Pens, Pencils, Paper

JetPens purchases

One of my recent JetPens hauls

When I was young, I was fascinated with office supplies. I loved them all, which took an various auras: the authority of legal pads, executive tenor of the pen set, the sturdy single-hole punch, the package of reassuring hole reinforcements. I liked school, and I liked school supplies even more. Glue sticks, rubber erasers, and pencil sharpeners all made back-to-school season something to look forward to. (I certainly didn’t look forward to getting new clothes for the new school year, as my—or better said, my mother’s—choices inevitably made me a target for mean-spirited taunting.)

Of course, the onset of the digital age has fundamentally changed my relationship to older methods of note-taking, filing, organizing, and crafting. It’s no longer necessary to write things down on paper with a pen or pencil, and the benefits of unlimited cloud storage and searchable documents are undeniable. I need to be able to search meeting notes for keywords to learn whether a policy was changed or a task was assigned. I appreciate the computer window clearly displaying an alphabetical list of file folders whose tabs aren’t obscured by their paper contents. My online storage options hold much more information than the filing cabinets in my home and work offices do.

Still, I appreciate writing on paper—even if doing so is largely less about function than fun these days. When I was growing up, my mother taught me two things before I entered school: how to read and how to write. The latter subject was something whose style she had mastered. My mother has excellent penmanship, and she loves to write in longhand. She perfected her signature (a beautifully scribed Linda M. Beynon, later transformed to Linda M. Henderson), and I remember watching her cover our telephone book covers with words and letters as she chatted with her friends by phone. I watched her beautiful script adorn the otherwise homely checks that she produced whenever she went shopping or paid a bill, and I aspired to write the way she did. She encouraged this habit in me, and I never had trouble in school creating my letters—either in cursive or in block letters. I’d already perfected these by the time I found myself at a classroom desk with a pencil and a pulpy sheet of handwriting paper, a guide to forming cursive letters lining the walls above my head.

Pencil Case

My handy dandy pencil case: the Nomadic PE-18 in Yellow Green

Recently, I’ve decided to rediscover the pleasures of using pens, pencils, and paper, and while this may prove to be a passing fancy, I feel as though I’m tapping back into some formative joys that sustained me as a bookish, nerdy kid. A couple of months ago, I found myself unhappy with the make-shift zippered bag of pens that I keep in my backpack. It’s really just a zippered computer accessory holder that had been abandoned in one of my classrooms, and I repurposed it as a pen and pencil case capable of holding a huge and random assortment of mechanical and wooden pencils, ballpoint and gel pens, and dry erase markers. It wasn’t easy to locate any particular writing instrument in this overly large sack, but it kept them from getting lost in the various sections and pockets of my backpack. I decided I wanted a smaller pencil case—one that would organize these items more efficiently. A trusted online review site recommended this little guy, so, even though it is only available through an online store called JetPens, I ordered it, along with a Kuru Toga mechanical pencil and an eraser, just to bring my order to the $25.oo needed to qualify for free shipping.

I’m kind of embarrassed to admit how hard I fell for that little pencil case. filling it with pens and pencils and other little office supplies tapped into a profound sense of satisfaction. It holds just enough pens and pencils to give me some options, but it won’t be overstuffed. It also features just the right number of little compartments and pockets to keep these organized without being overelaborate. It’s like a little well-behaved companion that doesn’t get in your way, but gives you what you want, when you want it.

And it turns out the JetPens is a great source for pens, pencils, paper, and other supplies. What I’ve discovered and loved exploring is their extensive blog, which features announcements about new products and comprehensive guides to various product types, like Gel Pens, Color Pencils, and Memo Pads. So, I’ve thrown spending inhibition to the wind, and started collecting notebooks, pencils, pens, and cases that are filling me to the brim with little thrills. Some of my favorite things that I’ve picked up lately include a Pilot Metropolitan fountain pen, a Kaweco CLASSIC Sport fountain pen, a set of Field Notes notebooks, and Kum Automatic Long Point pencil sharpener.

Shopping for writing instruments and stationery is rewarding in and of itself, but I’m also really enjoying getting back to old school note-taking and writing. This past month, I’ve keeping a journal on a much more regular basis than I do with the online, DayOne journaling app, which, although it sports a very attractive interface and some useful features, simply hasn’t compelled me to contribute to it on a regular basis. Perhaps it’s because so much of my workday is spent at a computer typing away at a keyboard. Putting a pen in my hand and writing things out longhand gives me a much-needed break from my laptop. I’ve also found myself writing cards and even letters to friends, which feels much more intimate and caring than dashing off a text message or an email.

