Apr 112019
 

The Half-Blood Prince ended in tragedy and the first full-scale battle in the war that’s been brewing since The Goblet of Fire. This book picks up with a brilliant set piece: an elaborate plan aiming to move Harry to safety at the exact moment his protections there fail and he is able finally to move secretly because of his age. The chase that ensues is frightening and exciting. The patronus that drops from the sky only a few chapters later, interrupting a wedding and sending Harry, Hermione, and Ron into hiding sets the pace (breakneck) for the double quest that will follow: find the horcuxes and find the hallows.

Because it’s the final book, I was ready to make judgments as I read and they came fast and fiercely. I don’t like Ron: he’s a brat and the fact he turns out okay is because his family is great and that sticks. I also find it very hard to like Harry: he pouts and is too quick to judge and I kept feeling like he’s a bit like a best-case-scenario jock who could easily go wrong. What saves him is that he loves his friends and tries (when he’s not pouting) to do right by them, even when it costs him dearly. Hermione is my hero and I love her through and through. Ron should count his lucky stars she even puts up with him, much less loves him.

Snape is a genuinely noble and tragic figure, damaged by the angry emotions and choices of youth, marked by them (literally and figuratively), but strong enough to see those choices through to the end, and he saves the day because of it. Dobly, the free elf, risks everything to save the boy who set him free, dying for it, but also saving the day. And then there are Neville and Luna, my two favorite of the students at Hogwarts: when Neville, in an echo of the Chamber of Secrets pulls the sword of Gryffindor from the sorting hat and destroys the final horcrux—like Snape and like Dolby, saving the day—my heart sang.

So now the series is done, and I feel like Harry in the final chapter: older and apart and looking back on a past time. (Incidentally, the bit-like-a-jock Harry didn’t go wrong, he went bourgeois-boring. Which is fine. But still, surprising.)

All said, it’s a genuinely great series of books and I’m really happy to have read it simply for the pleasure of it. But I’m also glad because I’ve discovered that most of my students have read them as well and they love them and so we now share a wealth of references and analogies that we can use to discuss and make sense of things in class. And most importantly, because my students read the books as kids, references to them don’t read as “teacher trying (and necessarily failing) to be cool.” They are simply a shared, fun and useful reference allowing better communication.

Jan 312019
 

In 2013, I experimented with using a wiki in some of my classes for the first time. In those first experiments, I was learning what a wiki could be used for, how students interacted with them, how to fit them into the other assigned work and, most alarmingly, how to manage and host a site used by dozens of people simultaneously. It was a lot and things changed quickly as I learned and improved.

Since those first projects, I’ve never not included a wiki component in at least one of my courses each semester. My expectations have changed dramatically though because students responded without the enthusiasm that I naively and laughably assumed they’d have. (Hope springs eternal, right?) In fact, students were often openly resistant to the project for a variety of reasons. Some of these were:

  1. a sense that the wiki made a course they took to fill a requirement more difficult than it would have been if they’d taken something else.
  2. a genuine ignorance about how to use a computer for anything other than opening a browser and clicking on links or opening a word processor, typing with minimal formatting, and then printing.
  3. a distaste for the aesthetics and UI of a site that was different from Facebook, Instagram or [fill in the blank].
  4. a sense that the old guy in the front of the room was trying to “play computer” with the kids and didn’t get that there was an app that did [whatever the day’s assignment was] so much better than the wiki did. “Maybe we should be using that, sir?”

A lot of my energy in the early years of using a wiki was spent figuring out how to get students past these initial objections to the project.

Early on, I made the first of these worse by being unable to explain what the wiki was for and how it would help make the course better in terms students could understand. I knew why we were doing the wiki and what it was for, but what I knew was embedded in and dependent upon a context my students didn’t share. So I was still doing the basic pedagogical work of figuring out how to speak what they needed to know in terms they could understand. In terms of assignments and requirements, I was working from hunches, experimenting and it would take me some time to get a handle on both what to assign and how to explain why I was assigning it. After the first two wiki projects, I scaled back expectations so I could figure out through experiments how to speak clearly about what we were doing and why. This took some time, but I think I’m there now.

