RAP and order
Keeping our bearings
Wikis lead to dispersion. Interlinking entries spread out over flat space; it is easy to click around and wander off into paths that feel tangential or idiosyncratic. To a point, such an environment can feel liberating: students can respond positively to perceived shifts in traditional, print-bound, instructor-dominated order.
But disorientation is quickly frustrating, especially in a pedagogical setting. A big reason we settled on SnipSnap as the engine for RAP was its various mechanisms for bringing order to an unpredictably developing environment driven by the collective interest of its users.
Knowing where to begin in a wiki, and charting an intentional path through it, takes some practice. Debuting the use of the tool, the instructor, acting somewhat like an information architect on the fly, decided on which pages to highlight in the navigation column that SnipSnap conveniently placed site-wide on the right-hand side of pages (see Fig. 1). This column could be programmed by the instructor to list certain entries, assuring them prominence. During the term such entries included the following items.
Help links. There were one-click paths to the traditional course web page (where the syllabus, assignment sheets, and reserve reading lived), as well as SnipSnap coding instructions.
Assignment indexes. The instructor built indexes of weekly posting assignments (which asked students to build entries off of designated text; see Fig. 2), longer essay assignments, and multimedia student projects, all posted in RAP over the course of the semester. Students would add the titles of their longer essays to essay indexes and post the text off these titles.
Author pages. Ironically enough, the author function proved quite helpful in RAP after all. A list of studied poets grew in the navigation column over the course of the semester, linking to author pages. These pages served as entry points for anyone interested in what RAP had to offer on the subject of, say, William Blake. After the instructor had defined a template for such pages (photo, poems in RAP, related text, images, student essays, outside links; see Fig. 3), students started building them, unbidden, for authors they particularly liked: probably the best example of extra work inspired by RAP.
Naming and attribution conventions. To promote proper citation of sources, the instructor required a source link at the bottom of any text or image copied from elsewhere.
Student 'home' pages. Each student was assigned a home page in RAP, on which he or she could list his work. The software allowed for a macro on this page that would automatically list all entries in the system by the student (see Fig. 4).
SnipSnap allowed the use of a variety of simple macros in its navigation column. Of particular use to us during the semester:
A search field. We placed this box in the top, right-hand column of every page, assuring a consistent place to hunt for content. This enabled text-based searches that could group entries in an interesting way. A search for the word 'find' in RAP, for example, now connects with odd frequency to entries by or about Dorothy Wordsworth and John Clare.
Users currently logged in. If a student was logged in, her user name popped up in the navigation column, meaning that she was one click away from her user page no matter where she was in RAP.
A recently changed list. This was a list of the most recently altered or added entries; the instructor could dictate its extent, and 25 seemed to work well. This list proved popular with students, who were often logged in the night before a weekly posting assignment was due, trolling around for recent entries to comment upon.
Most viewed pages. In RAP's afterlife, we have replaced the 'recently changed' list in the navigation column with a macro listing the 50 most viewed pages. This is the one way RAP dynamically responds to outside visitors, fed to RAP mainly by Google and other search engines. Canonical authors and poems have been inexorably crawling up this list — as of this writing, Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is out in front — but some widely-viewed student postings are hanging on.
Computer-generated related links. Finally, paths through RAP have always been suggested by SnipSnap itself, which generates links to other entries under the "See also" heading at the bottom of any page (see Fig. 5). A drawback here: there were some bugs in the program, and some of these computer-suggested links didn't work properly. However, most did. Romanticists may be overfond of ghosts in machines, but it can be of interest to be led by the computer from Mary Robinson's "The Haunted Beach" to Shelley's "The Mask of Anarchy," say. Both are stunned inventories of murder, come to think of it.
There are certainly more navigational and organizational features that we could wish for, but overall SnipSnap provided enough entry points and handles to keep users and visitors oriented.