I don’t want to get overly nostalgic about old school technologies of writing, however. I understand that there are things a computer will do that I am not willing to give up for the romance of scribing notes in cursive with a fountain pen. And I do want to give more thought to how I will blend analog and digital technologies when I record various aspects of my life. Is the contemplative and distraction-free process of writing out a summary of my day more important than having an online, searchable diary entry replete with digital photographs, tags, and locations? I’m not yet certain, and I expect I’ll be exploring hybrid approaches to note-taking, journaling, and communicating as I get back into writing on paper.

For now, I’m rediscovering some quaint pleasures associated with using pens, pencils, and paper that I’m happy to continue seeking out.

Digital Humanities 2014: Workshops


Swiss Tech Convention Center, where DH 2014 workshops were held

Earlier this year, I began searching for conferences and workshops I could attend to help me get up to speed in the fields of digital pedagogy and digital humanities (DH). I’ve already written about the THATcamp Digital Pedagogy event I attended in June, and after considering a range of events in educational technology I might attend, I settled on Digital Humanities 2014, an international conference hosted by ADHO in Lausanne, Switzerland. I chose this one, because I alreayd knew that my friend and DH mentor Brian Croxall would be attending (I’d run into at least one friendly face at the conference), but also because—Switzerland! And also because the conference looked to be a serious and sustained series of discussion about tools, trends, and topics in digital humanities. I was eager to dive in and begin to learn what DH is all about.

I opted to attend the pre-conference workshops, as these promised to introduce me to some hands-on experiences with digital humanities tools, but by the time I figured out how to sign up for workshops through the dh2014 website, I was unable to get into the workshops that looked most interesting to me, so I signed up for what I could get into. Luckily, I chose workshops that I (mostly) found very useful.


Network of DH2014 Participants at Swiss Tech Convention Center

After a twelve-hour delayed flight to Geneva from Montreal, I made it to Lausanne by midnight before the first day of workshops began. That day, I was scheduled to participate in one called Linked Data and Literature: Encoding the Facts in Fiction run by Faith Lawrence of King’s College, London. This was an interesting workshop on using an annotation tool to tag and map the narratological features of fiction. She had prepared an interesting exercise to help us learn about a collaborative annotating tool designed to help multiple users tag various aspects of narrative (characters, relationships, events, spaces) and then represent such efforts through a network visualization feature.

She provided all of us with individual variants of the Red Riding Hood fairy tale, which we individually marked up using the ontological assignations or tags that she had devised for this project. Unfortunately, the tool we were using—BRAT—did not allow for individual users to create or modify tags and relationships, so our ability to conceptualize the stories according to this tool were pretty limited. I did, however, have fun indulging my OCD tendencies that may have proved useful to me had a chosen to become a librarian, and I think I did a bang up job of tagging my version of the story.

I can see how this tool would be fun, and even useful, but it also seems to be in its early development stages. In fact, I had a hard time believing that, in 2014, there aren’t better digital tools for doing this kind of work. During a coffee break conversation with a very bright Italian digital humanist, we wondered how possible it is to collaborate with such a tool when the users clearly need to agree upon some rather idiosyncratic folksonomies and ontologies that they would use to make meaning of any given story.

Faith clearly had a handle on her narrative theory; she clearly had a strong grasp on Vladimir Propp’s work on fairy tales, for example. However, her current interests are in fan fiction and TVTropes, which suggests that folks who love to collaboratively geek out on folksonomizing their favorite stories, TV shows, and films would be the most likely audience for such a tool. Still, I’m happy to have learned about BRAT, even though I doubt this is a tool I imagine myself using in my own work.

The second day of DH2014, featured a couple of half-day workshops, where I explored two tools I can imagine actually using in the classroom and in my work. The morning workshop was devoted to learning a web-based tool called Annotation Studio developed by MIT’s hyperstudio. This promises to be the tool I have been looking to use for collaborative reading and annotating in my fall 2014 ENGL 31: Readings in British Literature tablet course. (I still need to check out it’s functionality on a tablet.) In the workshop, I learned how to create class groups and smaller working groups, to upload .pdf files, and to create highlights and annotations. One particularly nice feature is the ability to embed hyperlinks, images, and video into the annotations. Students can see one another’s annotations, although for now, they are unable to comment on one another’s annotations, which hopefully Annotation Studio will allow in future releases of the project.

