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:
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.
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).
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.
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.
Is HTML like handwriting or like book printing? I can’t decide.
If it’s like book printing, then writers complete their manuscript and, after it’s edited and polished, send it off to be “published.”
But this seems wrong to me because not being able to layout pages or make links as casually as I jot notes on paper for a post like this one makes me feel like my students trying to handwrite an exam.
My students haven’t really learned how to write efficiently by hand. They keyboard. So anytime they have to write by hand, they are handicapped, and what they write in these situations expresses not what they know or can figure out or can imagine, but instead, what they can write down in the available time.
So here’s the question: if HTML is like handwriting, how do you “learn to write” when you have a real job and real work to do?
What is the book you turn to to learn something more than syntax or to find something more than a dictionary of available commands? Which book says “To make workable, modern pages, you should know this and think of your page (or site) in this way?”
Or is the answer just “Learn DreamWeaver or Flux”?
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.
Because of how I’ve generated notes using my “wiki view,” my maps start out autogenerated, unadorned and monochromatic.
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.
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.
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, etc. For 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.
I’ve been thinking about the mismatch between how revolutionary my “wiki view” seems to me and how completely insignificant it appears when I reread my description of it in my last post. When I reread, my take-away is: so I’ve started writing notes…in Tinderbox…”The Tool for Notes”…and… (yawn).
So I’m wondering: what is it about my work that makes writing and navigating notes with links seem so powerful?
The answer I think lies in the way I have been using “course content” to refer to two different things. On the one hand, it is my knowledge of a field, call it literature. On the other, it is all the lectures, activities and assignments I create for my students so that they can practice skills and demonstrate knowledge. The first of these is what I teach; the second, how I teach it.
In order to organize how I teach, I need to sequence course lectures, activities, and assignments so that they fit within the time constraints of a single semester. I also need to manage and track my movement–and my students’ movement–through this sequence. My original template offers me the tools I need to do these things.
Sequence is less important when organizing what I teach. Literature is complex. It operates through language. It organizes itself aesthetically. It is a field of meaning and a history and an etc. When I organize what I teach, I create an interpretation of this complexity pitched at my students.
My “wiki view” creates a word-based system for organizing what I teach that is independent of the graphical representations of sequence that organize how I teach. It allows me to dive into and swim freely through a sea of words. And when I need a breath of sequential air, I know that I can come up to the surface and bob around in map or outline view.
This new freedom to develop what I teach in a way proper to my field is, I think, the revolution I’m feeling.
The roots of my course plan revision reach back to the classroom wiki project I began creating last May. As part of my early preparations for this project, I created a personal wiki to experiment with the software I’d be using and decided to populate it with course materials to get it started quickly. This got me thinking about how planning a course in my Tinderbox template was different from what course planning would look like on a wiki.
Now, it was obvious almost immediately that the wiki was too limited to do any actual course planning. But at the same time there were two real and enormous benefits that I could see in a wiki-based approach. First, the wiki forced me to focus on texts and how pieces of text lead me to other (or new) materials. Second, the wiki nurtured a mild but generative confusion as I worked. Both of these seemed worth importing back into my Tinderbox template.
So, in this post, I’ll explain how I’m rearranging my template to shift my focus to the text of my notes, and in my next, I’ll explain how (and why) I’m “breaking” my template enough to let in some confusion.
The Problem of Title-Notes
Because I worked in outline and map views in my original course planning template, many of my notes consisted of little more than the title attribute (plus whatever attributes or copy-pasted text I used to catch them later with agents). These titles needed to be short enough to be viewed on a single line or within a reasonably sized box. They were also largely static.
In practice, the titles of empty notes named or described content (lecture notes, exercises instructions, etc.) stored outside my template, often as a keynote or word processing file. Generally but not always, I linked to that external file from my note. Generally but not always, I copy-pasted the content of that file to the note on the day I taught so that it would be included in the Nakajoki view printout I brought to class.
Notes in my Wiki
In my wiki, things worked very differently. There were no map or outline views, and page-note titles were displaced to the top of my browser window. I was forced to deal with the actual content of pages and found this confrontation with the imperfect messy details of my work inspiring.
I also found that depending on links to navigate created a pressure to state ideas and information rather than merely to name them. In principle, blank pages in the wiki were the same as blank title-notes on my outline or map views, but in practice they were not. I needed note texts with links to navigate from page to page on the wiki. A blank page was a dead-end in a way an empty note wasn’t in map or outline view. The way past these dead-ends was to add content and links, even if only provisionally, so that the blank obstacle opened up and gave me a way to move on to the rest of my materials.
