All the News That’s Fit to Read: Designing Your Reading Workflow with RSS

256px-Rss-feed.svgOur first Digital Pedagogy workshop for the spring semester, “All the News That’s Fit to Read: Designing Your Reading Workflow with RSS,” will take place Tuesday, February 2, from 4:30–5:30 pm, with a repeat on Friday, February 5, from 1:30 am–2:30 pm. The location is the Johnson Center studio (Abell 102). Note that this location differs from where we met last fall. Bring your own device (laptop preferable), or there are a limited number of laptops we can check out from the library.

As the production of texts and other forms of content has largely moved to digital and online platforms, staying informed about one’s discipline and, more broadly, about one’s topics of interest involves a digital “reading workflow.” From time to time, it might be worthwhile to step back from our immersion in the content of our reading, reflect upon the elements of the workflow itself, and ask whether there are practices that could improve our reading and make the process more effective. For example, Alan Jacobs, professor of humanities at Baylor, recently posted a description of his reading workflow. In this week’s workshop, we’ll discuss how we read online and focus in particular on organizing our reading with RSS syndication and aggregation.

Locate the sources. First, of course, each of us has to identify our “sources”:  those locations on the web that publish the kind of content we are interested in. Academic journals, online publications of various sorts, websites of professional and disciplinary groups and organizations, blogs, etc.–these are the places you go to stay informed and find new and regularly updated content–articles, essays, reviews, papers, posts, whatever. So let’s assume that you have some X number of sites that you would regularly want to consult. And that number almost certainly grows over time as you expand your awareness of resources in your field. Jacobs notes in his post that he follows “about 300 sites.”

Discover the feeds. So now you have a sense of where to look, and the question becomes, “what’s the most efficient way of looking.” What’s the latest on the website of Nature? How can I keep track of recent philosophy papers? Are there new posts at the Marginal Revolution economics blog? One way to find out is to go to the website and look. This requires you to remember what you saw the last time you visited the site, and to compare that memory (probably faulty) with what you see now. Not very effective, and quite time consuming.

Instead, you want to follow the website, and have it inform you whenever it publishes new content. That way, instead of you having to go there to find what’s new, it comes to you. Typically, there are multiple ways to follow a website. Most sites today have accounts with one or more social media platforms, so you can follow the site’s Twitter account, Facebook page, or whatever to be notified of new content. (Take note that the social media “follow” icons on a site are different from the social media “share” icons). That, of course, requires you to use a particular social network and to be attentive enough to it so that you catch the notifications, which will usually give permalinks directly to the new content. Another option that may be offered, though it’s less frequent these days, is to follow the site via email; when there’s new content, you’ll get an email notification. But really, who wants even more stuff in their inbox?

The best and most effective way to follow a site is to subscribe it…more specifically, to the RSS feed of new content that the website produces. Websites that regularly produce new content almost always employ a web standard called RSS, which stands, variously, for “Rich Site Summary” or  “Really Simple Syndication.” The site may or may not have the orange RSS icon displayed, but even if it doesn’t, it probably cranks out a feed. First developed in the late ’90s, RSS allows websites to syndicate their content, that is, to push it out to people and places that are watching and listening for it. A site, such as a blog, may offer a single RSS feed, or, if it is larger and more complex, produce multiple feeds, segmented by category and topic; the New York Times, for example, has dozens of different RSS feeds that one can follow, while Nature has over a hundred.

Use a feedreader to subscribe to and aggregate your feeds. In order to access RSS feeds, you need to use a piece of software called an aggregator or feed reader. This software allows you to subscribe to a feed, organize your feeds into folders, set up display options for how to view your content, mark favorite items, and otherwise manage the subscription and reading process. “Aggregation” is the complement of “syndication”; these concepts and practices lie at the heart of how the open web works. We also refer to this as a “pub/sub” model of information transfer, short for “publication” and “subscription.”

There are several choices for setting up an RSS feed reader, but my recommendation at this point is to use one called Feedly. It is a free service that you can access through your browser or with a mobile app. You can organize all of your feeds in an attractive format that allows you to quickly scan new content in your chosen feeds and to read items in the Feedly interface or back at the source website.


You can easily add new feeds to Feedly by entering the URL of the site you wish to follow, or you can also search by site title and by topic. If the site produces one or more RSS feeds, Feedly will find them. You then organize the feeds into folders, which will display all of your content. For example, in my Janterm course How the Web Works, I subscribed to all 30 of my students’s blogs in Feedly in order to track and read new posts; here’s a screenshot showing a bit of the interface by which I managed these feeds:

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 9.04.55 PM

In the workshop, we’ll walk through the process of getting started with Feedly and demonstrate some of its features. It’s a quick setup, and you can be up and running very quickly. The mobile app is also free and provides an attractive interface for reading on a tablet or phone.

An option: sending articles to a “distraction-free” interface. One element of some reading workflows, such as that described by Jacobs, is to use services such as Readability, Instapaper, or Pocket to save items to read later in a minimalist interface or even to send them to a Kindle or other e-reader. I won’t be focusing on this step, but just wanted to include it for the sake of reference.

Archive your content with social bookmarking, and annotate with Again, included here for the purpose of completing the entire cycle of the reading workflow. In workshops last fall, we discussed social bookmarking with Diigo, and web annotation with If you want to be able to refer back to an item later, save the URL to your collection of bookmarks in Diigo (and see what some of your colleagues are reading). And, for persistent markup and annotation of your texts, try

So, dear reader, if you have made it this far, congratulations. And join us this week for further conversation about your reading workflow.

