Course Planning with Tinderbox: First Thoughts

In January, I bought Tinderbox, a hypertext application, as part of my on-going effort to find some way to organize notes on my computer rather than in my stacks and stacks of notebooks. I like my notebooks. They work for me. But they are dark pits: what goes into them has to be used quickly or it drops down beyond the edge of memory and is lost. This is frustrating when dealing with personal projects (although this blog has started to help there). But it’s actually debillitating when trying to plan and teach courses across semesters and years.

Tinderbox seems promising so I’ve decided to talk through how I’ve been using it to work on course planning and how it’s going.


I started out organizing material I already had. I knew what needed to be done and how I had done it in the past and simply transfered that into the program. Two things surprised me.

First, how easily TB adapted to what I wanted to do. I had to figure out how things worked and was working manually so everything took time, but what I wanted was what emerged. I was shocking to realize that I had never before had the experience of working with software that ultimately melted into the form I wanted. Tinderbox was transparent the way a pencil is tranparent.

Second, I was surprised to see how complex (multiple objects with multiple crisscrossing connections) the material I had been struggling to manage was. As the semester has progressed I have added material to the Tinderbox file rather than placing it in notebooks or on pads of paper. And now week six done, I’m floored by the material I have in play. What’s more, I have access to it all, and when I feel a bit lost (a familiar feeling from previous semesters), I can sit down and sort out where I am by going through and arranging my notes.

The Road Ahead

Now, week six is behind me, and I have been reading Mark Bernstein’s The Tinderbox Way. It’s been eye opening, especially now that I have all these weeks of working with the program under my belt. What I want to do now is to go through revise some of the manual organization I started with. I have four concerns right now

Empty Notes

I relied on empty notes in my early weeks. The note was the title. Nothing wrong with that but there were hundreds of them. To cope, I’d shoved them into logical, workable categories that replicated my paper and pencil organization and were filled in turn with categories full of content-as-title notes. I’d like to merge some of these categories now so that I can begin to explore the links between materials I was struggling to manage before. As a first step, I’m transfering these nested title-notes into the note text of their container. A side-benefit is that my Daily Schedule containers have fewer lines in them and no nested containers.


I have also been lax about filling in attributes, in part because I was treating every note as a multilevel nest of notes within notes each with their own set of repeating attributes. Using the note texts means I have fewer notes to deal with, so I’m going through and filling in what’s missing. I also have a better sense of what attributes are useful to me right now, and so, I’ve deleted all the others that I created that aren’t.

Non-temporal Categories

I would like to merge some containers and put different material in contact with each other. First stab at this will be with Content Materials (lectures basically) and Readings. The prototype scheme I set up in the first few weeks of the semester makes that possible in a way it wasn’t before. There will be visible differences on the map that were not there when I first began.


I would like to reduce the manual generation of aliases by using agents and rethinking the groupings I’ve been using. Right now, kinds of info are a group. I think I am going to begin grouping based on content rather than kind, with readings being the priority content. My thought is to place vocabulary, quizzes, and homework based on a reading within that reading’s note, treating it as a container. I will then use Agents to pull out kinds of materials if I need to. For now, I think an agent collecting quizzes and an agent collecting vocabulary will be enough.