Living in note texts and making them lead one to the other through links pushed me to bring materials into existence and toward maturity in a way I hadn’t been pushed to do in my original course template.
Creating “Wiki View” in Tinderbox
A primary goal of my template revision has been to create a similar immersion in note texts and a similar link-driven push to develop materials in Tinderbox. To do this, I set my old template aside, created a new file, and:
switched my preferences to hide the sidebar;
created a first note called home in the initial outline view and opened it;
closed the initial outline view;
worked out from the home page, creating and writing new notes as I need them.
This set-up recreated my wiki experience. Note titles, which were central in my original template, were here displaced to the title bar, and my note text was pushed front-and-centre. As I write material, I added links to new notes, and used these links to navigate.
But It’s a Tinderbox Wiki
This set-up is not, however, simply recreation of my wiki experience. It also improves on it in two ways.
First, links in my new template open in a new window. Some might find this annoying (and tabs are coming to Tinderbox) but without the sidebars, the note window is very compact and I like seeing and working on multiple related notes simultaneously. (Multiple windows also makes linking pieces of text to other notes very easy.) More importantly, open windows can be arranged on my desktop as an ad hoc map view but with one great benefit over a regular Tinderbox map: my note texts on this map are both visible and editable.
Second, because of how Tinderbox is built, this new way of working can operate alongside all of the course planning strategies I used in my previous template. My workspace has been expanded–an entirely new “ground level” space has been created underneath the eye-in-the-sky map views–but those map views are only a hotkey way. When I’m ready to do so, all of the notes I create in wiki view can be organized into semester schedules and content groupings just as I did in the past. Which is incredible.
(What’s even more incredible is that, although I’m working in a completely new and better way, I get the sense that, if it talked, Tinderbox would say “well of course you can do that” as if it had been designed to do exactly this new thing and had been waiting all along for me to realize it.)
My second stab at using a classroom wiki has launched. It’s going well so far: everyone has posted a profile and is figuring out how to use the basic mark-up.
Something that caught me off guard last time was the peculiar mix of ignorance and familiarity most students bring to an internet-based project and which tends to block them early on. This time around I have redesigned the pages providing general course materials so that they serve as models students can use when creating pages of their own. Obvious, but I didn’t think of it last time. More on the project later in the term.
As I have been getting students up and running on that site, the pipeline of posts I’d prepared on my course planning revisions has run dry. I’m working on the rest now, and they should start up again this weekend.
I suppose I should say something about agents before I start talking about my new course file.
In my original template, agents were as basic as basic could be and were used initially to sort student notes. By the midpoint in the semester I’d created an individual note for each student by importing an Excel spreadsheet. In the note text I’d indicate basic information about the student’s submission of assignments and my feedback on their written work. Keeping track of who had submitted drafts or participated in peer review or sought help from a tutor at the writing center had always been quite difficult. But now I was cutting and pasting fixed strings into student notes that I would then search for with agents. Tons of work was suddenly gone.
Eventually I understood what attributes were.* By the end of the term, I’d begun converting some of my text strings to Boolean attributes. I’d set the default to true and then mark “false” for anyone who didn’t hand in a draft, for example. This was easier than cut and paste and tidier too.
All that said, I should admit that what I could do with agents in absolute terms was very limited. I knew no scripting or programming languages and was completely new to the concept of regular expressions. Everything I did was based on the basic syntaxes demonstrated when I selected options from the dropdown menus of the agent-creation window. By using these simple examples as models (and with some flipping through action lists in the manual and rereading some explanations in The Tinderbox Way), I figured out how to do what I needed to.
Agents and Links
I used agents to gather material without ever using them to perform actions. Partly this was because of my limited ability to write action scripts. But it also reflects what I was trying to do: I needed to schedule and categorize material by date or by connections to readings but also wanted to work with them in a way that didn’t resemble a filing cabinet or file structure. My boring basic agents cut across the hierarchy of boxes I’d built in a way I’d imagined links doing; and they confirmed that the materials dropped into boxes were in fact interconnected.
*I “knew” what attributes were, but I associated them with fields in a database and saw them as fixed and complicated, something I had to create in anticipation of future needs. What attributes actually are “clicked” when I realized I could add and delete them at will.
As I explained in my previous post, I scheduled class time in my Tinderbox template by dropping notes (or aliases) into a class meeting’s container. I also kept related materials together in “Reading” containers. This set-up works fine–better than fine: it’s more useful than anything I’ve ever before!–but clearly I’ve become greedy, because as I’ve used my template, I’ve decided there are things I want to work better.
