Thursday, March 9, 2017

Thinking text, research, publishing and the wørd

Over the past few years I've come to the conclusion that MS Word should be dumped, entirely and for good. After embarking on a quest to learn scientific online publishing for Tekniikan Waiheita the Finnish quarterly for the history of technology, these issues have become quite acute. This blog post is therefore merely an early reflection on a process that I assume will take years of effort. Also I need to note that much of this might be quite pedestrian for you technical types. If so, please keep in mind that humanists, (some) social scientists and (many) higher arts types will never code, ever. Thus we need to bridge this technological gap and find open, easy tools for the benefit of all.

First, let's get into the why of things. How did I end up hating the one program I'm really good at?

I've been the layout (con) artist, web editor and technical do-it-yourself everyman for the Finnish Society for Maritime History for many years now. In this role the issues arising in putting out newsletters and publishing conference materials have become very familiar. I became this person due to my passing familiarity with InDesign and fearlessness in the face of html. I'm still rubbish in the latter and can just about muddle through the first. But as academic societies never actually have money for proper professionals, I was it. Luckily for me (and not so much for them) I have friends who do these thing for a living.

Turning various, ill-formed word-documents into html and/or pdfs is a pain. I was slowly getting decent at it though. Experience kept coming in fits and bouts. In 2010 I took part in three concurrent book projects, as an article writer for the Nautica Fennica and the Museum of Kymenlaakso yearbook and a member of the editorial team for the Maritime Centre Vellamo book. This triarchy got me thinking about the ways we write articles and publish them as I was privy to the various parts of doing books at the same time. But this, it turns out, was the old world.

Humanists in particular tend to think in terms of a published text and for this the pdf is ok. That's what it's meant for after all. Telling printers what to do. With the onset of digital first methods, mobile devices and all that, print media has become increasingly obsolete. Academics still tend think with the A4 in mind. We largely still approach our research in a form that is ill suited to digital first dissemination and this – to me – is becoming untenable.

Proper digital tools for a digital world

About three years ago I came up with a thought experiment to illustrate this issue. I introduced to Tim Cook as a historian of technology. He's on his way out from wherever we happen to be in. I have just the elevator ride (let's pretend it's a skyscraper) to answer his question: what kind of a history would you do for Apple? Go!

My answer to this was astonishing: NOT A BOOK! But I love books...

The book is wrong for Apple. A technology company selling mobile devices needs a mobile, technological history. And so I started to dream about the history of tomorrow.

This digitally disseminated history should be easily readable on all mobile devices. This meant html or xml or something such as an end platform. This naturally led to hypertextuality. Sources and the very environment around that story should be presented dynamically, when needed. With this in mind, I started to think about scalability. Not everyone wants to read 500 pages of thick description of systems, networks and people amidst a changing world. Academics often need depth to get into the issues and an executive summary will never do. Have you read the most recent IPCC report? If not, I can assure that it's quite exhaustive. We need to be mindful of this issue though. One way or another the detailed research has to end up compressed into a summary.

Now, most academics I know dislike writing such summaries. There's never enough space to explain things properly. But what if the process of summarizing was built into our research reporting and publishing tools? What if that online Apple history was dynamically expandable from the executive summary – a glorified index in fact – into the most detailed history of the company and all that went into it? What if you could choose when to access that information? The summary expanding into chapter descriptions, those into actual chapters and so on and so forth. Online sources would be presented alongside the text when needed, pictures would appear as needed. Metadata would be embedded into the text and one might rearrange the whole story chronologically, expand just the bits about Woz, or just stick to the curated format the historian saw best for the story.

To a historian this sounds almost magical, but as anyone who's written a book with MS Word or any equivalent also a lot of work after the fact. And herein lies the issue. The tools we use to think, to write our articles, dissertations and the like fail us. Looking at a skeuomorphic A4 on my laptop stops me from seeing that story digitally delivered. Manually inserting all the metadata links demands an armada of technical editors almost no one has resources for. The bloated word editor kills our dreams and through it ties us to the past.

