Feast Upon the Word: Vision
Posted by kurtelieson on May 12, 2014
This post attempts to address three topics: (I) a host of preliminary considerations, (II) a vision for how the Feast Upon the Word wiki can be implemented; and (III) stages of development, or benchmarks along the path to realizing that vision.
Matthew and I have been conversing about portions of this topic, and he asked that I put something together for wider comment. It grew into this full blown rethinking of everything. Matthew has seen this post before it went up, but at this point he is keeping his options open by neither vetoing nor endorsing anything here. I have thought about most of these issues before, but in the process of putting this together I have again refined my thinking. The hope is that other people will chip in and refine these ideas even further.
This post is long, but it asks a lot of fundamental questions that I think deserve consideration.
I. Preliminary Considerations
Feast Upon the Word is an LDS scripture study wiki. So I approach a vision for the site by first asking several big questions related to that description. These can be thought of as a checklist of reminders about things the site should do.
A. Where do scripture study and commentaries fit in the bigger picture?
B. What are the steps or factors that go into a rigorous interpretation of scripture?
C. What should a scriptural commentary draw upon and accomplish?
D. With all the other commentaries out there, what does a wiki add? Or why does building the wiki matter?
E. Design constraints: What makes for good presentation in a commentary or other reference? What makes for good website design? What makes for a good collaborative wiki?
F. What makes a project valuable or worthwhile?
I believe that thinking about these questions puts a person in a better place to then think about implementation.
II. Vision for Implementation
• What should be the vision for how the wiki is ultimately implemented?
III. Stages of Development
Finally, I suggest five stages of development that I believe would reflect discrete stages or benchmarks in the growing maturity of the wiki toward that vision.
A. Cleaning up formatting.
B. Inviting volunteers to work on a limited number of pages.
C. Inviting public use and contributions.
D. Finishing systematic construction.
I. Preliminary Considerations
The point of the preliminary considerations in Part I of this post is to develop a checklist of considerations that the wiki ought to incorporate when developing the recommendations made in Part II.
A. Where do scripture study and commentaries fit in the bigger picture?
I can identify three reasons to read the scriptures. (a) To nourish our testimonies. As we read the scriptures, we invite the Holy Ghost to bear witness to us of their truth. (b) To study what the prophets have written in order to learn the doctrines that they taught and that God has preserved for us in the canonized scriptures. These truths do not depend on what we hear, but rather on what was said. (c) To find personal application. These truths do depend as much on what we hear as what was said. While we read, the Holy Ghost can prompt us to recognize truths that are important for our individual lives, even if the verse that prompts us to recognize that truth is taken completely out of context. Think of the character Perchik in the movie Fiddler on the Roof, who reads the story of Jacob marrying the wrong daughter and then concludes that the moral is “Never trust an employer.” That may be what Perchik heard, and it may even be an important truth at that moment for him, but it is not what Moses said in a canonized book of scripture, and it is not a truth of general application. This illustrates the difference between studying doctrines of general application and finding personal or individual application.
I think that commentaries are only particularly helpful with regard to the second of these three reasons for reading the scriptures. That is, studying what the prophets have said in order to learn canonized doctrines of general application.
In the course of studying what the prophets have said, we can engage in three activities that will help us to gain understanding: (a) search diligently; (b) ponder; and (c) pray. See 3 Ne 23:1; 17:2-3 where the Savior spells out these three specific activities to the Nephites. But even with regard to these three activities that help us to study, I think commentaries are only helpful with regard to searching.
I will not further defend the value of scripture commentaries. The Church publishes Institute manuals, and anyone who reads commentaries must think they have value. But I believe it is helpful to also remember that this value is limited. Even the best commentary cannot supply everything that must be done in order to understand and internalize what the prophets have written.
B. What are the steps or factors that go into a rigorous interpretation of scripture?
These are the steps that I know to include in a comprehensive and rigorous interpretation of scripture. I am not saying that every reader has to perform every step back to original sources in order to fairly understand a passage of scripture. But I do believe that the failure to at least read a summary of someone else’s results for each step leaves a gap in the reader’s knowledge that, for all they know, might change their understanding. So I figure that each of these steps should be incorporated into the wiki. Any of these steps can be done in a manner that is lazy or sloppy. But that does not deprive the step of value when done carefully.
I do not want any individual contributor to worry about mechanically going through all of these steps. I would much rather read something insightful from a contributor who only worries about one or two steps than something from a contributor who dutifully follows each step but adds nothing insightful to my understanding. I do, however, want the wiki set up in a way that makes it easy for a contributor to address whichever step holds interest for them.
1. Understand the setting. This means the setting of the story, of the author, and of the audience. These three settings may all be the same, or they may all be different. For example, when Mormon wrote the book of Mosiah for us, the action, author, and audience all had different settings, and all three are important to understanding the book. In scope the setting can include the historical background, geography, climate, politics, and culture. In form of presentation it can include text, maps, timelines, photographs, audio, and videos. Understanding the setting of a book often supplies additional light on its meaning. For example, Daniel’s emphasis on God’s powerful interventions is more meaningful in light of the recent conquest of Judah and destruction of God’s house, the Jerusalem temple. Haggai also makes more sense in light of the Jewish return to Jerusalem and the stoppage of work rebuilding the temple.
2. Familiarity with the participants. Portions of Samuel’s account of King David, for example, make more sense after one becomes familiar with Joab’s personality and his relationship to David.
