Writing and Exporting Feedback

On the TBX Forum, I was asked a question about the rubric I built a few years ago. I don’t use it anymore because I built it to grade in a style I don’t like or believe in. (Which was dumb on my part.) But I suggested I might make a video showing what I’m planning on using this coming term.

This seemed possible because I was thinking through how to cope with the fact that a lot of the brief in-person feedback I give throughout a term will, this term, necessarily happen online and in writing. What I imagined doing was sitting down to put my new system together and just recording what I did as I worked. When I was done, I expected I’d be able to cut out the lulls and moments of despair and post what was left.

The result I arrived at are the two new videos I’m posting today. Together they record me beginning with a fresh starter file and from there creating a form for offering quick feedback on small assignments that exports as a custom text layout. My total work time was about an hour and a half, but I’ve managed to cut that down to two twenty minute videos.

These will be the last videos for awhile: Day One looms, and the pressure is on.

Tinderbox Videos

It’s the time of year where I’m preparing courses for the Fall, and this year, I decided that I would make some videos demonstrating some of how I use Tinderbox to do that work. Two of these are now live. I’m hoping to make and post a few others in the coming days and weeks.

These videos are something I’ve imagined doing in a vague way for awhile and so they have been a long time coming. But in another sense, these videos are very much a product of the pandemic.

Classes are online for the Fall, and this has both increased the complexity of my preparations and forced me to do much more of them before classes begin. There seems to be so much to do and so little time to do it that it feels overwhelming. Making these videos offered me a chance to step back from that work and reflect on how I was getting started.

One important point: these videos are not instructional “how to” clips. Instead, they are a couple of brief looks at a few of the ways I go about my business.

Enjoy.

A New Wiki Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching GamerGate

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

What I Planned

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

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

What Happened

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

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

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

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

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

Adapting

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

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

Looking Back

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

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

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

Literary Tourism in Concord, MA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s up?

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

The news I have:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Field in Five

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

My Field

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

My Five

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

My Reasons

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

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

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

My Sixth…

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

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

 

Your Field in Four or Five Books

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

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

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

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

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

The Scenario

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

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

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

No pressure.

 

Tech and Tenure

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

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

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

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

The whole thing looks like astroturf to me.

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

Course Wiki & Course Plan Revision

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.

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.

Engaging Students, or What Is a Computer?

The following is a quotation from For PC Makers, the Good News on 2013 Is That It Is Over on The New York Times‘s site:

People everywhere are buying tablets and smartphones instead of PCs. … the market is still capturing a lot of people who just need to get on the Internet and do simple tasks,” Mr. Chou said. “From a strictly consumer, couch potato view, the Internet takes care of an awful lot.

This description of people accessing the internet without needing or wanting a computer got me thinking: “Using a computer” to me means using an open-ended tool to do a variety tasks in ways that imply some consciousness of the machine-medium. But the alternative described in the Times is a less about using a tool than riding a vehicle. And this oddly enough, got me thinking about students.

We don’t say of someone who takes a car to go to the mall, “They are interested in cars”; or of someone who takes a bus to go to the movies, “they are interested in public transportation.” We certainly don’t assume that, if we build a road to the dentist, these people (because they can take their car or the bus to the dentist’s office) will like getting their teeth drilled.

And yet, we see teenagers using their phone to look at their friend’s photos on Facebook or to tweet about their best friend’s latest epic fail, and we say “If we teach using phones or computers students will engage with education and learn more.” But aren’t they really just interested in their friends? Aren’t they, like the people described in the quotation,  just looking to get onto the internet in order to be social?

This is about metaphors: computer as tool, as vehicle, as window, as terminal. Which applies? Because each imply meaningfully different interpretations of students’ fascination with their cellphones.