Excursions

 
 
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There are many entries here about the research purposes fuelling the development of this site: namely my intention to construct a portable, personal online dataspace that can act as a life-long repository. Much of this is collected or referenced in the first excursion The Memi as a tool for epedagogy.

The process of building this dataspace – the memi – has proceeded by a deliberate process of careful trial and carefully observed error. This is a process that Peter Small would refer to as bottom-up design, and indeed my interactions with Peter have been a powerful inspiration for this. (This is not to say that Peter would approve of what I am doing, or even recognise his influence in it.)

I began by porting over most of the content of my previous site, which had been built in WikkaWiki, as an earlier part of the process because, without a large amount of content, discussions about the organisation of content would be purely theoretical guesses.

Unsurpisingly issues of access were impotant from the moment I looked at the site. The menu system had been worked out in the previous incarnation, and I added tags and a tag cloud to this. These worked, and the tags added a whimsical folksonomy to the more structured taxonomy offered by the sections and categories available in the menus.

However there was still at least one element missing. A lot of ideas being developed were scattered through the entries in ways that were not signposted. I found that even I was losing rack of some of them, and I was the one who had written them. This seemed to imply that nobody else would stand a chance of finding their ways through the increasingly variegated landscape.

The answer that suggested itself was to add a layer of handmade overviews. I imagined that these would serve as introductions to topics that were discussed in several entries, and would provide another way to journey through the site. I tried to write introductions along these lines several times and failed.

Looking back through the failed attempts I decided that the problem lay in the fact that they kept trying to be more than summaries. They all introduced new content, even though I made conscious efforts to avoid this. Finally I decided that the relationship that I was imagining between the summary and the original posts was the wrong relationship.

I looked through the posts I had tried to summarise and drew out the general themes. Rather than summarising the posts I then used them as references, and wrote a hyper-linked essay that explored the themes in more detail than any individual post.

This was not what I meant by an essay, though. An essay, to me, was a single developed piece of writing (such as a conference paper or a magazine article) that I had imported into the site as part of the archives. Most of the references in such an essay were external: to primary source material, or to other papers, available on the web. What I was doing now was much more wiki-like. I was writing an “essay” that referenced and quoted from other entries on this same site. This introduced an entirely new layer that acted as both content and navigation.

I decided to call this sort of entry an excursion, since it provided a guided tour through a selected part of the topography of this site. For about a minute and a half I called it a trip – which would have been shorter and simpler to incorporate in the menus. I changed my mind an instant after the phrase Son of Timothy Leary entered my mind.

I then decided that excursions should be visibly different from usual entries, since they were, in effect, meta-arguments, content that reflected upon and (hopefully) refined existing content. I therefore created the vintage bus and ticket iconography.

The iconcograohy a go-go!

Whether this “works” or not is a matter of opinion, and I am still not sure what mine is. This doesn’t matter, though, because if there is one thing fully working in this site it is the separation of content from layout. The excursions use their own page-excursion.php template file, and that and the graphics can be replaced in two minutes.

Finally I made an important editorial decision. I decided that I would write excursions in such a way that they did not simply include internal links, as other entries do, but they quoted complete paragraphs from the entries that they referenced. These paragraphs would appear inside a light blue block. Clicking on the block would take you directly to the quoted entry. The quoted entry would either have a linkback section at the bottom where a clearly labelled link would return you to the excursion, or a reciprocal blue block. I created No Such Post to check that this would be readable, and it seemed to pass the test.

I then decided that every excursion should have an icon linking to this page, so that anyone reading an excursion could find out more or less what you have just found out. This is the ticket that sits in the right-hand sidebar.

This new layer will certainly work. I have begun writing my MA thesis in this form, and that will become the first excursion. It demands a particular writing style however: a style where the author thinks in terms of modules rather than chapters. This, in turn, will mean developing new habits.

So far, years of writing carefully in sections or paragraphs is making this a slow (if educational) process…

 
 
Posted on February 9, 2007