The second problem, student’s inability to use a computer—which was often (nearly always) paired with an obsessive, continual use of social media on their telephone—caught me off guard, but it was easier to address than the first. A wiki is perfect for posting how-to instructions and examples. I wrote and recycled these year after year and now have a set of mark-up pages ready to drop into each new wiki. These work.

The final two objections I kept running into were different in kind from the first two. In both three and four, students, confronted with something they didn’t want to do, were offering a reason why the thing they didn’t like was in fact crippled by a failing that made it worth ignoring. The first semester I ran the project in a class, I took these objections about aesthetics and alternatives at face value without recognizing that this was just a familiar classroom swap: the real student-side problem—I don’t want to do this—was being replaced by a teacher-side problem with the assignment. This isn’t mean-spirited or manipulative on the students’ part. It’s just being a student and is exactly equivalent to complaints that a book is boring. I don’t change the booklist to match what they want to read; instead I explain why it’s worth reading what we are. But it took me a few semesters to realize that, confronted with complaints about the wiki being ugly or awkward or old-fashioned, I just needed to explain why we use a wiki rather than [fill in the blank] and what the look and UI of the wiki make possible. This responds to the real problem—I don’t want to do this—by showing them why doing the project is useful. This too works.

I’ve kept using the wiki all this time because I think that exposing students to structured writing and to hypertext is valuable and that the combination of metacognition and practical skills required by the project equip them to be better students. Now, has that been the outcome semester after semester? No. But I’ve never had a semester where the wiki has been a failure. Students figure things out and do the work and usually do it well, which given its scale and how difficult I found it to organize and manage initially feels like a success.

(Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes things have been incredible. One year for example, through a quirk of scheduling, I taught an intact group of students two semesters in a row. We built a wiki together in the Fall and they reacted with familiar dismay and crocodile tears over having to do extra online work in an old-fashioned platform. Everything worked, but they were a vocal group and, when I was planning the winter term, I decided not to include a wiki on the syllabus. But then, three or four weeks into that second semester, they asked if there was anyway to reactivate the previous semester’s wiki because they were annoyed at having to organize and prepare the work they were now having to do without the wiki because doing the work was harder without it. Now I don’t want to exaggerate: what they wanted was mostly the ability to coordinate group work with shared buckets of materials and lists that they could edit together, things in other words that they could do with something like Google Docs. Still, they were thinking of these tasks in terms of a persistent set of linked documents rather than one-off document lists. This was important and I was happy.)

So looking back, what I see in these experiments is a productive encounter between my initial enthusiasm for what I believed possible with the project and the predictable, not completely unreasonable questions from students about why doing work on the wiki was worth their time. I’ve learned to address these and in the process, I think I’ve learned better how to use the wiki in class, how to integrate it into required classwork, and also how to present it to students.

Now a new semester is starting, and using these experiences, I’ve completely rethought the wiki project. The new project is more extensive and is more tightly integrated into the core assignments of the courses, both of which are big changes. I’m writing about it here now because what I hope to do over the course of the semester is to speak about those changes in some posts and comment on how things have gone.

But as a starting point, I wanted to look back over the past few years, partly as a transition, yes, but partly as an acknowledgement of the completely unglamorous work of sticking with the wiki long enough to get a sense of how to use it better. And perhaps most importantly, it’s a way to acknowledge that work depended upon the cooperation and support of students who sat in my course doing their best to make things work as I figured things out.

So acknowledgements made, it’s time to move on and to talk about how the new project is put together and how it works out. I’ll get to that soon…

Jul 242015
 

Rereading my “What’s Up?” post, I realized I’d never followed up about my decision to assign GamerGate as a topic in my research writing class this past Spring. As a kind of prelude to some other teaching related posts that I’ll be writing in the coming weeks, I’m going to give a brief description of what I saw happening.

What I Planned

The course I was teaching is a standard first exposure to college-level research writing for first-year students. I chose to use GamerGate as the topic for an early unit because it touched on an interest in video games I knew many–and perhaps most–of my students shared. There were also some other advantages. Because GamerGate was on-going at the time, there were no ready-made works students could crib to write their essays. More importantly, because all the sources they would need to use were online, the unit would give me an opportunity to teach them how to find, manage and document the kinds of real world sources they used on a daily basis.

