Wednesday, October 22, 2014

#worthassigning: Mark Bernstein on Notetaking

Some of you will remember, or perhaps still use, Storyspace, software that EastGate released for creating hypertext fiction. If you're not familiar, the import of Storyspace, via a discussion of Michael Joyce's _Afternoon, A Story_, is described in a 1992 NY Times Book Review piece called "The End of Books" by Robert Coover (

Bernstein's current project, which grew out of academics trying to use Storyspace for note taking and information organizing instead of post-modern fiction, is Tinderbox.  From chapter one of his book, The Tinderbox Way, which is both a user manual and a meditation on the value of systemic note taking, Bernstein describes the software this way:
Tinderbox is designed to help you write things down, find them, think about them, and share them. Tinderbox is an assistant. Its meant to help, to facilitate. Its not a methodology or a code. Its a way to write things down, link them up, and share them. Its a chisel, guided by your hand and your intelligence.
I pulled the quote above from Sources and Methods #5: Mark Bernstein, a fascinating podcast interview with Bernstein conducted by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Matt Trevithick. The interview runs about an hour, but below the podcast recording, you'll see a time line, indicating at what minutes in the discussion different topics arose. The full interview is worth a listen for context and continuity.

Here's an excerpt from that timeline to give you both a sense of the conversation, and how the timeline helps you to find key areas to return to:
8:54 - Idea: Discovering the structure information should take is the essence of what research is about.
13:14 - Idea: Agile software development has come into force more recently, rather than structuring all the rules first. Writing the software and then revising the software - where most of what you do is editing, rather than designing and debugging - has been extremely fruitful, and has gone in just 10-15 years gone from outlying heresy to the dominant paradigm of software development today. [Note: Bernstein goes on to describe how Agile software resembles writing prose.]
15:08 - Idea: When you’re writing, you’re talking to yourself, or rather to the page. When you write, you are meeting minds on the screen, and in fact one of those minds is a manifestation of ourselves.
20:38 - Idea: People don’t like to think about their process of writing. We have this essentially romantic conception of idea generation writing, that it’s essentially inspiration, and it should come to you in a flash, and that it’s mystical, and that it’s based in someway on your innate goodness, and therefore people don’t spend much time thinking about how to improve because you can’t improve on your own innate goodness.
There's a lot in the discussion that maps on to teaching writing, teaching research, teaching thinking, and faculty development for those professors who want to help students get better at writing, research, and thinking. 

The interview can be assigned in time points for students, or one might scroll to to a point and play a snippet as a way to launch a discussion. For students especially, this discussion focuses on the role of noting, of seeing and recording, and in the act of doing so, of thinking, organizing, and finding order. 

In a way, it's about slowing down, of taking the time to start a system that will serve a learner as a writer, and over time, as they change as writers, learn more, know more, and will find it more and more useful to be able to go back into their reading and writing history to recall, reorganize, and rethink, note taking as a key element for revision.

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