Dreams of tomorrow

Just today I started the process of learning about XML in academic publishing. Thanks to The Federation of Finnish Learned Societies I've now embarked on a trip to someday get our journal digitally natively published, readable by machines and consequently far more easily disseminated by all. Obviously there are massive hurdles strewn across this path but luckily I'm not alone here. No one is. I've included a few links in the end on this.

The big issue is this though. If we plan to publish our research digitally we need to pay attention to the format. Not because it should override the function of academic enterprise, but because it can help us be better at it. I'm sure the book will exist for a long time, and there's much good to say about physical media. I'm not trying to do away with these here. Instead I'm trying to navigate the turbulent waters of impact and significance.

If we have easy to use tools for doing our research, analysis, writing up and publishing, we can actually get things done. Using journal editors time to troubleshoot anonymisation issues related to MS Office metadata creation is frankly a waste. Muddling through e-mail archives for an up to date version of the article one was working on with a colleague after the peer review corrections came, is a waste. Helping academics do their work means getting technology out of their way. Obviously this will never get fully done. We'll always have to learn to use new tools and things will always change in surprising ways.

Do we then want to rely on Silicon Valley start ups or corporate behemoths on our capacity to work? As much good as both may have done, I have my reservations. My recent discussions with colleagues much better versed in such issues, have led me to strongly back open standards for academic work both in higher learning and research. We truly need openness in research data management and dissemination to ensure transparency and quality of research. For a lot of these tools this already is the case, but for others not so much.

What I want to do for me and my research, is bring materials together while I'm conducting analysis and writing things, to have all my quotes in in the original Finnish, Swedish, Russian, English or German always alongside my translations and notes. I want to create searchable metadata on times, people and concepts that I can at a whim connect to any publication bound argument, whether it be an article, a blog post or a my dissertation. To keep a track of my thinking while I move onwards. MS Word will not do. Atlas TI will not do. A new tool for a new time is needed instead. It must be open, for scientists by scientists.

Onwards and upwards, into ruin and desolation

As a historian I feel this issue acutely. Much of the materials, the source I use are still safely stored in archive vaults across the world. Current digital versions are typically barely passable if they exist at all. Finnish archives currently fail to work with Refworks and the like, which led me to not use such otherwise great tools. I felt that the work needed would be better put to a creating my own database. This pained me greatly, but the work had to come first. U.S. based citation cultures and pseudo-paper online journals play into this.

Having discussed these and related issues with easily some hundred people, colleagues on all rungs of the academic world, I've met much despair and hope. Many want to stay with the familiar while others whole-heartedly embrace dreams as I have in this short introduction. Little exchange fits in between and we are all worse for it. Bibliometrics and impact factors aren't going away however. And the only way we, the experts in our respective fields, can have any say in what is measured and how, is to stand up and confront tomorrow.

With these fighting words, I wish to make it known that I at least ant to participate in creating meaningful ways for the academia of tomorrow, to bring my meagre lot as a humanist scholar of technology to this churning maelstrom of a discussion. And maybe, just maybe be part of the development of academic humanities into the digital age.

Further reading on digital academic publishing

Public Knowledge Project kehittää Open Journal Systems -palvelua
Tieteellisten Seurojen Valtuuston Avoimen Julkaisun palvelut
XML Journal Article Tag Suite
USA National Information Standards Organization

Monday, February 27, 2017

Running to stand still – this is not a sprint, it's a marathon

I haven't written anything here in a while and I feel a bit embarrassed. I know I really shouldn't as this really isn't mandatory educational activity, yet I do. But why?

Doing a PhD can take years, four being the mythical norm. There's definitely a point in doing the right size of a dissertation to fill just that, it is just a thesis after all. Doing something for four years and ending up with 250 pages (monograph) or four articles and a lengthy introduction (not a monograph) isn't obvious though. It needs to be learnt and we tend to learning while running. Lots can happen in during those years. Funding issues, change of supervisor, change of school, ill health, kids – life, you know.

Initially I started with a too small topic. Threw that one in the bin and ended up with, what almost always feels like, a too large one. Don't get me wrong, it's doable. At least I think it is. But then I've been doing too big projects all the while, so I might be blinded or conversely on to something. Now that my schedule is set, the funding is in and I'm well on my way, stopping has become unfathomable. This may sound harsh but that is where I draw strength from. I tend to paint my self into a corner to learn how to climb up the walls.