DH2014 Reception at Rolex Learning Center, Unil

DH2014 Reception at Rolex Learning Center, Unil

That afternoon, I attended a workshop on Voyant Tools, a suite of tools that reads and analyzes digital texts, including comparative analyses of large corpora of texts. The real focus of this workshop was to teach users how to run Voyant Tools on a local server (from one’s computer, rather than from the web-based tool), which I was able to do. (Three cheers for computer-savvy me!) I was also excited that I learned to successfully fiddle with the server settings and designate the default texts (or corpora of texts) that users can read and analyze upon starting up their own local server-based version of Voyant. I’d learned the basics of using this tool from Brian Croxall back when he visited Fresno State in August 2013. Nevertheless, it was good to get a refresher course from Voyant’s creators, Geoffrey Rockwell and Stéfan Sinclair.

That evening, there was a lovely conference reception at the Rolex Learning Center at the Université de Lausanne. All week, there were cloudy skies and intermittent rain in Lausanne, but the moody weather created some lovely views of the Swiss alps in the distance across Lac Léman.

Looking toward Lac Léman from Rolex Learning Center

Looking toward Lac Léman from Rolex Learning Center





picture of a robot with sharp teeth

A few days ago, I posted about my experience at THATcamp. In that entry, I mentioned another event that inspired me to get back to blogging, and that event was the massive open online social media game known as #TvsZ 4.0.

#TvsZ was originally called Twitter vs. Zombies: New Media Literacy and the Virtual Flash Mob, but apparently Twitter didn’t appreciate its brand being so closely associated with zombies, so the game’s originators—Pete Rorabaugh and Jesse Stommel—changed the project’s name to #TvsZ. The 36-hour session I participated in was its fourth iteration (4.0);  it attracted over 150 registered players, and perhaps a few dozen of those were active participants in the game.

You can read what #TvsZ is in by clicking on the link in my first paragraph above, but I’ll quickly sum up the game, as I understand it, here: players register to play through the website, and once the game begins, all players are humans (except for one patient zero zombie), and their participation in the game requires that they tweet using the hashtag #TvsZ. (This way, human players cocanld tweet without the hashtag and avoid being bait for patient zero and other zombie players.) At the outset of the game, there are only a handful of simple moves that are also signaled by using a hashtag:

  • #bite = patient zero or a zombie player bites a human player
  • #dodge = a human player dodges or deflects a zombie #bite
  • #swipe = a human player bravely enters the fray and swipes a biting zombie away from another human player, thus defanging the zombie’s #bite

Over the course of the game, new rules are added at a rate of about two new rule sets a day. I had played a practice round of #TvsZ with a small group of fellow THATcampers in Atlantic City a couple of days before #TvsZ 4.0 officially commenced. I liked the experience well enough to register to play 4.0, even though I knew that during the first two days of play, I would be spending a lot of time in airports and on airplanes as I made my way from Atlantic City, NJ to Fresno, CA. I figured I wouldn’t have much opportunity to keep up with the game, but I wanted to join in the fun, if only sporadically. I began playing on the evening of June 20, the night that the game began, even though I had only given the official basic rules a quick look over. My failure to develop a strategy resulted in my turning into a zombie—three zombie #bites in about as many minutes!—early on in the game.

I hadn’t hoped to become a zombie this soon, but I was a hapless, half-witted human with no real action plan to speak of, so there I was, converted into an undead unhuman with an uncontrollable hankering for brains. As a zombie, I was a little more successful, and my chompy teeth “persuaded” some humans to join my clan. More often than not, however, I was just spastically munching on other players, hoping I would gain some purchase on the flesh of some forlorn wretch of a human. Nevertheless, once the new rules started rolling in, it became harder to keep up with the direction the game was headed. It didn’t help that new rule announcements seemed to be announced only when I was up in the air in a plane or fast asleep on the West Coast. (The organizers and most of the players appeared to be on East Coast time.)

But even when I was a little slow (or daft) at absorbing the new rules, I found myself completely immersed in the game. For me, the most exciting element was the creation of an organic and collaborative narrative that humans and zombies both participated in creating. I enjoyed immensely developing the character of my little zombie alter ego, and I loved participating with other players in developing a narrative about humans huddled together in #safezones and zombies massing to #swarm their sites of refuge.

At one stage in the game, a handful of meditative and penitent zombies began to feel guilty about feeding on the flesh of the living, so they formed what came to be known as the nonviolent zombie coalition (#nvzc) and pledged not to attack and kill humans. This made the game more difficult for us flesh-loving zombies. In the early stages of the game, play seemed to be stacked in favor of the zombies, who fairly easily amassed a horde of undead. But later in the game, some pretty powerful rules were developed that gave humans more ability to protect themselves against zombies—or even to use an antidote to convert back to being human! So, when the #nvzc movement appeared, we zombies found ourselves at an even greater disadvantage. In particular, our ability to #swarm human hideouts was comprised, while the #weapons that humans used against us were increasingly effective. (I chronicled one particular failed attempt at swarming @allistelling‘s #safezone here.)

