Honest Links

I’m working on Faulkner. That text is an argument but also a description of a situation and a history of its context.

Working, I’ve discovered that links can lie.

How?

The jump from one thing to the next can suggest a logical connection between the things without specifying it. And the lacunae can be masked by the page change and clever writing.

Definitely a temptation to avoid.

The flip side of this: any page text will likely be (should be!) the target of multiple links, each suggesting a different logical relationship with that text. So specifying the nature of a connection can be hard.

The goal: honesty without logical constriction.

Tinderbox: How to Make In-text Links

This is a follow-up to my post about front-of-the-manual tools in Eastgate’s Tinderbox. It explains how I make the in-text links I discussed there. Because it’s sometimes easier to see things done than to read about it, I’m also including a couple of short screen cap videos. I don’t often post videos and have a spotty record with them. The ones here look like black boxes to me…but they play. If they don’t for you, please let me know by email or Twitter.

Links Within the Same Tab

In-text links within the same tab are pretty straightforward. You simply:

  1. select the anchor text;
  2. click the link button in the text viewer;
  3. drag the button’s link animation to another note;
  4. click “create link” in the pop-up that appears.

The video shows what it looks like in practice. (It also shows how to assign a prototype and how I change the badge of an agenda item to a check mark once it is dealt with in a meeting.)

 

With these links in place, you can move from the meeting container to an agenda item’s note with a single click.

 

Links Across Different Tabs

Links across tabs are made in roughly the same way although there are a couple extra steps that allow you to find the note you are looking for. To  make these links, you:

  1. select the anchor text;
  2. click the link button in the text viewer;
  3. drag the button’s link animation to the link placeholder in the upper left corner of the window;
  4. click the tab that has the note you wish to link to;
  5. drag the link animation from the link placeholder to a note;
  6. click “create link” in the pop-up that appears.

Here’s what is looks like in practice:

 

This example also shows the reason I link from meeting containers to agenda items (i.e. what I demonstrate in the first video). In the future when I need refer to information from this meeting I will link to the meeting container and not the specific note I need. Doing so will bring me to an agenda that lets me access the specific information I’m looking for by using the blue links. But it also provides an overview of the context in which the information originally appeared and lets me click to see that information if I decide it’s useful to me.

Finally, if you don’t have multiple tabs open but wish to link to a note that is not visible in your outline, that’s no problem. Once you’ve dragged your link from the source note to the placeholder, you can dig around and find your destination note. Once you do, you drag the link from the placeholder and finish the process.

In-text Links and Maps

These in-text links show up on maps. Because my admin file has many more links than notes, these links often confuse things rather than clarify them in map view. In my course plan, I deal with this problem by using the inspector to make all but one link type invisible. When I think a particular link will add something to a map, I assign it the visible type using the drop-down menu on the create link pop-up window.

Drop-down Menu for selecting link types.
Drop-down Menu for selecting link types.

 

Deleting Accidental Links

I make mistakes when I create in-text links. When this happens I hit opt-cmd-L to pull up the “Browse Links” pop-up for the note, find my mistaken link, delete it and then try again.

Links to Files & to the Web

I also create links to files in my dropbox (frequently) and to sites on the web (rarely). These links are held in key attributes for a note. I make them by dragging and dropping the file from a finder window (or the url from my browser) onto the attribute’s field at the top of the note viewer.

 

Front-of-the-manual Tools

A Tinderbox file is like sculpture. You chip away at your project—first here, then there—slowly digging to find the shape of your specific problem and its logic.

It can seem hard because there are a lot of tools at hand. Some of them are complicated. And, in a sense, you are all alone: other people aren’t doing what you are doing and the Tinderbox files they use in their work are very different from the files you need for yours. So even when they offer advice, they can’t really tell you what to do. Not really.

My tendency is to assume that work would be easier if I could just master the complicated tools at the back of the manual. Yet, I find (and too often forget) that Tinderbox’s front-of-the-manual tools—links and aliases for example—are flexible and powerful enough to work wonders. To show what I mean (and to remind myself when I’ll have forgotten in a couple months), I’ve prepared a mock-up of the TBX file I’m using to do my administrative work.

Starting Simply

A lot of administration boils down to managing meetings and reports. So when I created my file, I simply started adding container notes for for each of my upcoming meetings.

Starting with Meeting Notes
Starting with Meeting Notes

Notes for agenda items are placed in the meeting container; the container text is a typed copy of the agenda with in-text links to individual item notes. Basic, non-hierarchical prototypes set “File” as a key attribute allowing me to link to the pdfs of supporting documents that I have stored in the Finder. [note]These pdf files sit in a work specific section of my hard drive that has a stable, date-based filing system so that links to the document files won’t be broken accidentally by moving the file to a new location. Topical organization is done in Tinderbox, not the Finder.[/note]

As more meetings are added to the file, material discussed in earlier meeting often appears on agendas for later ones. Each time it does I link from that later meeting’s agenda item back to the container for the earlier meeting and link the earlier meeting’s agenda item to the agenda item note in the later one.

