A Year Well Spent?

It’s September, and I’m back to full time duties at SFU; my sabbatical year is done. Here’s a little taking stock.

I began the sabbatical unofficially in June last year, when I spent at week in Victoria for the Digital Humanities Summer Institute. A week hanging out with the Digital Humanities community provided a huge kick of energy for my year, as DHSI was an intense and really fun time. I took the course with Bill Turkel on Physical Computing; we built a 3D printer in the lab, monkeyed with Arduino, and experimented with a variety of multimedia interfaces.


More importantly though, DHSI was an opportunity to hear dozens of keen digital humanists talk about their work. The parallels—methodologically at least—with publishing studies (as least as we practice it) are many, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make better bridges with this community. At a reception at DHSI, I was introduced to a guy standing next to me who immediately asked, “So are you a Romanticist or a Modernist?” as though this was the most natural question in the world—and in that community, it may be. I stumbled over my answer—no, I was in Publishing studies—but it’s haunted me ever since. If I can figure out how to answer that question in terms that a literary scholar would get, I will have figured out how to make the bridge from our academic world to that one.

My sabbatical began officially in September, and I spent a couple of glorious sunny weeks reading in my hammock-chair. I read widely, promiscuously, last year. I started out in the fall with some fairly job-related books like Trevor Burnham’s CoffeeScript and Rowly Lorimer’s Ultra Libris, but later I read all over the place. My Goodreads feed says I read 40-some books over the year, which is way beyond than my usual rate (not having to read papers and project reports frees up a lot of time!), and I think it’s well beyond that, if I were count books I perused or consulted. I read a fair bit of kidlit/teen fiction, and a good number of graphic novels. My big discovery was Rebecca Solnit, who is absolutely wonderful. If you’re interested in what else I liked, see my Goodreads.

My semi-official project for the sabbatical was to further the book I’m working on (in fact, I finally decided it was actually going to be a book last fall), on the fascinating history of technological innovation at Toronto’s Coach House Press in the 1970s and 1980s. The Coach House—a tiny literary publisher and fine printer—was an absolutely bleeding-edge innovator; almost every significant innovation in digital publishing history was pioneered there. For some time now I’ve been collecting interviews with the people involved, and I dug into that line of research in earnest last fall. You can read more about that where I’ve been with that project in this Coach House #retrotech Update.

Part of that research project involved working out a good content management system for my growing collection of notes, references, and transcripts. Last fall I broke a bunch of new ground on this front. For years I have kept all my work in a wiki—an old platform (ZWiki) that I loved, but I eventually had to admit it was a bit of a dead-end. A couple of years back I started moving most of our work at SFU Publishing into WordPress, which is a wonderfully flexible publishing tool, but I never really fell in love it as a note-taking and writing environment. So last fall I started working in markdown—the plaintext formatting environment—and experimenting with git—the distributed revision-control system. So my notes and writings became a folder full of text files. If only I had a wiki that could tie all of it together, I thought. On the recommendation of Simon Michael, the guy behind my beloved old ZWiki environment, I learned about John MacFarlane’s Gitit, which is the nearly perfect combination of his PanDoc formatting engine (arguably the most capable of all markdown processors) with the git versioning system, all tidily wrapped up in a wiki. I love working in wikis, so really I couldn’t ask for more, and I spent a chunk of December moving all of my research material into a Gitit wiki. I have never been happier about a content system. Everything is stored in plaintext, the version tracking is solid as a church, there’s a nice wiki environment for organizing everything, and, because it’s just plaintext and git, all the content exists outside the wiki as well; nothing could be more portable.

