Saturday, May 28, 2011

Magic gadget: a review of the iPad 2 after one week of using it.

As soon as rumors started buzzing about the iPad, before it even had a name, I started thinking about how well it would work for me to be able to type on a tablet. The iPhone wasn't awful for typing, but it wasn't great, and I was sure that years of playing piano would make it easy for me to adapt to the shape of the onscreen keyboard of a tablet, if only the whole thing were larger than 3x5.

But I didn't buy one when they first came out, because my iPhone was still under contract, and what I really wanted was a device that would allow me to videochat with people. When the iPhone 4 came out, I was excited, but only in the hope that it meant that future iPads would have videochat capability.

I wanted three things:
1) the ability to be online without being dependent on wifi
2) videochat
3) a device that would allow me to do this without a contract, and without having to pay a monthly cellular minutes plan.

Even when the iPad 2 was announced, and it sounded perfect, I didn't line up the first day to get one (though I wish now that I had). I did line up at my local Apple Store a couple of times, always thwarted; and almost ordered from the website, despite having heard stories of horrendous wait times. In the end, my university bookstore, which had my name on a waitlist, called me to say that they finally had received a few internationally-compatible 3G models, and did I still want one? I did indeed.

I wavered between choosing capacity, ending up with a 32gig model. I might have gone for a 64, but it turned out that none of those had come in. I could have kept waiting -- but my 3.5 year old iPhone has been more and more glitchy; and since I use my connection both for facilitating transportation, and for checking food ingredients to deal with celiac disease, I didn't want to wait any longer.

As of this morning, I've had the iPad for exactly one week. Here's what I love, so far:

Working with PDFs: Since I'm an 18th/19th century lit/history scholar, I spend a great deal of time in Gale's Eighteenth Century Collections Online. While ECCO makes accessibility so much easier than, well, having to travel to libraries and archives, its interface is a little cumbersome: you have to click one place to turn the page, click in a separate table to scroll through the page, click another button to turn the page again...and you can't actually mark up the document. If you download it (if your school has a license for such things, as mine does), then if you have Acrobat Reader Professional, then life gets easier -- you can OCR the book, and highlight, and annotate to your heart's content -- except that Acrobat isn't really made for the landscape screen, and if you get near the bottom of one page, and click in the wrong place, then suddenly you've switched to the next page without knowing it, and .... well, it's frustrating.

Enter iAnnotate for the iPad, which automatically OCRs documents, and has a better, less buggy and more intuitive set of controls for marking them up. The pages glide by easily and smoothly, no jumping around. Working with an ECCO document on the iPad is the closest that I've come to reproducing the experience of looking at it in the BL without actually being there. NB: of course, the iPad can't replace that, nor should it -- there's a wealth of data that's only possible to access via the actual, physical copy. But it feels amazing to me that I can enhance the online experience of working with a document by viewing it in a way that feels closer to turning pages, and even reproducing the posture and angles of reading a physical book. I'm a great fan of muscle memory as a significant part of the reading experience.

ETA: Actually, iAnnotate can only enable underlining/highlighting/search functions if you've already OCR'd an ECCO document previously -- so you still need Acrobat Pro. For me, this is a tiny extra step that doesn't bother me in the least; not when I can have all six volumes of Dodsley's Poems By Several Hands in a format that permits markup.

I also have been using iAnnotate to comment on student papers; highlighting, underlining, commenting, and occasionally marking up sentences (rarely a priority for me). I can save a document, and send it back to the student -- in fact, iAnnotate and the iPad streamline this for me, because there's a button in the app that I can use to pull up an email, that has the document already attached. I'm using Dropbox, which I haven't used before, and it's made it easy for me to access essays that I commented on using my laptop, too. This last week, both my classes had student conferences. On the first day of those conferences, I brought my laptop, not having been entirely confident that I had access to everything I needed and that I'd configured everything properly. I didn't need it. And the rest of the week, I didn't bring it.*

Typing: I thought I might need to buy one of the separate keyboards and docking systems. I don't. In landscape orientation, there's not that much difference between typing on a full-sized keyboard -- or at least, I don't feel that much difference. Adapting was easy, and by my second day of working with the iPad, I wrote several students responding to paper proposals using it, without a noticeable delay in work speed. It's wonderful how much easier it is for me to type on an iPad than on a netbook like the Acer Eee PC. And of course, I'm not having to deal with the buggy mouse controls, either.