Boxes within Boxes
Course content late in term is dependent upon content from early in term, and over time, I’ve realized that my template set-up obscures all connections that are not about sequence within the schedule. For example, when looking at my semester schedule map, I see whether something is “before,” “with,” or “after” something else. Colors applied with prototypes also identify four kinds of material: readings, lectures, activities, and assignments.
But when I double-click into a day’s container in map view in order to work with the notes directly, I can no longer see what came before or will come next. My schedule, which shows the progression of material across the entire term, disappears from view, and I’m left considering the day’s materials in isolation. Keeping open multiple windows with multiple views addresses this problem, especially once I realized that dropping notes and aliases between windows was problem-free. Yet, I’m not entirely happy with this solution: I want to begin with connections and organize them, but my containers make isolated material my starting point. This feels backwards.
Hopes for Links…postponed.
Linking was a more-or-less new proposition for me when I began using Tinderbox. But I’d bought into the idea that it might open up new ways of seeing my material and had built links up haphazardly as I added my content notes. I soon discovered, however, that many of the links I’d built between notes were hidden by my set-up. Links to notes within the same container show up visually on the map, but links to notes in other containers do not. Instead, they are indicated with a short arrow coming out of the lower edge of a note or going into the top edge.
To see which notes are being linked to or from I could have opened a “Browse Links” window or opened the note and clicked on the link list. But most of the time I didn’t do this. I was using links hopefully rather than with purpose. And so, I seldom had a good reason to open a “Browse Link” window to see where those in-coming or out-going link arrows led. What I wanted was the link pictured so I could see what I might find out. But my containers were keeping that from happening.
And so, linking became something I explored in other Tinderbox files built up for personal projects rather than in my course file, and course maps like the one above were largely abandoned. Now, with more experience with links under my belt, bringing links back into the planning process is the primary goal of my template revision.
Although I’ve written about my original course plan a bit in earlier posts, I need to review a few points so that what I want to do differently this semester will make sense. So here goes.
Mapping a Schedule
I began my course plan by duplicating my paper schedule using adornments. That was it. Adornments plus notes with titles dropped where they would happen.
Things changed after I took my schedule-map and looked at it in outline view and realized that note-images were also manipulable note-files. (I had known this but not understood what that implied.) When I saw both views side-by-side, I suddenly realized I could organize in two independent but interconnected ways: change the materials (revise the title, add note text) and they were updated everywhere, but change their organization in the outline view and the note-images stayed in place on the map. This was major.
Outlining a Schedule
Now my outline was initially a mess: dozens of notes randomly arranged, my adornments didn’t show and I didn’t know that separators existed. So to organize my outline, I decided to create a hierarchy. This created an outline-schedule that worked like a file structure with collapsable containers.
Next in map view, I deleted the adornments I’d used to make my map-schedule. I then sized and arranged the note-images of my new containers to replicate the layout of the adornments I’d erased.
In a sense this brought me back to square one: I had my map schedule back. It still offered in a complete, readable, interactive overview of my schedule for the semester. But now the flat adornments were “keyholes” looking in on rooms holding each day’s materials, and my new outline views gave me quick access to what each room contained.
Content plus Scheduling
The final big change came when I created a “Readings” container with one note for each assigned text. I then moved the note for every lecture, exercise and activity related to a text into its note making it also a container. This kept related content together in one spot. I then repopulated my outline- and map-schedules with aliases of these reading and activity notes so I knew when they would be covered.
All of this led to a more-or-less fixed workspace. I kept open two different schedule views (one in outline, one in map) and a content bundle (also in outline view) that together offered me three avenues for developing, expanding or refining my course. For big picture concerns I worked in the map view. To plan or adjust individual class meetings, I worked in outline view. I sorted out the progression of materials (or identified missing or incomplete materials that needed development) in my “Readings” window. Before each class I also printed a Nakakoji view of the day’s container and used it as speaking notes.
I tried other things as I went along, but in general terms, this is the foundation of what I worked with for the rest of that term and for the remainder of the year.
After that early success, I revised my file into a template by cleaning out everything except the basic categories, adornments and agents I would need to plan other classes. I have used it to plan all my courses since.
But now with another semester on its way and with some experience using Tinderbox in coordination with my classroom wiki project, I decided to set my template aside and to approach course planning from a new angle. I’ve been talking my way through this process in my notebooks, and it seems like a good idea to post some of my thoughts here so that I don’t lose them.
My biggest problems with the wiki project to date have arisen because students don’t read what’s on their screen or pay attention to system prompts. They are used to web-pages that either do nothing or have been designed to just take them along for the ride. When they want something to happen they start clicking buttons–seemingly at random and without waiting even a moment to see what their click did–expecting apparently that if they click enough or in the right place the site will eventually do what they want. But it doesn’t and the carelessness wrecks havoc!
