Reading / Research

Books, emotions, and paying attention

Stories about the future have long portrayed the things we know today in emotional terms. Books get used a lot of the time. Imagine a world with hardly any physical books. When a movie presents you with a world in which books are off-limits or scarce, you’re prompted to stop and think about what you take for granted.

Could you do without books?

So how important are books? Over 5 years’ ago, I wrote a piece that challenged the idea that ebooks will become a dominant force. We have seen an explosion in reading via tablets and eReaders, but books are still hanging around.

And not in a ‘bad smell’ way. Books are not unpopular, despite sales of ebooks catching up. In fact, ebook sales are slowing down. Is that because books are still a draw, or are all lengthy texts suffering?

After all, the sheer amount of information being pumped out on a daily basis is phenomenal. Reading a book from cover to cover can be a challenge for some. That challenge gets even harder as we’re primed for more snippets of information more of the time. More more more.

The emotional pull of lost books is no longer quite as disorientating. In part, because it’s a clich√©. But not only that. We’re also used to the idea of reading in other ways. Desktops, tablets, eReaders, phones, you name it. Screens are everywhere. Words are everywhere.

The book may look impressive on a shelf, but we own other things. Collections of stuff vary so much that we’re hardly limited to books.

The luxury tag has waned. So has the desire to keep every book you have ever read. Yes, there will always be some people who are drawn to owning a massive library of books. But is that feeling becoming more rare as the years go by?

Could you live without books?

Everyone Needs To Stop Doing This

Plashing Vole tweeted:

“As the Dissertation God for one of my subjects, the words ‘everyone’ and ‘everything’ are now banned due to unthinking abuse.” [Source]

Apparently, some dissertations that had been submitted for marking contained this type of saying:

  • “Everyone is on Twitter.”
  • “Everyone knows X.”

It’s best to leave these sayings behind. Here’s why:

Crowd (photo by Redfishingboat (Mick O))

“It was amazing. Everyone was there.” – No. Not everyone. (photo by redfishingboat (Mick O))

Everyone is on Twitter

No. Not everyone. You know that really. It’s just a way of saying how popular Twitter seems to be.¬†Surely everyone is using Twitter? But academia needs to be pedantic. Your coursework is not the time for casual remarks.

This isn’t the same as stating information that is generally regarded to be the case without need to explain further. More on that below.

To make a point, you need a reference. Twitter statistics are hard to come by in any up to date and accurate measure, especially in academic papers and textbooks. However, go to the source and you can make a good start.

Twitter’s own Twitter account posted on 18 December 2012 that there are more than 200 million active users per month. They give no further evidence, so it isn’t definitive (even if they say so themselves), but it is a good start if you want to talk about how many people use the service.

Similarly, if Twitter announced that everyone was using Twitter, you could reference that and find examples of people who do not use the service. That’s what research is all about…Although I’m pretty sure Twitter aren’t about to say that the entire human population on earth is now using Twitter.

Everyone knows X

Some information can be referred to and used without referencing. Usually when there is wide agreement, nothing controversial, and generally understood far beyond academic circles.

In these rare cases, I’m pretty sure the information won’t involve ‘everyone’ or ‘everything’. That’s another clue not to use those words.

If the detail is genuinely accepted and requires no further referencing, you can get rid of “everyone knows” anyway. First, because it’s not literally true (it’s unlikely to be stored in a knowledge bank in the brain at birth), and second, because they are pointless words. If everyone accepts it, why do you need to tell us? After all, you’re telling us what we already know.

But why am I telling you about this? I thought everyone knew not to do it… ;)

-

There are variations on this. When you start writing things like, “People say…” and “Many researchers note…“, remember that you need to be specific. Give examples. Refer to the researchers. Don’t call them ‘people’ or ‘researchers’ at all. Name them outright and give them pride of place.

Every time you find yourself writing along these lines, you have a way forward. Take the offending remarks and look for a way to reference the information instead. You’ll get a useful footnote in and you’ll show that you’ve looked for the detail. What first looked like a throwaway comment has suddenly become potential for a better mark. Not a bad incentive for dropping ‘everyone’ from the writing.

Why Lectures Aren’t Dead & How to Deal With Difficult Lectures

Not all lecturers are the same:

“To excel as a lecturer, it is necessary to find delight as a lecturer. In part, this means ferreting out what is most intriguing about the topic under discussion. It also means attending carefully to learners and seeking and sharing their enthusiasm. A great lecture is not a rote mechanical reading of notes, but a kind of dance, in which lecturer and listeners watch, respond to, and draw energy and inspiration from each other. One of the greatest pleasures of lecturing occurs when learners pose insightful questions that the lecturer did not — perhaps even could not — foresee.” – Richard Gunderman, Is the Lecture Dead?

