Kindle for Academics

Currently, no ebook reader appears to completely solve my needs. Some come close in some areas, while still making things unnecessarily complicated in the final steps of the solution.

Ulysses notes

Some ebook readers, such as the Kobo, quickly fail to solve my needs. The standalone Kobo ereader provides no means for text entry, having only a D-pad toggle. My first need for an ereader is to highlight and take notes on the text.

While there appears to be some support for these annotation features on the iPad Kobo app, they don’t appear to sync across the cloud. Their desktop app, for example, provides no annotation features at all.

The Amazon Kindle has more strict Digital Rights Management (DRM), which restricts some forms of access to the text, such as in 2009 when Amazon deleted George Orwell novels, including 1984, from all Kindle devices. This is a level of control I’m uncomfortable with a large corporation to have. The opportunities for abuse are evident, as Amazon has shown in January of 2010, by pulling all books published by subsidiaries of Macmillan, including SF publisher Tor, from the Amazon store. This was done as part of a power play on digital rights sales, such as Kindle books, but it involved pulling all print editions as well.

Amazon’s Kindle has a multi-platform triple-threat. In addition to their portable ereader devices, they provide a desktop reading solution, as well as other mobile devices such as the Apple iPad. While Kindle is available for BlackBerry, like many other things Amazon has to offer, this isn’t available in Canada.

While I haven’t used the Kindle ereader hardware, I have used both their desktop reader, and the iPad version. Both of these offer highlighting and text annotations, which sync wirelessly with each other. They also maintain your reading position between the two applications. This is unfortunately only the first part of the solution.

The important part is where Amazon fails. Once you have selected portions of the text, and made annotations on the go, students need to access this text. Amazon sometimes allows these “clippings” — as they refer to the selections — to be exported via their web interface. Note the qualifying word of sometimes. Each book in their system apparently has some undefined, undocumented limit as to how much of the text can be exported in this manner. Some books have a hard limit of no exported text. While I can understand the publisher’s desire to stop people from copying the book, this is not helpful for students in the least.

Sadly, copyright tends to actually be more restrictive for academics in Canada. Concordia University has a helpful comparison between fair dealing (in Canada) versus fair use (in the United States). The restrictions in clipping length may be analogous to the lack of definition of the term “substantial” in the Copyright Act (s.3). As this term is undefined in the Act, publishers may decide on a more restrictive definition than commonly accepted.

The web interface that Amazon uses is also difficult to use. In an ideal world, I would be able to select my highlighted sections from the desktop app, and have them copied in proper citation format, including an entry for my works cited list.

Another problem when dealing with the Kindle is directly related to citations. Amazon has standardized on a “location” number to reference text in a book, rather than the term “page”. The thought on their part is that at different zoom levels, pagination will change, making page references unstable.

Amazon has lately started to remedy this problem, by including page numbers which presumably link back to a print edition of a book. While I see this change on the iPad, my desktop application only provides Location information. In either case, I still have to manually type the quoted text into my essay. How is this more convenient than just using a print book again?

What’s the solution? It’s been tempting to run screenshots through OCR software, except that I’d still have to proofread the text for corrections. I guess what really bothers me is that this is something that would likely be easier than what Amazon is doing now, and not just for students.

How do you cite a Kindle ebook using the MLA?

For a recent essay, I was referring to two Kindle edition ebooks. While I found text highlighting in the ebook to be extremely natural, and extremely easy to cross reference, there is very little guidance as to how to make essay citations to these works.

The problem is that Kindle ebooks do not maintain the pagination of a print book. The theory here is that different zoom levels would change the page number being show. Instead, Amazon decided to use a location number, which actually provides a more precise indication as to the actual reference.

The nice thing about these location numbers is that when The kindle app shows the list of your highlights, it also gives you these location numbers. Less fortunately, the Kindle application doesn’t make it easy to get your highlighted material out of the app. Copying and pasting is denied, and there are also limits as to the number of highlights that Amazon will export to the web. For some books, such as one of the two I was reading, no highlights were exported.

As to my citations? I decided to use Amazon’s location numbers, like so: (McKee, loc. 42). I think I heard that Amazon is planning on adding print pagination into their books, possibly to address this current project, but I saw no evidence of this yet on the desktop application.

Reflections on the Past Year

While the beginning of January may seem to be a more appropriate time of year for reflecting on the past year, performance review time in the office tends to be mid-February. Despite some challenges, I think this year was quite successful, both in the workplace and outside work.

During August, I presented a paper on Paddy Forde’s novella “On Spirit” and Rob Sawyer’s short story “Just Like Old Times” at the Social Science on the Final Frontier academic conference at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. It was a nice little conference, and it was nice to see Rob Sawyer and Julie E. Czerneda at the conference. This was my second academic paper presented at a conference, and was a lot of fun.