Occasionally the climbing gets tough. My dissertation project so far can be split into the following stages:

1. Initial fumbling in search of something significant (topic, money, guidance)
2. Smooth sailing with funding and a theme with lots of materials
3. Early crisis due to outside factors leading me to course correction (exchange in the UK)
4. Deepening understanding of the magnitude of the project
5. Crisis, the valley of death too deep to see from but too far to turn back
6. Climbing out and learning what all of this really might be about
7. The grind (this is where I'm now)
n. Graduation

Now, this is going to be different for everyone. As far as I can say only the valley of death seems to be a constant. A doctoral dissertation is too big to do on one go. Whatever the topic may be, ideally the project is pedagogically exactly about this. Learning to handle too big projects. Everything else is more or less incidental.

I knew this, but little did I understand. People I respect had told me of the valley, but only when I trampled over my misguided hubris in that Sisyphean darkness, did I truly learn what it meant. It really was dark, because I had just returned to Finland, alone in October. Well, I had to believe that the only way would be up. I say believe with conviction because there's always a deeper hole. The belief allowed me to focus on the essential though. Cut out all the noise and focus on what was important. Don't mind the red flashing lights.

It didn't take long to finally understand what this was. I had been here before, when "my" ship almost sank (literally) and my gran almost died – the same week mind you. I was running on pure stress hormones, and that's not good.

Stage six wasn't about getting the thesis done. It was about learning to live with myself and the work. It was about re-learning to look at my mental dashboard for danger signs, operationalising self-assessment and progressive reflectivity. Only through such fundamental changes in my relationship with my self could I ever manage the increased work load, if even then. We'll see soon enough.

Following an exasperated moan of being overworked, I friend and mentor berated me recently. "It's never getting easier, don't fool yourself!" And it won't if I stay this course. The further along I get, the more I'm loaded with this and that, a project here, a lecture there. And I love it. The thesis is slowly setting into the grind. I know what I'm supposed to do and I do it everyday. It's work.

Meanwhile other stuff happens with increasing regularity. This forces me to sprint while running a marathon, to juggle three different things at the same time. Sound familiar? Just like work, right? The thesis lives a life of its own. There's definitely much to learn still, but at the same time learning time management, resourcing and saying no still goes own.

I still have to drop stuff and focus and this is where I'm with the blog. I want to do this. It's just that I don't always have the time for it.

I will take this up in the next project meeting though. Just clearing my thoughts with this incoherent ramble has helped me onwards and upwards. Yet another inch towards redemption...

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The importance of engagement

Yesterday I stood behind the podium of University of Helsinki small festive hall (surprisingly not that small) for the first time to give a lecture:

The author giving a lecture on the long history of icebreaking in Finland in the University of Helsinki main building on January 13th 2017. The lecture was arranged by the Maritime Historical Association of Finland and the Finnish Maritime Museum with the Finnish Transport Agency and Arctia Shipping. The three panelists taking part in the session sitting beside me are from left: Ilmari Aro (retired director of winter traffic and icebreaker chief), Tapio Bergholm (maritime and labour historian among other things), and Tero Vauraste (the director of Arctia).
I did not think this would happen, when I set out to do this icebreaker study with Saara Matala (her idea and instigation, for which I'm deeply grateful). I could tell many stories about icebreakers but for now, I'd rather focus on interaction and dissemination of academic research.

Public performance is now easy for me. This isn't always the case with everyone. In the long term history is a field of books and papers. It's often and easily perceived to be a solitary endeavour. The heroic historian amid a sea of dusty folios. Even I sometimes like to invoke this image regardless that I know it to be patently false. It might also be that these fables of vocation hinder us from identifying skills relevant to our profession and more importantly what it takes to teach them.

