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ProfHacking Abroad: Software for Living Abroad

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[This is a guest post by Jason Mittell, Associate Professor of American Studies and Film & Media Culture at Middlebury College. In the 2011-12 academic year, he is a research fellow at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg at the University of Göttingen, Germany. He writes the blog Just TV.--@jbj]

In my last post, I wrote about the hardware choices I made in relocating my family from the U.S. to Germany for a year. In this installment, I want to discuss some of the software solutions that I’ve found to help maintain connections with home and facilitate working in another country. Many of these programs and sites are not unique to being abroad, but rather made more important through the challenges of dislocation.

Always Be Backing Up: A hard drive meltdown is traumatic no matter where you are, but being abroad means living without my home institution’s stellar, English-speaking tech support team, so I’m extra vigilant about backing up. I use my Mac’s Time Machine program to do weekly full external hard drive backups, but keep my documents, music & photos up-to-date through automatically cloud backups to ProfHacker-favorite SpiderOak. Before leaving the U.S., I made sure to backup everything from our home desktop computer to SpiderOak, meaning I can download whatever MP3s or documents the kids ask for now without having planned ahead for specific requests.

While SpiderOak is great for backing up, it’s not the best for creating shared folders across users. For that purpose, I use Dropbox (which I dropped as my full backup solution last year in the wake of their security lapses), as sharing folders with other Dropbox users is a one-click affair. This fall, I co-edited a book with a colleague in the U.S., and Dropbox meant that all the documents were constantly in sync and backed-up, making the logistical nightmare of herding 39 authors across time zones much easier (if not quite easy). We also used FileStork (which Jason Jones wrote up last year) to handle submissions of image files from our authors, allowing them to upload multi-MB files directly to our Dropbox without clogging up our email with massive attachments. And once the manuscript was assembled, we just shared the folder with our editor to submit the book.

Lingua Franca: Living in a country where I don’t speak the language poses specific challenges—even though it’s not hard to find English-speaking people to help with most tasks, there is still a lot to translate on a daily basis. Google Translate is phenomenal for daily vocabulary challenges, and it’s hard to imagine how much more time everyday tasks would take using the old method of print dictionary and grammatical guessing. The lesser known superpower of Google Translate is its integration into the Chrome browser—go to Preferences / Under the Hood, and click the option to translate websites in foreign languages. Then every time you’re on a non-English site, you’re presented with an option to translate the whole page with a single click. You can set your options to not translate languages you speak, or even automatically translate pages in certain languages. It’s not foolproof, as frames, Flash and other clunky web designs foil the translator (and sometimes the translation is more amusing than informative), but there’s something magical about being able to read a local restaurant’s menu, do online banking, or look-up policy information about your child’s school, regardless of your linguistic competence.

Keeping in Touch: One of the challenges of living abroad is the lack of connection with familiar friends and family, especially for kids (and their eager grandparents). This challenge is certainly mitigated by the pervasiveness of social networks, as Facebook and Twitter keep us engaged with people around the world. To create a more public sharing of our adventures, we started a family blog to post stories and pictures for both people who know us and strangers alike. And of course email is a constant, regardless of locale—although I would recommend using Gmail or the like rather than your .edu address, as I found many of my emails got blocked by my home institution’s spam filter that had blacklisted some German IP addresses.

But the killer app for living abroad is Skype. The ability to have free video or audio chats is essential for both personal and professional connections, and Skype works admirably for that, as does Google Video Chat, Apple’s Face Time, and other options. The added feature that’s made Skype essential is its ability to function as a phone line—we spent around $100 for a year combining Skype Premium, allowing us to call any U.S. or Canadian phone number for free, with an American phone number that forwards to Skype so family can call us from their phones directly for only the cost of a call to Vermont. A nice bonus is that if our computer isn’t running Skype when someone calls, we get an email to let us know we’ve got a voicemail to check the next time we’re online.

One last specific professional tool for maintaining a connection to my home department—we were doing a faculty search this fall, and since it’s a small department, I wanted to participate in reviewing the short list of applicants. For the first time, Middlebury used Interfolio to receive electronic job applications, and (from my perspective) it was a great solution for me to be able to review all materials remotely, submit my comments for the committee to see, and then have Skype conversations with the finalists.

Unlocking Geo-locks: The experience of the internet in the U.S. creates the illusion that everything is instantly accessible at a click, but surfing abroad highlights how much media is restricted by geography. For me, the most frequent locks I encounter are restrictions on YouTube videos whose music is not licensed by GEMA (Germany’s music rights clearinghouse), the U.S.-only limit on Hulu & Netflix, accessing music streaming sites like Spotify, and being able to purchase MP3 downloads from Amazon. While certainly not the repressive censorship found in China and other countries, they are an annoyance to being abroad, especially for a media researcher like myself.

The way to workaround such geo-locks is through VPN, allowing you to route your connections through another country to change your geographical network identity. If you’re affiliated with a university, you likely have access to a VPN server that allows you to access on-campus services from wherever—some institutional VPNs overcome geo-locks, but mine does not. Instead, there are numerous subscription services that allow you VPN into a foreign server. The option I’ve found that works the best is TunnelBear, an incredibly simple app that lets you choose to connect to either U.S. or U.K. (for your BBC fix!) servers with a single click. The free version gives 500mb of data per month (upgradable to 1.5 gig with a promotional tweet), or pay $5/month or $50/year to get unlimited data and an iOS app version. A more complex but flexible option if you want to use your own VPN client or relocate to servers outside the U.S. or U.K. is StrongVPN, which I haven’t used but friends recommend.

In my final installment, I’ll talk more about the specific ways I’ve found to deal with videos, given that my research on contemporary American television requires that I keep up with my stories. In the meantime, what other software solutions have you found to help you feel at home while abroad?

Photo “Contrast” by Flickr user Geoff Galice / Creative Commons license BY-2.0

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