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Grad Hack: Using RSS Readers To Get The Job Done (Faster)

I am, admittedly, late to the RSS Reader game. I mean, the first time I’d heard the term “RSS” was when it was wailed from rooftops when Google announced that they would no longer be supporting Google Reader. Internet power users entered a period of deep mourning, while the rest of us started Googling, trying to figure out what the heck was going on.


What the Heck is an “RSS?”

RSS—a Rich Site Summary or (incorrectly) a Really Simple Syndication—allow users to to aggregate information from various sites into one place. Think of it like an à la carte newspaper: you sign up to receive RSS from your favorite sites, and all the new content from those pages end up in one easy-to-access and easier-to-read spot.

Here’s an example: let’s say that you have six or seven fashion gaming tech academic websites that you visit every day. You probably type in the URL, click through a few pages, then go to the next page. Perhaps you do

Any site that has this logo has an RSS feed available.

Any site that has this logo has an RSS feed available.

this multiple times a day, because you are a responsible fashionista gamer techhead member of your research community. Once you think about it, that’s time lost. The seconds it takes you to type in URLs, navigate through sites, and click through pages add up. Even if you’re saavy and use bookmarks and tabs to make browsing easier, easy does not always equal fast. Websites are graphically and logically designed to keep you active on the page, which is why it’s so easy to end up in the Wikipedia wormhole.*

That’s where RSS comes in: instead of visiting each and every page, RSS readers spool all new content from hundreds of web pages straight to you. It serves up your favorite Internet fare on a platter.

In order for this to work, you have to sign up for RSS feeds through an RSS reader. The reader serves as your butler—it goes out to your favorite sites and fetches all new content within seconds of its posting. There are tons of RSS readers out there, but I’ll be talking about my personal favorite: Feedly.


So, How Does Feedly Help Me Academically?

First, it just generally helps me save time. All of my favorite non-academic sites spool to Feedly, and I can browse through new content really, really quickly. Usually, I browse Feedly three times a day: once in the morning before I get out of bed, once around lunch, and once after dinner. Gone are the days where I have to peck out URLs or worry about my bookmarks syncing. Feedly syncs through the cloud, so as long as I’m signed in, I have access to my feed.

Here's what Feedly looks like once you've subscribed to your favorite RSS feeds.

Here’s what Feedly looks like once you’ve subscribed to your favorite RSS feeds.

On a purely professional level, I use my RSS feeds in very specific ways. Feedly lets me break my feeds up into subfolders, so I can access only the topical information I need without being distracted by the rest. I have two subfolders for work: one labeled “Academics” and the other “CFPs.”

My “Academics” folder spools information from mainstream professional websites like The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. I know it’s important for me to keep a finger on the pulse of higher education, and my RSS feed lets me do that quickly and easily. I also subscribe to a few English-specific publications, like the Modern Language Association, so I’m not out of the loop on more specific—and if we’re being honest, pressing—issues. I use this folder as a stethoscope of sorts: I’m just trying to take the pulse of my profession on a daily basis so that I can have intelligent and informed opinions.

The “CFP” folder is even more important. In my profession, most Call for Papers/Proposals are posted to the UPenn website, but the site is fractured by subtopic and not the easiest to navigate. Feedly lets me pull CFPs from my interest areas into one place. I can check those once or twice a week, save the relevant ones to my Feedly folder so I don’t lose them, and keep track of due dates really easily. Basically, my RSS feeds not only save me time, but they keep me plugged in and organized.

This is my CFP feed. From here, I can read various CFPs and save the ones I'm interested in directly to the cloud.

This is my CFP feed. From here, I can read various CFPs and save the ones I’m interested in directly to the cloud.

Beyond those things, using Feedly has helped also my collegiality. Sometimes I’ll find an article through Feedly that is really important or resonates with a colleague’s interests. When I do, I can save that article to Feedly so that I don’t lose it, and I can quickly and immediately email it to any interested parties. It goes without saying that networking is vital, and my RSS feed serves as a quick and easy way to stay connected with other scholars in my department and in my field. People remember when you show interest in their work. Feedly lets me send emails straight from my reader, which takes almost no time but might pay dividends later.


…So What’s The Catch?

None, really. At least, not if you use your RSS feed responsibly. Once you figure out how to use it—and trust me, you’ll catch on in five minutes—it’s easy to go RSS Crazy and sign up for hundreds of sites. That defeats the purpose: instead of streamlining your browsing, you’ve bogged yourself down with more information than you can hope to process. Here are some quick tips for keeping your RSS feeder usefully streamlined:

  • Make sure you’re only subscribing to sites that you check daily.
  • Avoid the temptation to sign up for other sites, even if your RSS reader suggests them.
  • Make sure you’re checking your academic feeds as much as your personal ones.
  • Clear out the articles you’ve read so that you have a clean feed next time you check. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself re-reading the same information over and over.
  • Check your bookmarks periodically and empty out ones that are no longer relevant.

So how do you use your RSS feed? I’m always trying to use mine more effectively. Share your tips and tricks in the comments!

*This XKCD comic sums up the Wikipedia Wormhole nicely:

the_problem_with_wikipedia

Posted in Graduate School, Reviews, Scholarship, Tips & Tricks.

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