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This is one reason why I love my office.

This is one reason why I love my office.

There are many wonderful things about having an academic office, but the thing that I love the most about my digs is the enormous double whiteboard along one wall. This was an indispensable tool in completing my doctoral thesis: it allowed me to plot the over-arching arguments and structures ‘to scale’, and in a medium which was both fixed enough to stay on the wall for the last few weeks as a visible prompt whenever the minutiae of individual pieces of analysis threatened to spin off in their own directions or subsume the larger trajectory of the material, and flexible enough to accommodate constant reconfiguring or tweaking by the judicious application of an eraser and some different colour pens. The various chapters in the image above were re-numbered and shuffled at least three times in the course of final write-up, as I debated the proper order of materials and the connections between them.

It’s almost a shame one can’t submit a time lapse video of a whiteboard as a thesis! It would be a much truer reflection of thoughts and arguments than the necessarily linear verbal presentation of thoughts that must, by its essence, be partial and in some ways impoverished.

Time to wipe it all off and prepare for the next project… Now that really is the beauty of whiteboards.

I don’t regard myself as a particularly computer-geeky person, but in history circles I often turn out to be the one person who knows how to work the projector, and that, apparently, makes me an IT guru. I’m often astounded by the things I seem to know about computers that some people don’t, and how many people ask me for advice about this kind of thing. But then, if nobody tells you about things, it is certainly harder to know about them. If you’re reading this, perhaps you are one of the people who already knows this stuff. If not, then I hope it is of use to you! Below, I’ve compiled a non-exhaustive list of apps that I’ve found useful. Go to.

Keeping up to date

Email notifications

Literature expands quickly. Not everything that’s published will go on to become a classic of the field, but there is still value in being on top of what has come out recently. In a hangover from my science days I use Thompson Reuters’ ISI Web of Science to manage email alerts of new journal publications in fields of interest to me. This is a subscription service, but most tertiary institutions have a subscription. With an email alert, rather than having to login and repeat the same old search on a regular basis, you save your common search terms, and then set up an automatic alert so that a list of any new results of those searches will be sent to your inbox on a weekly or monthly basis. The humanities collections of the Web of Science are still developing, but it already covers most of the journals published by major publishers, and is growing all the time. The other really great thing about this database is it lets you track not only the citations within a particular article, but also anything which has cited it in turn, allowing you to follow the research footprints both forward and back. [Edit. Note, the email alert service requires you to set up a personal login in addition to your institutional access login method.]

Keeping track


(Or your preferred bibliography software) I swear by this little gem. I learned to love it when I was a working lab scientist, and I couldn’t believe how few people new about or used it when I jumped the fence to humanities. Endnote (and similar programs such as Zotero) lets you:

  • store your bibliography in an easy, standardized and searchable format
  • insert references into written work with a simple click
  • format references in word processed documents instantly
  • keep your notes on a particular item with its bibliographical details
  • attach soft copies of articles, chapters, etc.
  • create thematic folders

The hot tip of all hot tips is to start using Endnote (or similar) early in a project. Don’t wait until you have hundreds (or thousands) of items floating about needed to be entered!

Most literature searching databases, from ISI to JSTOR, and even your local library catalogue include an ‘export to Endnote’ feature which means you can even send reference details direct to your bibliography without having to type them all in by hand. This is super handy and saves you heaps of time, although I do still recommend going through after a big import session to make sure things capitalization or hyphenation style in imported records match any entry protocols you have been using. For example, I always use n-dash between ranges of numbers (e.g. 1264–65), but sometimes an import will introduce entries that have hyphens instead, I just quickly fix that before moving on. Then I always know my bibliography will be consistent in any piece of writing.

Endnote also now includes a web-based storage option so you can take your bibliography with you wherever you go.

For Zotero. A similar, free app:


This little app is wonderful for keeping track of time. You tell it when you begin and end working on a particular task; it adds up the time that you spend — per day, week, month, etc. — on a given task or task category and can show it to you in table or graph form. This is a useful thing for those who are working casually on a range of jobs, such as tutoring or as a research assistant, because it helps you account for every moment spent and make sure you are billing for the time you actually spend working. It’s also very useful for keeping an honest track of time spent on your own research project or thesis, and this can be especially important if it turns out you’re actually spending most of your day on facebook without noticing and need to give yourself a kick in the proverbial. Statistics show you will tend to underestimate the time spent on paid work, but overestimate the time spent on thesis/own research. Toggl does it for you so that you’re not relying on the fallible instruments we call our minds.