Cross-links Develop Progressively
Cross-links Develop Progressively

Making these cross-links requires no additional work because I have to go back to my earlier meeting notes when I prepare for the new meeting anyway. I simply make these links when I do. Yet despite being easy to make, their pay-off is huge: these cross-links capture my knowledge of my materials and are are fast and productive in use. When I click, my past work is there, supporting my current work.

Scale & Complexity

Tinderbox allows this very simple system of cross-links to scale easily. In the span of only two months, my TBX file looks something like this:

Complexly Interacting Complexities
Complexly Interacting Complexities

In one sense, this is pure chaos: dozens of different meetings and projects spread across three different organizational units (each kept open as a tab), all of which subdivide into numerous other units. It’s overwhelming. And yet, woven through the noise is a system of links creating sensible paths through the confusion.

Aliases supplement these links by letting me keep a note in the container for it’s original meeting while simultaneously placing it in the container for a new meeting. This allows me to access relevant material both through in-text cross-links as well as through the outline, where I can click on aliases directly.

More importantly, these links and aliases lower the bar for beginning to work on otherwise daunting tasks. When I have something to do or something to prepare, I click on the note for that thing and begin to work my links. I follow them, add to them, do what I can, skip over what I can’t and bit-by-bit I manage to chip away at the task at hand. And the notes, links and aliases I build up preserve the work I do. It’s a powerful system.

But Tinderbox…So Attributes & Agents

In my actual working file, the linking strategy I’ve described is fundamental. Yet once I had a few hundred notes, I saw that some info would serve me better if I moved it to user attributes that I then set to key attributes by prototypes so that I could see it easily. (Committee membership for people, for example.)

Then I had an idea and added a keyword attribute, making it a set. I then went through all my notes assigning keywords, adding new ones when I need them, selecting them from the dropdown menu when I could. This took some time, but I was shocked by how many notes took no keywords, shocked by how many notes weren’t important enough to merit keywords. (That counts as an insight.)

And then I created a few simple agents with a single query: $keyword=(“[one of my keywords]”) to pull out and group topical notes. This is the first complicated difficult thing I do in my Tinderbox file. Up to this point, everything else has been basic “create file, drag and drop, make alias or make a link” file-managment type stuff, most of it done in outline mode. Those links and aliases are still there and still fundamental, but these topical groupings added something new and useful.

The Point

So this is a long post, but my point, I guess, is that I’m drawn to back-of-the-manual tools. They are fancy, impressive, and seem to be where the action is. But Tinderbox’s front-of-the-manual tools are the action too. Links and aliases make sense, are easy to use, and they can do great things, especially in cases where you’re bombarded with information and just need to keep your head above water while you figure out how to move forward.

 

Update: I have explained how I make the links I discuss here in a new post.

Notes on a Hypertext

For the last few weeks, I’ve been working on the hypertext I took on as a summer project. It’s been an eye-opening experience and I’d like to jot down some observations informally for later. These are in addition to some earlier thoughts.

The Project

I’m making an online presentation of the argument and research from my dissertation, but I don’t want to create an ordinary web site in the sense of a menu or search driven collection of resources. Instead, I want to offer something that someone could actually read and that, as they move from page to page, unfolds only aspects of the story that are of interest to them.

Despite what I’ll say below, things are going well and I’m excited. I have a third (maybe a bit more) of the thing done and the way I’m working is already very different from what I planned and imagined as I began: it seems that there’s life in the beast and so I’m letting it show me what to work on and when. I’ve also accepted that this is an experiment, everything’s new to me, and whatever I might dream up, things are not going to be perfect if I ever want to finish.