The project was intended to be short, and I scheduled it to run for only three weeks of class time with another week reserved for revising essays before final submission. Feminist Frequency was our starting point: the videos and posts exposed everyone to the intersection of gender and gaming that were at issue. I also provided some articles from The New Yorker, The New York Times and Rolling Stone. From there, students would work to research responses to a variety of questions that came up in our daily discussions. As their final assignment, they were to write a thesis-driven argument about some aspect of GamerGate, a prompt open-ended enough I thought to allow for everyone to find an angle that suited them.

What Happened

It’s hard to think of a topic I’ve broached in a class that was as divisive as this one.

The first day went well. I showed two “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” videos. The women in the class lit up, contributed to discussion, were engaged. Many of the men were hesitant, but excitement about the fact that we were discussing gaming carried the day. A few I think were excited because the topic signalled the class was “easy,” most because games they played and liked appeared on-screen.

I have no way of knowing what happened between the end of that first class and the beginning of the next, but when we next met, the tenor of the class had changed profoundly.

The woman and a handful of the men stopped speaking: they watched and listened attentively, paid close attention to what went on in class, they wrote with real interest and insight–there was in other words, good will–but for the remainder of the project, regardless of the activities I planned, they chose by-and-large to keep quiet, reserving their comments for the page or for small group work.

Many of the remaining students were now sitting sideways in seats. They whispered quickly to each other in response to class activities but rarely to the group. When doing work in class, they suddenly demanded detailed instructions in order to do things as simple as web searching or navigating basic web pages. They resisted doing more than reporting factual answers to questions. Were they even listening? I couldn’t tell. In these and many other small ways, they seemed to be setting up obstacles to their participation and expressing what I took to be frustration.

Adapting

When students react badly to material, you cope by improvising and experimenting. You try to find the areas of the topic they are willing or able to engage with so that you can stake out some common ground. You do the same thing with activities: if they will write more frankly than they will speak, get them writing; if they are silent except in small groups, translate discussion down to small group responses to prompts. Whatever the case, you use what they give you the next class to try to build some momentum.

For the GamerGate project though, there were so few students willing to comment publicly on the topic in class that there seemed to be no momentum to be had. So bit by bit, I broke the class project into a set of small group projects that allowed student to engage less publicly. I also created an option for the essay that downplayed the argumentative requirement, an aspect of the assignment that, given the circumstances, many appeared to have found intimidating, if not overwhelming. Most importantly, I moved things steadily forward and got us onto the next topic, where things cooled down and went back to normal.

Looking Back

Either GamerGate or the feminist critique it tried to shut down–I can’t be sure which–upset a group of students. I’m not going to judge that reaction here other than to say that the fact that many students were initially excited to be talking about video games seemed to make their subsequent frustration worse. The rest of the class seems to have picked up on their frustration immediately and reacted to lower the temperature the best (or the only?) way they knew how: silence. For my part, I was stuck trying to coax students beyond these basic reactions, adapting course materials on the fly, but doing so with very little input from the students themselves, which is difficult.

I don’t think it is ever easy to sort out why a particular project worked or not in a specific course, especially when dealing with new material. There is always the risk of projection, of accounting for student responses in terms that are not theirs and so missing the hints they give about why they actually reacted the way they did. So looking back now, I’m not convinced that I’ve understood what happened yet.

So I’m glad that I won’t be teaching this course in the Fall and that I don’t have to decide right away whether to raise this topic again. In theory, I would like to, but in good conscience, I can’t–and won’t–until I figure out a better framework for bringing it up.

Jul 032015
 

This past week, the Beav and I went down to Concord, Massachusetts to see Walden, Emerson’s house, the Old Manse and the rest of the sites. It was an interesting trip but it made a problem involved in teaching these writers concrete for me.

I’ve read the Transcendentalists, most of them quite carefully, and I teach more than a few of their works. So I was interested in seeing Emerson’s study and Hawthorne’s writing desk, but I was also, as unromantic as it sounds, collecting photographs I could show my students, most of whom find these works quite difficult. Pictures of relevant places should, I thought, help them visualize what they are reading.

