ProfHacker 2015 Holiday Gift Guide

Hopefully you’ve noticed the subtle change in the air: the giving way of the aroma of pumpkin spice latte to the onset of the peppermint mocha. With that blessed change from decorative gourd season, mothers everywhere want to know what you’ll be getting them for the slew of holidays that close out the year. Not to fear! It’s the annual ProfHacker gift guide! Whether you’re looking for ideas for mom, your kid, the board gamer, or the reader in your life, we’ve got you covered.

And if for some reason you need more ideas than what’s here—or if you’re just feeling nostalgic, as is befitting this time of year—take a look at our lists from 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. Wow, we’ve been at this for a long time!


Board Games

  • It wouldn’t be my section of the ProfHacker gift guide if I didn’t recommend a couple of board games. You’ll see that Anastasia has done the same thing. While I’m anxious to get my copy of Pandemic Legacy to the table, the game that we’ve played the most this year is Abyss, a card game about controlling an underwater kingdom through politics. It’s a relatively simple game that my wife and I can knock out in about 30 minutes, and it’s got enough variety in the cards that come out that it remains fresh for each play. It also has some of the most gorgeous artwork I’ve ever seen in a board game.
  • Another favorite this year has been Alchemists, in which you take on the role of an academic alchemist. You run experiments to determine the true nature of different ingredients like toads and mushrooms. Once you’ve made some progress on this deduction, you have to publish papers with your theories (complete with a subvention fee paid to the press) and try to debunk the theories of others. Oh, and you get to test your potions on your grad students. Be warned that this is a relatively complex game. But it’s well worth it.
  • A game on the other end of the spectrum is Cardline Animals. This deck of cards features three stats about the animal depicted on one side of each card: its weight, length, and average lifespan. The goal of the game is to arrange the animals in a line of ascending numbers for one of these characteristics in relation to other animals on the table. Once you’ve put it where you think it belongs, you flip it over and see if it fits in. If it does, it stays put. If not, you discard it and take a new card. This seems easy until you have to start asking yourself whether a jaguar or a cheetah is longer, or how big a dalmatian pelican really is. (Hint: it’s around 6 feet tall!) Our kids have really loved this, and we think they’ll like the new Cardline Dinosaurs as well.


  • When the year started, there were hints that a new album from The Go! Team might finally appear. When it did, I immediately started considering The Scene Between a contender for album of the year. Ian Parton might have dropped the signature schoolyard chants that were the hallmark of the previous three LPs, but his gift for writing tunes that could have been lifted straight out of a 1988 action TV show’s theme remains central.
  • The Go! Team put up a fight, but my favorite album of 2015 comes instead from Public Service Broadcasting. The Race for Space is a concept album about the US-USSR competition to get the most people and objects into space. Public Service Broadcasting make use of found sounds from NASA control rooms and Soviet news broadcasts as layers along with their electronica. What’s really compelling is how they construct a narrative with the tracks, ranging from the hopefulness of Kennedy’s “We go to the moon” speech, to the tragedy Apollo 1 cockpit fire, to the suspense of the Apollo 8 mission to orbit the moon. I’ll be listening to this for years.
  • Other groups with new albums who have taken up my listening time this year include CHVRCHES, Dan Deacon, Destroyer, and Beirut. And I’m enjoying my first dives into the Grimes LP.


  • Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is my favorite book of all time, in no small part because of what a great teach it is. I’ve been excited to get the first couple of books from his new, 27-volume series, The Familiar and I can’t wait for the third.
  • Like other ProfHackers, I really enjoyed Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
  • And tops on my wish list for books is the new edition of Don Quixote from fabulous British press Visual Editions.