3. Identify the text. This means deciding exactly what are the words that you are trying to understand. (a) For the Bible, this step occurs pre-English-translation and means resolving inconsistencies between the LXX, the MT, and Dead Sea Scrolls. (b) For the Book of Mormon, this includes reference to the printer’s manuscript and to Royal Skousen’s work on the original text. (c) For the Doctrine & Covenants, this includes reference to the two revelation books and to the changes between the first three editions that were printed during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. (d) For the JST, this means consulting the four original JST manuscripts, or at least Wayment’s transcription of them.
4. Ascertain the meaning of the words. (a) For the Bible, this includes reference to an interlinear Bible, Strong’s concordance, a Greek or Hebrew lexicon, and alternate English translations. (b) For the Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants, this includes reference to the 1828 Webster’s dictionary, and for the Book of Mormon perhaps even the modern Hebrew translation that although derived from English may nevertheless shed light on usages in the original language. (c) For all books this includes each author’s idiosyncratic use of words, such as Joseph Smith’s common use of “And again” to indicate the beginnings of new ideas in D&C 76and elsewhere. (d) For punctuation that Joseph Smith either supplied or at least did not change, this may also include an understanding of how the use of punctuation in English has changed following the invention of the microphone. The goal, again, is to get past what we are predisposed to hear and understand what was actually said.
5. Identify and ascertain the significance of references to cultural knowledge. This includes: (a) references to other texts, such as when Paul quotes from the Old Testament; (b) references to social customs and earlier events, such as when Christ refers to Abraham or Jonah; (c) references to well established symbols, such as the marriage supper of the bridegroom or the Day of the Lord; and (d) references to verbal customs and formulas, such as the use of covenant blessing and cursing formulas. One way to approach a text is to try to understand it the same way that the author likely expected his audience to understand it.
6. Understand the doctrinal context. This means understanding: (a) how the speaker and/or author understood a doctrine; (b) how the doctrine was widely understood at the time, perhaps by the audience; and (c) what we know today about the doctrine so that we understand all of God’s prophets to teach consistently with each other.
7. Understand the author’s train of thought. I will explain what I mean since this is the step most often skipped in commentaries that I see, including the wiki until I recently went through and formatted the chapter level and book level pages.
There is a difference between a commentary that helps you understand a book as a coherent whole, and one that merely helps you understand many of the little pieces of the book. I have therefore developed a multi-part question that I use to evaluate my understanding of a passage: (a) identify the principal message(s) the author attempts to convey in this passage; (b) explain why you believe this is the author’s principal message; (c) outline the author’s train of thought in developing this message throughout this passage; (d) identify any larger units of thought to which this passage belongs (group of chapters, book, etc); and (e) explain how this passage supports and develops the principal messages of those larger units. If am unable to answer any part of this question, then I obviously do not yet have a full grasp of the passage. Likewise, if there is any part of this question that a commentary does not address, then it is incomplete.
There is plenty of psychological and linguistic research to support my underlying assumption that sentences are not just a linear sequence, but are instead bundled hierarchically into passages or chunks called paragraphs, which in turn get bundled together into larger and higher level units called chapters, which in turn get bundled into even higher level units called books. Even dogs can clearly communicate at the level of the sentence. But people, including the prophets who wrote the scriptures, routinely communicate much more complex concepts at the level of the paragraph and above.
So this step means identifying: (a) coherent units of thought such as sentences and paragraphs, (b) the relationships between those units, and (c) the relative prominence given to the various parts. The goal of this step is to understand the organization of the entire book as a whole so that the purpose of each part can be understood in the context of that overall plan. This would ideally result in an outline, such as the well known chiasmus of Alma 36 or the outline I have posted for Ether. This makes it harder to take individual words and sentences out of context, or to make them say more than the author intended.
8. Consult later commentators. This includes: (a) later writers in the scriptures, such as when Nephi quotes and explains Isaiah; (b) modern day prophets; (c) LDS and non-LDS scholars who have written commentaries; and (d) traditional Jewish understanding of passages and stories. This will not be the first time that a smart person has tried to explain a book of scripture, and there is no reason to reinvent the wheel from scratch.
* Depth and breadth. I have seen several discussions on the wiki from prior years regarding the difference between “depth,” which I understand to emphasize steps 4 and 5, and “breadth,” which I understand to emphasize steps 6 and 7. I strongly believe that both approaches can and must co-exist on the site. Since I do not have enough time in this life to perform every useful step in the process of interpretation for every single book of the scriptures, I tend to focus my energy on the steps that are most efficient and rewarding for me. But I also recognize that the steps on which I personally spend less time are still valuable. So one of my goals is to especially encourage other people to perform and write up the steps that I am least likely to perform for myself – not the ones that I will get around to anyway on my own.
C. What should a scriptural commentary draw upon and accomplish?
1. The bookshelf. When I think about what other books I would want access to besides just a commentary, what I come up with are the references that support the commentary and enable me to go back and perform for myself the steps of interpretation listed in the previous section. For example, if I were going to study the Doctrine & Covenants rigorously, I would want all of the following t be available on my bookshelf:
(a) Commentary. See more on this immediately below.
(b) History. A book on early church history to provide the historical setting of each section and to explain references in the text to people, places, and situations.
(c) Biographies. A book with short biographies of about fifty leading participants.
(d) Maps. An atlas of early Mormon history.
(e) Pictures. A coffee table book with photographs of people and places, or a video.
(f) Text. A critical text showing all changes to the text of the D&C;
(g) Lexicon. Webster’s 1828 dictionary;
(h) List of Parallel References. A list of all references in D&C to passages in other books of scripture.
