9.28.2009

best thing i've learned so far

Without a doubt, the coolest thing I've learned at school so far is RefWorks.

RefWorks is an application you can use to create citations and bibliographies, and it's available (free) to all University of Toronto students. It's quite amazing. The RefWorks website describes the software this way:
RefWorks -- an online research management, writing and collaboration tool -- is designed to help researchers easily gather, manage, store and share all types of information, as well as generate citations and bibliographies.

If you need to manage information for any reason -- whether it be for writing, research or collaboration -- RefWorks is the perfect tool.

Wmtc readers who are university professors or more recent graduates probably know all about this, but to me it's an incredible revelation.

To understand why I am so enthusiastic, journey back with me to Ye Olden Days, when we typed a little numeral 1 - manually moving the roller on our typewriters to make it superscript.

Then, if we were lucky, we collected all those notes and - painstakingly following the preferred citation method - typed them all up on an endnote page.

If we were less lucky, our teachers were sticklers for footnotes, meaning notes at the foot of the page. In those cases we had to calculate how much space the footnote would use at the bottom of each page, stop typing the body of the text, type the footnote, and continue the body text on the next page. And if the footnote itself had to continue to the next page? Oy.

My mother did her Master's thesis this way; I remember because I helped her. That was what prompted the purchase of our family's first electric typewriter, which I later took with me to university. And this was the way I wrote papers all through my university years.

Some years later, when I started using a computer, and discovered the footnote function (first on WordPerfect, later on Word), I could fully appreciate how wonderful that was.

But RefWorks! RefWorks is an entirely different dimension of wonderful. For those who are as innocent of citation management software as I was last week, here's how it works.

First I created an account through U of T. If you're working through any online database, most include a RefWorks button. One click, and the cite goes into your account. You can create folders, organized by course, or paper, or subject, and put cites in more than one folder for easy cross-referencing.

No more index cards, no more endless lists of sources, no more panic and frustration when you're going into your final draft and you have no idea where a quote came from. One click.

If you're working from printed material and don't want to find the online source or there is none, you can input the basic information yourself into a RefWorks form.

You choose which citation style you want. RefWorks has hundreds of styles, and you can use different styles for different papers.

And there's a plug-in for your word-processing software, so your web-based RefWorks account and your paper can talk to each other. As you're working, you click "cite" on the plug-in, and RefWorks inserts a cite placeholder in your text.

When you're ready, it generates a bibliography or endnote page, using whatever style you choose.

This is an unbelievable time-saver and headache-saver.

I wasn't able to attend any of the iSchool workshops on how to use RefWorks, so I used an online tutorial. It was beautifully clear and straightforward, and divided into well-labeled sections, so I could focus on what I needed.

I know this officially makes me an Olde Phart, but wow. So far, this is without a doubt the best thing I've learned at school.

8 comments:

M@ said...

I went to school in the time when everything was converting to electronic word processing -- but there was no standard software, and what there was (Word and WordPerfect mostly) nobody knew how to use that well anyhow. And I had a laptop with a proprietary word processor built in -- no footnote tools there, I'm afraid.

I developed my own tool, in the end; I put in QQQ for anywhere I had to go back (e.g. I had to dig out a quote, or find the spelling of a name, or whatever), and refQQQ where I had to add a footnote or whatnot. Once everything else was done, I would search the refQQQ and consult my Big List of Sources for the appropriate reference. (I wasn't so advanced as to use index cards.)

I still use the QQQ approach today, and I know that a lot of people I've worked with have picked it up. But it's really a relic of an era when footnotes and endnotes were finicky at best.

RefWorks does sound awesome -- but it's a hundred bucks for the private user (1-year license)! It's a price that would make it worth paying if I were working on a non-fiction book or even a couple of academic-level articles, but not just to have it as a resource. (My limit is about $30 for that.) I might try out the trial period, though.

L-girl said...

QQQ sounds like a good system. I use xxxyz for certain things when I'm writing - a similar idea.

I agree $100/yr is too much for a bookshelf resource, although if I were writing a nonfiction book, it would be a bargain.

I love that it's free for U of T students. They put such a HUGE emphasis on citations and plagiarism, that they really have to make resources like this available. But still, it's nice.

johngoldfine said...

I steer my students to one of the free online programs--easybib. Good enough for the level of research and writing they do.

I have colleagues who went through the old regime who still demand note cards and will not let students use computer programs for footnotes and source lists (though I'm not quite sure how they patrol that--do they demand a certain number of mistakes to assure authenticity?)

Anyway, that is all beyond dumb, beyond professional malpractice and misfeasance--it's fucking self-defeating sadism, a not-unheard-of element in academia, but still, notecards????

impudent strumpet said...

@John: What exactly is their intention in doing that? What are they under the impression that it achieves? Because I can't even imagine.

johngoldfine said...

i-s: they are kinda dumb, kinda bitter. If they had to type footnotes on a Smith Corona, the young punks should have to too, right?

They rationalize that they are building character--as if that was in their job description and as if teaching writing didn't really take all that much time.

If you push them, they will fall back on the same sort of arguments irrational people always go for: the argument from the irrational.

They are teaching intangibles! They are teaching a technology that has a long proud tradition and should not be tossed overboard so quickly! (I'm sympathetic to this argument when it comes to things like jettisoning card catalos or reducing stuff to microfiche and film and DVD, but completely unsympathetic when it reduces to tormenting students for no educational payoff.)

L-girl said...

I'm unsympathetic to all of it. Really, how dare they force students to do something through a painstaking, outdated method when better technology exists.

Character! Bah.

It's enlightening about certain professorial attitudes, though.

johngoldfine said...

How dare we? We call it tenure!

It's a mighty small dunghill but we are the cocks walking on it and we crow and shit about just as we like--and don't you forget it, student!

L-girl said...

Exactly.