Saturday, September 06, 2008

Practices, Not Products

The first week of school is a good time to expect to see Murphy's law in action. This year my server suddenly decided to start falling over at diminishing intervals. A couple of weeks of sporadic debugging have left me where I started: with an unreliable server. All of the code and images for this blog are hosted there, so they are temporarily unavailable, and I had to scramble a bit to find a new online home for the group project that my students will be doing in their grad class in digital history. This summer, too, the keepers of my old standby the online Dictionary of Canadian Biography suddenly decided to overhaul their website. While I applaud the fact that they moved from Active Server Pages to PHP, I'm not so happy that so many of the code examples in Digital History Hacks and the Programming Historian have to be revised.

I've solved my server problem for the time being, or more accurately, sidestepped it, by moving a lot of my online stuff to a new home: In the process I was reminded again that wikis really are the fastest and most awesome way to get your stuff online in a form that is durable but plastic enough to be continually reshaped. I can thank Raymond Yee for the inspiration. Although I've used a number of online tools, it didn't occur to me that a wiki can replace most of them until I saw Raymond give a talk at THATCamp. Rather than bust out an Open Office presentation or something like that, Raymond pointed his browser to his own wiki, a "working space / public knowledge repository". He had already entered some of the material that he wanted to talk about, and as he gave his presentation he continued to edit. When his presentation was over, he clicked 'save' and everything was already available online.

The beauty of a wiki, as many people have noted, is that it allows online material to grow quickly and organically. Rather than try to build my new online presence in one pass, I was able to sketch the outlines of what I wanted to add. Now, every time I look at the site, I see a whole bunch of work that still needs to be done. I can chip away at it, rethink, reorganize, and everything remains available to other people. On some of the pages I've roughed out sections for my students or research assistants to fill in; I expect them to chip away, rethink and reorganize, too. In effect, wiki software can provide scaffolding for practices. There's no real final product, just the most recent edit. (And, of course, access to the entire history of edits).

This year, Rob MacDougall and I are teaching a new course on science, technology and global history, and I find myself in the (exciting? unenviable?) position of writing my lectures the week before I give them. A lot of my projects feel like they may be on hold until November, when I can hand the lecturing off to Rob and start to deal with some of the changes that have broken things that used to work. I can't feel too bothered, however. All is flux, especially on the internet. The trick is to find the techniques and tools that help you deal gracefully with change, to think in clay and not in stone.

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