(i) Outline. A linguistic analysis of the text of each section (here is a simple one for Section 1).
2. The commentary. A comprehensive commentary should do all of the following:
(a) Serve as a model for the reader’s own interpretation. A commentary should work through and explain all of the interpretive steps identified in the preceding section. In this way it can serve as a model from which newbies can learn how to go about doing their own interpretation. A good commentary will not only hand out fish, but will also demonstrate how to fish.
(b) Identify main points as main points, but also identify other doctrines that are taught or illustrated. For example, the nature of God’s power is not one of the principal messages taught in Section 29. But verse 29:36 is nevertheless the clearest statement anywhere in the scriptures of the principle that God’s power is tied to his honor. A commentary should communicate that fact. And regardless of whether a commentary on just the D&C needs to go any further, a comprehensive commentary on the entire standard works, like this wiki, should at some point – probable here – identify this as a doctrine that is taught in the scriptures and bring in cross-references such as Moses 4:1-4 which repeats the same statement, D&C 121:36-41 which talks about what can end power, and Alma 42:15 that also talks about what can end God’s power. (I do not care for present purposes whether this is called interpretation or additional commentary).
(c) Share insights. Often in the scriptures a doctrine will play out in the narrative without being explicitly identified and without much emphasis. For example, at the end of Mosiah significant reforms are made to both church and state, the two social institutions that are intended to safeguard free agency. While this connection to free agency is not spelled out in the text, that extra-textual insight does help one to understand important principles that help explain what is happening. (I also do not care for present purposes whether this is called interpretation or additional commentary).
(d) Marshal cultural knowledge and the wisdom of others. A commentary should marshal resources that help readers to know and understand what is likely outside of their own experience and culture. It should likewise marshal insights to help us to understand what is difficult. In this way a good commentary serves as a labor saving device that collects all of these resources in a single location.
(e) Evaluate competing facts and interpretations. There will often be more than one possible interpretation of a passage, or of a fact that bears on the interpretation of a passage. Those competing views should be identified and, when possible, evaluated so that readers know whether both are equally likely, or whether one is much more likely than the other, and why.
A commentary should not fall into the trap of giving equal attention to every interpretation ever suggested by a junior faculty member who was desperately searching for something original to publish. In my view, the value of a commentary depends on its ability to help me to correctly understand what the prophets were trying to say, not on whether it is – or is not – new or different.
(f) Suggest alternative approaches to interpretation. _____________________.
(g) Discuss application. A commentary should go beyond merely understanding the author’s message to addressing how that message can change our understanding and/or behavior. Does the scripture tell us to behave in a certain way? Does the scripture explain a doctrine in a way that would cause us to behave differently? It should help us use the scriptures to reflect upon and reform our lives.
D. With all the other commentaries out there, what does a wiki add? Or why does building the wiki matter?
People are increasingly going online for their reference sources. I expect that trend to hold for Church members who study the scriptures, including my own children and grandchildren. If I can influence what is available for them in a way that matters, then I want to do so.
1. Why the wiki is uniquely important. There are many other websites that also have LDS commentary. The thing that is unique about Feast Upon the Word is its format as a wiki. So this question can be posed as whether people need a free online LDS commentary specifically in the form of a wiki.
I equate the concept of an LDS scripture wiki in general with Feast Upon the Word. If a wiki is by definition a collaborative effort open to an entire community, then there should never be more than one wiki on a single topic in a single community. This wiki is already up and has a substantial amount of content. I cannot imagine why another faithful LDS group would need to start a competing project that is likewise collaborative and open to exactly the same entire community. I therefore make no distinction between the concept of an LDS scripture wiki and its embodiment in Feast Upon the Word.
I want the LDS scripture wiki in particular to succeed because I do not think that it is merely superior to other formats; I think a wiki is the only satisfactory format. Because I do not know of any other format that can effectively crowdsource content, I think a wiki is the only format that can satisfy three necessary characteristics:
(a) The site must host a lot of content. The commentary must include, and must now be making reasonable progress toward including, all of the content described above for commentaries, and must do so for most of the entire standard works. This rules out any website that does not openly crowdsource content because the quantity of writing required to satisfy this requirement will simply outstrip the resources of any closed group of volunteers.
(b) The site must hyperlink to unhosted references. Everything on the bookshelf described above that is not hosted should be accessible from the site by hyperlink. This is subject only to unavoidable restrictions imposed by copyright. This also means that the commentary must be electronic rather than paper.
It is useful if the site also hyperlinks to other sites with commentary. But the requirement is linking to authoritative references, such as the NIV translation, that both support the commentary on the site and will never be duplicated on the site.
(c) The site must be free – and free of ads. The entire commentary must be available for free to everyone. Free delivery again rules out anything that is not digital. Free access also rules out anything from Deseret Book or anyone else who must pay employees to develop their content.
2. Other strengths of wikis. In addition, I think the wiki format offers several other characteristics that, even if not make or break items, are desirable and should be consciously incorporated into the site:
(d) Wikis are open.
– The future progress of the wiki is not dependent on the continued interest and availability of any particular individuals.
– Credentials are not required to contribute. There will always be a place for authored and peer reviewed commentary by BYU religion professors. That work can serve as an important check on the conclusions that others draw and the facts upon which they rely. But credentialed academics do not have a monopoly on insight.
(e) Wikis are editable.
– A wiki invites both polished work and unpolished tentative suggestions. Contributions can be made before they are fully developed or well phrased, and then be further developed or polished by others.