I learned to perform publicly over a long period of time from childhood to working life. I think I'm still learning but let me focus first on the implicit ways I became a person who welcomes and seeks out experiences like the one pictured above. For whatever reason I ended up in (what feels like) every school play. before long I was resigned to stand up, get on the stage and present my part. Once, as a teenager I rebelled. My school was doing a musical with the Finnish National Opera, and my music teacher asked me to come read for a part in the tryouts. In fact, she dragged me and my two friends into the auditorium from a math class. We had not prepared. More to the point, I had actively not prepared and consequently ended up reading a text brought by a friend, who'd caved in under the pedagogical pressure.

Guess who got called for the second round?

Yes, indeed. So I was given the script and told to prepare for a reading the next week. I threw that script in the cafeteria rubbish bin the minute my teacher's back was turned and went on ignoring the issue. This led to her dragging me from biology (or geography, can't really remember) class, "pushing" me on the stage. There I stand befuddled, look the professionals in the eye and say:
- Can I have a script to read? I've lost mine.

Guess who got the part?

Why is this important? In hindsight, I still don't know why I got picked. I don't know, what it was that these educators saw in me that made them believe, I should be put on stage time and time again. It must be said that evidently they were right, because after my acts of juvenile rebellion, I doubled down, did the work and played my part. I will be forever grateful for having played young John Cage at the Opera back then. But that's not the issue. By the age twenty I had learned to quell the butterflies and put on the role, whatever it was. A new job? Ok, follow the others and learn the process. Conference secretary? No problem, go out there and raise your voice: "ladies and gentlemen, can I have your attention..."

I've since become interested in public performances and roles, we all use / are / embody. Gabrielle Hecht's technocratic pose was obvious to me as a way of understanding technical professionals in public office. Miia-Leena Tiili has ingeniously described a similar performance by coast guards in her work. The more I learn, the easier these performances come. I now routinely plan ahead in minute detail, on which particular Aaro Sahari performs and what. Different hats for different events.

And what is the point of all this then? Understanding your audience and helping them to engage with your performance helps you engage with them. This becomes far more important, when doing interviews, planning events with associates, or trying to line your interests with those of other actors – all things that are necessary in academia. The lone heroic historian can make important discoveries and have ideas, but interaction helps strengthen arguments and no one will find every book, dossier and document alone. Some 200 individuals have engaged with me in a meaningful way during my dissertation work. And it would be so very much worse without them.

Engaging others and putting on roles isn't easy. Knowing yourself well enough to stay true to your values is even harder. Engagements are always negotiations and they do take their toll. Still, the research I decided to do would not be possible without social interaction beyond the obvious and mandated. Presenting my ideas about icebreaking in Finland at a conference and yesterday have helped me gauge the significance of ideas and led to the emergence of new ideas. More on that hopefully in the years to come though.

I don't yet know how I could synthesise or deconstruct my learning experience. This might not be teachable, but I'll try to find out whether it is. Meanwhile, I will savour every constructive comment relating to the issue.

More importantly I do not have answers for those less privileged and hard-headedly malleable than me,  and herein lies the problem. Social skills need to be taught, especially to humanists. Without them, what are we?

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Sidesteps, detours and new ideas

Doing a dissertation can be a singular project. Doing a monograph is still quite the norm in history although the proportion of article dissertations is increasing. In the end, I think this boils down to the nature of one's argument. If it can be split into meaningful, independent arguments of limited length, then doing articles definitely has merits. If a more substantial argument has to be made, then a monograph of 250 to 350 pages will probably serve to make the point better. When I set out to make me choice, I interviewed some twenty researchers (not all of them historians though) and followed that with a light SWOT analysis.

The results were inconclusive. Half of my interviewees saw the article dissertation as a better route into academia in these lean and mean times. They tended to stress the future of profession and internationalisation of humanities. The other half though, argued in favour of a fully formed argument and saw merit in learning to write really long-form – as in a book. And so, I was nowhere.

Luckily there was a third way, or as it may be a third rail: do both!

Here's my logic. I set out to do something for and to the Finnish maritime historical community. My thesis is grounded in issues stemming from real and perceived issues in our understanding of some facets of Finnish maritime history. If I want to have an impact, my thesis should be available and accessible. I don't argue that an article dissertation cannot be either of these, but so far the monograph still seems to have the edge. Still, doing articles is a very educational and informative endeavour. It allows one to potentially engage a different audience, international academia. I have found out that it also forces one to develop somewhat different skills. The downsides are time and effort. You can only do so much.

