Monday, 2 March 2009

The cat's important too, mind

I am marking a bunch of first year essays. I am sitting comfortably on a couch, with a large orange cat asleep on my lap. The essay is pinned to a clipboard, and in front of me (and the cat) is a laptop table (blue); sitting on it is a laptop computer (white) made by the small but adventurous Silicon Valley startup company formerly known as Apple Computer. Open in the computer are: a standardized comment sheet (in Word); a set of marking criteria (a spreadsheet; more of this anon); an excellent dictionary; and the entirety of the internet, via Firefox. Oh, and an address book, that has photos of all my students in it. I have a bad memory for names.

As I read the essay, I annotate it with a pen (red). During the course of the annotation I refer to the computer quite frequently. For instance: when the student misuses a word I sometimes copy the correct definition from the dictionary and paste it into the comment sheet. Did Chaucer really, as the student says, introduce rime royale into English? Yes, says the internet. Tick. And so on.

Aha! this student is yet another of those who have fallen prey to the cult of the splice comma. The what? Apparently this is the term for running two sentences together, joined by a comma, without a conjunction. This usage is now reaching epidemic proportions in English students at all levels; since we have a whole marking criterion called 'use of English', and since this is definitely a misuse of English, it's quite important.

What to do about it? I meditate for a little on how to compose a simple rule to explain to the students why and how the splice comma is a Bad Thing, and give up. What am I, a linguist? I ask my wife, who, it happens, is, or at least was, a linguist, and she gives the matter deep linguistic thought, and then tells me to look in Eats Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss (who is not a linguist).

I download a copy of this book, find the relevant bit, where the issue is described with entertaining clarity, copy it (fair use for academic purposes, right?), open a Google Document, write a couple of explanatory sentences, and paste in the Truss paragraph. I save the document as a web page, copy the URL, paste it into with a suitable link heading; paste it again into the Google document I have prepared to help a big tranche of the first year that I am supervising in a module called Independent Study, and email it too to all the first year students whose essays I am currently marking. The problem is solved, it seems to me (is that a splice comma, I wonder?).

Back to the essay. I finish reading it, and type up the comments in my Word document. I go to my marking criteria spreadsheet (a copy is here; I hope it explains itself). I choose the band under each criterion that most matches the comment I have written in the comment sheet, and tick it. The program obligingly converts these ticks into marks, averages them, and puts the rounded average in a box at the bottom of the page. I consider this, tweak it a little to match my overall intuition about the essay, and save and print the document. I type the tweaked average mark into the comment sheet, and save and print it. The comment sheet and the criteria spreadsheet and the annotated essay go to the student, together with a pre-prepared explanatory document. Job done. And, I think to myself, next time I do this marking business I will encourage the students to email me their essays, so that I can cut out the bits of paper stage altogether.

Are computers useful for the teaching of English? Do you have to ask? Mind you, the cat (orange) is important, too.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Piles can be very painful

Last week I was talking to a colleague about his pending file. It consists of a large table that occupies most of the space in his room. On it are spread sheets of paper, each of which is some task that he is currently doing: a printed out email, a handout, whatever. Why? you wonder; why?

The answer is very clear, and represents a great truth: if you stack those sheets of paper, as most of us do, they turn into a pile. And the trouble with a pile is, pretty soon you don't know what's in it. If you put the sheets into a filing cabinet, or into a drawer, same result. A pile turns into a black hole, with nameless, and possibly scary, or urgent, or past-the-deadline contents, and the result is what Microsoft used to call FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt. They were in favour of it. Or rather, of causing it, in their commercial rivals, by unscrupulous use of an appalling monopoly). And the FUD nags at your mind, taking up brain space, causing inefficiency and wasting mental processing power. Especially if you happen to miss a deadline because some reminder document is in a black hole somewhere.

This is a surprisingly profound truth. It is most of the basis for Getting Things Done, GTD, the time management system that has swept the Web and carried all before it. (More about GTD here.) Many of my useful uses of computers are based on GTD, hence this introduction.