– A wiki allows contributors to post material in small units, as small as a bullet point or a single link, without having to write a fully developed treatise. A person can publish a single great insight without having to first publish an entire book.
– It can be updated. It is not frozen once for all time but can be repeatedly updated.
– Also, larger contributions also do not have to be fully edited. Non-English majors can contribute, and others can go back and rephrase.
(f) Wikis are collaborative.
– Mechanical tasks are performed only once. If I try to host my own comprehensive site, then I must create numerous links to resources like a Hebrew lexicon. If I contribute instead to a collaborative wiki, then that step is performed only once and no other contributor will have to duplicate that work.
– Search engine optimization is shared. Contributors can cooperate in creating a single destination that is worth visiting instead of competing for eyeballs with lots of smaller sites that may not be worth visiting. No one has to find my own small individual site. They can just go to the same wiki they already visit, and there they will also find my content.
– I only have to write the portions of commentary that I care about. Other contributors can do the same. Eventually it adds up so that the site becomes fairly comprehensive and the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts.
– Groups tend to outperform individuals, even really smart individuals, when it comes to aggregating insights.
– Other contributors can correct, refine, and further develop what I write. And I can do the same to what other people write. I have specific complaints about deficiencies in many of the commentaries I read, both LDS and non-LDS. But on a wiki I can contribute to satisfy those deficiencies. And if other people agree that those contributions are valuable, then some will eventually make similar contributions to other parts of the wiki, and the approach will be generally incorporated into the discussion.
3. Weaknesses of wikis. After extolling the virtues of the wiki format, I will also point out two weaknesses that we should endeavor to design around to the extent possible.
(h) Tension between openness v. quality. First there is an obvious tension between the goal of openness on the one hand and the goals of orthodoxy and quality on the other. Frankly, I think the wiki is weakest where published commentaries are strongest: published commentaries enjoy a consistent perspective and voice, are edited, and it is easy to cut the trash out before publication. I think the biggest challenge facing the wiki will be to maintaining content quality and orthodoxy.
As a partial gate-keeping solution, I believe it is possible to implement a software fix that will allow the administrator to grant users graduated levels of permission, with different levels required to edit different portions of a page. The idea is that you do not want a seminary student who enjoys more enthusiasm than knowledge to overwrite what was previously contributed by a leading scholar on the JST. So eventually, I see the top part of the page being editable only by those who have permission, but anyone can add to the bottom part of the page. An editor who has permission can periodically troll through the discussions at the bottom of the page and move good ones up to the top portions of the page. After making several quality contributions (or perhaps establishing other credentials), a person would be granted permission to contribute directly to the top portions of pages. I don’t think we are there yet, but I anticipate that we will eventually need something like this.
(i) Limitations on portability. Electronic delivery is extremely portable with regard to size. An entire bookshelf can be read on a tablet. On the other hand, electronic delivery is not entirely portable with regard to location. Websites are only available when there is access to the internet. Paper books, in contrast, can go even where the internet does not.
Several paid programs can be downloaded to be resident on a hard drive. I have not kept up with either of these in recent years, but I believe that the Deseret Gospel Library and eSword both work this way, or at least used to at one time. It would be nice to be able to download a portion of the current site (not history pages). For example, downloading all of the pages for Daniel without having to do a separate browser save for each individual page. I know that most links would be rendered inoperable, and maybe that interferes too much with functionality. But I think this issue is at least worth thinking about.
4. Why it matters that people help now to systematically build the wiki .
My vision for Feast Upon the Word is that it grow in both content and usage to become a standard resource, which I define as being one of the first three resources that most people turn to when studying the LDS Scriptures. One or more electronic resources are likely to fill that role and, as explained above, I think it is important that the wiki fill that role.
There are two reasons why I think it is important that I and others contribute systematically for a while to help the wiki fulfill that vision of being a standard resource.
(a) First, I am not convinced that the wiki is yet at the point where its future growth and vitality is assured. I believe the wiki will first have to reach a critical mass of content so that visitors will return and also contribute. My contributions today help to ensure that the wiki will reach that critical mass, and thus ensure that it will take off and become a standard resource.
(b) Second, contributing early gives me a chance to influence the form and quality of the wiki. I can contribute content of high quality that helps to set a standard for future contributors. I can add content that remedies the deficiencies I see in other commentaries, again providing guidance to other future contributors.
I cannot tell other people whether they ought to care enough to likewise help build the site up to a critical mass that is self-sustaining. But I see my part in getting the wiki to that point as one of the more important contributions that I will make during my life. To me it is more than a hobby or small group discussion, it is a mission. That mission is to make this contribution over the next couple years and thereby affect what my children, grandchildren, and potentially hundreds of thousands of other people will use as a primary scripture study reference for decades.
E. Design constraints: What makes for good presentation in a commentary or other reference? What makes for good website design? What makes for a good collaborative wiki?
This is an area where I happen to know several random bits of wisdom but expect that I have still missed some of the major issues.
1. Commentaries and other references.
(a) Logical organization. I like, and have not yet figured out how to improve upon, the organization that I see in most commentaries: (i) start with a discussion of broad background topics applicable to the entire book; (ii) then discuss large blocks of text such as chapters; and (iii) then, after discussing issues applicable tot he chapter as a whole, address smaller blocks such as individual verses before moving on to discuss the next chapter. I have organized most of the pages on the wiki according to this same pattern.