In the worst cases, they erase other students’ work or lose their own. (And they don’t save work in intermediate steps. I don’t understand. Who doesn’t save work?!?) They also don’t pay attention to where they are on the site or adjust to context, and so for example, they lose formatting by cutting and pasting from a display screen to an edit screen. (There’s no markup on the display and the bold, bulleting, etc. they see there disappears in the plain text editor. They respond by clicking randomly and by the time help arrives they’ve erased their tracks badly enough that they have to start the mark-up all over again.)
Teaching attention and carefulness is hard because they are about habits not knowledge.
The wiki project is off to a solid start, and students seem to like it. My fears about basic site maintenance–can I run the tech for this project on my own?–have also faded. Things are stable and work. That said, my initial goals for the project have been radically revised: what I imagined this project would be about is not what I’m dealing with and so my goals and what I’m trying to teach are changing. Fast.
Linking as Literacy
The most substantial change is in my literacy goals. As it turns out, markup and the distinction between content and formatting is not difficult. Linking is. Creating links (as opposed to following them) requires working at a level of abstraction that is quite difficult for my students to handle. You must hold bits of text in your head, juggle them, and always read (and write) with an ear turned to hear echoes of other things that you could search for and link to. Or at least, you need to see places that ought to link to something and mark them with a link, even if that link is just pointing to a blank page in the wiki for the moment.
Linking also invites confusion. Links can be arranged as a kind of file hierarchy that duplicates a finder or explorer structure. Which is fine and some of my students have fallen back on this strategy. But links can also (more profitably?) be arranged in a web that resembles, when things go wrong, a knot or, when things go right, a line thrown blindly out into the darkness that you hope will grab something useful on the other end. Building a webbed structure requires faith in the process, faith in the idea that good work connected link-by-link will slowly develop into something useful and insightful in the end. But that kind of faith is hard for overworked students to muster. They don’t want to waste their time. And of course: are the links graded?
From Revision to Note-taking
Linking now seems more important to me than revision. I would like students to learn both to make links and to “make links.” And so, I have shifted my expectations and have adjusted the assigned work. I am now encouraging students to take notes on the wiki rather than to create finished texts there. I want this note-taking to be experimental, personal, idiosyncratic; I want it to be a process where they notice, collect and select info and then mark its importance by formatting and arranging it and by drawing links between their various collected tidbits. In order to allow them to experiment in private, I have set up a private group space for each student where they can post pages that only they can access. It was laborious to do but worth it.
A principal assignment for the wiki is now going to be an annotation of a poem. I will assign everyone a poem. They post it correctly formatted and then add explanatory and interpretative annotations as footnotes. These annotations will be sourced and will connect to additional resources on the wiki or the web. It’s a new kind of task. I’ve never done it before and it is only possible online.
What I like about it is that it encompasses both aspects of the course content: literary analysis through close reading and hypertextual, online writing. In this, it moves completely beyond my initial conception of the project, which was mostly just a repackaging of my normal class as an online activity. With this assignment, the wiki project creates something new and useful that changes how I teach my course.
The commercialized web has turned links into distractions. Advertising links on news sites and Facebook pull your attention away from what’s brought you there. Related content links–in text or off to the side–scatter your attention around to create “click” revenue. In these contexts, links are obstacles to strong, effective reading and are best ignored.
But on personal sites, links are something else. At their least interesting, they point toward things the writer has noticed, wants to remember. They can also gather up, either within or across posts, a set of materials to be worked through and commented on at some point. At their best, links capture knowledge or express insight, developed in a piecemeal but ultimately coherent process of discovery and analysis.
In English and French, order and sequence are nearly synonyms. [note]Which other languages is this true in? Is is rare or common to have the two words converge in this way?[/note] “To put things in order” generally means to organize them by putting them into sequence. This is especially true in a world shaped by the bullet lists in Microsoft Word and PowerPoint.
Hypertext seems to me like an effort to make order and sequence different. Hypertexts try to order material without sequencing it. Hypertexts–fiction, essays, whatever–are celebrated for this possibility. They are also off-putting and difficult to read because of it.
But here’s the thing: order is central to knowledge and in writing order means sequence. To write something intelligible implies sequencing material. Sidestepping the challenge of sequencing words and sentences seems like avoiding the seminal challenge of writing (and reading). Sequence is hard, and hypertext, understood as anti-sequence, seems to echo one of the most common lies writers tell ourselves when we want to “work” rather than work: beyond a certain point, “I’m working out my idea” is building castles in the sky if words or aren’t going down on paper.