So, what's the answer to the pile problem? Not, I suggest, laying it all out on a table. Sometimes, for one thing, no table is big enough; and, in any case, as my colleague ruefully admitted, when the students come in, hungry for learning, you have to make a pile anyway, and then unpile it when they go away again. Perhaps I should say at this point that this particular colleague is highly productive and efficient: this system certainly seems to work for him. But it would drive me crazy.

The GTD answer to the problem is simple: make a list. Before I started doing GTD I would occasionally, when things got out of hand, by force of necessity, make a list. 'Today I must do this, and this, and this'. And I well remember the sense of clarity and relief that then arose (on occasion to such an extent that I didn't actually do very much on the list, because the FUD that caused me to make the list in the first place had gone away. Yes, I was a sad case.)

When you get all of your piles sorted and put away such that you can easily find all the bits of paper, and make lists so that you know what needs to be done with each and when to do it--and I'm talking about all of them, here, every single last nagging item in your life--then you experience a GTD epiphany: a sense of calm and release that is almost physical. And is so nice that you are prepared to do what it takes to maintain that feeling, through thick and thin. (Thin is easy, mind you: but thick can be bloody difficult.)

So, for instance, take the email inbox. How many emails are there in your inbox at the moment? How many unread emails are there in the inbox? For most people, a lot. The inbox is a black hole. How many emails of any kind should there be in there? Answer: none. Not one. Inbox zero, is the buzzword. And how do you achieve inbox zero? By practicing email triage. Like this:

1. Get all your emails automatically forwarded to your googlemail address. You do this by asking the IT people to set it up for you. It's very simple.

2. As a result, you will be pleasantly surprised to find you no longer get much spam. That takes care of some of the junk in the inbox right away.

3. In gmail, go through the inbox and, for every single email, either store it or star it. Anything that requires further action gets a star (set the default colour of star to gold. I don't know about you, but when I was five years old a gold star was a valuable commodity. It is on such illusory self-bribes that quite a lot of GTD functions: and, oddly, it really works.) Then archive it. If you want to find it again, click on the star in the left hand column: there, with wonderful reliability, they all are.

4. As for the others, all the others, do this: if they are spam then select them and click on the 'report spam' button at the top of the inbox. Away they go, and you won't be bothered by them again because gmail's brilliantly efficient spam detector will remember and exclude. And all the rest, simply archive them. No filing? No putting into little classifying boxes so that you can find them again? No. Because the search engine in gmail is designed by Google. And one thing that Google is good at, uncannily, astonishingly good at, is search.

5. Keep doing that, and sooner or later your inbox will be empty. At which point, you will experience a small but worth-having epiphany. The inbox zero epiphany. Enough to motivate you to keep doing it, several times a day, so that your inbox stays clear.

6. Then go and look at your starred items. Go through them and operate the two minute rule. This states that if an item can be despatched in two minutes or less, do it. If not, put it into a trusted list system. More about list systems at some later point. For now, a list on a piece of paper or a Word document will do fine. The to do item should have in it enough information so that you can easily find the email again. Then you can archive the email. Keep doing that until the starred items list is empty too. Ah: clarity and calm. You are now in total control of your email.

7. You need to check your starred items several times a day, and do whatever in there really needs doing that day / is easy to do right away / you feel like doing. It's crucial that there shouldn't be too many items in the starred list; if there is, it's a pile; and a pile very soon turns into a black hole. You should set aside part of one day every week, pretty much without fail, to clear your starred items. All of them.

And there you are. Inbox zero. One pile -- maybe, the main one -- less to worry about. It really works. I recommend it.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009


it's that time of the year... I'm being inundated with reference requests. Writing references is one of my less favourite activities. They are so important, the sense of responsibility so onerous, that procrastination is very tempting. And there's always a deadline...

And: there's the business of getting all the material together. Transcripts, essay feedback sheets, all that stuff. And: who is this student anyway? Was she the one who always sat at the back on the right and never said anything? And so on.

Well, not any more: getting the material together is no longer a problem for me. Maybe everyone does this already, in which case I'm an idiot for not having thought of it twenty years earlier, but maybe not. I have a web page. It's called 'How to ask me for a reference'. It's here.