(b) Discussions of methodology. I am not sure if this concept transfers well to the wiki, but it is at least worth thinking about. My favorite commentaries often have a large section before the commentary begins in which the author first discusses their methodology. I find that authors who have thought carefully about how they go about the task of interpretation more often have things to say that are worth reading. But in the context of a wiki, the fact that one contributor talks carefully about methodology will likely have little effect on other contributors who are not even interested enough in the subject to read the page. I also like those commentaries because I have learned much from their discussions about how they each think one should go about interpreting scripture. For three decades now I have spent about ten percent of my scripture study time studying not the scriptures, but rather how I study the scriptures. This has greatly improved my skill and efficiency. But this topic may be outside the scope of the wiki, which at least emphasizes, and may be limited to, the results of people’s study rather than the methods employed in that study.
(c) Do not be excessively technical. It is easier to learn a concept if it has a name. It can therefore be desirable to use a few technical terms whose definitions are apparent from context. Even the uninitiated will understand more easily. But too much techno-speak creates a barrier to communication with those who do not know the lingo. It also makes sloppy writing easier. It is my personal experience that having to explain a technical concept in simple terms forces me to rethink the concept more critically.
(d) Start with a summary and use topic sentences. People are able to more quickly grasp new information and to retain it longer if they are expecting it and if they can relate that new information to a framework of things they already know. This means using topic sentences, as well as thesis paragraphs or summaries. This is often the reverse from how one thought through and eventually arrived at a conclusion. But as a trial lawyer, a big part of my professional job is to sell logical arguments to a relatively sophisticated audience of judges. And I find that my writing reads better, even to me, after I go back and add topic sentences and introductory or thesis paragraphs. These tools also make it easier to understand Bible commentaries.
I understand where people are coming from when they say they do not want to just tell others what to think. But the act of writing a conclusion already tells people what you think they ought to think. The antidote here is not to leave the conclusion to the end, but rather to not overstate the argument in favor of an interpretation and to be open about weaknesses and alternative interpretations.
I also understand that topic sentences are often counter-intuitive to the writer. It is easy to explain something in the way that you came to understand it. That often means starting with a few random clues and leaving the conclusion to the end. This arrangement of the material can work in an oral presentation when the audience is asked to relive a story of discovery with the person who is speaking. But I think it generally makes for poor writing especially where, as here, the text is about the material rather than the individual author, and there is in fact no individual voice but rather a collaborative effort of multiple anonymous editors.
This also enables the reader to quickly know what is on a page or in a paragraph without having to first read the entire text. This in turn enables the reader to more quickly find items of interest and to skip items and pages of little interest.
(e) Fewer headings, not more. Or, collect the discussion by sequence of results rather than sequence of methods. This concept is related to the one previous. When I read a commentary, I want to read the entire discussion about a passage in one place. I do not want to read a heading about how to apply one step of interpretation to each passage in the book, and then read another heading about how to apply another step to every passage, and so on, so that I have to pick out individual paragraphs under several headings just to get the full discussion about a single passage. That was the reason for combining the two headings previously labeled “Lexical Notes” and “Exegesis.” I think we should further combine some of the additional headings I have created, like “Related Scriptures,” that instead should have just been incorporated into the general heading of “Discussion.” Also, fewer tabs, not more. What I mean here is that ideas and insights about the text, even if unpolished, should go on the front commentary page and should not be hidden on the talk or discussion page where most readers are not in the habit of looking, and where even those who do look will have to search in multiple places just to find all parts of a single discussion.
(f) Documentation. A good work of science will invite people to disprove its conclusions and make it as easy as possible for them to do so. This means providing the underlying data and clearly explaining the logical steps. In the context of scriptural interpretation, data means documentation. The best documentation is hyperlinks that make instantly available the underlying justifications for a conclusion. When hyperlinks are not possible, footnotes are the next best solution. This is important in order to keep authors honest and careful, which in turn will (justifiably) increase user confidence. I want the wiki to be set up in a way that not only makes it easy for contributors to address each step of interpretation, but also makes it easy for readers to verify for themselves and, if warranted, disagree about any of these steps. I have read books on Church history that were written by noted authors and that won awards, and that nevertheless contain inaccuracies. The wiki will not exceed the editorial standard of those books any time soon, but it can exceed them in the ability to identify and correct the errors that do get made.
Even if every conclusion on the wiki were entirely accurate, documentation would still be desirable. When a reader is able to instantly view the data underlying a conclusion, their confidence in that conclusion grows. The reader can then move the conclusion from the column entitled “things anonymous contributors to the wiki think are true” to the one called “things I have logically worked out for myself.” In addition, a reader who can personally review the underlying data or text will not be limited to understanding conclusions drawn by the writer, but will be enabled to draw additional conclusions the writer may have missed. These desirable outcomes are also dependent on the availability of documentation.
2. Website design.
(a) Screen sizes from 4″ telephones to 14″ laptops. I tend to think of electronic screens as coming in six standard sizes: (i) 4″ telephones; (ii) 7″ mini tablets; (iii) 10″ full size tablets; (iv) 14″ laptops; (v) 24″ desktops; and (vi) 36″-84″ television screens. I think the site should function on all of the four portable sizes from 4″ to 14″. I do not care about 24″ desktop screens because my experience is that when people read text on a screen that big, they read that text in a window only about half as wide as the entire screen, or maybe a little more. In other words, anything that reads well on a laptop screen will also read well on a larger desktop screen.
(b) Left margin and maximizing commentary on small screens. I like the idea of the left margin. But I would like to see two improvements.
– Left margin scrolling. It would be nice if the left margin scrolled up and down independently of the main screen. If you are reading near the bottom of a long page, it can take a lot of scrolling to get back up to the links on the left margin. It would be nice if they stayed put unless the reader actively scrolls the left margin down.
