Going ultra-wide for productivity purposes

A 34" Ultrawide monitor connected to a laptop

Someone on Twitter DM’d me about my home set-up and use of an Ultra-wide monitor. Read on if you are the sort of academic/knowledge worker who concerns themselves with workflow.

What is an Ultra-wide?

So an Ultra-wide is a class of monitor that is 21×9 or other ratios that stretches the horizontal bias rather than the standard 16×9 ratio. The monitor I have is a 34″ Philip 346B. You can see below how this compares to a standard 25″ monitor (1).

This is a simple of two rectangles to show how an ultra wide is much longer than a traditional monitor.
1: The difference between in size between the 34″ Ultra-wide I’m using (Purple) and a normal 25″ (green) monitor.

Ultra-wide monitors are more expensive than other types of monitor but are coming down in price and worth considering if you are upgrading. My advice is go 29″ or if the budget allows it 34″ as at 25″ you end up with as much vertical space as a 19″ monitor.

If you are a Laptop user with USB-C, get a monitor that has a USB-C hub to both charge and allow you to plug everything else (keyboard, mouse, headphones) into the monitor and attach the laptop via one cable. Something else to be aware of is that most allow you to plug in multiple devices and switch between them with a couple of taps or PiP (Picture in picture) where you can have two devices on one screen (2).

An ultra-wide monitor on a desk connected to a laptop.
2: A laptop plugged into an Ultra-wide – this is connected via a single USB-C cable and the monitor has 4 USB ports on the back.

Using an ultra-wide for productivity

The major benefit for knowledge workers is that when reviewing and editing documents you can see more of the document at any given point. In word at normal size, you can see multiple pages at once – a minimum of 4 pages at normal zoom and more if you decrease the zoom (3).

An image of Microsoft word on an ultrawide monitor. It demonstrates you can see four pages on one screen.
3: Four pages at once in Word.

Similar benefits are found in Microsoft Excel and at normal zoom, I can see from A to BA (52 columns) in one go (4). This makes dealing with financial planning documents easier (but no less painless).

An image of Microsoft excel to demonstrate you can see 52 columns in one go.
4: Excel – Rows A to BA

The other advantage of using an Ultra-wide is that you get the real estate of dual monitors but without a gap. I’m a windows user and just using the built-in Windows snap, you end up with two very large usable windows (5).

This images shows how you can have two applications at one open in large format on an ultrawide screen.
5: Standard two application version

Microsoft does provide something called Fancyzones that allows you to reconfigurable more complex ‘zones’ to divide up the screen. Here I’m using 3 columns to allow me to using multiple programmes at once (say a reference manager, word and a library search – 6).

This image shows that you can be more complex and have three programmes open at once side by side on an ultrawide monitor
6: Here I have WordPress, PowerPoint and Excel all open at usable sizes.

Issues with Ultra-wide monitors

Ultra-wide monitors have a number of quirks that it is worth understanding. The first is that the web is not designed for them. If you have one browser tab open, websites have massive amounts of white space (even more if you are a pihole user like myself).

In the image below, you can see that the Guardian for example does not take advantage of what an ultra-wide can offer. I tend to mitigate this by having multiple windows open and always using it as if it is two screens (7).

This shows if you go to the Guardian - because it's not formatted for an ultrawide, it's main white and grey space.
7: I like a wide open space…

Another thing to watch out for – if you are a google docs user, it absolutely sucks on an ultra-wide because in 2020 it still lacks a multi-page view (8).

This shows that google documents is not set up for multi-pages and shows google docs open with a single page showing and lots and lots of white space.
8: Google docs and its “one page is plenty” world-view.

Overall

Having used two monitors for a number of years and now switched to an ultra-wide, I would not go back – I find the ultra-wide experience superior in every way.

Managing the Digital Divide as a manager

A couple of weeks ago I put up a short post that poked fun at well.. people like me.

UK Higher Education is spending a lot of time thinking about the ‘digital divide’ and the impact on progressing and new students. Most UK universities are settling around blended delivery and are carefully planning for that mode of delivery.

In my home set-up, I have two large desks (see below) both with desktop PCs so myself and my wife Andrea can both work. The *slowest* machine in the house is a laptop with a brand new 10th Generation i7 processor and 16GB of ram. Each machine is equipped with a HD webcam and professional headset. The smallest screen in the office is 25″ and I use a 34″ ultra-wide. Oh and my broadband connection is gigabit (well 910mps)…

Me at desk 1 – there is another identical desk to the right of this set-up.