Focusing on Writing

Write or Die

Most people write more and better and more regularly with either a carrot or a stick. This is the stick. Write or die is an app for when you’ve done some reading and thinking need to write up your ideas in a rough and ready draft. It gives you a clean screen to type into and locks out other programs until you meet your set target, which might be in words or minutes spent writing. The app prompts you to keep working by alerting you if you have slowed down or stopped, according to the severity of the ‘stick’ you set yourself, for example, by turning the screen progressively more red, setting off a klaxon alarm, or even, on the most severe setting, erasing your work before your eyes. It’s amazing how motivated one can become to keep writing under this kind of pressure! Version 2, now online, has ‘consequences’ mode as well as ‘reward’ mode, if you’re more of a carrot person. There is a free online version, but the paid one might be worth the $20 cost if you are a serial procrastinator when it comes to getting words on the page.


Probably the best $10 you will ever spend. This app isn’t free but it does set you free from the temptation of ‘just quickly checking email’… or doing other pointless, time wasting tasks (or just watching videos of kittens) online when you should be writing. We all do this. And many people can’t stop doing it simply through will power. (*guilty*) Probably because thinking about research and writing about it are both actually really bloody hard to do: the brain naturally veers to one side and takes the path of least resistance unless you force it back to the stony path of intellectual work. Freedom helps by blocking your network access for a time set by you, anywhere between 15 minutes and 8 hours. There’s no countdown clock or any other distracting widgets telling you how much longer you have to ‘endure’ – just no internet access on your device for the time you have set yourself: browsers will open but not connect. The only way to turn it off and get your internet back is to reboot, which is actually quite a hassle if you have 15 windows open and lots of files to save and close…

Backing up

Sync Toy:

This is a great little free Microsoft app, especially handy if you use a portable hard drive (like I do) for travelling or commuting with your files from desk to desk, or — as in the case of a thesis — you want to make sure you always have a backup of the most recent version of your documents. Sync Toy can be set to synchronise (make sure the same files are represented in two places), or backup (save copies of everything in one location to a second location. Run it regularly (daily or at least weekly), especially during thesis writing!

Of course, these days there are a lot of cloud-based options that let you store and work on files in a virtual drive that can be accessed anywhere there is internet and sync to desktop versions automatically. I do use these for research notes and collaborative writing tasks, see below.

Wrangling your information


I’m still getting into this, but it’s pretty awesome. Evernote is a cloud-based notebook that lets you keep everything in one place: bookmarks, website content, screencaps, word documents, pdfs, and jottings. The Evernote web clipper app lets you capture online content and save it direct to your Evernote notebook, while in the notebook itself you can enter, tag, categorize and search your notes. Like all cloud-based apps, the desktop and online versions sync on a regular basis, or on command, meaning you can be sure of having a back up of your ideas, and you can access them anywhere. In my experience it’s cumbersome to use it to store lots of images, and I haven’t found a way to integrate it well with Endnote, but it can do most other things you might need in terms of helping you store research ideas, and retrieve them effectively. You can get a premium version which lets you search within linked word documents as well as within the ‘cover’ notes; but there is a free version which has basically all of the capabilities a student would need, and plenty of storage capacity. For example, I used it recently to make sure I couldn’t lose my PowerPoint or script for a major conference presentation: even if I misplaced my USB stick or my luggage got lost in transit, I could still download the files.

Evernote doesn’t replace the functionality of word processor programs like Word or Pages. For example, its no good at inserting footnotes and formatting, but it is perfectly adequate for taking research notes, meaning you can do this effectively on any online device. This potentially saves you weight in your bag whether it’s international travel, or just a trip downstairs to the library. Its tag function and the capacity to make multiple notebooks within your account mean you can use it as a research ‘filing cabinet’ where your own generated material is stored together with whatever relevant things you’ve found online.


Dropbox is another cloud-based app. I use it especially for collaborating on Word documents. To do this, both (or all) parties sign up for a free Dropbox account (again there is a premium version, but you might find the free one is sufficient to your needs as a student); then everyone downloads the Dropbox desktop app. This creates a folder on your desktop which is synced to the cloud. You can edit documents in the folder in real time and everyone’s copy will automatically update.