What makes a lecture work for you? Is it like a dance? What special quality makes your favourite lecturer top of your list?

I saw one person lecture a few times and it was clear how excited they were about the subject. Unfortunately, the excitement was inward and the speaking was almost monotone. The content didn’t matter, the lecturer simply wasn’t giving the audience a way in. The most interested of lecturers aren’t always the most interesting.

Photo by dalbera

Photo by dalbera

A lecturer must find what enthuses the audience and provide an angle they can follow. With a compelling story told well, you have a good start.

Lectures aren’t dead. They’re not dying. But we are growing used to them. They are everywhere, in so many guises. Lectures are offline, online, long, short, bite-sized, basic, advanced, MOOC-based, general, specific… Lectures are talks to an audience. That covers a lot of ground.

New methods of learning and discovering won’t kill off what’s gone before. I’m tired of such a binary, either/or debate. Communication matters, no matter what the angle. Get it right and the communication moves on. The learning continues.

Get stuck and people switch off. There’s no magic answer here.

The lecture is not at fault itself, especially since the term ‘lecture’ is vague. It might be the wrong setting in some cases and there may be better ways to express some concepts. But none of this suggests the end of lectures altogether. That wouldn’t make sense. The point is to have a range of learning resources.

Think of a textbook. When you find the core reading tough to grasp, you can look elsewhere. A similar textbook that’s not on your reading list may have similar information, but be several times easier for you to understand.

I’ve faced that loads of times. A poor book (for me) was replaced by a better book. Imagine if, instead, I got annoyed at books and vowed never to read one again. That would be meaningless.

Once I got a grip of major concepts through a book that spoke to me, I’d return to the core text with more confidence. Sometimes, on the luckiest occasions, I was able to ignore the main text completely.

What has all this got to do with lectures? Well, a good lecture is a good lecture. It’s the bad ones you need to deal with.

When a lecture hasn’t worked out for you, try these things:

  • Go over the slides and see if you can recover from those alone;
  • Look for similar lectures online. Open Culture is a good starting place with Free Online Courses and Free Online Certificate MOOCs listed;
  • Use your core textbooks to read up on terms you didn’t grasp at first;
  • When you’re REALLY stuck by one or two concepts, look them up on Simple Wikipedia;
  • Speak with your classmates, the lecturer, and online forums. Basically, get a conversation going. It’ll help you see things from other people’s perspectives and it should help your confidence when talking about difficult content.

How do you deal with difficult lectures?

Of course, it’s much better when the lecture and lecturer gel with you. My favourite lecturer at uni did the dance described in the quotation at the top of this post. The energy was there, the content was clear, and much of the audience felt involved. I learned a lot about good presentation at the same time.

Not bad for a simple lecture.

Online Search: Be the 2%

In the book Positive Linking, Paul Ormerod says that the top 3 items on a Google search account for 98% of clicks. The top 1 item, the top result that comes back, accounts for 60% of clicks.

If almost every click occurs in the first three results, Google could go as far as leaving just 4 results on a page and almost nobody would notice. There may even be a slight upward trend in users clicking that fourth link, “just in case”.

Four results to a page may even become a reality. SERoundTable reported that Google are testing that four result option, among other combinations.

One reason why so many clicks are on the first result is because many people search for a site through Google when they know the web address anyway. For instance, a Google search for Facebook is done a lot of the time instead of actually typing facebook.com in a web browser.

When logged in to Google, you have the option to ask for more results per page. Check the preferences page to alter what comes through. I currently have Google set to give me 50 results to a page. If Google took that option away and only allowed four results to a page, I’d be hugely frustrated.

What if Google made every first search a 4-result page and made each subsequent page a 50-result page (or whatever you preferred)? I’d probably still be frustrated, because many of my searches rely on more than the first few results. I’d probably learn to live with it though.

Phil Bradley wonders if Google are looking to get more advertising coverage with fewer results to a page. Whether or not this is the case, this will impact power users than average users.

Keep on searching (photo by gerlos)

Keep on searching (photo by gerlos)

As a student, you should be a power user as often as possible. Go beyond the first few results. Be the 2%.

Try out different searches if the first one doesn’t help. I’ve been known to make subtle changes to a search, yet get wildly different results.

Learn some of the tricks to help you get a serious search on.

And, importantly, don’t rely on Google alone. Other search engines exist. And specialist searches help you find photos, social media, Creative Commons content, people, TV broadcasts, education resources, books, among other things.

Keep on searching. Don’t be too quick to give up. You never know what’s just around the corner.