Index cards

Working with wikis again made me think about index cards. You might not know it, but index cards are the foundation of all modern scholarly practice and information management. I read a fascinating book called Paper Machines by German media scholar Markus Krajewski, about the rise of the index card and the card index as the organizing principle of everything from library collections to personal scholarship and literary production. To my mind, we have replaced the card itself many times over with our digital media tools. But only the wiki has provided us with something like the box that houses the index cards and gives them an organizing principle. In the spring, I started working with my good friend Haig Armen from Emily Carr University on a project tracing how people actually use index cards, sticky notes, and similar systems to organize creative work. Haig is an interaction designer, so he comes from a tradition that takes cards and stickies pretty seriously. I wanted to look at how scholars and writers use these media too. Together we put together a paper for Congress 2013 in Victoria called “A Bird in the Hand: Index Cards and the Handcraft of Creative Thinking.”

Last fall was full of inspiring conferences. Open Education 2012 was here in Vancouver, and one of my favourite conferences when it comes to town. Open Ed is notable as the conference at which everyone understands that what has come to be known as the “MOOC” is not actually open education, at all, a point most eloquently made in Gardner Campbell‘s “Ecologies of Yearning” keynote address. I met scores of interesting people at Open Ed, not least of which Audrey Watters; if you’re not reading Audrey’s Hack Education blog, you are seriously missing out. Open Ed is a conference that takes its community seriously. I got to not only meet a pile of excellent people, but also got invited to play loud guitar at their loud jam session the first evening, too; that’s what kind of a conference is Open Ed.

A few weeks later I travelled to the Internet Archive in San Francisco’s for Books in Browsers III, which ranks with the best conferences I’ve ever been to. At BiB, I gave a talk on the Webby Future of Structured Markup and how publishing had entered a post-industrial phase requiring post-industrial technology. I was pleased to not only be well received, but also felt somehow in the middle of a kind zeitgiest. Books in Browsers is kind of a vanguard publishing technology conference, and to me, it felt like major shifts were underway.

Brewster Kahle at the Internet Archive anniversary
Brewster Kahle at the Internet Archive anniversary

Just after coming back from San Francisco, I was invited to be part of a panel on the future of academic publishing, hosted by UBC Press. The panel discussion was stimulating and much too short, and it inspired me to comment further in a post, Pressbooks, Monographs, and the Essence of the Book, making the point that “publishing” and the “book” are not equivalent, that we are about to witness the deconstruction of the book as we know it and the re-construction of serious discourse in a web-native mode.

After the Christmas break we went on a trip to the UK for 3 weeks (by way of NYC for the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference). In a surprising and welcome dry spell in the British winter, we toured England and Scotland, visiting six different graduate programs in publishing (there are 12 altogether over there!) and meeting my British colleagues. I wrote up the trip here: John’s (very early) Spring Tour of the UK.

Camden Lock
Camden Lock

The other major trip of the year was a good old fashioned road trip in July—the family drove and tented through the Kootenays to Banff to visit the archives at the Banff Centre, in service of my Coach House Press research, as the Banff Publishing Workshops were founded in 1981 by the late Yuri Rubinsky, a Coach House Press regular and one of the great evangelists of SGML—and XML, though the standard didn’t appear until after Yuri’s untimely passing.

On Kootenay Lake
On Kootenay Lake

On the way to Banff we made a stop in Kaslo to visit Holley Rubinsky, who was an absolutely brilliant host, entertaining my zillion questions about Yuri in the 1980s and taking us for a spin on Kootenay Lake in her boat. The Kootenays were bliss—and I was even feeling productive. I came home with a big folder full of notes and materials, and my kids came home with memories of every waterslide and hot spring in southern BC.

Those were the big items of the year. But my year off was also about re-calibrating my sense of time and hurriedness, spending lots of time with my wife (we enjoyed working side-by-side at home many days) and kids (I picked them up from school nearly every day this year), and indulging in the many little things that make for a rich life. I visited King Tut in Seattle, got to know some more of the very cool library community in Vancouver, fiddled not terribly seriously with servers and publishing tools, learned to make a killer eggplant parmagiana, hot-rodded an electric guitar, worked on my (embryonic) jazz chops, got into online debates about things I don’t know enough about, went to my sister-in-law’s gorgeous wedding in Tofino, built a pair of Muskoka chairs and a 14-foot trellis, and grew a passable vegetable garden.

Joe on the Muskoka chair