I’ve found Dropbox more useful for this kind of editing than Google Drive because the latter doesn’t let you edit Word documents from within the cloud. Instead, you have to download them and than re-upload the new version. In a collaborative situation, this could lead to a lot of confusion and potential stuff-ups about which version is current and communally approved. On the other hand, Google Drive is great for things like making and sharing forms or group schedules, and for communally editing documents if they were created in Drive as a Google document in the first place.

Online security


This is an amazing app. It’s a password manager: you create one long, complex, mega-password to get into lastpass, and it remembers all your other passwords for everything from your email to your internet banking. It can also generate passwords for you at random, according to parameters like the number of characters, whether to include numbers or special characters, and whether the password should be pronounceable. Since you don’t have to remember them, you can have really long, weird passwords, and different passwords for all your online activities, both of which greatly increase your online security. The only slight problem is it apparently doesn’t work on iPhones…

I’ve recently taken up a three year position as an Assistant Lecturer in Medieval History (kind of like a non-tenure-track assistant professorship for those of you in North America). It’s a wonderful, flattering, privileged position to be in, and I’m acutely aware of the many really great medievalists out there who don’t currently enjoy the luxury that is a secure position in academic employment until mid 2016. My recent visit to the UK brought home to me the value and rarity of this opportunity with such force that I’d say it took me at least four weeks until the intense sensation of ‘survivor guilt’, as one good friend put it, receded to background levels. In its wake it left me with a sense that having been given the chance I have a moral obligation to make the best use of it that I can, otherwise it’s not only a waste for me, but also adding insult to injury for those who haven’t the opportunity.

You might think this would be straight forward, but it isn’t. I certainly have lovely students, great colleagues, a nice office with a comfy chair and my name on the door (This point is much more exciting than it should be!), and a more secure income than at almost any other time in my adult life. On the other hand, as many of you already know, a full-time position in a tertiary institution comes with a lot of attendant responsibility: teaching; meetings; emails; more emails; more teaching; more meetings; induction sessions; information sessions; administration; more administration; and more emails. Most of these things are genuinely important. Many of them are individually satisfying. Some of them, in isolation, wouldn’t be too much of a problem to deal with quickly and efficiently. All of them, generally, I engage in with good will and a sense of collegial obligation. The problem is, they can easily develop into a perfect storm that gobbles up all the available hours of the day.

See the Centre for the History of the Book, University of Edinburgh

From the Centre for the History of the Book, University of Edinburgh

Where to put thinking, let alone writing, in all the resulting hurly-burly? After all, a university is a special place for teaching (and learning) because – in theory – the teachers are engaged actively in building the knowledge they are imparting. Certainly in humanities departments we’re not simply delivering information, we’re modelling the art of critical engagement with material. To do that well, I need to be practising it myself, otherwise it’s a grade A case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’. Ironically, this week I had to give a lecture on research skills to a group of undergraduates and I made a particular point of arguing that simply rushing about gathering information, downloading articles, taking notes, and ‘doing’ things, is unimportant if one doesn’t also take the time to process that information intellectually; really to reflect on it, absorb it and evaluate it. In the course of preparing and delivering this lecture, I suddenly realized just how important (and difficult) it is to make the space, and the time, in a busy academic life for this core work of academia to take place.

So this week, when I arrived at my office and for the first time in four weeks had no meetings, tutorials, information sessions, seminars or any other obligation in my calendar, I decided to take radical action. I went off-piste and turned off the computer at the wall. This simple action had a number of intended benefits, and unexpected ones. In the first place, I didn’t have email binging every few minutes, bringing with it that indiscriminate sense of something needing to be done, acted on, responded to, irrespective of its relevance to me or its importance in my life. By turning it off, rather than just closing down email, I was also protected from my own addict’s impulse to seek out the perverse validation that new email can provide of one’s existence, importance, involvement in events. The particular unexpected benefit was the relative quiet that descended in the room. It was as if the hum of the hard-drive’s fan had been subconsciously pressurizing my mind. By turning it off, I made space for thinking to occur. I read a whole chapter of a book, took notes, reflected, and drew an enormous mind-map on my white board (I have my own white board!) for the chapter I’m currently revising. It felt good. I’m going to do that again. I might even try to make it a weekly thing…

Now, how to deal with the irony of programming my online calendar to remind me that it’s a ‘no computer research day’?!

Find me elsewhere

I teach and research at the Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies in the School of Philosophical, Historial and International Studies, Monash University (Australia). Views expressed here are my own and not representative of the CMRS, SOPHIS or Monash.

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Twitter: @KB_Neal

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