  • My family moved this summer when I started a new job. There have been several technologies that made my life better through this big change. My tried and true Bose QC 20i noise canceling headphones have helped me on the public transit in Rhode Island and for those moments in a bustling digital humanities team when I need to put my head down and work.
  • Our family’s budget software of choice is YNAB (You Need A Budget). It’s to-the-penny approach is exactly what we needed while selling a house and moving to a new state with all the accompanying expenses entailed.
  • But perhaps the biggest coping strategy for the move has been through daily meditation and mindfulness exercises from Headspace. This app features guided exercises that range from 10-20 minutes and that I have found helpful for centering myself and being more productive. The biggest impact has been on my sleep, which has improved greatly with the sleep exercises I’ve been doing. It’s simple and a part of my day that I always look forward to.


  • I love to run, and as the temperatures drop, the importance of good gear grows. For the (female) athlete in your life, I would suggest the Oiselle Flash long sleeve. The violet is a great color, but the blaze is also terrific for visibility. If you live somewhere that gets really cold (hi New England and Midwestern ProfHackers!), you really can’t go wrong with Wazzie Wool: very soft, super warm, and wicks well. I love the baselayer so much that I wear it all the time, not just for running. If you live somewhere warmer, you might go with some arm warmers, which are basically removable long sleeves. They’re terrific for those days when you can’t decide whether you need long or short sleeves.
  • As an English professor who teaches contemporary fiction, I often get asked for book recommendations. Here are some of my recent favorites: A LIttle Life by Hanya Yanagihara; Everything I Never Told You by Celeste NgRed Rising by Pierce Brown (also the second book in the trilogy, Golden Son); I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes; and Revival by Stephen King.
  • A good pair of bluetooth headphones are well worth the investment. The Jaybird X2 are comfortable, sweat-proof (w/ lifetime sweat-proof warranty), and have a built-in microphone. Plus, the Jaybird customer service is excellent, so if something does go wrong, they’ll take very good care of you. Brainwavz Delta IEM is more affordable option that has gotten good reviews.
  • I still LOVE, LOVE, LOVE my waterproof iPod shuffle. I reviewed it for ProfHacker last fall, and a year later it’s still going strong. And when I say “waterproof,” I mean water proof. As in, I wear it in the pool, and it’s fine.
  • And for the caffeine lover in your life, the Contigo Autoseal West Loop is a great option. I’ve given mine quite the workout in the last year, including the “car roof drive away” test (please do not try this at home), and it’s held up better than I could have expected. It’s as spill-proof as can be, it comes in some great colors or the basic stainless steel, and at 20 oz, it’s one of the larger capacity travel mugs available. It is also available in a 16-oz size.