Being the ambitious idiot I am, I decided to try. I had some article writing experience already, having turned my master's into a decent article in a Finnish yearbook. I do not have international publications to my name yet, although that is in the works. And thus today's salient point emerges. Some fourteen months ago a colleague decided to write about the long history of icebreakers in Finland. Why did they become important and how? She had the idea and the theory, but lacked much of the mind numbing archival work for a hundred-year scope. Luckily for her, I do mind numbing well.

We set out. Learned a lot about ourselves, one another and the process of collaboration. Not the institutionalised or rigid kind one encounters in article factories, but a free-wheeling journey of academic discovery with lots of detours, coffee and late night emails. Both of us worked with sources, wrote and edited all the time. We got feedback and we got help from our supervisors and many others until finally, last summer we let our words free into the world (a journal editor to be precise). The piece is now in peer review.

At times this effort felt like a huge sidestep. At others it was the best work I have ever done. It might be both. Without going into details now, we ploughed through a hundred years of Finnish winter seafaring, pack ice, snow and all. The work benefitted my monograph thesis in a few ways by allowing me to delve deeper into a few cases and strengthen my arguments. It also took a lot of time – double the work. By the time I set out to write concurrent bits of my dissertation, I learned that I was far better equipped to engage my materials.

Then things got interesting.

While prepping for a conference (we presented our preliminary findings) we received a call from the president of the Finnish association for maritime history. Some other actors were interested in collaborating on a series of lectures and workshops on icebreaking, he said. Would we be interested in participating?

We were. As a result, I will be giving a lecture on this issue in nine days time. My colleague got a Fulbright and can't make it. Another public speech is scheduled for February and a conference paper for March. Turns out that icebreakers are still something of a topic in Finland. Who knew?

The sidestep that became a detour turned into an idea is again starting to look like a sidestep. But what a frozen treat it is. It obviously takes time to prep for all of this. I've also had to undertake additional archival research. While this hasn't significantly stalled my thesis work, it is a rough ride at times. Understanding the value of my time has become more essential, and in this detail I find myself increasingly engaging entrepreneurs. It' really not that different being a budding academic or a self-employed specialist.

Then again, I get to do this:

Museum icebreaker Tarmo at the Suomenlinna shipyard in January 2017. The picture shows the bow of the ship from port and sea level. The distinct bow propeller and the curved intermediate bow form are easily recognisable.

I visited the oldest surviving icebreaker, Tarmo today. The Finnish Maritime Museum was fortunately granted a funds to put the old behemoth in great condition again. The north wind howled and chilled me to the bone, but walking under the hull and gazing into the marvel that is the Baltic icebreaker bow, I withstood it with uncharacteristic stoicism. After taking a bunch of pictures, I ploughed across the snowy yard to waters' edge, where a man was at work.

A second generation Valmet shipyard worker at work. The picture presents a man in a yellow safety jacket standing by a lifebuoy at the north end of the Suomenlinna shipyard. It is very cold and he is wearing a traditional fur cap.

Ever the humanist, I struck a conversation. Turns out he was the electrician, with the same nickname my dad, also an electrician, has. Also, he'd worked his whole life for Valmet and then the governing body of the UNESCO site, where the shipyard is. In fact, he told me, his father went to work at the same shipyard in 1929. Obviously, I was fascinated and interested and had some stories of my own. We chatted with vigour until the cold reminded us of our duties. I returned to the icebreaker and he to his repair work. Never in my life would I have dreamed of meeting someone with such stories, had I not embarked on my wintry historical passage through Finnish icebreaking.

Now this was nothing short of literal detour. But now, I have even more depth to my work.

I don't yet know, how this third route will end treating me. It has strained and stressed me but at the same time, it has given me great joy, new ideas and possibilities. How any of this could be turned into meaningful pedagogical tools, I don't know either. But I'll try to find out. Still, it's become evident that the way to academic competence might not be a straight and narrow path.