During the year, I didn’t accomplish much fiction writing, something which I’m planning to remedy. Part of my problem in the past year is that I haven’t made the time to write. I’ve proven to myself that I can now write 250-500 words a day for blog posts, in addition to my coursework assignments. I’m going to see if I can add fiction writing to these word counts in the next few weeks. If it doesn’t seem to be working, I may decide to reduce the size or frequency of my blog posts. It’s something that I’ve been struggling with.

I’ve done some nice improvements around the home this past year. I’m particularly happy with my garage, now that it’s been organized. Previously, neither car would fit inside. Now, both can fit inside, as well as my snowblower. Yes, this is a first world problem, and I’m aware that I’m contributing to urban sprawl, etc. It’s a beautiful property, with a very large backyard for spending time with the family, but city transit doesn’t come anywhere near here. The way things stand, I’m just not willing to consider alternative ways to get to work.

Choosing Electronic or Print Books for Academic Research

As someone with 200 books within arms reach of my desk, without counting those in the bookshelf behind me, I obviously have a fondness for the written word. When reading a particular text closely however, what advantages are there to an electronic format over a physical format?

While portability of an electronic text is often cited as an advantage, as the ereader can hold multiple books in a relatively small space, I believe that the true strength of an electronic text is the search functionality. With proper bookmarking, one can quickly refer to key sections of the text, and search for other similar passages.

This isn’t really a new technique. Many popular academic texts have comprehensive indices and supplementary notes, and with a little work, one can mark passages in any physical book for later reference. In some ways, this actually helps one understand the text at a deeper level, as it requires a deeper engagement with the text.

Ulysses notes

Another key aspect of using an electronic text is an easy way to mark up the text, and make meaningful notes. While I don’t usually mark up fiction I’m reading for fun, my academic texts have lines underlined, words circled and squared, and margin notes. This is something I’ve started recently, especially for passages I’m trying to more deeply understand.

If I was studying a book with an electronic edition, it would be great if I could highlight, or otherwise mark up the text, and have my selections exported to my word processor for essay writing, with full citation support in whatever format I require (MLA is the citation format I most often use for writing in the humanities). I would love for the pagination of the online version to reflect a print version, even if it is displayed in a different format on the device. Sadly, not all texts are available in ebook format, and when they are, there are often regional restrictions on availability. Robert Fagles’ contemporary translation of The Odyssey is available on Amazon.ca in print, but the Kindle edition on Amazon.com is unavailable to Canadians. A sad state of affairs, and not likely Amazon’s fault, as there are licensing restrictions put in place by the rights holders.

I’m pleased that a number of scholarly presses and consortiums are planning changes and advances in etext publishing, as reported on sites such as Library Journal. I’m generally pleased by what I’ve heard about these initiatives, I only wish they were available now.

Classes start again

It feels as if I just handed in my final paper for last term, but it appears that classes start this week.

This term I’m taking English 408A – Writing for the Media, and English 301H – Honours Literary Studies. 408A is being taught by Andrew Deman, while 301H is being taught by Murray McArthur. I haven’t yet had McArthur for any courses, so that should be interesting.

The course texts look interesting. I’ve scanned through the first chapter of Batty and Cain’s “Media Writing: A Practical Introduction,” and it seems to be an actually useful textbook, which is a pleasant change from some other courses I’ve had. I haven’t yet read any of the companion text for 408A, Jenkins’ “Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide” but it seems to contrast nicely with “Media Writing,” with more of a focus on non-traditional media. Page one includes an image from “Bert is Evil” with Bert from Sesame Street fame posed next to Osama Bin Laden.

For 301H, the major literary text being studied is The Odyssey, by Homer. The particular translation is by the late Robert Fagles, which is presumably a modern translation into more modern language than others, while still maintaining fidelity to the greek text. Along with Ulysses, the course readings include excerpts from Aescylus’ Agamemnon, Canto 26 from Dante’s Inferno, the Telemachus, Calypso, and Lotus Eaters chapters from Joyce’s Ulysses (not surprising, as McArthur is a Joyce scholar), and finally, Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses.

I’m not entirely sure what to expect from this course. The calendar description merely states that through lectures, discussion, and presentations by visiting faculty, this course provides Honours students with an enriched survey of the discipline of literary studies. Topics of discussion will be drawn from bibliography and research methods, critical approaches to literature, literary history, genre studies, rhetoric, media perspectives, and other areas of scholarly interest. This seems to me to be rather vague, and from what I can tell, each offering of this course tends to be rather different.