Things I’ve Noticed

  1. How do I decide to link: I imagine the questions people will ask as they read then link to the answer. Rinse, repeat.
  2. I’m cutting texts to the size of the screen and adapting language to multiple audiences. This changes the originally academic prose drastically. There are still deep places where academic guts are exposed and the language rumbles along with the mannered rhythms of a conference paper. Those who are interested will find these places easily enough. But hopefully, it will be just as easy for others to read Faulkner’s story in engaging prose without ever visiting these places. If I pull this double-language off, I will be very very happy.
  3. Scale matters. Without enough “nodes” in play, links feel like icing, like an add-on. Once enough nodes are in play though, links serve a purpose and feel essential, like a line thrown out and tied off to keep loose things whole. With enough nodes in play, I have a standard for deciding what works and what doesn’t: does this link keep things from breaking or my head above water? Good. Then, what about this one? When I start asking these questions, a lot of my small-scale, links-to-have-links are deleted.
  4. When linking materials, the complexity eventually settles down, becomes clear and “flows.” But only after a cruel march through spirit-crushing complication. How do I know things are right? A jumble of material suddenly runs like water through a system of canals. How do I know I’m not quite there? Things that used to make sense have become so complicated and confused I’m ready to throw in the towel. It’s brutal.
  5. Words have momentum and writing words in a hypertext is as involved and as intimate as drafting and revising words for printed text. It takes time and effort and attention to detail. I hadn’t expected this and in an act of pure insanity chose to resurrect 100,000 words that I thought I was done with and had stashed away years ago. This too is brutal, and when I’m done, I’m staking the dissertation and scattering the ashes.
  6. I don’t actually care if anyone reads all the pieces of this thing, which surprises me. I want people to read what interests them, to find what they need, maybe something unexpected, and then when they are satisfied, to leave. I imagine myself creating possibilities for useful partial readings, and that feels like a better way to write (which is another surprise).

The Topic: William Faulkner’s MGM Screenplays

My dissertation and the hypertext are about William Faulkner’s screenwriting during his first Hollywood contract at MGM Studios.

Faulkner’s reputation is based upon his novels and short stories, but he wrote in Hollywood for more than twenty years. That first year is special though. He was learning the ropes, and to do so, he adapted his own fiction for the screen, something he rarely attempted again and never with such commitment.

My dissertation looks at how Faulkner changed his source stories in response to Hollywood storytelling conventions and emerging censorship. And because he returned to and used these same stories when writing subsequent fiction, I also indicate the ways these adaptations produce important changes in his style that critics associate with his later works.

More info to come…

Arguing, Plotting and Making Hypertext

Mark Bernstein asks some basic questions of craft as he tries to write a hypertext page turner. Now, I don’t know Bernstein so it’s probably presumptuous for me to chime in on this and also foolish given how little I know of the hypertexts that have been written in the past twenty years or so. I’m also not a fiction writer. [note]As context, I’ve read only a few things that are available online. These include: Luminous Airplanes, “Changed,” Letters from Ireland, and My Body. Truth be told, these things are so different from each other, I’m not even sure which of them others might call hypertexts.[/note]

But I do know a fair bit about traditional poetics and am interested in the problem. So I’m going to take a risk and share a few thoughts and ideas I’ve come up with as I’ve made my first stab at writing an argumentative hypertext, a different but I think oddly analogous task. [note]In my hypertext, I’ve been working without the benefit of anything other than ordinary web links. So all of what I say here arises from coping with the situation where a reader can easily go anywhere in the hypertext regardless of what they’ve read or not. There are no gateways to cross.[/note]

In a rough way, I think a page-turning plot (or argument) is one that creates a desire to know. But it is also a plot that delays or frustrates that desire in a measured, carefully paced, and pleasurable way. Hypertexts create a problem for telling these kinds of stories because they pass control of sequence and, to an extent, narrative focus off to the reader. How do you elicit desire to understand or create suspense without controlling what readers know and when?

I have three ideas.

“Why?” or “How?” may be more powerful than “What next?”

Mysteries, one of the most heavily plotted, page-turning genres around, introduce the corpse early and spend the rest of their time working to figure out what happened before the book began (i.e. when the victim was still alive). By the same token, three narratives that I have begun to think of as “proto-hypertexts”–Citizen Kane, Rashomon, and Absalom, Absalom!— all begin with the ending of the story. In each case, the narrative is driven by a desire to know why or how something happened rather than what will happen next. And the only way to find out is to get mixed up in and explore the stories of various standers-by. (Something similar happens in the otherwise very different Pale Fire, although it is less ferociously plotted.)

I think this same trick–starting with the end and working backwards–is suited to hypertext plotting.

We may desire most those things we can’t have

All three of my proto-hypertexts abstain from presenting the protagonist’s story except insofar as it is revealed through the smaller-scale “mini-plots” of the characters caught in its wake. All of them enforce this choice by making their protagonists dead before the movie or novel begins. In a sense this places the page-turning story in a black box, making it the only story that the reader can never choose to read, no matter how much they want to. They can only access it through numerous, equally minor stories that cling to its edges, each of which reveals it only partially and (perhaps) with bias.

Bouncing a protagonist’s otherwise inaccessible story off other characters seems like a good way to make readers want to click on links recounting minor characters’ lives.

Saying “no” to readers.