I’ve not read many hypertext fictions. So many of them have become inaccessible due to changing software platforms (a different problem), but those I have have troubled me. Actively non-sequential hypertext seems, ironically, to be open to a very naive sequentiality misunderstood as spatial. (For an example, see “Changed.”) Alternatively, descriptions of early hypertext which aimed to create obstacles for our expectations of sequence sound to me like stunts. A hypertext where every word is a link is simply unreadable.
The most interesting hypertext I’ve seen is the short and relatively simple essay “Why No One Clicked on the Great Hypertext Story.” Reading it I think of directionality in links and wonder if multi-sequentiality–rather than non- or anti-sequentiality–is what hypertext should be aiming for. But even there, I wonder how to manage the demands of such reading beyond the limited word-count of an essay. The very interesting hypertext novel Luminous Airplanes is nearly impossible to read because I can’t figure out how to remember where I am, where I have been and so feel like I have to read the entire piece in a sitting. But that is simply impossible. The text is too long.
And so, hypertext as a literary form fascinates me but seems also to be struggling to find its technological basis. I can’t figure out how to read or to write anything but the most basic of examples. Yet, I’m fascinated by the possibility…
After two years, this blog project and the personal wiki that grew from it have born something other than private fruit: I have installed pmwiki on a server and will use it to run a large-scale class project this coming semester. The course will be a basic college literature course. Because the course is for non-majors, composition and writing skills are an important aspect of the curriculum and are the basis for the project.
My Initial Goals
These are quite small. I hope to:
naturalize the process of revision in composition by setting it beside the constant development and change of online materials;
to offer students some sense that they are writing to communicate to an audience rather than writing assignments for me to grade;
teach basic web literacy, which here means a familiarity with content/format separation and the use of markup syntax.
An Observation About these Goals
Only the last of these is specifically about teaching composition as transformed by the internet. The others are really about using the Internet to spice up or interpret established course material. This is something to track over the term because web-composition would be worth addressing more substantially. But doing that this first go around just seems like too much to bite off all at the same time. I mean, this will also be the first time that I manage a class project where every aspect of the tech–the server, the installation, basic site management, the tech-help for students, everything–will be done by me. And I’ll be doing it as I teach the course. So web-composition: track, keep notes, and maybe next time.
One Last Thought
Increasingly students read about assigned texts online rather than reading the text itself. Those who do must later rely on internet sources for the content of the essays, and so, plagiarism is becoming a huge problem. I explain every semester that reading texts is required and that copying text off the internet is not acceptable but I hear Peppermint Patty’s teacher’s voice in my head as I do. I say, “Read! It’s worth it!” and I suspect students hear “All teachers hate the internet. You should waste time doing pointless busy work because back in the day, uphill both ways, carrying a log for the fire, etc.”
My pie-in-the-sky hope is that the wiki project will elicit some buy-in to the course materials by:
acknowledging online materials exist and are often useful;
providing a forum for these materials to be cited, linked to and discussed;
teaching and demanding some technical engagement with web-based writing (i.e. teaching students to write in ways that make the web rather than simply use it);
demonstrating that discourse is about norms rather than rules by having two different written discourses developing in class: one online in the wiki, the other offline through traditional essays.
In January, I bit the bullet and bought Mark Bernstein’s software Tinderbox to develop and organize the literature classes I teach. I offered my initial thoughts a few months ago. Now as the semester draws to a close, I can say that Tinderbox has changed how I think about course planning.
I had three course sections in a sixteen week semester which meant 90 course meetings needed to be planned. Using adornments I recreated my tried-and-true paper and pen diagrams in map view and used them to layout the semester roughly and quickly. In all the other software I have tried to use for this task this is as far as the process has gone: initial work done, I have always ended up with an electronic document that I could have done as well on paper. In fact, I generally printed the file because a paper document was ultimately more flexible and more useful for the rest of the term.
With Tinderbox, things were very different. Initial rough planning done, I overlaid my adornments with containers, one per course meeting. I created notes for the scheduled readings and began to drop lectures, exercises and quizzes into the readings notes (which automatically became containers for these new notes). I populated my course meeting containers with aliases to the materials I would use each day. As I moved through the semester, I began filling in links, spreading out aliases. By midterm, I had decided to enter my student rolls into the file–one note per student–and was using agents to keep track of who had submitted work, what feedback I’d given on previous assignments and dozens of other small (but important!) details that made teaching easier for me and more useful for my students.
Ultimately I can say that Tinderbox has made my own work better. Just as importantly, it has introduced me to the possibilities of hypertext. I am astounded and inspired and very happy to have found it.
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
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.
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.