What Belongs on the Faculty Desktop?

My colleagues at UM Law endure a hyper-centralized information technology regime. Unless they raise a great ruckus, faculty members here get issued a Windows XP computer in “lockdown” mode, which prevents the installation of new programs on the desktop. (I raised a ruckus.) What's worse, the suite of programs offered to faculty has actually shrunk in the last few years, as the IT dept discovered that if you hand out fewer programs, they are easier to support.

The faculty has finally rebelled, although the actual flashpoint was lousy network performance and downtime. As part of an effort designed to head off what might otherwise become a pitchfork-wielding mob, the administration has asked for suggestions as to what programs should be part of the default faculty suite. Of course, since most of us haven't much experience with other office environments recently, we're not that well placed to know what's out there or what we might find enhances our productivity or makes new things possible or even easy..

I've made my own little list, but I'm sure it's deficient in imagination if not necessarily length. Suggestions needed and welcome. Please assume that the desktop will be a PC with XP as the OS—I think the odds of getting anything else on the faculty desktop in this iteration are about zero. And the network itself will probably stay Novell. You'll see from my list, though, that I have assumed the existence of a *nix internet server as we currently have one, even if it's not that well maintained.

So, what should be on my list?

Here's my first draft. Needless to say, it's somewhat different from the current default.

Basic Tools

  • Choice of Office Suites: (1) Open Office free, open-source clone of Word; (2) MS Word, (3) CorelWordperfect
  • Powerpoint
  • Firefox (browser)
  • Common browser plugins e.g. Flash, Quicktime, Realplayer
  • Thunderbird (email)
  • a SIMPLE standards-compliant (ie. NOT front page) HTML creation tool. There are many free ones. (Nvu is one possibility — works well with firefox/thunderbird)
  • Acrobat Reader
  • a PDF creation tool [built into WordPerfect but needed for OpenOffice and Word users]. Either “Acrobat” itself, or a less expensive alternative [I have not tested these] e.g. Pdf995 (free), or ExpertPDF ($35/license)
  • FTP (I suggest WinSPC2 – free)
  • An ad-blocker (either AdSubtract, or get free Adblocker plugin for Firefox, combined with flashblocker plugin)
  • Clipmate (a superb, essential, clipboard extender — makes moving data between programs and especially from WL & Lexis to wordprocessor very easy; also remembers last N hundred things you moved to clipboard for re-use). This one is really essential!
  • Irfanview [viewer for many file formats] Free [N.B. also should install 100% of plugins, which is a separate file]
  • An RSS news reader.
  • Telnet program (Powerterm, provided by university, or a free tool such as putty.exe)
  • A way to send faxes directly from wordprocessors FaxWare
  • Anit-Virus tool
  • Calendar program (Sidekick 98? Something more modern w/ group functions?)
  • Winzip
  • PGP (Freeware version available, current version is 6.5.8)

Advanced Tools I'd Like But Most People Won't Want Yet

  • A CSS editor (preferably WYSIWYG, ie something like StyleMaster)

Server-side tools

  • Updated version of standard tools, e.g. Apache, Perl, Pine, mySQL, PHP
  • Common cgi programs e.g. web counters, forms, for inclusion in faculty created web pages
  • Mailing lists that are easy for faculty to configure, that allow students to sign up via a web form, and that automatically archive content
  • A tool, ideally web-based, that allows faculty to password protect online documents and directories [law profs are not going to code .htaccess files], and to manage password access
  • Blogging tools, e.g. movable type
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9 Responses to What Belongs on the Faculty Desktop?

  1. Pat says:

    What’s the XP equivalent of sudo ;-)

  2. Choice of office suites is probably a tall order. On the Wordperfect front you law school types will find allies in the med school. Be sure to emphasize how much material you get from practicing lawyers in WP format. You do, right? Good luck.

    For basic print-to-PDF functionality, I like the CutePDF print driver (and the copy of ghostscript it relies on, which comes in handy for running scripts to do things like merge a bunch of PDFs into one larger document). No adware, no spyware, no registration, no nothing. Just a print driver that saves PDFs.

    For letting faculty manage their Apache virtual servers, upload files, password-protect stuff, move things around, etc., Webmin’s “Usermin” companion package should do the trick. It’s like the web interfaces they have on all those commercial web hosting services, free, widely used, and painless to install and maintain.

    Lordy, they don’t have group calendars there for faculty? Hooray for academia.

    For giving everyone weblogs, I agree re: MT. Since it generates static pages, it’s not too hard on system resources. It can be tied into a SQL databse backennd painlessly for storage of a bunch of blogs. Comment spam filtering can be handled centrally and mostly bunattended thanks to MT-Blacklist, and the entire administration interface can be accessed through a straightforward perl API. It’s not at all difficult for a sysadmin to write scripts to automate the creation of a new blog every time a new faculty user account is created.

  3. Seth Gordon says:

    Some tool for managing bibliographies, so if you refer to “M. Martian, ‘Terran Violations of Interstellar Law’, 35 J. Law Soc. Alph. Centauri 22491″ in five separate papers, you only have to spell the author’s name once, and the software can keep track of the formatting rules for whatever journal you submit to. BibTeX does this for TeX users; my wife had something like this that integrated with M——-t W–d while she was working on her d———-n, but I don’t remember the name of the program.

    IM and/or IRC clients.

    On the server side: a wiki?

  4. Cosma says:

    LaTeX and a graphical front-end for it — it’s been too long since I’ve used Windows for me to know what the best ones are, but at the very least WinEdit has decent support for LaTeX.

  5. Matthew says:

    I hate to say it since you’d like your choice of mail clients, but the school’s Exchange installation should already have the group calendar tools, but only if you use Outlook.

    Why doesn’t the IT department just let faculty download & install their own software if they don’t like the default MS stuff that’s on all the student computers? We can install software through our shared Novell drives on the student machines scattered throughout the library. Besides, it’s easy to make a simple policy about it: If you’ve mucked around and the computer crashes, we’re going to restore it to the default.

  6. Michael says:

    I personally consider Outlook an unacceptable security risk and won’t run it. Plus, Outlook users here have their mail filtered upstream for viruss by the IT dept. They tried this stunt on me once a few years ago in the unix environment, and filtered all postscript, causing me, and an editor, to nearly go nuts at deadline when all of a sudden his emailed edits were vanishing — without a bounce, without notice to me, without the front-line tech support guys having a clue. I vowed then that NO ONE filters my email except me and tools I control.

  7. Chris says:

    Two small points:

    -Openoffice actually has a pdf creation feature. It seems to work just fine.
    -Filezilla is a great free, open-source (I think) ftp program: http://sourceforge.net/projects/filezilla

  8. Kaimi says:

    Thoughts:

    -Instant messaging software — AIM, Yahoo, and/or Trillian.
    -I’m not sure if you’re including Excel in your MS office bucket — if you aren’t, you’ll want to add Excel.
    -Some sort of firewall (depending on your anti-virus package, maybe included).
    -By the way, Google offers a free ad-blocker, that might be something to consider. It isn’t a particular great ad-blocker, but certainly functional.

  9. Michael says:

    Do law professors really need instant messaging? Not that it can hurt to include it of course…

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