  • In 1929, Virginia Woolf famously declared that to write, “a woman must have money and a room of one’s own.” Update this for the twenty-first century by buying your favorite academic or academic-adjacent person his or her own web domain and hosting. Reclaim Hosting is a terrific web hosting service with reasonable prices that caters to an academic audience. The Reclaim Hosting team pioneered the Domain of One’s Own project, which allowed institutions to give domains and web hosting to each one of their students and employees for as long as they were associated with them–tremendously important for the twenty-first century scholar or undergraduate about to get on the job market. Basic hosting plans at Reclaim start from as little as $25/year, domain included. I switched to Reclaim after years using a conventional hosting service and now pay a quarter of what I once did. I am also much more satisfied with their customer service than I was with the other company. I wrote a review of Reclaim Hosting earlier this year. To gift a domain and hosting, go to the main Reclaim page and look for “Reclaim Gifting” on the top right of the page.
  • Are your gift recipients in need of some new clothes? Would they appreciate having a personal stylist help with finding them something that will fit their style and personality? I’ve written about Stitch Fix, a personal stylist in a subscription box, previously here. Two years since I wrote the review, I’m still a fervent fan of the service. Chances are anytime you see me in public I’m probably dressed head to toe in Stitch Fix (and have developed a reputation for being a lot better-dressed than I would be able to on my own). Stitch Fix also now offers gift cards.
  • You’ve probably figured out from my gift guide section last year that I’ve gotten really in Korean skin care, which emphasizes skin care rather than covering up imperfections through makeup. One of my favorite K-beauty sites to drool over is Glow Recipe, which carefully curates the most innovative Korean brands with an emphasis on organic and natural products. Some of my favorite products that they stock include the Goodal Lavender-scented sleeping pack (a heavy night cream), the Blossom Jeju Camellia facial oil ($30), and the LJH Tea Tree Essence (a serum to help with hydration and acne issues). Using my referral link will get you $5 off your first order with them. The Korean skincare system has turned my skin from acne-prone desert to hydrated and glowing in a little under a year. To find out more about the methodology behind the Korean skincare philosophy and suggested products, check out new books by three of my favorite skincare gurus: Charlotte Cho’s The Little Book of Skin Care Secrets and Kerry Thompson and Coco Park’s Korean Beauty Secrets.
  • Coloring Books for Grown Ups are becoming really popular as a relaxing hobby. I highly recommend coloring as a way to destress after a long day at work. Some of my favorite books include Secret Garden, The Enchanted Forest and The Badass Feminist Coloring Book. Your recipient might also appreciate a set of new markers to go with a book.
  • Good nutrition is always important, and is doable even on a low budget. While studying food policy as a master’s candidate at NYU, Leanne Browne asked a simple yet critical question: How well can a person eat on the $4 a day federal food stamp program? She helped answer this question this by writing Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4 a Day. The cookbook is beautifully designed, well written and the recipes are no-nonsense, easy and healthy, they include Broiled Tilapia with Lime, Spicy Pulled Pork, Green Chile and Cheddar Quesadillas, Vegetable Jambalaya, Beet and Chickpea Salad. This cookbook has become one of my favorites in the kitchen, and for every book bought at retail, Leanne and her publisher donate one to a family in need.
  • Cable is outdated. I’ve cut ties with it about a year ago, but still use streaming services like Netflix. I already have a Chromecast installed on my television to stream shows, but I don’t like that it doesn’t work without a phone/tablet/computer. So after hunting around and doing comparison reviews I purchased the 2015 Roku 2, which is standalone, plugs into Ethernet connections and is service agnostic, which I really appreciate. It’s the device that gets the best reviews, especially because it runs a lot faster than the Roku stick and its other counterparts.
  • For the young and young-at-heart on your list: I’m a strong supporter of fostering STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) to people of all ages, and KitHub may be able to get you started with your young ones. I especially love the DIY Girls Creative Electronics Kit ($50), aimed at age 6 and up, which contains three electronic projects–creating a paper circuit to light up your creation like a holiday card; creating and personalizing your own robot, including a motor and battery to make it dance; and making a tutu that lights up electronically. Kithub also has a fantastic blog which hosts posts such as “The Difference Between Fashion Technology, Wearable Tech and E-Textiles,”, and provides free Facilitator Guide and Lesson Plans for educators to use (receive the latter by signing up for their newsletter on the site).
  • Everybody needs a pair of good, classic shoes that are well-made. Nisolo sells handmade, classic, high-quality shoes handmade by Peruvian artisans, many of whom form part of the core Nisolo team. The shoes are not outrageously priced–I just bought these for $158, which is fair for a handmade pair of good quality shoes produced using ethical business practices. This link will get you $25 off at Nisolo.


