Academic hypertext

I mentioned yesterday that wikis are a great format for academic information, and I've been thinking a lot about the formats of academic writing lately. 

It seems to me that the central conflict in academic writing is the tension between providing enough information that someone who came to the text to learn can find their footing in it, and leaving enough out that it's not an intolerable slog for anyone already reasonably familiar with the subject. Some writers do a better job of navigating this than others -- and some prioritize different hypothetical audiences than others.*

There are all sorts of strategies for dealing with this. Footnotes and endnotes can nest extraneous information that might either be essential to someone who isn't familiar but boring to an expert, or extraneous nonsense to a novice but interesting to an expert. Some writers spend huge stretches of time exhaustively covering everything they can think of, anticipating that the reader will just skim past once they get the idea. Some include appendices, charts, supplementary material, etc.

But with a printed work, it always boils down to a single fundamental problem: in the end, there can only be one text. What's printed is printed, and it's up to the reader to learn how to interact with that text. The author has to decide who to optimize for, and how to give the readers on either side of that optimization the tools to make the piece work for them.

Hypertext has the capacity to deal with this problem. Works could be made intricately variable -- not in a choose-your-own-adventure way, but in a choose-your-own-depth way.

I'm imagining a slider at the top of the page, that says "Jargon level." There's a check box next to it that says "Highlight," and a drop-down that says "Advanced." Slide Jargon back and forth, and the text substitutes sections of dense jargon with much longer segments fully explicating** them. Click highlight, and all the words, lines and paragraphs that either have changed or could be changed light up. Hover over the highlighted entries and it could show you what they would be substituted with -- so if you want to see the jargon in context but need to keep checking, it'll always be right there; and if you want to read the expanded version and know what jargon you're missing out on, you can see that, too.

Under "Advanced," you could select substitutions from a list: say you struggle with the word "Explicate" but otherwise pretty much get the jargon, you can just turn on the expanded version of that word. Or say you have a word or phrase that you frequently mess up that doesn't have a programmed alternate version: you can type that right into your copy of the book. "Ambiguated" could become "Made ambiguous," if  you struggle with that kind of verb form. "1.8 billion" could get a parenthetical phrase after it saying "(1,800 million)" and "9 trillion" could get "(9,000,000 million)," if you struggle keeping track of large numbers' relationships to each other.

You could set up favorites, or download other people's favorites. You could get modified versions of old texts, that let you dip your toes into the complexity of the original while providing a fluid safety net to toss you a line when you need it. You could read versions of texts that are prepped to let you know that the words in a particular part means something different in the context than you expect them to, like in legal texts or very old things.

You could get books that have your trigger warnings in them, so you can brace yourself right before the relevant scene, without having to put that alert in the book for everyone who doesn't share your triggers. 

This direct, hands-on access to the structure of the text could make academic writing massively more accessible. It could also help make it more collaborative, if the authors let their books take on a life of their own.

Vitally this doesn't ever have to harm the integrity of the original text. You could always have a setting somewhere that says "Author preferred," that gives you the version of the text the author feels best represents their view. That might be the one with all the jargon -- but I bet pretty often it would be the one with the jargon followed by the explication, because if you're going to have a version that counts as the truest one, why not the one where you get to say "This is exactly what I meant by..."

And I would imagine it would always be obvious, when manipulating the text, whether you're applying filters that came with the book or filters you brought in from elsewhere. 

Ooh, and imagine having these in really introductory classes? Like, being handed an original Shakespeare in seventh grade, masked over to the point of being a basic, middle school level summary? Imagine being a curious kid with an interesting assignment, and being able to start clicking away at the settings, revealing layer after layer of increasing depth. Imagine being able to see, right in front of you, in your half-a-page worksheet, the whole academic landscape underlying it.

Being able to control how the text reveals itself to you means you can make yourself maximally comfortable in the text, and it means you can make yourself feel safe and confident in your ability to approach it. Furthermore, it gives you a strong, tangible sense of the degree of abstraction you're working with: because if you don't understand the core material, it helps to be able to find out the nature of that non-understanding. The summaries and explanations can help you articulate your confusion even if they can't resolve that confusion for you. 

This is probably my least clear, most convoluted post in a long time. I think I might try and rewrite it with some hypertextual elements soon.

*That is to say, a text that is inaccessible to non-experts is not automatically badly written, although that's a whole other topic that's worth attention on its own. My use of the word "accessible" in this parenthetical is deeply ambiguous.

** "Explicating" is an example of a word that would change if you slid the jargon slider on this blog post. It means to break apart and explain a piece of media that was written in a way that is clear to someone who's accustomed to the corresponding background information, but unclear to people outside that group.