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"Scholarly Writing and Software Use"

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on 28 October 2014

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Transcript of "Scholarly Writing and Software Use"

Scholarly Writing and Software Use
October - December 2013
Nick van Orden (University of Alberta)
Do you think that using software leads to higher quality scholarly

73 %

Do you think that using software leads to higher quality scholarly
"writing" now a metaphor
we've changed our
composition process

78% Arts
52% PhD
46% Diss.

but not the product
“All writing is technological. This is clearer now than ever and we need to train new scholars (and some old) to critically examine new technology and to reconsider old technology...” - Professor, Rhetoric and Technology
Brain storming: MS Word (2%)*
Notes: Evernote (34%)
Organize/Reference: Zotero (39%)

“My attitude towards scholarly work was always about finding a good-enough software solution and then modifying my workflow so that it and I ultimately succeed in doing something productive together.” -PhD student, English.
"...I feel that many software programs which claim to be geared towards scholars fail to take into account the variety of ways in which scholars actually work..." -PhD student, Comp. Lit.
@nvorden "Scholarly Writing and Software Use"
@nvorden "Scholarly Writing and Software Use"
"Studies show that the body has a different relationship to digital technologies than to pen and paper technologies. I wonder how this influences scholarship." -Sessional Instructor, English
Composition: MS Word (84%)
Presentation: Powerpoint (84%)
Publishing: InDesign (16%)*

Which software program has the biggest impact on your scholarly work?
Nota Bene
"Embarassingly, Microsoft Office"
"Microsoft Word, for better or for worse"
"Microsoft Word (unfortunately still nothing else)"
"for me, creative thinking and composition are best started away from the screen and keyboard regardless of software."
-PhD student, English.
"Cuts down time because I type much faster than I write, but also makes text less singular and more fungible." -PhD student, Literature
"I use tons of software at every stage of my scholarly process. It's not just changed the delivery of my scholarship but the shape of my arguments." -Professor, Rhetoric and Technology
"...it allows me to 'see' my process..."
"My work is no longer linear, nor is it narrative driven."
"More stream of consciousness, direct to outline type of thinking."
"I can get my thoughts down faster..."
"It has made me into someone who revises."
"Scholarly Writing and Software Use" is the title of a survey I conducted in Autumn of 2013. The survey consisted of seventeen questions, the majority of which were multiple choice. I asked respondents to identify the software programs that they use in their scholarly work; the survey also included some long-answer questions at the end. There were 125 respondents.
Attempting to write a traditional dissertation monograph today creates a disconnect between the process and the product.
We still think and talk as if we are using pens and paper to write books; in fact, we are using computers and software to complete projects that are then shoved into a traditional book form.
Our writing is not drawing lines on paper but a host of other activities: typing, clicking, dragging, cutting, copying and pasting, choosing words from lists when we've made a mistake.
Perhaps we need to think about our use of the word “writing.” PhD students often talk about writing a dissertation—more than half of the respondents to the survey were PhD students, and nearly half of all respondents said that they spent the majority of their time writing their dissertation.