In it I ask the students to send me everything I might need for writing a reference. copies of transcripts, feedback sheets, a photo of themselves, copy of their application, the whole lot. Anything that might be helpful. And, the following: 'a statement from you to me about what you would like me to say about you, what your strengths are as manifested in your contact with me, and so on. If I agree with it, I will put it in the reference'. Is that cheating? I don't think so.

The document goes on to say: 'I'm sorry if this seems a lot of work for you. References are important. This will help you get the placement you want. Please spend time and care on it.' And they do. Or else, a significant number of times, they decide it is too much like hard work, and (I suspect) go and ask someone else instead.

The document is up on the web, linked on a page with a memorable, if uneuphonious, web address: There I put things that I think might be useful for my students (and others): my contact details, and various how-to-do-its (how to write an essay, how to scan a poem, how to take notes, and so on). As a result, I can now in answer to many requests just refer the requester to tomdavisinfo, and get on with my life.

All of this is done in google docs. Google docs makes creating web pages ridiculously easy. I use it all the time. But, it makes unmemorable web addresses. To get a memorable one costs about five pounds a year. Go, for instance, here, and follow the (not difficult) instructions--in the top right rectangle, under 'domains'. Mind you, you have to think of one that hasn't been used up...

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Blogs I read

Well, I subscribe to a lot. But a lot of those are occasional blogs from the makers of computer programs that I use, that keep me up to date. Apart from that, tech blogs (macintosh and iphone) that are not of much general interest. And some others...

But first, two points that maybe helpful about keeping up with blogs.

One is this: Google Reader, God bless it, has two viewing modes. If you look at the top right of the list pane, you see that it says 'view expanded - list'. Click on 'list', and you just get the headings for the blog entries, which can be scanned really quickly. If you're interested in a particular heading, click on it, and you get the expanded form. When you've been down the list, click on the 'Mark all as read' button near the top, and it all goes away.

The second is, get an iPhone. I do most of my blog reading in the version of google reader on the iPhone. Which fits in the palm of my hand, and goes everywhere with me (well, it's my phone) which means that I can access Reader anywhere. Is it legible? Yes, it certainly is. It's amazing. Not the only or the most important reason for getting an iPhone, but not nothing, either. But well outweighed by the amazingness of having the whole of the Web in the palm of your hand, anywhere...


Lifehacker is a wonderful resource for finding out how (in the most practical way possible) to live the inconvenient details of your life.

I've been a little obsessed with American politics since the recent, astonishing, election. A good guide is this witty and knowledgeable (and very pro-Obama) commentator:

Michael Tomasky's blog,

For those who just can't get enough Google:

Official Google Blog, and
Official Google Reader Blog,

The diary of a London ambulance driver. He is not a good writer, which makes the details of his everyday life the more raw and compelling, somehow.

Random Acts Of Reality,

and Dilbert,

and Doonesbury,

and (slightly techie, very witty),

Enough, already!

Thursday, 12 February 2009

The pocket photocopier

OK, here's another on the theme: useful uses of the computer.

I have a little camera that I take with me pretty much everywhere: it's smaller than a cigarette packet, and fits in my pocket. I do this because I'm interested in photography, and a great believer in the view that the best camera to have is the one that's in your hand ready when the shot becomes possible. Not the great big black one that you left at home.

It's also a photocopier. If you have a digital camera that can capture an image at 5 megapixels or more (and most of them can, nowadays) then you can photograph an A4 page, upload it to your computer, and print it out at 300 dots per inch (dpi) which is the resolution of a photocopier. If you use one of the excellent monochrome laser printers that the University provides for us, with free toner and paper, then what you have is a free-of-charge photocopier that fits in your pocket. I use this a lot...

And, of course, you don't have to print it out. Computer storage is very cheap, and anything stored away in it is powerfully filed and easily found. And you can use (and should be using) the brilliant, and free, Picasa to edit and store and catalogue your photos. Yes, it's another Google product. Two days ago a student asked me if I was getting paid by Google, I recommend their products so much. If only...

And, once they're in Picasa, it's a snap, as they say, to upload your photos to Picasa Web Albums. Why would you want to do this? Because you can then selectively share them with your students. Or, of course, friends, family, or whatever.