Concord also has many Revolutionary War historical sites. These hadn’t figured as I’d imagined the trip, yet they were what was most evident once we arrived. We toured them as well, and as we did, I noticed that historical sites were easier for people to appreciate than the literary ones. Everyone seemed to have at least a bit of the necessary historical context while people touring the Emerson house, for example, knew nothing but the name. This got me thinking about the difficulty of providing context to students for reading.

At a historical site, a guide can say “The militia turned back the British at this bridge, a first victory in the War of Independence,” and that is informative even if the listener knows nothing except that the US declared its independence from Britain. It also cues all kinds of imaginative processes–fuelled by memories of movies and television–that recreate the place in the mind and sentiments as a site of a battle. It’s exciting, even if you know nothing.

But in the study at the Old Manse, which is located just across that same bridge, when the guide points to a tiny ratchet desk beside the fireplace and says “Hawthorne wrote Mosses from the Old Manse here,” those with minimal context can do little but imagine a man sitting silently, his forehead close to the wall and his back to the windows and the other chairs. Without some sense of what is in that book, without having read it, the room is the site where, by design, nothing happened silently.

Which brings me back the pictures I took. I’ll show them, but I don’t think they will do very much to push my students beyond their difficulties with their reading. Thoreau’s cabin doesn’t exist. There’re some stone markers. The reproduction cabin is empty except for a bed, a stove and a desk. Emerson’s house looks like an old house. There is a grape arbor. Thoreau built it, just like he planted the original vegetable garden at the Old Manse. You can’t tell that from looking at it though because it’s just a garden.

In other words, my pictures are horribly boring and I suspect my students will look at them with the same blankness I saw on the faces around me on the various tours. That sounds like pessimism, but it’s really just me wondering what seeing Walden–and by that, I mean a picture of any lake as long as I call it Walden when showing it–what does seeing that picture do for a student reading Thoreau for the first time? A kind of magic needs to happen to illuminate the words and to bring them to life. Does seeing the place the author walked help?

Jan 302015
 

Blogging has been scarce these past weeks. Initially the hiatus was about travel: a vacation followed by holidays with family followed by an unexpected week away. But the time away let me work on other projects and think about what this space is for, and that whole process isn’t done yet.

The news I have:

1. I’m done for now with the Faulkner hypertext project. I had no real appreciation for how radically different hypertext writing was. Neither did I realize how much I need, personally, to let go of an old project that feels done for me. Faulkner needs to be set aside. That said, the questions about linearity that trying to make the project readable brought up for me are very much alive…and very troubling. I hope there will be more to say about that here soon.

2. A series of work projects have taken on a life of their own. None of them are appropriate to discuss here. (An interesting insight: not everything is internet-ready.) This means that life and blog are competing a bit for the time being. This too shall pass, right?

3. More abstractly, this blog feels adolescent. I’ve spent a lot of time these past weeks wondering what this blog is for and what I want it to be. Because I am old the idea of blogging about blogging makes me shiver. Because I am not that old, the questions sting. What started as an experiment has become important, but how? And that “how” is public. /sigh.

4. I have planned for months to blog about the way I’ve been experimenting with wikis in my classroom. In the coming weeks, I may spend some time catching up on what I’ve been doing there. It’s a matter of finding the time to pull out my notes and making posts that I feel ok with.

Finally, I’m sure that anyone who’s read this far will already have read Mark Bernstein’s recent series of posts about Wikipedia and the ongoing GamerGate fiasco. I’ve found them inspiring enough that:

5. This semester I’ve decided to throw GamerGate at the students in a first-year research writing class I’m teaching. It’s the sort of topic that teachers dream of: it touches an intensely personal aspect of students’ lives and challenges them to think about what their casual pleasure mean. But to make sense of the conflicting materials (and their reactions) will require classroom skills they prefer to cordon off in a box labelled simply “school.” Bernstein’s posts set alongside Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency videos, Zoe Quinn’s blog  and supplemented with the resources Bernstein links to in posts like this one and the various articles in news sites and in magazines like The New Yorker, will present my students with a real problem. I can’t wait to talk about it with them and to see what they write. Depending, I may keep tabs on it here.

So that’s where things are and why posting is slow.