Further Resources

Digital Reading in the Liberal Arts–Deep or Distracted?

chrome-extension-reading-thumbWe hope to do several followups to our previous post on Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, diving into the details of individual essays and exploring the implications for digital pedagogy at Austin College. Web writing is, of course, intimately related to web reading, that is, reading on digital screens in a networked environment. As the texts we read increasingly migrate to and originate in digital formats, concerns have been raised about the effects on our reading habits and comprehension. Can the liberal arts ideal of “close” or “deep” reading of complex long-form texts be maintained? There is extensive literature and debate on the topic, but here I’ll just draw attention to a couple of recent points of reflection.

First is this article, “Distracted Reading in the Digital Age,” which reports on conversations at Vassar College around the topic of reading practices and digital texts. Faculty forums and discussions have led to observations about shifting student reading practices and in particular the struggles of students to read intricate texts that require sustained focus and attentiveness. Some professors suspect that “hyper-digital culture” and the lure of frequent interruptions and multitasking is making it more difficult for students to concentrate and read effectively. For example, in one forum colleagues in history and English comment that

Since both of us teach rich, dense historical materials that require long stretches of concentration, we began to wonder whether the students’ unresponsiveness to assigned reading was just coincidence—classes have personalities—or whether we were witnessing some larger shift in the reading habits of our undergraduates, perhaps one brought on by their digital habits.

Faculty have been led to reflect more intentionally on the implications for teaching and learning: if student reading habits and competencies are shifting, how must pedagogies be adapted and realigned? What new strategies are needed to encourage active and effective reading of challenging texts? The article describes several responses to the situation, and suggests that there are ways of using the very technologies seen as “distracting” to actually increase student engagement with texts. One strategy for doing so is “digital annotation,” a theme that we have visited before on this blog. Classics professor Bert Lott describes using the digital annotation platform Annotation Studio in his classes:

“I require students to examine the text before and after class,” says Lott. “They write annotations about grammar, syntax, and lexicography and compose interpretive comments. Strands of conversation emerge between students as they do it.” Lott says there are many benefits of this approach, in addition to encouraging students to more deeply examine the text. “Having students write down their grammar questions carefully and ask them before class adds elements of the ‘flipped classroom,’ ” he says. “It allows us to get those technical questions answered outside of class, so the expectations for what they know in class are higher. It allows them to formulate their thoughts better and to participate more fully in class discussion because they have thought through some of their ideas beforehand.

Lott goes on to make some more general observations about how professors should approach reading and technology:

Seeing what such technologies can bring to the classroom, Lott says he’s “not entirely sympathetic to the notion that distracted reading and devices are wholly bad, that our job should be to protect the classroom as a space for only the old kind of reading. It’s much more complex than that.” “I think this is going to be the way in which students are going to engage and get information. Technologically enhanced reading can have huge benefits to education and scholarship. We’re just not sure what they are or we’re not entirely convinced of them yet,” he says. “This is one way for my students and me to practice what it means to read texts in the form they will undoubtedly read them as their lives move on.”

The theme of attentiveness and reading is also taken up in a recent presentation by Alan Jacobs of Baylor University entitled “The Attentive Reader.”  Jacobs is a distinguished professor of humanities at Baylor and a leading voice on textuality and technology. His Text Patterns blog at the New Atlantis is a valuable resource on this topic; he is also the author of, among other books, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.

Building upon Katherine Hayles’s distinction of hyper attention and deep attention, Jacobs proposes that any serious analysis of how we read must take into account distinctive modes and environments of attention and the various technologies that operate within them. Modes of attention take in relatively more or less of the ambient environment. All modes of attention are contextually valuable; for example, when driving a car it is better to be hyper-attentive, continually scanning a wide range of stimuli and phenomena, than to be narrowly focused on only one sensory input. Managing a digital life of frequent notifications and task-switching is also a form of hyper-attentiveness. Yet it remains incumbent for liberal arts colleges “to be distinctly hospitable to focused attention,” which they can only do “if they become more thoughtfully intentional about environments and devices.”

Jacobs has also promoted annotation and commentary as a positive affordance of digital technologies and a means of prompting greater attentiveness to and engagement with texts. Among his “79 Theses on Technology. For Disputation,” he proposes that

  • Digital textuality offers us the chance to restore commentary to its pre-modern place as the central scholarly genre.
  • Recent technologies enable a renewal of commentary, but struggle to overcome a post-Romantic belief that commentary is belated, derivative.

In other words, the digitization and networking of texts is good because it invites greater levels of commentary and annotation on those texts (“deep reading”), which is at the same time, for Jacobs, the preferred form for learning how to write well. Taking up the challenge of the disputatio, Andrew Piper of McGill University further elaborates the pedagogical implications of the “annotated web:”

There is a vibrant movement afoot to remake the web as a massive space of commentary. The annotated web, as it’s called, has the aim of transforming our writing spaces from linked planes to layered marginalia ….

Missing from these models is pedagogy. The annotated web gives us one example of how to remake the technology of writing to better accommodate responsiveness. It’s a profound first step, one that will by no means be universally embraced (which should give us some idea of how significant it is).

But we do not yet have a way of teaching this to new (or old) writers. Follow the curricular pathways from the lockered hallways of elementary school to the bleak cubicles of higher education and you will still see the blank piece of paper or its electronic double as the primary writing surface. The self-containment of expression is everywhere. It is no wonder that these writers fail to comment well.

It’s all well and good to say commentary is back. It’s another to truly re-imagine how a second grader or college student learns to write. What if we taught commentary instead of expression, not just for beginning writers, but right on through university and the PhD? What if we trained people to build and create in the annotated web instead of on pristine planes of remediated paper? Now that would be different.

Whether or not one is in full agreement that commentary is “the central scholarly genre,” the discussion raises intriguing questions and opportunities for reflection about digital textuality. Do you have observations from the classroom about student reading and writing in the digital age? Let us know your comments.