– Left margin hiding. I use the links in the left margin all the time on my laptop. But when reading on my 7″ android tablet in a vertical orientation, I want all the space I can get left to right. Currently you can tap on white space in the text and the page will zoom in to effectively hide the left margin, but the implementation is not quite right and zooms in just a little too much so that some of the text is also hidden. It would be nice to be able to hide the left margin so the page width still comes out right.
– Scripture text window. On a small screen I also wish I could hide the scripture text window in the same way that I can hide the automatically generated table of contents. Frankly, the smaller the screen, the more likely that the entire LDS gospel library has been downloaded t the device. This is just another implementation of the principle that on a small screen the user wants the ability to maximize how much of that screen is dedicated to the actual text of the commentary.
(c) Page length. This may be the hardest design criteria on which to reach any kind of final decision, or even just articulate. In very vague terms, I think a page should be the length that most often provides a positive viewing experience. I think all of the following contribute to a positive experience:
– A page should be long enough that they have enough content to be worth visiting. Even if the wiki has no content for the particular passage that a visitor wants to read about, it can still have commentary on nearby passages that the visitor may find worthwhile.
– A page should be long enough that you can immerse yourself in the commentary for a while without having to click to the next page. It is my impression that, when going sequentially through a book, every time you click to the next page there is an interruption, or a brief reorientation, as you have to remind yourself where this page fits in the larger scheme of the book.
– A page should be short enough that you can quickly find something on it after linking in from another page. This and the prior criteria work in direct opposition to each other.
– A page should be short enough that you can get to the top and bottom (and other headings) without too much scrolling. The point of adding links to alternate Bible translations on every page is to make those translations easily accessible. Too much scrolling still makes them accessible, but not easily.
The ability to minimize and maximize each heading on a page seems to me very desirable, but it will also impact each of these factors.
(d) Consistency of design. The site should have as much of a consistent look and feel as possible on every page. This means consistency of both headings and the manner in which content is formatted.
(e) Page layout. I can think of three things that make a page more readable regardless of the content.
– Graduated headings. It is helpful to have several clearly distinguishable headings sizes, weights, and fonts. This can help the reader keep track of where they are. I would like even more choices, and then guidelines on when to use which.
– White space around headings. White space is another excellent way of signaling the beginning of a new concept to the reader. As the wiki currently implements, it is hard to control the amount of white space above a heading. I have been putting in double spaces before each major heading. But those will be lost as soon as someone edits only that section under that heading. And I cannot ever get extra white space immediately below the automatically generated table of contents. I would like to see the ability to automatically insert different amounts of white space immediately before different levels of headings.
– White space between paragraphs. As the wiki currently implements, it can be hard to tell paragraphs apart. I am fine with lack of indentation at the beginning of each paragraph. But increasing the amount of white space between paragraphs would help readers to see the breaks between paragraphs.
(f) Ease of finding content on the site. It should be easy and intuitive to find things on the site. This includes:
– On a single page, this means good visual display of headings so that it is easy to quickly see what is on a page and what is addressed under each heading.
– Across the entire site this means lots of cross links including, in effect, links to other pages on the wiki that function much like cross-references in the margins of print scriptures.
– Across the entire site this also means thinking clearly about what the contributor really wants people to see when they click on a link to another passage. Many many times ought to have created an external link to the text of a passage, but out of laziness or lack of proficiency have instead linked to the wiki page for that passage.
– Again, substantive comments should not be hidden behind a separate “talk” or “discussion” tab.
– I would like to see improvement in the quality of search results when using the “search” box to find for text strings on the site.
(g) Getting content from the site. Visitors should be able not only to read what is on the site, but also to print and download it. The biggest obstacle to this currently is that when you print or download the text of the wiki, you get the full url of every external link to a website off the wiki. This makes what you print or download unreadable. The fact that people have to download, edit, and then print is an obstacle to cutting and pasting a paragraph as a lesson or talk resource.
3. Collaborative wiki.
Place to converse. It must always be about what, not who. Consensus through revelation. Also see talk in April 2012.
4. Upgrading wiki software.
Matthew Faulconer and I have talked about what would be on our wish list if the wiki software were to be upgraded. This is what we have come up with so far:
– The ability to toggle on and off each heading on a page. The headings themselves would always display, but the content under a particular heading could be toggled to display or hide by clicking the “+” or “-” to the left of that heading. Ideally, each user can adjust their preffered defaults as to which headings show or don’t show.
– The ability to minimize or not display the scripture text window. Like the current menu window.
– The ability to change how many levels of menu get displayed. Then maybe I would not have to make headings in a way that keeps them off the menu display.
– The ability to set how each hierarchical level of menu displays in the text. I would make changes to the current settings.
– The ability to always automatically have two lines of white space above each two dash (==) heading. I edit entire pages instead of single sections because otherwise that white space disappears. I am a big believer in using white space as an intentional display element.
– The ability to print out a page without displaying external URL’s. Currently internal URL’s do not display but externals do.
– The ability to have two or more levels of contributor permission, so that low level permissions can add, but they cannot change what higher level permissions have already put in. People can get approved for higher level after reviewing the quality of some number of contributions or edits. Or maybe the lowest level of permission can only add to certain headings. Not an issue now, but I would like to think that it will eventually become important.
– The ability to generate a list of changes by contributor with links as on the special page for double redirects, and after following each link and to see each changed page marked up so you can evaluate their contributions, whether the evaluation is so that you can decide whether to grant greater privileges to someone or whether to block them.