What a world we live in, that has such gadgets in it.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

the name fame game

(This one is in response to the coursework instruction: describe a use of a google product.)

I have two friends with interesting names: one is called Martin Trickey, the other Charlie Cattrall. Martin is currently a commissioning executive with BBC Entertainment, which means he gets to spend millions of the Licence Fee money. Bizarrely, he is my son in law. Charlie is an actor, and an ex student, and, since I borrowed his first name, appearance, and profession for a lead character in a novel I co-wrote, I have a curiously close relationship with him.

The point, though, is this: they both have googleable names. If you search for them, you only find them and no-one else. This is very useful for someone in showbusiness, obviously. I use it like this.

You can set up a thing called a Google Alert. Follow the link, sign in with your google ID, and follow instructions. I follow both Martin and Charlie. Whenever they pop up on the Web, I get an email from Google giving me a link that takes me there. If Charlie is in a new show, I get to see the show website, and the reviews (if they mention his name). If Martin were (God forbid) to attract the baleful attention of the Daily Mail, I would know. This is quite handy.

Tom Davis, however, is an extremely ungoogleable name. And it is quite interesting to find out what the Web is saying about my work. I also follow therefore two other search terms: 'Tom Davis Lacan' and 'Tom Davis handwriting'. The results are sometimes entertaining, and often useful.

And, for those less narcissistic than I seem to be, you can of course search concepts. So, I have a search item 'forensic handwriting analysis'. Every time a fellow handwriting expert gets their name in the newspaper pronouncing on a case, I hear about it, and get a version of what they say. Anywhere in the world. This is extremely useful. I recommend it.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

window on the world

In the corner of my teaching room, on top of a filing cabinet, roughly at head height, there is a computer screen. This, for me, is a fundamental teaching tool, and has been for a long long time. I don't know what I'd do without it.

It's connected to the pc that sits under my desk, which also has its own screen: I used a splitter, a y-shaped one-wire-in, two-wires-out gadget, that cost me a pound or two. In its first incarnation the screen was a battered old TV set that I bought for £4 in a junk shop. I graduated to an incredibly heavy VDU which the University kindly bought for me; now, large flat LCD screens are cheap and ubiquitous, and I would use one of those.

The idea is that everyone in the room can see the screen. So, for instance, I can run PowerPoint slides on it, or demonstrate how to construct Web pages, or do practical criticism of layout of Web pages, all of which I have done at times, but that's not my everyday use.

When I teach a class I prepare a Web page in advance (a WebCT page would work fine). In a Web browser it is easy to scale up the type on the screen so that everyone in the room can read it. On the page is: anything I like.

For instance: the headings of what I am going to say, or what the class will be talking about; maybe with notes underneath. This structures the class, provides a structured summary for students who miss it, maybe provides a set of items to prepare or think about if I give out the Web page in advance: whatever. It's very simple, no slides with fancy transitions or multiple colours: just a clear simple document. Perhaps I'll put on it links to relevant material; students can follow this up later and see how the links fit in with the things discussed in the seminar. And so on.

I mostly teach literature nowadays. Texts. If you want to refer to a text in the class, as we frequently do, then there's the awkward business of finding it, and waiting for everyone, perhaps in different editions, to find it. What I do is put the text up on the screen. Pretty much all of English Literature that's out of copyright is easily available on the Web. The screen becomes a window on to a Web page, or else you can download the text, open it in Word, scale the text up, and there it is, for everyone to read.

This text is instantly searchable.
If I or a student want to talk about, or to invite talk about, Lockwood's dream in Wuthering Heights, or the tower imagery used to describe the two sisters in Goblin Market, both fertile areas for Freudian investigation, I can summon them for everyone to see in a few seconds.

It's really really useful.


I thought, in view of what a couple of people said in the class today, that the most helpful thing I could do with this blog would be to give some examples of the way I have used computers for teaching. I've been doing this for a long long time--since before the Web was conceived, actually--and so what I describe will be real, tested, and found to be actually useful. I'll avoid the kind of thing that Bill will be covering in the course, and just talk about the things I have myself used. I hope it helps...