This is enough to say for now, though I'll post more as I use the iPad more. My only other significant first impression is that because the iPad has better functionality for me in terms of typing and annotating PDFs, I'm far more likely to use it for those things when I'm in transit, whereas with the iPhone, I was more likely to surf the web out of boredom or habit. I actually marked up two papers yesterday on my busride downtown! It was great!

*: The inCase backpack I've had for the last 4 or 5 years has been excellent: it's protected my laptop, and has lots of room for carrying other stuff. The problem is that I tend to fill it up; and my laptop already ways about 6.5 pounds. Last summer, the S.E.L. couldn't believe how much I hauled around with me on a daily basis. He tried to talk me into a wheelie-bag, but I didn't ever find one that met my requirements. And if I carry my laptop, I inevitably find that I fill up the rest of the backpack, too. One of the wonderful things about having the iPad is that because it's smaller, I don't bring the backpack -- and I don't fill it up. And it's wonderful being less tired from hauling it around. Strictly speaking, this is a behavior issue as much as it is a hardware issue: I *could* just decide not to carry around so many books. But it's an advantage, all the same.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente

I really wish I'd had more time for blogging lately, but between my own class, and taking on a friend's class for the rest of the quarter, as she has a gorgeous new baby -- well, time is a precious commodity. I hope to be blogging more soon; and I do have a couple more reviews to get out this week.

One thing I'm pleased about: I've learned that I'm more productive when I take time for pleasure reading throughout the quarter, rather than as a vacation. Learning that meant that I read Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making two weeks ago, when it was briefly offered as a free download from the publisher's website. Last week, I rushed out in the middle of a very busy Wednesday, just so that I could buy it in print.

I'm already reading it through a second time. Some day, I need to post about that: how my new reading behavior involves reading the same books several times in succession. I'm not sure why, though stress and lack of time probably has something to do with it.

I haven't read any of Valente's novels before, though Palimpsest is on my to-read list, and will be bumped up now; and I even have a copy from my Hugo Voter's Packet conveniently available. What I loved about Fairyland; what made me want to take the book to bed with me for reasons entirely separate from the marvelous portrayal of feminine ingenuity and strength, was how much it reminded me of the Oz books, both those by L. Frank Baum and by Ruth Plumly Thomson. I haven't had a chance to read about Valente's own history with the Oz books; but Fairyland is clearly a descendant of them: you travel there by wind, you must pass through a perilous sea (instead of a deadly desert), and there is an established society, with a ruling monarch. But it wasn't those things that made me seek out every Oz book I could lay my hands on when I was growing up: it was the delightful weirdness of them, and the Ozian inhabitants. As soon as Dorothy, or Betsy Bobbin, or Trot, or whomever sets out to explore, for whatever reason, they're sure to encounter people who are paper dolls, or sentient rabbits, or living pastries; or whatever else the author could dream up. I wish I had time to write about the oddity of the politics in Oz: I don't tonight. I can barely articulate what it is that made me love the series so much, except that I found it absolutely believable, as a child, that all these strange kingdoms would exist, and give rise to the political squabbling that more often than not, drives the main plots of the novels.

Valente reinvents and reinvigorates that same odd and whimsical imaginative voice in this novel, and to better effect than Baum or Thomson. As I've read the columns by Mari Ness on the Oz books, over at; I've been rather dismayed to realize what I was reading. Ozma, for all that she started out in the series as a boy, and should have been the basis for a wonderfully queer existence, doesn't live up. Fairyland, however, lives up in spades.

There are lots of reasons for buying this book: because you like coming of age stories, stories about strong female characters; stories featuring creative interpretations of what dryads can be -- but for me, what dominated even beyond all those features was how much it felt like reading an Oz book -- but one that had been written for me, and for the 21st century today.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Teaching, and making mistakes, and learning from them

What I'm learning about teaching this quarter is how to work with a non-ideal situation, or rather, that engagement is something that you can't necessarily teach. It's really challenging; in fact, it feels, a lot of the time, like I'm failing. Not all of my five students come to class for each meeting. Two are in the habit of coming late. I've had classes where two have shown up, and where only one student has shown up. It's tricky to know how to adapt, on the day you'd planned to teach counterarguments and the use of textual evidence, when the four students who need the most help (based on their drafts) aren't there. I tend to teach using a library of handouts, which I upload to a course website after the class is done, but I've been a little reluctant to upload them the same way, lately, feeling that to do so just makes it easier for students to skip class.

