Always a Learner Be

Or, another thought provoked (History 5702W)

At one point during during the seminar of authoring tools in the History 5702W seminar (see Reflections on History 5702W), the discussion turned to complexities and difficulties associated with learning all the new tools available to researchers. Examples raised in the conversation included the myriad flavours of markdown, the additional layers of pandoc, the variety of tools that allows various reference styles to be incorporated, ad infinitum.

Not only is there no longer single way to create a paper (just fire up MS Word and start typing!), out here on the frontier it is constantly changing. Which in turn means that we are forever on the upslope of the learning curve. The curve shifts and we slide back down, with more to learn further up the curve; a Sisyphian task if ever there were.

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(Image: Titian, “Sisyphus”, 1549)

But it wasn’t always this way. Thirty-five years ago, when I was an undergraduate student, some of us had our own typewriters and the skills to transfer what we’d written long-hand into a finished document to hand in for marking. Other students relied on paying professional typists (often other students who were earning a few dollars on the side) to render their handwritten efforts. My first jobs in government offices were much the same; there were the technical staff who did the writing and the administrative staff who did the typing.

But then came personal computers, and word processing and desktop publishing applications were early tools. At that point, everyone had to become better typists and to learn how to manipulate the formatting. These tools quickly started to standardize; the keyboard shortcut ctrl-b bolded the selected text whether you were working in Word or WordPerfect. Then we got GUI and WYSIWYG, and clicking a picture with a “B” made the text bold. (And you could still ctrl-b.)

But I think that in the context of analytic and authoring tools, we are on the leading edge of another shift.

Think about the release of an update to Microsoft Word; once every three years there is a new version released, with a plethora of new features (in between there are bug patches, but no new features). One can easily transfer what they know about using the old version, and fumble around a bit until you find where they hid the “bold” button, and serendiptiously discover a new feature or two.

But in the open development environment, multiple developers work on applicaitons and packages independently, and releases occur when the new bundle of features is ready. No longer a single mega release, but many smaller releases. So the user has to be prepared and ever-alert for a new release, with new features, at any time.

Learning new tools

So while keeping up with advances in your subject matter, you also need, in parallel, to make space in both your calendar and your brain for keeping up with the new tools. And by keeping up I mean

a) keeping up with the revisions to the tools that you know and use, and

b) the new tools that shift what is possible.

While in the past you could take a crash course when Microsoft releases a new version of Office and be up to date for the next three years (or longer if you skipped a generation), in the future you will have to be learning all the time.

This learning will ensure that you are flexible, responsive, and able to do things that are not currently possible.

I should note that this is not a suggestion that we have to be deep experts on the dimensions of both subject matter and tools. But being familiar enough and keeping current with the tools will be a necessity.

Learning will be a constant

In this environment (current and future) it is those who have the tools at their disposal who will have a significant competitive advantage. They will be able to effectively translate an innovative research idea into reality, and then render that information in an relevant and effective way using new authoring tools. In this way, they will advance the craft of their discipline.

Learning is a skill, a craft. And like any other craft, the more you practice the better you get. So the process of learning becomes a virtuous cycle; learning today reinforces the ability to learn tomorrow.

Some additional references:


Written on January 28, 2016