Much of the very limited commentary I’ve read about hypertext celebrates the fact that authorial control recedes and readers “make” or “create” their own reading. This is true in many, many ways. In the various collage, archival or a performance hypertexts that I’ve seen, writers seem to have abdicated authority and simply (!) to have created possibilities to be explored or enacted. Readers are left to experience insight or not, to draw conclusions or not. But there is rarely any “end” to be understood. [note]Except in the frequently occurring case where the text argues implicitly or explicitly the post-modern conceit that author-ity no longer exists. In these cases, there is a point, but not one that needs to be argued.[/note]

Plots and arguments cannot be so open-ended and cannot be left up to the reader; only the choice of which mini-plots they will read in order to understand the story as a whole can be. And because reader choice eliminates the distinction between foreground and background, all of the mini-plots they will choose from have to be written. This includes those mini-plots they will choose to read as well as all of the mini-plots that they will choose not to read! And all of these mini-plots have to, in their own ways, point toward the end we are “turning pages” to discover.

Creating these coordinated options is a lot of writing and a lot of work. To be successful, it seems to me there have to be limits. In fact, I’m tempted to say that the most important question related to plot or argument in a hypertext is going to be “what options are the readers not going to have?” followed closely by “This choice lets the reader get away. How do I close it without seeming to close anything?”

These questions strike me as contrary to the ethos of hypertext as I’ve understood it from the limited commentary I’ve read. I mean really: is there anything more authorial than “Thou Shalt Not!”? And yet, saying “no” seems essential to conveying story.

Making Hypertext

My big project this summer is to create a non-fiction hypertext. I have a subject. I have the material. I even have some initial ideas about form.

Obviously I’ll make the thing in Eastgate’s Tinderbox. I can’t imagine organizing multiple paths through my materials—some narrative, some analytic, some argumentative—without its maps, outlines, aliases, and everything else.

But I also have a worry: HTML is fundamental to Tinderbox and HTML export is carefully explained in the manual, but I’m intimidated. Once I’ve created the hypertext I will I be able to get it online?

“You’ll figure it out.”

That’s what I’m telling myself: “Make it now, and when it’s time, you’ll figure it out.” But it’s unsettling.

More news to come…

HTML: Handwriting or Book Printing?

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”?

Attributes, Agents and Links

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.

What I Teach. How I Teach.

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.

Course Planning in “Wiki View”

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 as Titles
Dig down into map view and you find a bunch of empty notes.

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:

  1. switched my preferences to hide the sidebar;
  2. created a first note called home in the initial outline view and opened it;
  3. closed the initial outline view;
  4. 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.

Wiki View
My “Wiki View”

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.)

Next up, how I’m cultivating a bit of confusion

Agents; or, There Is No Spoon

I suppose I should say something about agents before I start talking about my new course file.  

Basic Agents

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.

Basic Agents
A basic agent. Later agents might search for an attribute as well as some text, but seldom more than that.

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.

My template revision is very much about nurturing the interconnections I’ve been picking out with agents in my original template. My next post will talk about what that means and how I’m going about it.

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*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.

 

Course Planning: Boxes and Links

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.

Links in Map View
In-coming and out-going links to notes in other containers are indicated with small arrows above and below notes.

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.

My next post is about agents

My Course Planning Template

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.

Image of Adornment-based Map Schedule
A semester of class meetings in a single view

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.

Image of Schedule and Reading Outlines
Outline views from late in term. Early on there were fewer notes.

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.

Image of Container-based Map Schedule
Containers holding notes rather than adornments sitting under them.

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.

The result

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.

In my next post, I’ll explain two limitations I’ve found in my template.

Course Planning with Tinderbox: My New Approach

A little over a year ago, I bought Mark Bernstein’s Tinderbox and began using it to plan my literature courses.

The software was flexible and useful, but there was a lot to learn and I was figuring things out as I went. I’ve written about that experience twice before: once about six weeks into it when I was just starting to get my feet under me, and again at the end of that same semester, after I realized how useful my course plan had been.

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.

These posts will pop up slowly over the coming days. The first one reviews the template I’ve been using for a year.

Classroom Wiki: Revisited

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.

Annotations

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.

Surprisingly, I’ve had only one major problem so far this term.

Reading. Links.

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.

Noticing things is, after all, the first step in close reading. Good readers mark things, and when they’re done, they look back and see what patterns have emerged. In paying attention to what they noticed, they discover the thing they need to think more about. Links serve a similar purpose on personal sites, and over time, their slow accumulation, organization, and development emerges as the real content of a blog or wiki. Links are what a blog knows.

Site designs that sacrifice or hide this emergent complexity for the sake of mobile access cast aside wheat and bake the chaff.

Order, Sequence and Hypertext

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…

A Classroom Wiki Project

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.

More to come…

 

Course Planning with Tinderbox: Looking Back

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.