I do not mention this to brag but to acknowledge that I exist in a bubble. As a manager, rather than an educator, I need to think very carefully about how this influences both my own practice but also any policy discussions I am party to. Higher Education managers tend to be older, wealthier, more settled and therefore be able to mitigate issues at home.

The physical campus environment, regardless of my own home set-up, was shared by other staff. Therefore the limitations and opportunities were shared, regardless of our individual ability we felt the same frustrations. If I taught in a lecture space with a dodgy projector, it was a problem for all of us. This provided a level of collective understanding when the photocopy was yet again jammed.

We are in a period where gaps have opened up between staff because of the individualised nature of producing content from home (I am discussing the technical and avoiding problems such as the gendered research gap that is opening up or the nature of caring responsibilities). The challenge for managers is to think about the tension between creating a high quality experience for students and the technical limitations faced by staff.

It would be easy to think this could be solved by providing kit. However kit is no good without training and also a systematic pedagogical framework to operate within. Therefore as a minimum (remember I’m only looking at the technical) you need:

  1. Kit (a machine capable of what you need to do)
  2. Infrastructure (a connection fast enough to benefit from 1)
  3. Training (an idea of what to do with 1 and 2)
  4. Time (Space to work out what to do in the context of 1, 2 and 3).

Universities have control over 1, 3 and 4 but for many academics, 2 is likely to be a bottleneck and a difficult one to solve. Some Universities are looking to solve this by providing 4G hotspots to staff or other means. However it will be a problem come September for staff who never settled in geographical locations based on an assumption that they could deliver online….

The other part of the digital divide we need to consider is in recruitment. All employment interviews are being conducted online and we have to take care not to confuse the production quality with the professional quality. In *theory*, we should treat all candidates the same but how do we mitigate for the fact that one candidate is streaming in HD with high quality audio while another keeps cutting out and sounds like a dalek due to the low quality of their equipment and their broadband connection.

It should not influence our decisions but I think it will and we need to think systematically how we avoid this as a sector. Answers on how we deal with this gratefully received…

The Academic Digital Divide – A conversation

This is for my friend Elke who reminded me with a tweet that we have to be mindful that many academics are working in difficult situations – I’m not saying that’s actually me in the conversation below but it could be…

Recording content at home for online delivery? That’s easy – let me talk you through the process mate.

So what I tend to do is that I use my DSLR on a tripod to record the visual with a blue yeti to separately capture the audio.

What’s that you only have a low-res webcam? Oh well make the best of that I guess but it’s going to be pretty grainy and the sound quality might be a bit hit and miss.

Anyway once I’ve captured the material in the corner of my home office that is now a recording space with a dedicated laptop, I switch over to the desktop on because it’s got plenty of RAM (32gb) and the graphics card means that it renders pretty quickly.

You’ve only got a old laptop and a kitchen table? Kids get getting in shot you say? Tricky but I don’t have any, so no idea about that – can they not watch Disney plus or something?

So I take the material and I use Abode Audition to clean up the audio and then in my workflow, I use Adobe Premier to construct and edit – I’ve got my own title sequence and idents.

You don’t have any technical skill because you were never required to have any? Oh.

Anyway – once it’s all rendered – 1080p is the format to output it with because you want the highest resolution possible and then use your online streaming platform to adaptively change the resolution according to what the viewer is seeing? The files sizes are pretty big – some get as big as 4gb, I’m so glad I have unlimited Ultrafast broadband of about 500mbps down and 200mpbs up.

You are still on ADSL? It’s limited to 5mbps? That’s painful.

Anyway – need to crack-on as I’m working on my new title sequence and want to make sure the jingle is right.

End of Days mode (Transition to new job)

person pulling travel luggage
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

So as I write this, I’ve got just under 4 weeks before I leave my current role at Edge Hill University Business School and take up a new role as an Associate Dean at Salford Business School.

It occurs to me that there is very little advice about the *practical* aspects of this – this is my non-definitive list of things that I need to do and might be helpful to other people and I’m going to update it as I go along – Red are suggestions from social media:

  • Export and back-up work emails (we use 0365 so relatively straight forward) – because the account will die on my final day and there are projects and contacts that are on-going
  • Export and back-up any files that I have in my work onedrive that are specific to me (eg teaching material etc).
  • Identify which contacts I have who I need to email my new email address when I get it
  • Work out what is a) being transported home, b) being skipped, c) being sent to new office
  • Raid the stationary cupboard

They walk amongst us: The invisible academic

“Silverfish: “He disappeared a few years ago.”
”Disappeared? How? said Cuddy.
”We think,” said Silverfish, leaning closer, “that he found a way of making himself invisible.”
”Really?”
”Because,” said Silverfish, nodding conspiratorially, “no-one has seen him.”

— Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms

Although I don’t write in the area, I’ve been interested from the start of my career in academic labour and although I’m a so-so academic, I’m an excellent observer and the more literature I read about academic labour, the more I think there is a hidden class of academic, I’m not sure what to call this hidden class, I’m also not sure if they are simply a product of my imagination but the more I observe the more I am convinced they exist and walk amongst us. 

My issue with a lot of the academic labour material is that it depends to concentrate heavily on traditional academics and a rather narrow cast of stock characters – the exploited adjunct, the selfish research superstar and the burnout who wanted to change the world but couldn’t. Increasingly (and positively) there is more intersection with gender, race, sexuality but still broadly tied to our stock characters.  Now given that the exploitation of adjuncts underpins and props up the University system, it seems right to me there is a heavy concentration on that group (similarly for attempt to move us away from thinking of the academic in relation to white straight middle aged men).  However it equally occurs to me that a lot of debate is about how to get the selfish research superstar to help the exploited but this conceptualisation misses out another group who I think in many respects holds more power to enable change. 

I’ll be perfectly upfront and say there is no rigorous research – this is pure deductive reasoning based on observation, interaction with others and interaction with others as a trade unionist representing members. With that caveat,  you are well to rubbish or ignore this. This seems feels right to me. 

So who is this invisible academic who I think is missing from the literature? I think they have (most of – but not always all) of the following characteristics:

  • They never are people who went ‘straight through’ – they always are people who have come back to academia after doing something else as a career;
  • They tend to cluster around ‘professional’ areas (management, health, COMPSCI);
  • They did a PhD because it was offered and someone else was paying or it was very cheap;
  • They have no intrinsic motivation in research so either do very little or do enough to be ‘respectful’;
  • They however know that it’s important to *sound* interested in research so have a good understanding of the process and wider context;
  • They have no little or no interest in who the names in their field and the concept doesn’t mean much to them;
  • They have little or no experience of being an adjunct because they were a) recruited for their professional experience and b) if there was no full-time job, they would just carry on in previous profession;
  • They don’t tend to suffer from burnout (in the sense of the gap between expectation and reality) because they had no particular expectations from academia and their unit of analysis isn’t other academics, it’s their previous career;
  • They tend to position themselves as the person or people in the department who keep everything running because they see that as way to off-set relatively weak research profile;
  • They tend to put more stock in an individual concept of professionalism that any sense of duty to a wider nebulous field;
  • They are very political at local level because they see that as the most natural way to ensure their employment continues. The Dean always knows their name even if he doesn’t know yours; 
  • The dean knows that they can be trusted to make things go away (within limits) and are discreet. 

Maybe this invisible academic is in my head… maybe. 

 

Are you ready for your first full-time lecturership post? (quiz)

Congratulations! you’ve hit the jackpot, you’ve managed to land your first academic post (or hold an offer of a post). Try my handy quiz to see if you are ready for what awaits you. 

 

  1. What is the difference in benefits between being in TPS and USS?
  2. Your first job is going wonderfully, your head of department is very happy with your progress. Sadly you get knocked over by a bus and die. What pensionable benefits do your children receive?
  3. Sticking with pensions. If you make an additional contribution to your pension via payroll, this reduces your overall tax bill – true or false?
  4. You can get a tax rebate for membership of many professional bodies and membership fees of a recognised union such as UCU – true or false?   
  5. Rank these investment types in order of risk – Cash ISA, Cash, Money Market Funds, Stocks and Shares ISA.
  6. Your starting salary is £32,000. Your wife/husband is a basic rate tax payer and earns £7,200 a year. They can transfer some of their tax allowance to you – true or false?
  7. Are you financially better off on £38,000 in London or £30,000 in Cumbria? 

What’s that? you thought this was going to be about teaching or research or complex department politics. There are many many people better placed than me to advise on that. In the same way that you need to take care of your research agenda, you also need to take responsibility now for ensuring that you are not eating dog-food on retirement or if you suffered some career-ending illness.

The answers to all of my questions is the same – I’m not a financial adviser, so speak to someone who is (oh ok I’ll give you one –  yes you can claim back membership fees for various professional bodies and trade union membership – get guidance here). 

  

Academic pro-bono hours

I’ve discussed previously how I don’t do freebies – that is to say additional unpaid academic work. However there are a few exceptions to this, I will for example do a review for a journal if its not for profit and in an exceptional circumstance will do one for the one of the mega-profitable journals if it helps a friend out. 