Sep 032014
 

In a previous post, I asked what four or five books could define the basic knowledge in your field? Here is my answer.

My Field

The area of the Venn diagram where America, literature, film and narrative overlap. Let’s call it “American Storytelling.”

My Five

  1. The Craft of Research by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, & Joseph M. Williams
  2. Story and Discourse by Seymour Chatman
  3. Overhearing Film Dialogue by Sarah Kozloff
  4. Reading for the Plot by Peter Brooks
  5. Epistemology of the Closet by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

My Reasons

Writing is fundamental to everything in my field, and The Craft of Research provides a model for thinking about its purposes and processes that is among the best that I know of. It’s old enough to have bits that strike today’s reader as funny—there’s a chapter on how to organize index cards, for example—but the conceptual stuff—what are notes for? how will you use them? (for example)—are still rock solid. Best of all, it asks simply, What do you want to know?

Stories are experience worked into a temporal pattern and shared with others. They have a form, a history and a context. Story and Discourse and Overhearing Film Dialogue are two large-scale synthetic works that together sketch out or suggest many of the most important narrative frameworks. Chatman’s book lays out some basic but highly abstracted ways of thinking about narrative as a form. Kozloff’s examines the various ways traditions and stories interact while modelling a solid approach to close reading.

My last two choices are again large-scale and synthetic, but they turn their attention away from how narrative works and toward what it does. In Reading for the Plot, Brooks explores how stories—inventing them, writing them, reading them—illicit and address our desires. In doing so, he suggests why stories matter. Beyond it’s specific concern with sexuality, Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet demonstrates the process by which careful, intelligent reading that is attuned both to pattern and detail can allow familiar stories to reveal and to recreate the world we live in. More than thirty years after it’s publication, it remains an essential work and shows clearly one important aspect of what literary study is for.

My Sixth…

Despite the difficulty I had arriving at this list of five, once I had it and had settled on it, I felt (and continue to feel) good about it. I do have one reservation however: I think it is lessened by having no work of general history. I chose not to have one because I wanted Booth’s rhetoric, and I need the other four to complete each other by working within and between the two pairings.

If I could have a sixth book, it would be a standard history such as The Oxford History of American Literature. Histories like these are marginalized or absent in many undergraduate programs, but they are fundamental. English majors would do better and learn more if they were to read them in their first few years.

 

Sep 022014
 

In a recent post about picking books to read, Mark Bernstein makes the following incidental comment:

if you master four or five books, … you know chemistry.

His point here is simply that the basic body of knowledge that constitutes his field is definable and more manageable than we realize.

Does the same idea apply to the humanities? I don’t know, but given how basic the needs of my students are, I would like to think that the rudimentary principles and practices of what I teach could be stated more or less directly. Or failing that, that I could at least point to books that together come close to capturing those principles. But can I do it? I don’t know.

What I do know is that I’m interested in what books other people would come up with if they tried. I’m so interested in fact that I’m going to post the following scenario both here and on Facebook despite the very real risk of being met with total silence. (ack!)

The Scenario

Imagine that your preferred apocalypse is upon us. Thankfully the governments of the world are working together and have a plan to save civilization. As part of this plan they have stored all primary texts in a safe location: books, films, paintings, musical scores, everything. But they discover they have room left over. So they ask you to select four (max five) non-primary texts that they can preserve in order to pass on the basic knowledge of your field to future generations.

What are the book titles you give them and what field do they define?

I’ll chime in in a bit. But I’d also love for you to let me know your answer in the comments here or on Facebook. (But if it’s all the same, I’d prefer to hear from you here. Or as always, by email. Or even Twitter.)

No pressure.

 

Jun 132014
 

It’s been awhile since I made any political posts but this story about a California judge overturning the state’s tenure laws is troubling news.

In a lot of ways, this case just looks like old-school, conservative anti-unionism. But I see it through the lens of the ed tech tsunami crashing down on me at my school. This tech push is jargon laden and relatively thoughtless. It is also generally commercially driven: too often tech vendors aim to lock schools-as-markets into proprietary systems of instruction; or to install “free” systems that open student data up to some level of commercial access and use.

Teachers, because their primary obligation remains teaching, often push back by demanding that new tech also be better tech.

