfHacker post about New (Academic) Year’s Resolutions prompted me to think about how I see the kind of goal setting that prompted this blog and other strategies I’m using while I’m on sabbatical this fall. In her post, Fitzpatrick noted how the beginning of the academic year has parallels to the beginning of the calendar year. She outlined three simple resolutions for exercise, diet, and caffeine consumption that she hopes to make part of her routine to support her writing life during sabbatical and beyond.

Like Fitzpatrick, I use moments like the beginning of the academic year for “resolutions.” Since I tend to view my scholarship more in terms of failures than of successes, I am trying to shift my perspective during this sabbatical. My goal is to learn to see beginnings more as recurring opportunities for assessment and adjustment than as some kind of new way to judge my failures to live up to unreasonable ideals.

Since I started this whole academic life with studying nineteenth-century intentional communities and have done a lot of reading in feminism and utopia, I try to see both research and teaching as more about process than about blueprints and results. Perhaps ironically, I am having some success using a blueprint in the form of Wendy Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks. At week seven, I find myself a bit behind on the work, and this post marks an effort to try something different as beginning of the day writing to build momentum.

Belcher provides a kind of syllabus for productivity that works as a nice parallel to Fitzpatrick’s notion about the beginning of the semester. Each Monday, of course, begins a new week, and each week starts with an opportunity to look back, celebrate the successes that come with having made it thus far, and then plan for the week ahead. Thus Belcher’s workbook makes seemingly obvious facts like Monday’s place at the beginning of the week into conscious moments to make concrete the kinds of opportunities for assessment and adjustment that we associate culturally with the resolutions that some of us make on January 1.

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