This post was one I produced for my VIDL Series “In Pursuit of Digital Pedagogy”, which you can read here.

Now that the semester is over and grades are submitted, the campus feels like a sleepy oasis. Most professors and grad students are off doing research, and trying not to think of the fall. Yet, I think summer is perhaps the best time to start thinking about course planning, and especially about how to integrate digital pedagogy into the next semester. This past semester, one standout issue I noticed was the question of workflow and digital tools. In my experience, there are few things as secretive or idiosyncratic as an academic’s workflow.

Ask an academic about an ongoing research project? You better be ready for at least an hour long discussion. Ask an academic about how they organize their workflow? At best you’ll get some brief comments on how ‘their’ system works, but mostly you’ll get blank stares.


I think part of this blindness to the nuts and bolts of knowledge production is because academics in the humanities are trained to focus on the bigger picture of their research. Yet, I think this silence about workflows is detrimental, especially for undergraduates. Why do we spend semesters talking about topic sentences and proper citations, but never discuss how to organize notes, pdfs, primary data and intelligently work on writing revisions? After grading numerous papers, I’m not advocating for the dismissal of proper writing etiquette, which I think is a necessity for many students. Instead, I think we should expand teaching to include helping students learn productive workflow habits. And of course, I think digital tools have a large role to play in creating an effective workflow.

So in this post, I want to outline some potential ways for integrating teaching workflow into your classroom. At the end, I also have a number of links for more on particular tools for digital workflows, as well as some descriptions of academic workflows.

So what is a workflow?

Wikipedia defines it as “an orchestrated and repeatable pattern of business activity enabled by the systematic organization of resources into processes that transform materials, provide services, or process information.”

While this definition is correct, I think a workflow is more defined by its characteristics. I particularly like Chad Black’s outline on what a good workflow should have:

* platform independence and future proofing
* flexible files
* robust searching
* version control, lots of access and backup

However, you define workflow, I think teaching workflow is incredibly important for helping students develop some of the more abstract skill sets such as critical thinking and clear communication. Furthermore, many students and professors (myself included) struggle to be organized and systematic researchers - an area where a conscious workflow can help.

So how to teach workflows?

1. Don’t approach teaching workflow as a one-off session. Many professors schedule one of their first class meetings for learning effective researching methods. Usually hosted at the library, these sessions teach students how to use library databases and find scholarly materials. While these sessions can be helpful, workflow is an iterative process that often involves repeating steps, as well as continually refining how you work. I think a more successful approach would be to begin a course with a broad overview of how you conceptualize a workflow and, especially, a research project. Then, over the course of the semester as different assignments come up, teach students various parts of these workflows - from how to find materials to organizing research materials to building databases to revising writing. Such an approach I think models more closely how many academics work, as well as underscoring the importance of workflow to students. I would encourage the use of mind mapping and brainstorming tools. Three of my favorites are Stormboard, LucidChart, and MyThoughts, but you can even just share a basic Google Doc.

2. Allow for diversity of workflows Most of the blog posts on workflow are written by academics who are self-proclaimed technophiles. While I agree with most of these posts, I think that allowing students to use low or no-tech methods for workflow is important. I enjoy sometimes drawing outlines for papers and I often jot down research ideas in my notebook. Yet, I also want to emphasize that consistent and comprehensive practices in your workflow is critical. You don’t want to end up with a bunch of loose leaf paper or thousands of unorganized files. So regardless of what tools you use for your workflow, encourage your students to be mindful in how they develop a workflow. If you use a combination of tech and non-tech, be sure to integrate the two whether through transcribing notes, taking photos, or printing out materials.

3. Remember Occam’s Razor With the continual releasing of new productivity tools, I find myself always wanting to try the newest tool or gadget. Yet, the best workflow is the simplest one that allows for productive and effective work. For some people, that workflow involves working on a linux machine and for others it means using index cards. Sometimes students might have suggestions, so you could potentially create a collaborative workflow that you develop over the course of the semester. The key thing to remember though is consciously thinking about your workflow, and not allowing happenstance to govern how you or your students work.

In my discipline of history, there is a general tendency to privilege low or no tech for workflows. However, while I think you can use a mixed approach to workflows, I do think that professors need to start thinking about how digital tools can exponentially improve workflows. In particular, two of my favorite tools are Devonthink for databases and organizing research, and Scrivener for writing and planning out projects.

Do you teach workflows to your students? Feel free to share suggestions on how to teach workflow and any tools you like to use.



List of blog posts on workflows