– Not having to prove that I am not a robot every single time I make an edit. I don’t mind doing it each time I first log in. But would it be safe to just let me reprove that every fifth or tenth time? Maybe this will matter less once I finish the mechanical work of regrouping and formatting.
– Good text string searching for the entire site, with wildcards. For example “Ripe* in iniquity” to bring up ripe, ripened, ripening, etc.
– The ability to change a large number of redirects all at once with a single command. Not a huge big deal for merging pages, but it will save some labor splitting pages once a lot of content starts getting added.
– The leading asterisk “*” and the paragraph indent “:” do not indent by quite the same amount. It would be nice if they did, or if they were globally adjustable.
One more thought that may or may not affect your investigating upgrades. There is still the issue of how to deal with long contributions that should not be hidden behind the discussion tab but do not really fit on the main pages either. I think Janet Lisonbee’s long contribution in Ruth can stay right where it is, largely as is. I also like her contribution for 1 Ne 3-4, but I am not so sure it belongs on that page, and I have not yet figured out how to deal with it.
F. What makes a project valuable or worthwhile?
I have developed a set of four criteria that I often use to evaluate both the selection and execution of a project. In other words, what justifies doing more on a project than is required to satisfy my own personal interest? Or what makes a project useful and valuable to others, and therefore worth my spending the additional time required to make it presentable to others? These criteria fall into four major categories.
1. Importance of the subject matter. I am going to cheat on this one by simply assuming that a project is useful if it promotes understanding of the scriptures and the gospel, faith in Jesus Christ, and/or a commitment to living his gospel.
2. Importance of the treatment. A project might be important for one or more of several reasons. I think the first two criteria are the best, but any of the following reasons could justify a project:
(a) Is the treatment seminal? Seminal means demonstrating the value of a whole new direction for addressing a subject that others can also use, now that it has been pointed out. It is unlikely that a very large proportion of the content on the site will ever be groundbreaking. So I do not believe that the content is seminal. But FUTW is the first and so far only place I know of that is collaborative, open, and tied to the scriptural text as opposed to the gospel doctrine lesson manual. So I do believe the wiki format is a seed that others can also use in their work, in this case by collaborating rather than copying.
(b) Is the treatment definitive? By definitive I do not mean perfect, but I do mean sufficiently good to scare off any serious competition because the deficiencies are too small to justify anyone else redoing the work just to correct those deficiencies. In other words, I mean it becomes widely accepted as an adequate de facto standard in the field. In terms of site design, I do think it is possible to also satisfy this standard. I think it is possible by working through these preliminary questions to design a site that facilitates all of the things a definitive commentary should do. Content is more complicated. I think it is possible to approach this standard over the next couple years in the case of a few scattered and small books of scripture. That is a big part of the benchmark I would like to work toward over the next year and a half. But I do no think it is possible to reach that standard with regard to most of the standard works in less than a couple of decades. But frankly, with regard to the BM, DC and PGP, I don’t know what else is. When friends ask me what I recommend they read in order to understand Alma, I cannot point to a single item that fits the bill. I do think it is possible with regard to the restoration scriptures to get closer to definitive than anything else that is out there, and to do so in a decade or less. Frankly, I think it could get to the point in a decade or so where it was difficult for a scholar to put out a definitive Book of Mormon commentary in print because of the vastly greater resources available through crowd-sourcing and hyperlinking.
(c) Does it at least lay a foundation upon which other important work can build? Perhaps by adding significant insights, by working out a problematic issue, or by adding clarity of concept or expression? Scholars often work on projects that are not earth shaking but that are nevertheless important because they do add up over time to make significant advances. But I do not know that this applies to the wiki overall. This does obviously justify many of the incremental contributions that people make to the site, including the preliminary task of getting the formatting in shape.
(d) Can the treatment demonstrate a method that can be duplicated on other projects? This criteria is most useful when applied to a project that can inspire other copycat projects. Here, however, the point is not to show people how to set up their own LDS scripture wikis, but rather to get them to contribute to this same project. So the wiki site as a whole is not going to satisfy this criteria. However, if we can get a few small books of scripture or groups of chapters written up in good shape, those smaller projects could both inspire and provide a model for other people to contribute by working on other books of scripture on the wiki.
(e) Is it one of those things that just ought to get done, or to already be done, or that you would be embarrassed to explain why it is not already done? I think the wiki does satisfy this criteria when applied to the LDS community as a whole.
3. Audience impact.
(a) Audience size? Classroom teaching can be very effective, but the audience size is not scalable.
(b) Will the audience find it?
(c) What will the audience understand, feel, or do differently?
(d) Will the audience refer back to it repeatedly as a foundation, or just read it once?
We want to reach as many people as possible. We want the site to be worth visiting over and over again as a principal reference. And we want to have the greatest impact possible not only on understanding, ut also on faith and conduct.
4. Audience composition. In the context of an LDS religious project, I ask which of the following groups are likely to benefit:
(a) LDS academics and doctrinally sophisticated members. This is the group that I want to encourage to contribute. To reach that point, there must be some high quality content.
(b) Average church membership.
(c) Newbies. This includes BYU freshmen, primary children, recent converts, and those who live where the church is not yet strong and therefore have few opportunities to learn from personal interactions
(d) Non-readers. You will not reach everyone as long as you are tied to text. This includes the blind, the illiterate, and children who can read but lack the attention span to read lengthy treatments of doctrine.
(e) Non-English speakers.
(f) Non-LDS academics in the field of religion.