Is "writing" a metonym with which we are comfortable?
In order to think about the relationship between scholarly composition and software use, I broke down the writing process into six stages and asked respondents to identify which programs they use at each stage. The first three stages are Brainstorming, Note-taking, and Organization/Reference.
The final three stages are Composition, Presentation, and Publishing. The asterisk on Publishing, like on Brainstorming, indicates that very few people use any software at these stages, so the low numbers are somewhat misleading.
I asked people to identify which program they thought had the biggest impact on their scholarly work. There were some interesting responses—R, Pages, LaTeX, etc.—but by far the most influential program was Microsoft Word. People weren't always happy to realize or admit this.
This strained relationship to Word is perhaps representative of a more general frustration with the programs that people use—a strained relationship evident in these responses.
I wonder how much this strained relationship is the result of a traditional stereotype which claims that pens are for poetry and software is for spreadsheets—in other words, the common assertion that using computers and software for writing generally stifles creativity. To what extent do the practices of Humanities or Arts scholars reinforce this stereotype?
To find out if we only use pens for poetry and software for spreadsheets, I asked respondents if they use pen and paper at the various stages of scholarly composition. These results seem to support the stereotype: the most open and "creative" stage, brainstorming, is almost exclusively conducted using pen and paper.
Related to the use of pen and paper, I asked people to identify the stages during which they did not use any software. These results closely relate to the results of the previous question, though the numbers here are generally lower, meaning that many people are using a combination of pens and software. Most striking, in the composition stage nearly 40% of people said they use a pen, but, at the same time, almost everyone claimed to use software during composition.
One respondent provided this excellent quote.
All writing is indeed technological; all scholarship must also be technological. If this is the case, what impact do people think the software programs they use have on their scholarly work?
I asked respondents if they think that using software leads to higher quality scholarly research. The responses to this question didn't surprise me given the general popularity of referencing software, the abundance of huge online databases, and the effectiveness of resources as simple and powerful as Google Scholar.
Next, I asked people if they think that using software leads to higher quality scholarly composition. The responses to his question did surprise me—I was not surprised that 73% of people answered yes, but I was surprised that this number was slightly higher than the 70% of people who answered yes to the previous question about higher quality research. The "pens for poetry, software for spreadsheets" stereotype would suggest that the research stage of scholarly work is better suited to software use than the more "creative" composition stage. But a slightly higher percentage of respondents indicated that software use leads to higher quality scholarly composition.
Working through the responses to the long-answer questions, I began to get the sense that people were identifying a creative component to their use of software—a creativity that is at odds with the pens for poetry/software for spreadsheets stereotype.
The first respondent provided me with this useful quote. This person is interested in asking the same kinds of questions that I'm interested in asking here: how do technologies influence our scholarship? Especially, as the results of my survey suggest, when everyone is using software, but most people's workflow contains hybrid moments that combine digital and non-digital technologies, and when software promotes creativity in ways that are traditionally or stereotypically reserved for pen and paper?
Responses to the survey suggest two broad categories of inquiry into the impact of software on scholarly writing. First are the practical considerations—how does software let me work faster? How do I make use of the enormous amount of resources available to me? How do the grammatical suggestions made by Microsoft Word change the way I write?
Related to these practical considerations are a host of theoretical or rhetorical considerations—how are our arguments influenced by the programs we use? How are our ideas changing? What are the discursive effects of software use? What are the rhetorical effects of software use? And, most important to discussions about the emerging shape of the dissertation, how do these effects on our composition process influence our product—the dissertation? Are our software-inflected projects not already beyond the proto-monograph?
Of course, software use dominates every scholarly product, not only the dissertation. These are the programs that I used to prepare this presentation—each one influenced what I can say and how I can say it.
I wouldn't have been able to say anything without the people who responded to my survey, so many thanks to all of them. Many thanks also to Daniel Powell and Melissa Dalgleish for organizing this #alt-ac cluster.
Aren't all all dissertations already beyond the proto-monograph?
I conducted this survey for two primary reasons:
1. because I was genuinely curious about what software programs my colleagues were using.
2. because the call for papers for the "Beyond the Proto-Monograph" panel at MLA2014 made me wonder whether anyone today might reasonably claim to be writing a traditional monograph (whatever that was). Isn't the work we do today fundamentally changed by the use of computers?
I began to think...
Writing Stage
Most Popular Program
Writing Stage
Most Popular Program
As we work through our various projects, then, we should consider the practical and rhetorical effects that software has on how our work fits into scholarly discussions and traditions, and how the things we think and say are influenced by the tools we use.
We might also celebrate a freedom from traditional forms. Moving beyond the proto-monograph gives us space to undertake projects that are more open, useful, and engaging, and that resonate beyond the confines of our narrow disciples—as the projects explored in this cluster do.
spreadsheet poetry
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