The course syllabus for 408A states that This course examines the genres and strategies of both journalism and public relations. With a strong orientation towards rhetorical and linguistic theories, this course will cover audience concerns from both within and outside organizations. While this is perhaps a shorter description, it is also far more concrete in nature. I fully expect a number of written assignments on a regular schedule in this course.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this term progresses. Hopefully I haven’t signed up for more than I can comfortably handle. I just need to make sure that I carefully manage my time this term, something much easier said than done. My toddler turns three at the end of the term.

Evaluating professors and lecturers

As a part time undergraduate student, I’ve had several years taking courses at the University of Waterloo. Just a course or two per term, except for that soul-sucking term where I briefly managed three courses. Hello full-time student tax credits. When
selecting courses part time, there is often a number of factors considered.

Does it fit my schedule? Does it match my interests? Does it fulfill any course requirements? Do I have the prerequisites? What do I know about the professor? Will this course be offered again soon? Here are some of the thoughts I have on some
of my former professors, and the courses they taught.

Continue reading “Evaluating professors and lecturers”

Creative Writing Retrospective

My thoughts on English 335, Creative Writing I at the University of Waterloo.

Last term, I was enrolled in English 335 at the University of Waterloo. This course was a workshop based course on creative writing. This course had a great deal of potential, but only partially lived up to my expectations.

The course is composed of three main areas of creative writing: poetry, short fiction, and drama (called “collaborative performance” in the syllabus). While I was most interested in the short fiction component, I also greatly enjoyed the poetry unit. For each of the first two units, two new poems or short stories were written and workshopped. One of each was then chosen to be thoroughly revised, and justification provided for the revisions. The collaborative performance was written and edited in groups, and was presented in class on the last day.

Possibly the best part about the course was the license to write. I not only wanted to write, but I was compelled to do so. The poetry unit helped me to think more deeply about the fundamentals of language, while the fiction unit allowed me to concentrate on narrative.

In contrast, the drama unit provided me with little value. The collaborative work was interesting, but there was little focus placed on revision after the presentation. This unit also took considerable time which I would have rather spent writing more poetry or fiction. The performance aspect of the work was also uncomfortable. My group read our script, rather than memorizing it. I did not have the time to spend memorizing a script. This is a creative writing course, not a drama course. Maybe this part of the course was more meaningful to others in the class, but I felt it detracted from my experience.

There was very little academic content in the course, which is expected for a creative writing course. It is listed as a workshop course, not a lecture. There are other courses which focus on the short story, and others which focus on poetry from the academically critical perspective. This course focused on creating and revising effective writing.

The workshop portion of the course was valuable, but also frustrating at times. The class size was excessive. There were over twenty people enrolled in this section of the course. When workshopping as an entire class, critiques of everyone’s work meant taking two nights to cover everyone. For the second piece in the poetry and fiction units, we broke into smaller, more focused groups, reading five pieces instead of twenty. In general however, there was not enough time to effectively critique the writing. If the class was smaller, more time could be spent on each individual piece, or each student could write another piece.

In general, I found the critique process to be poorly defined. The majority of the time was spent discussing what people liked, and what people didn’t. A particular phrase was often pointed out as being cool. It was more rare to hear a critique which focused on elements such as pacing or plot construction. The instructor frequently brought up the need to focus on characterization. This is a fault I was guilty of, in at least one of my stories, which I later gutted and rewrote from scratch.

Another frustration was having my work reviewed last in both the poetry and fiction sections. I realize that someone always has to be last, but it’s no more fun in creative writing than it is in high school gym class.

The pacing of the course seemed excessively slow. Over twelve weeks, we wrote two poems, of which one was revised, and wrote two pieces of flash fiction, of which one was revised. Added to this was the writing, editing and performance of a collaborative drama. Five pieces of original writing, and two revisions. I was expecting more writing in the course, and ultimately found the level of workshop discussion unsatisfying, primarily due to the lack of time for individual reviews.

I think this course would benefit from a bit more structure in the critique process. What sort of things should be looked at during a critique, for example. A simple list of some of the basic elements of fiction, such as plot, characterization and effective dialogue would have improved some of the reviews. By the middle of the term, I was getting rather tired of hearing the phrase “I really enjoyed this story” prefacing a simplistic review.

The instructor also has a bias against genre fiction, although it was allowed in the course. This can be understandable, as it is much more difficult to assess work in a genre in which one has little experience. From my perspective, it’s much easier to write in the genre in which I read. Without knowing the conventions of a particular genre, it can be difficult to determine if a certain phrase or concept is typical of the genre. The instructor primarily reads literary fiction, I believe.

I’m not sure if I will enroll in the advanced creative writing course. I think I need to spend some more time to absorb the experience of the first course, before I come to a decision.