So when I read an article about some elementary, middle and high school students being used by a tech mogul’s activist group to eliminate teachers’ job security, I’m suspicious. Is this someone fighting for what they believe is best for students or is this someone with a commercial interest piggy-backing on an established anti-union politics that just happens to equate student success with at-will employment for the group best positioned to comment on the utility (or lack thereof) of the product they’re selling?

The whole thing looks like astroturf to me.

May 042014
 

A few months ago I wrote a series of posts about revising my Tinderbox course planning file. (The sidebar links to a good starting place.) When that series ended, I’d settled on a new strategy for writing materials and using links to navigate, but my course maps were either auto-generated or simply rough groupings of linked materials.

Neither was very useful, but I was hopeful that as I worked, a sense of how to organize the material would emerge and that the software would be flexible enough to handle the changes. And it turns out that an organization did emerge and that Tinderbox never broke a sweat as I whipped things into shape.

So this is my revised course map:

Revised Map

The changes are extensive and represent a huge departure from the maps I was using last year. But I couldn’t be more happy with the results. So in the next few paragraphs I’d like to explain how to read what you see. In a subsequent post, I’ll explain the tools I used to actually build the map.

Navigation Buttons

The map breaks into two sections. On the left is a column of dark, wide notes with large text sitting upon a red container. The notes in this column function as buttons that drop me into my wiki-view.  I selected which notes to make buttons by looking for notes that emerged as a link hub in my rough early maps.

For example, the note “Required Texts” contains a basic description of every text I will assign or reference in the course along with a summary explanation of how each will be used. Text titles are always an in-text link to that book or film’s note. The text of that note contains links to other notes in turn. So by double-clicking “Required Texts,” I can navigate to information about any of my readings with only a click or two. The same holds for the other buttons.

“Daily Schedule” operates slightly differently, and so I set it off by colouring it black. This button opens a journal note. After every class, I write a very brief description of what we did. The journal serves as my record of what was accomplished and assigned rather than what was planned. Every reading, lecture, activity or assignment mentioned in the “Daily Schedule” is linked in-text to the relevant note. So by the end of term, this note will provide a textual version of my schedule map (which, naturally, is contained in the map view of the “Daily Schedule” note).

Finally, the red container at the bottom of the column contains notes for each of my individual students. These notes are never accessed through wiki view. So to access student notes I drop into this container and work in a separate map (or call up an outline view).

Unit Adornments

The second section of the map sits to the right of the column of buttons. It contains three adornments laid out in a row, one for each unit of the course. I use these adornments to plan the content of the course independent of the schedule of the classes. (This screen cap was taken as I was beginning the second unit, so the second and third units are not yet complete.)

Using prototypes, I have distinguished between four different types of materials.

  • Blue notes with round edges are primary texts that are either assigned or discussed directly. A blue border indicates a print text; a green border, a film text. The notes that have been darkened by changing their pattern to lines are texts held in reserve as alternates.
  • Yellow notes are graded work. A purple border indicates the assignment involves students creating and drafting pages on the course web site.
  • Grey circular notes are mini-lectures. A red border identifies history lectures that build upon each other independent of other course materials.
  • Green notes with pointed edges are in-class activities that involve a formal assignment sheet or complex instructions.

The map shows only one type of link. These links are visible on the map as arrows leading from one note to another and indicate that a reading, lecture or activity will be used directly in graded work and so must be completed before it is assigned. All other link types are invisible.

Finally, overlapping notes indicate when lectures use primary texts as examples or incorporate activities.

Oral Presentations

Managing oral presentations is always difficult. For this class, I laid out the presentation texts in order on an adornment below the units. I then created aliases of student notes and lined them up under the text they were speaking on. This simple set-up lets me to know who’s presenting on what at a glance and allows me to make adjustments when needed with little hassle or up-keep. This reduces my workload so much that this section of the map is just about my favourite.

A Info Rich Map

Finally, what may not be immediately obvious in all of this is that each of the notes visible on this map contains note texts accessible by double-clicking the map object.