Without repeating myself, saying no to freebies has turned out to be a great way of reducing my workload and simplify my decision making process. However… I often find that I have to explain my position on why I don’t do freebies. 

So I’m introducing academic pro bono hours. Hours I’ll ‘donate’ outside what I’m actually paid for. 

In many US states, Lawyers as part of their professional practice are required to do pro bono (or free) work to maintain their license. 50 hours per year seems to be the common number. As I am a generous person, I have set my academic pro bono hours to 75 hours per year. 

Academic pro bono hours  might covers:

  • Doing reviews (for non-profit journal, I wouldn’t do freebies for multi-nationals)
  • Reading speculative PhD proposals that people send me personally rather than via the University (which is part of my paid workload)
  • Giving advise on grants and bids outside internal paid for work
  • Advising small business and charities outside of links via the University (my own graduates sit outside of this and I’ll talk to them as much as they like). 

By my calculation, I’ve already used up 15 hours this year doing reviews. As a rule of thumb, if someone else is getting paid, then either the University needs to get paid for my time or I need to get paid (within the limits of what I am allowed to be paid for personally). 

Free research questions about the academy

Given my research schedule is now full-up until 2018 (maybe 2019) – here are some free research questions that I’d love to know the answer to but have no time:

  • Why do sociologists always seem more stressed than management academics? Is it oversupply,  the need to churn out a monograph we don’t suffer from? Something cultural about the field?
  • If on social media, women academics, POC, LGBTQ etc need to put PhD after their name because of various ‘isms’, Does it make any perceptional difference if a white male academic does it or do people just assume you have a PhD anyway? 
  • If I gave student feedback on assessment as a two minute recording, how much more likely are they to engage with it than written feedback?
  • What if we got students to draw their module feedback? 
  • What would happen to the career choices of a full time Academic/Adjunct/Associate Tutor if they were given five hours of pensions guidance? 

On working for free (academic labour – Part 2)

I wasn’t going to return to the topic of academic labour so soon but a couple of things prompted me to do so – first was this twitter conversation about training and if people should attend for free (no, it’s immoral to ask people to attend work training for free) and then this article today in the Guardian about choice.

What’s the relationship between the two? In my first blog about this I discussed the economic reasons for not doing this but I’ll tackle it from a slightly different angle. As the guardian article makes clear:

That wasn’t how endless choice was supposed to work, argues American psychologist and professor of social theory Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice. “If we’re rational, [social scientists] tell us, added options can only make us better off as a society. This view is logically compelling, but empirically it isn’t true.”

Academics are faced with endless choices but limited resources in terms of times, energy, existing commitments. There are  internal pressures to do research, teaching, service and there are the external pressures of actually having a life. Many academics react to the first by not having the second. We know that female academics feel pressured to put off or carefully time when they have children to fit around things such as their REF submission.  

My choice was slightly different in that having come from industry and doing a PhD part-time I never got the graduate school indoctrination because I rarely mixed with other students. I therefore saw my job as something I do from 9am-5pm Monday to Friday (and actually that is what I am contracted to) and nothing happened during my PhD to change that view.

The problem therefore came up – how do I match the fact that I’m not willing to work all hours with the fact that there are endless potential decisions to make as an academic? I needed a rule or heuristic that I could use to aid me in my decisions and “you have to pay me for this” principle seemed the most straight forward heuristic to apply. Moreover it fit in with my world-view having grown up on a council estate and there being a strong principle that work is something you get paid for. 

 I quickly found that the decision making process was actually quite straight-forward. You want a freebie? that’s a no. You will pay? Good so now I can pay someone else to take care of x (generally teaching). Decisions are easier because I have limited the number of possible outcomes at the start.

Have I missed out on some opportunities? More than likely but so what? there are always more opportunities than hours in the day. 

This does however lead to some uncomfortable conversations – I don’t do peer review for journals because I cannot see why I should prop up some multi-nationals with fat margins in my own time. Now the response to that is – ‘But you expect others to review your stuff?’ If academics undervalue their own labour, how can I stop them? Why should they? Who am I to force my radical position on them (and that’s the nonsense -asking to get paid is the radical position in the academy). 

Operating profits - taken from https://alexholcombe.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/scholarly-publishers-and-their-high-profits/
Operating profits – taken from https://alexholcombe.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/scholarly-publishers-and-their-high-profits/

Oddly academics who campaign for restaurants to pay the minimum wage and make sure staff keep their tips see nothing incommensurable between that position and providing their intellectual labour for free to an equally profitable large multinational. 

Have a nice weekend.