  • If you have a Young Person (either chronologically or just at heart) on your list, there’s an excellent chance they’ll like Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer, which explains scientific and technological concepts using the “ten hundred” most common words in English. (It’s a book modeled on this comic.)
  • If someone on your list enjoys beer (hopefully not a Young Person!), and has been *quite* good this year, why not check out the Fizzics beer system, which can turn any can, bottle, or growler into draft beer. No CO2 or Nitrogen required! And if they enjoy something a little stronger, why not try Carry On Cocktails’ kits for turning in-flight bottles into serviceable mixed drinks?
  • If they have an Apple Watch, they need a stand for it, and Elevation Lab’s Night Stand is convenient, affordable, and fun.
  • If they like the footy, a couple of books: Michael Calvin’s Living on the Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving as a Football Manager or Amy Lawrence’s Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season are likely to interest. (And if they don’t subscribe to Howler, remedying that is the best gift of all.)
  • If you know someone who’s interested in setting up a website, but needs a little video support in getting over the hump, Adeline (see above) has a recorded webinar that walks through exactly this: “Build Your Own Academic Website” is discounted by some 60% right now!
  • For gift recipients with lots of cords or writing implements to carry around in a backpack or other bag, have a look at the Jansport Digital Burrito Pouch.
  • Finally, if your giftee is tired of shoving poop bags and dog treats into available pockets, Tom Bihn has a stylish treat bag that lets you trick out your dog’s constitutional to your liking. (It’s a little high, as my Southern relatives are wont to say, but Tom Bihn gear never wears out, as far as I can tell.)


  • Last year, I mentioned the AeroPress coffee maker, which I used for a couple of months as my primary coffee maker until I fell in love with my new Sowden Softbrew coffee pot. (The Oskar model, which I linked to, is widely available in the US, and I’m planning on purchasing an 8-cup Oskar to accompany the the 2-cup James model I currently have.) The Softbrew pots are beautifully designed — they feel good in your hand, and make wonderful coffee: simply put coffee in the laser-etched metal coffee filter basket, pour hot water over the grounds, stir, and let it steep. The pot’s design prevents grounds from getting in your cup when you pour. No pressing, no mess.
  • I recently wrote about Focus at Will, a music service designed for productivity. I’ve found it tremendously helpful. They offer 3-month subscriptions as gifts.
  • Books I recommend for the SF/dystopian/speculative fiction enthusiast  this year include: Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven; Peter Cline, The Fold; M. R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts; and Edan Lepucki, California. At the top of my winter break reading list is Peter Watts’s Echopraxia, a long-awaited follow up to Blindsight.
  • I also recommend Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See for the non-SF crowd.


  • There are a lot of great new board games to share this year. For families and casual groups, I particularly recommend King of New York. It’s from Richard Garfield, a designer best-known for Magic: The Gathering, and it has a great mix of humor and monster-driven gameplay. It’s fairly fast-paced, particularly compared to my other choice, Pandemic Legacy: Season One. Pandemic Legacy builds on classic Pandemic (a co-op board game where a team races to cure epidemics) with an awesome narrative arc. Players change the game permanently over the course of twelve months of play, and even add stickers to the board and rip up cards. If you’re looking for more board game recommendations, I definitely recommend stopping in at your local store. Gaming stores often have great game nights for trying things out and learning complicated games.
  • If you have a friend who is obsessed with technology-enabled escalations of all the things (like, well, me), you might take a look at the LightShow AppLights as a future holiday upgrade. It’s an app-driven system of LED lights with a pretty impressive range of options, so you can theoretically leave them up year round with themes to match everything from Mardi Gras to Halloween. There are a few things lacking (like a built-in timer) but the app works smoothly, and the clear lights are elegant and well-made even when not displaying a lightshow.
  • I’ve recently been drawn into the world of toy-integrated videogames, or videogames with physical figures that link into the game to open up content. The newest entry on the scene is Lego Dimensions, which is particularly cool because it uses Lego figures and has parts that need putting together to get started and open different content. The game itself is like a lot of the other Lego titles, so platformer action with some co-operative options that make it fun for families. Geeks will appreciate the licensing with characters from Doctor Who, Simpsons, and Back to the Future. It’s available for pretty much every console.
  • Disney fans might prefer Disney Infinity 3.0, the latest of Disney’s line of toy-to-life games. It’s a bit more complex in its range of gameplay, and the latest version has the all-important Star Wars license with a new set launching to accompany the forthcoming movie. Even if you’re sick of Star Wars merchandise at this point, the cool figures and quality art design integrated with co-op play makes this a lot of fun. Like Lego Dimensions, it’s available across console platforms.