This morning was a class group conference -- our first. I'd done a round of individual conferences with students previously, to give them a good framework. One student was absent because of a medical emergency; the other was simply absent, and had not bothered to upload a paper draft, to contact me, or respond to an email from his/her peer reviewer.

The conference went well anyway, but at the end, one of the students asked whether the others were still enrolled. I turned this, clumsily, I think, into a reminder about how writing is adaptive, and something we do in a group -- we work with the people we have -- but it was a hard question to answer.

I think that one of the benefits of this class is that it is demonstrating to the current students the importance of their participation: that the class really is a combination of their efforts and mine. It's demonstrating that the hard way, mind you, because there have been times where the energy is pretty flat. One student asked whether we could work on the papers for the linked lecture course. "We can," I replied, "but if we're going to do that, then we need to have more regular and timely attendance." To their credit, they all looked embarrassed.

I'm still worried that I'm going to get slaughtered in evals. The most challenging part of this has been handling preparation: the 3 students who attend most regularly are reticent to contribute, and see the readings as largely irrelevant. Ideally, I'd like to teach a very adaptive tutorial course, but it's tricky to do so with very quiet class members. The alternative is preparing material according to what I think they ought to know, and need to work on. This is what I do -- and then I adapt as they ask questions -- but it still ends up a bit flat. I feel like I'm moving between responding to their questions, teaching them things that they need to know, and talking with them about the material in an attempt to help them find a way into it (while acknowledging to them that part of being a student, and a reader, is committing to find a way to make something interesting, even if it doesn't seem that way.

What am I learning? I am learning that I have a knee-jerk reaction of thinking that because there are fewer students, I should be able to teach them more effectively. That's not true: having fewer students makes the differences between their experience levels all the more stark.

I'm learning that I need to make sure I keep my explanations and examples of practices brief, and become more sensitive about when to stay the course with a difficult example, and when to change tactics.*

I am learning that I need to foreground working together, and that I don't have a pedagogy that effectively does this. I'm not totally flatfooted: I provide detailed instructions for peer review, examples of what to do and what not to do; I emphasize the importance of being specific, rather than general. What I don't have is an effective pedagogy (or any formal method at all) of teaching reading and engagement as vitally collaborative skills. My syllabi include language about how writing and academic discourse are both collaborative activities -- but crikey, it's hard to turn that into activities within the classroom: to find a rich and compelling set of reasons for why it matters to think about what you are contributing to a classroom, and how you're engaging with the other people in it.

I am learning that I have to set my own standards for success, and that these standards are somewhere between "I can tell I'm teaching successfully because I'm seeing improvements from students in these specific areas" and "I believe I'm being successful because I know that this is an important aspect of writing and reading, whether or not I manage to convince the students of this." This is the hardest part, in some ways, because it's so easy to think "they're not getting it! I must need to teach it differently!" and to feel despondent. I'll be honest: I'm feeling this plenty, because teaching such a small group feels very different: if I teach informally, it feels like I risk leaving out important stuff; if I teach formally, it feels like I'm teaching too impersonally, and failing to take advantage of the intimacy of the small group.

The classroom is a collaborative environment. I've always believed that, but I haven't understood it as I'm coming to understand it this quarter. I feel like I've made mistakes, but then, so have my students. We have 4.5 weeks left, in which they'll write 3 papers (two for their linked lecture course, one more for me). From that perspective (3 papers, instead of 4.5 weeks), we have a chance to do really productive work. I'm nervous, but I hope that articulating where I am now will help me use my classtime effectively; and perhaps even more importantly, will help me remain focused and thoughtful about my teaching, even when I'm working with students who are not as actively engaged as I would like.

* To some degree, I think this is my inner perfectionist telling me "be better, be smarter, be more perfect!" -- but I think that it's good for me to think about the value of brevity.