While I understood the #nvzc’s principled stance against the funnification and glamorization of violence in even the most innocuous of settings, some of us zombies became worried that the game was becoming less enjoyable at the expense of this peace-loving posture. One of my especially aggressive fellow zombies—@MTPcgr—reminded the #nvzc-ers that such a stance might even violate the spirit of the game; the rules read as follows: “Once you’re a ZOMBIE, your goal is turn as many humans to zombies as you can. Work together with your fellow horde members.” Our horde was fragmented now, and we weren’t able to team up on our human counterparts. 

The rules set that appeared following the creation of the #nvzc was truly inspired, and it is one of the reasons I became so enamored with the game. With the new rules, humans and zombies alike could work together to create a #poem, which, once it had been developed according to specific criteria regarding length and number of poet-participants, became the ticket for any player—zombie or human—to become a member of a new third species called the #chorus. The #chorus continued to contribute to the narrative of the game, and this allowed members of the #nvzc to set aside their ravenous appetite for flesh—to transcend the gorier aspects of the game and at the same time remain full participants. I finally did join the chorus (I assembled and posted my #poem through Storify), but I waited until nearly the last possible moment to do so. Interestingly enough, by the time the #chorus had become an option, many of the #nvzc zombies had broken their pledge not to #bite humans, and were feasting on humans with exceptional gusto. I guess zombies really do have more fun!

By the time the game had ended, I was completely hooked. Several #TvsZ players chatted at the end of the game in a Google Hangout, and we reflected on our experience, noting how much we’d learned, how much we had enjoyed this virtual community building experience, and how much fun we’d had playing the game.

For my part, #TvsZ was rewarding in multiple ways. For one intense long weekend, I joined a virtual community that was every bit as meaningful as other provisional communities I’ve been involved in through face-to-face interactions that coalesce during conferences and workshops. I don’t know how much I will continue to interact with the many new Twitter users I’ve followed (and that now follow me) as a result of #TvsZ, but I really appreciated the camaraderie, especially as I was either playing in the crowded, but lonely spaces of real-world airports or truly alone in my home (my partner, John, has been away and involved in his own community of real-life Feldenkrais practitioners in the Bay Area). The game also fed my recently revived interest in gaming, and while I’ve been more attracted to the social settings of tabletop gaming at my friendly local game store than to the virtual worlds of video game interaction, #TvsZ still satisfied my attraction to the communal nature of game play. As I’ve mentioned, some of my fellow #TvsZ gamers were much, much better at learning and using the rules to succeed at remaining a human (or, if a zombie, to score numerous kills). Still, there was no one way to play the game, and the real “winners” were those who immersed themselves in the experience and actively collaborated on the narrative. My favorite aspect of the game was the opportunity to build a storyline through dialogue, pictures, videos, collaborative poems, and storytelling. Put simply, I loved the storytelling dimensions of #TvsZ; this is what sent me back to my computer or my smartphone to monitor the plot and to contribute to it. #TvsZ also allowed the players to be creative via a multiplicity of genres. Of course, the narrative dimensions were important throughout, but by the end of the game, it was just as important to indulge in the lyrical and to become a poet. Posting pictures helped to shape how the narrative unfolded, and because the game was focused on the conventions of the zombie invasion story, the entire weekend played out like a sprawling work of drama or film. During the weekend, I was even inspired to watch a popular zombie movie I had missed at the theaters a couple of years ago, but it didn’t hold a candle to the drama that was unfolding in my Twitter feed. The creators of  #TvsZ designed the game to be a way to increase one’s social media literacy skills, and first year students at Georgia Tech were encouraged to play for precisely this reason. As an educator, I can also see how the game would serve a means to learning about genre and exploring its uses in digital media settings.

There has been talk of #TvsZ 5.0 starting up in about six months from now. I certainly hope this pans out, because I’ll be eager to play again.

How THATcamp Made Me Want to Blog Again

I have taken a long break from blogging. There are a couple of reasons for this: 1) I often set unreasonable blogging goals for myself, which I inevitably fail to meet, and 2) I’ve been trying to work out why I should blog at all—whether I have anything to say to the world by means of a blog. Last week and this past weekend provided me with occasions to become excited about developing a digital presence again, so I thought this would be a good time to dive back in. In this post I’ll talk about my wonderful experience at THATcamp Digital Pedagogy, and in my next, I’ll tell you about the fantastic social media game #TvsZ.