  • I am a swimmer—now that the pool is literally steps away from my office I hope to swim more this year—, and this new little life tracker is my dream gadget: the Speedo Shine. It tracks sleeps, activity, and counts laps. Bluetooth lets you upload the data to your phone, which makes tracking your training a lot easier. This also makes up for Speedo ruining it’s training tracker app.
  • I’d also suggest supporting a great new swimming magazine from SwimSwam. I’ve been a fan of their swimming coverage for a while now (which started online), and I really hope that they can maintain a print presence as well.
  • I am also a hockey fan, and so these NHL Onesies are my dream outfit for curling up on the couch in the winter to yell at my TV cheer on the Canadiens.
  • Last Christmas, I got a Les Miz infinity scarf from Storiarts which I love and I always get complimented on. A pair of the typing gloves would be fantastic, or a tote from the similarly themed Lithographs. Seeing as how most of my favorite books are obscure Canadian literature (and I’m not crafty), I would appreciate a clutch made from my favorite book (bonus points if you actually know what that book is and how weird it would be for me to walk around with it as a clutch).
  • Finally, I love a good subscription box. PopSugar Must Have are my favorite for the variety of stuff (beauty, fashion, food, and even the occasional book!) and the surprise factor. My husband, on the other hand, hates surprises, so his go-to subscription box is Bespoke Post where he gets to see what’s in the box and choose if he wants to receive it. They are organized around a theme, and we’ve received everything from coffee beans to grooming gear.


Let’s face it: if you’re shopping for overseas friends, you may not manage to buy the gift on time to ship it on time—especially with a country whose mail system is unreliable like Egypt’s—so digital gifts won’t let you down. But you still have to be careful.

  • Audible gift membership. Not a particular book, because some books are unavailable for particular regions and the recipient may not be allowed to download the particular book you intended. Same for Kindle even though there is a workaround for Kindle.
  • If you want to send an Amazon gift card or a Kindle gift card, it is best to use the option where Amazon sends YOU the gift details and you forward them to the recipient (that way you can’t be sending it to the wrong account). You may need to check which Amazon country their account is on. Many well-meaning UK-based friends send me Amazon UK gift cards and many US friends send me gift cards to the wrong email address. And I can’t transfer the money (I do workarounds like buying myself gifts but it’s annoying). It’s ok to ask. It’s better than sending something that will be difficult for someone to use.
  • Don’t buy :) Make your friend a digital card using a site like JibJab. By sending something you didn’t buy, you give your friend an easier time sending something back.


After what was probably a thirteen-year hiatus, I’ve gotten back into video games this year. (The last console I had was a Super Nintendo.) I got an Xbox One console at a fantastic price during the summer. If you’re thinking about a “next-generation console,” it’s a good time to buy. The Xbox has really improved since its launch a couple years ago, and the prices on both Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PS4 have come down since launch, especially if you get one the many holiday bundles. Below are a few suggestions about bundles. A game console is a pretty big gift, though, so I’ve also recommended some games for all ages. I have very particular tastes in games (basically, I can’t stand superheroes, zombies, fantasy, or the occult). I also don’t have a lot of time for gaming, so I tend to favor games that can be played for 10 or 15 minutes, instead of 5 or 10 hours, at a time.

Console Bundles


  • Forza Horizon 2: Race cars on and off road in France and Italy.
  • The Lego Movie Video Game: Lots of fun to play with kids; my 4 year old can keep up, even if she couldn’t play it by herself.
  • Beyond Eyes: An indie game in which you play as a blind girl who explores the world searching for her cat. Big hit with the 4 y.o.
  • Star Wars Battlefront: I haven’t played it yet, but it looks amazing.
  • Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons: Two brothers go on a quest together. I’m playing it now.
  • Madden NFL: Get the most recent version, or do what I do and get a year or two older and save a bunch of money.
  • Halo Master Chief Collection: Get caught up on 13 years of Halo in one collection, especially if you’ve ever wondered about “Halo Night” from the Big Bang Theory.