Double-click on a lecture and you’ll find my speaking notes and, probably, a link to the keynote file I’ve prepared. Double-click on graded work and you’ll find the assignment sheet. If the assignment will be completed on the web, those instructions will be in mark-up, ready to be copy-pasted into the text field of the edit page on the course wiki. Most importantly, every single one of these notes will contain at least one in-text link, which means that from any point, I can navigate to all my other notes independent of my map or outline.

So I think my revised course map is incredibly useful, and I’m very happy with it. In the next few days I will post an explanation of the nuts-and-bolts of how I actually built it. That post’s not done yet but it’s shaping up to be a love letter to the Attributes and Inspector Panes. So stay tuned.

Feb 112014
 

In my original template, dates and deadlines, kinds of material and their topics, and everything else I needed to know about a note was indicated and organized visually in map view using nested containers, colours  screen position, badges, borders and even pattern overlays. This worked well but it also made my maps rigid rather than creative spaces. Every visual element was assigned with little room left to experiment. I’m trying to change this with my template revision my displacing some of this visual information from the map onto other attributes.

Flat Maps

Because of how I’ve generated notes using my “wiki view,” my maps start out autogenerated, unadorned and monochromatic.

Autogenerated Map

These maps are also oddly beautiful.

To begin working with these maps, I simply grouped notes loosely to get a basic sense of flow. This arrangement was ad hoc and changed based on what I was looking at. As I’ve worked and my notes have multiplied, this map has become a challenge to work with and to “see”–but this confusion is useful and generative. So I’ve resisted eliminating it by simply “tidying up” the map.

Flat Maps

A very early map with few notes or links.

The one container I have created so far is called “Daily Schedule” and I use its map view to plan activities that have clear start dates or deadlines. But even here I have resisted nesting containers and have tried to move information into non-map attributes: my schedule is now built with overlapping adornments and on-add actions set the $StartDate attribute automatically for aliases dropped on an adornment.

Adornment Schedule

Same old grid but now flattened into overlapping adornments

Having working $StartDate data allows me to use timelines, something I couldn’t do before and have barely begun experimenting with.

Boolean Attributes & Agents

In addition to $StartDate, I have created a series of user attributes to carry the information I’d previously stashed in note colour, badges, etcFor example, material types are now stored in $Story, $Film, or $SecondarySource attributes. $OralPresentations and $Assigned attributes criss-cross these and distinguish materials selected for use from those that were simply considered.

All of these attributes are boolean, which is another departure. In my previous template I used mostly sets. For example, I had a $MaterialType attribute that was first a string and then a set. But typos were a hassle and selecting from (or remembering) multiple names for the types I was using was too. Having multiple yes/no attributes (one per type) is easier for me to maintain and keep consistent.

These new boolean attributes also make it easier for me to build agents on-the-fly. Do I need a schedule of oral presentations? Then I create an agent that searches for $OralPresentation as “true” and set it to sort by $StartDate. Am I building a bibliography of supplementary readings and screenings? I create an agent that searches for $Story, $Film and $SecondarySource as “true” and $OralPresentation and $Assigned as “false.”

These agents have a simple syntax and take only moments to create. As a result, I can make them up as I need them even if I need them only for a short time.

Link Types on a Map

Finally, the links on my top-level map have become extensive and they read primarily in terms of density. But I have been thinking about what else they might be made to tell me if I thought of them in terms of link types.

What I’ve realized is that many of these links are simply for navigation, and I don’t need to see them in map view. Others are navigational and also informational insofar as they indicate kinds of materials and the relationships between them. It seems there would be value in assigning these different links different types and then setting them to display differently on the map. Navigation links could be hidden, for example, but links to required and supplementary materials might be presented in different colours.

And in a Note Text…

If link types can be useful in map view, it also seems they ought to be able to differentiate relations between materials in note texts as well. For example, right now link-text colour simply tells me what I’ve clicked on. Knowing instead that a green link leads to an assignment and a blue link leads to reading notes could be very useful. But I suppose this depends on whether I could set up rules or agents to make link-text colour representative of link type. And I don’t know how to do that or even if it’s possible…

The End (for now)

And so this post ends with ideas and speculation and I take that as a sign that my description of my template revision has caught up with my practice and that it’s time to wrap up the series. When the term is further along and I know more about how things have gone, I’ll give an update.