Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, week 15: Tools

Tomorrow is the last day of classes, and the semester has gone by remarkably quickly. Before Thanksgiving I posted about next semester, discussing some of the plans I have and some of the changes I’ll be making based on my experience this fall. Today I want to quickly cover a topic I’ve been thinking about since August (or really, for the last several years): what tools help me do my job better?

Natalie Houston discusses choosing the right tools in her post about “personal productivity rules”:

There are a zillion cool tools out there. Most of them are right for someone — but not for everyone. You need to find the tools that suit you — your aesthetic, your lifestyle, your kinesthetic senses, your budget, and your preferred modes of organizing information, time, and space — and stick with them. Figure out which tools really matter to you, and which ones don’t.

For Natalie, the right tools include pens and notecards. When I think of this question, though, most of the tools that come to mind are digital. The one exception is not so much a tool as a physical choice, which is that I try to spend at least some of my workday standing up. Lots of people promote the health and productivity benefits of standing desks (e.g. here and here), often with references to Bob Marley (from Forbes) or R.E.M. (from Ryan Cordell.) These links discuss commercially available standing desks, but as a VAP I improvise — at home I have an old TV stand that I’ve converted to a standing desk, and in my office I have a filing cabinet that’s about the right height. When I’m in a more permanent position I’ll most likely invest in a more permanent solution.

Musical puns aside, I do find myself more energetic, and often more productive, when I work standing up — especially the days I spend staring at a computer screen (I haven’t successfully switched to standing up while reading books). Which brings me to the main point for today, which is the tools that take up that computer screen:

    • Writing and Research: I do just about all of my writing Scrivener. Ryan has already touted the many benefits of this program, so I won’t list them here. The biggest benefit for me is the ability to keep all my notes in one place and to start a section of what I know will be a later part of the project: there’s nothing like sitting down to begin a chapter and realizing that I’ve already written 2500 words, based on whatever I’d been reading 8 months ago. One downside: this is the only tool I use that isn’t free.
    • Coordinating home with the office:  I split my time between working at home and working at the office. I walk to work, and rather than lugging my computer back and forth I keep my work computer at the office and my own laptop at home. I use Dropbox to coordinate the files (though you have to be careful when combining this with Scrivener). Since igoogle became defunct I use Firefox’s app tabs, and keep my Google Calendar and listthings (an online sticky note where I keep my to do list) open pretty much all the time.
    • Keeping in Contact: For me, as for many, Twitter and RSS feeds are essential, both for keeping up with scholarly conversations and for staying generally informed. For Twitter I like Tweetdeck, which has multiple columns: this is especially handy for conferences, when I want to follow a hashtag fairly closely for just a short period of time. For RSS I like Google Reader (you can follow the feeds for journals through Project Muse, which makes it slightly easier to know when new issues become available). On my ipad I use Reeder, a fairly straightforward app for interfacing with Google Reader. And I love Pocket (formerly ReadItLater): this is an ipad app and a Firefox extension, which lets you save articles and blog posts to, well, read later.

I know a lot of people find Zotero essential, and I do have it installed, and occasionally save things to it. But for whatever reason I never incorporated it into my workflow. For research I still often use NINES, and now that it’s available and expanding I hope to use BRANCH — I’m thinking of assigning some of the entries next semester.

These are the tools that seem to suit me the best. What tools do you use for your teaching, research, or productivity?

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