Build Your Own Computer

If your recipient is a bit of computer tinkerer, a Raspberry Pi is lots of fun, and the second generation Pi is a legit computer (quad-core CPU!). It’s also a good gift for a child, who can have a real computer that you don’t have to worry about breaking. You’ll need a few peripherals, many of which you might already have, such as an HDMI cable or a USB cable. You can get just the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B itself, or you can get one of the starter kits: I’ve gotten people the Canakit Complete Starter Kit. One of the things we’ve done with our Pi is install RetroPie, a system that emulates about thirty classic gaming consoles. If you’re looking for a game controller to go with your RetroPie or your Mac or PC, the Logitech F310 is cheap and well built.



It seems my hiatus from gaming has been a little longer than Lincoln’s — I’ve never owned a console as an adult. We had an Atari clone when I was a kid, my brother and I played games on his Commodore 64, and I played a lot of arcade games growing up (my favorites were Gorf, Galaga, and Centipede, and yes, I know I’m dating myself). Since then, I haven’t played much except for the occasional browser-based game when I’ve hit writer’s block or have otherwise been looking for an excuse to procrastinate.

But a few years ago I became aware of Steam. I’ve kept an eye on it since, and have recently started experimenting with — and enjoying! — a couple of games there: Portal and The Lord of the Rings Online. Raw beginner though I am, I find them entertaining. Steam periodically has some pretty good sales on their games, too.

For whatever reason, I find it feels odd to play with a keyboard and mouse (maybe because I’m accustomed to using a trackpad for everyday computing?), so I’ve acquired a Steam controller. I like it pretty well thus far, and it’s highly customizable. A word to the wise, though: the controller’s reviews are all over the map. Those who’ve been gaming on consoles for a long time and are used to their controllers might not like the Steam controller at all. Since I’ve never owned a modern console, I have no muscle memory from other controllers to unlearn.

I usually just play at my computer; I don’t need a large screen on a regular basis, and when I do want a larger screen, connecting my laptop to the TV via HDMI works just fine. Those who prefer the large screen experience and who have desktop computers far from their TVs, though, might want to check out the Steam link, which allows gamers to connect a computer to a TV via a home network. Again, reviews are all over the map, and much will depend on network quality.


I subscribed to Oyster quite a while ago, once I realized that my reading habits were such that I’d actually save some money by subscribing. Unfortunately, earlier this fall Oyster announced that they’d be sunsetting their service next month. Kindle Unlimited didn’t seem like the best option for me (though it might fit the bill for some, and both free trials and gift subscriptions are available), so I decided to check out Scribd as a replacement.

I’ve been very pleasantly surprised. Scribd has a lot of books for leisure reading, as well as audiobooks, both of which I expected. What I didn’t expect was the sheer number of books available from major university presses — that’s what convinced me to stick with Scribd after my trial period ended. Like Kindle Unlimited, Scribd makes it possible to give a gift subscription to allow the reader in your life to decide whether the service is a good fit. Scribd gift subscriptions are for 3, 6, or 12 months. Kindle Unlimited gift subscriptions are available in durations of 6, 12, and 24 months.


I haven’t used a flash drive for file storage in years, so this one might seem odd, but flash drives have all sorts of uses. They’re useful for carrying around a computer repair kit, for having some portable applications available to use on the go (which has come in handy when I’ve asked students, some of whom are Chromebook users, to use Zotero for course work), or for creating a pocket computer running Linux. Verbatim has a nice 4-pack of 16GB drives available, but there are lots of inexpensive options around.

What have we missed that’s on your wishlist? Let us know in the comments!

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