Last week I attend my first THATcamp (The Humanities and Technology Camp) in Atlantic City, NJ. THATcamps are opportunities for people interested in the intersections of humanities and technology (sometimes referred to as digital humanities) to get together and discuss their ideas, aspirations, and accomplishments. Whether the participants are novices or experts, programmers or teachers, librarians or graduate students, educators or scholars, THATcamps provide a nonthreatening space for sharing and exploring new ideas in 21st-century literacy, scholarship, and pedagogy. The conference I attended was designed for folks particularly interested in digital pedagogy, and since I am a member of a new faculty cohort at Fresno State participating in the university’s DISCOVERe Tablet Program, I felt that learning some new things related to digital teaching and learning would be of particular use to me and my students.

Since I am not a digital humanist, per se, (I don’t use technology in new and exciting ways when teaching, researching, and publishing in my field—not yet, anyway), I was a bit apprehensive about spending some structured time with a group of people who were bound to be more tech savvy and more immersed in the field of digital humanities than I am. My worries were quickly dispelled, however, as I spent the next two days interacting with a generous and friendly bunch of people who neither flaunt their expertise nor patronize technology newbies, like myself. In fact, in many ways I felt I had some knowledge (if not expertise) to contribute to our collaborations and discussions related to digital teaching and learning.

The first day was organized as a series of workshops—or “bootcamps“—which allowed knowledgeable folks to teach less knowledgeable folks about various tools or strategies for teaching in the 21st century. I attended bootcamps on TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) for Teaching, Using Wikipedia for Research Assignments, and Multimedia Production using Camtasia Studio. An ad hoc (a lot of things happen ad hoc at THATcamps, I’ve learned) session on using Twitter coincided with lunch. I learned a lot in these sessions, and I now plan to create Wikipedia assignments for my classes and to use Camtasia for screen-casting elements of my courses in the near future. The TEI session was a little complicated, as a certain familiarity with XML and other kinds of coding was helpful to understand just what TEI is all about, but as I hope eventually to create digital study editions of Restoration and 18th-century texts, I was eager to learn about how TEI works as a means of digitally transcribing and describing artifacts, such as manuscripts and facsimile reproductions.

That evening, I got to know my fellow campers better over drinks and dinner. I was especially happy to meet and hang out with Pete Rorabaugh of Southern Polytechnic State University in Georgia; not only did we outlast the other campers at the bar, but we had some great conversations about teaching, learning, and various aspects of digital culture. We also shared our mutual love nondigital experiences, such as hiking and backpacking.

Day Two was a the “unconference” part of THATcamp. The day’s schedule was an empty agenda that allowed for campers to propose and vote on the sessions they wanted to participate in. Adeline Koh (unconference organizer extraordinaire) and Ed Chang (technoqueer and posthumanist extraordinaire) orchestrated the morning planning session, which could easily have devolved into chaos and confusion, but with the help of Google Docs and some healthy doses of patience and diplomacy, Adeline and Ed came up with a satisfying schedule of events. This day proved to be a whirlwind of activity as we darted from one session to the next; the “law of two feet” reigns at THATcamps, which means that participants are encouraged to bounce around during sessions. I pretty much stayed put for each session, however, because they were only 45 minutes each, and I didn’t feel that I’d get much out of the sessions if I moved around during them. These sessions comprised a smorgasbord of digital humanities and pedagogy topics that I was able to sample. I attended sessions on Digital Storytelling, Academic Hypertext, Digital Badges, and the Domain of One’s Own project, which certain universities are using to give students spaces to develop a web presence during their studies. I even helped run one of the sessions that Pete had proposed on #TvsZ (once known as Twitter vs. Zombies until the Twitter overlords asked Pete to change the game’s name); my role was to create and run a Twitter chatroom/archive of our #TvsZ minigame with Nurph, a social media chat platform that I’ve been interested in exploring in my classrooms.

My final THATcamp evening was spent wandering the Atlantic City beaches and its boardwalk with my new digifriends Pete, Janine DeBaise, and Eduardo Perez. We enjoyed each other’s company and a nice dinner before wishing one another safe travels.

Picture of Pete Rorabaugh, Janine DeBaise, and Eduardo Perez on the beach in Atlantic City

Pete, Janine, and Eduardo on the beach

I had a great time at THATcamp. I appreciated the relaxed atmosphere, and I loved learning new things in such a supportive and easy-going setting. Even more importantly, I felt inspired to get my digital game on again—thus, this blog post.