(g) Members of other faiths.
One of the hardest things to do is to satisfy the needs of multiple audiences in a single lesson, work, or presentation. Here I am primarily concerned with the first three groups, all literate English-speaking members of the Church, but with vastly different levels of doctrinal and scriptural sophistication. I would frankly argue not only that the wiki can satisfy all of those varying levels of sophistication, but that it must. Three reasons.
First, drilling deeply into a verse and generalized summaries should depend upon each other. On the one hand, a discussion summarizing the main points of Mosiah should be supported by detailed analysis all the way down eventually to the level of the verse. On the other hand, the interpretation of an individual verse must likewise be informed by the broader context of the literary structure and principal themes of the entire book. I do not believe that either can be done in complete isolation of the other.
Second, I realized a long time ago that if I could not explain something to an interested teenager in simple non-technical words and everyday examples, in other words if I could not explain it in a way that they could readily understand, then there is a very good chance that I do not really understand it either. So I do not believe that detailed or high quality work is beyond the ability of newbies to follow – if it is well thought through and explained.
Third, it is just as important that the wiki teach the method of scripture study as teaching the content. In an ideal world, every entry would be edited having in mind whether it is accessible to a newbie who is trying to learn how to study on their own. I learned most of what I know about scripture study by repeatedly visiting a couple of major theological libraries and sifting between good answers on the one hand, and on the other hand stuff that doctoral students and professors have to come up with in order to publish something original. But there is no reason why we cannot reduce that part of the price that an average lay member of the Church has to pay in order to understand the scriptures.
I summarize this long list of criteria with four words:
• Is it seminal? Does it break new ground that others can follow?
• Is it definitive? Is it done about as well as it is possible to do?
• Is it accessible? Can a newbie readily understand it?
• Is it indispensable? Fifty years later when that newbie has become a BYU religion professor, will it still be one of the first three references off the shelf?
II. Vision for Implementation
• What should be the vision for how the wiki is ultimately implemented?
Fewer headings, not more, because want all parts of a single concept in a single place.
Let me suggest the following as a starting point:
So how much content should there be on a page before I leave it alone? The answer I have been working with is flexible. I have worked from the following guidelines:
This arises partly out of my amateur understanding of neuropsychology regarding chunks and building up meta-chunks.
* A page should engage the reader for 15 to 30 minutes, up to 60 minutes if reading side by side.
* A page should cover a coherent block of text so that the reader, upon finishing the page, is able to tackle and better understand a coherent block.
* The forest is just as important as the trees. Although the site still has “verse level pages,” it now also has higher level pages that invite content. This had been done on rare occasion, such as Alma 37 and Alma, but it was a rare exception. Now it is the norm.
* If there is a need for subpages, then all of the subpages for that level should be created. That means that sometimes, as in Leviticus, you get a full page for Chapter 16 and some empty pages next to it on that same level. I have not followed this strictly, and have sometimes combined 8 subpages on a level into only four.
* There should be a quick overview. I love outlines. But I decided they could put users off, so I have gone to another format. See it in especially in Ruth, Daniel, and Ether.
I think that in its current form the page for Ruth enables someone to work through Ruth for the very first time, not knowing anything about it, and quickly get oriented to the book so it is understood at a basic level of comfort, and also to go beyond that to walk away with a deep understanding of the book’s message/meaning. Those are my personal goals for the website and the reason I contribute.
This heading should be very brief. Click the link above and to the right to edit or add content to this heading.
Story. Moroni’s abridgement of Ether’s record contains a short prologue followed by three major sections:
Message. Themes, symbols, and doctrinal points emphasized in Ether include:
Relationship to Book of Mormon. The relationship of Ether to the Book of Mormon as a whole is discussed at Book of Mormon: Unities.
This heading should be brief and explain facts about the setting, including historical background, that will help a reader to understand the book. This can include links to maps and pictures. Click the link above and to the right to edit or add content to this heading.
This heading is for more detailed discussions of all or part of a passage. Discussion may include the meaning of a particular word, how a doctrinal point is developed throughout the passage, insights to be developed in the future, and other items. Contributions may range from polished paragraphs down to a single bullet point. The focus, however, should always be on understanding the scriptural text consistent with LDS doctrine. Click the link above and to the right to edit or add content to this heading.
This heading is for notes about the relationship of this book to other sections and passages. Click the link above and to the right to edit or add content to this heading.
Application to life
This heading is for prompts that suggest ways in which all or part of this passage can influence a person’s life. This can include identifying principles that the author teaches us to live by, examples that illustrate a lesson or inspire us to follow, and questions for personal evaluation. Click the link above and to the right to edit or add content to this heading.
I have a question
This heading is for unanswered questions and is an important part of the continual effort to improve this wiki. Please do not be shy, as even a basic or “stupid” question can identify things that need to be improved on this page and lead to responses that also help others to understand. Click the link above and to the right to edit or add content to this heading.
Complete outline and page map
This heading contains an outline for the entire book. Items in blue or purple text indicate hyperlinked pages that address specific portions of this section. Click the link above and to the right to edit or add content to this heading.
This heading is for listing links and print resources, including those cited in the notes. A short comment about the strengths and weaknesses of a particular resource can be helpful. Click the link above and to the right to edit or add content to this heading.
Book of Mormon
Revelation Books 1 and 2
Book of Commandments, 1833
D&C, 1835, 1844
Footnotes are not required but are encouraged for factual assertions that average readers cannot easily evaluate for themselves, such as the date of King Solomon’s death or the nuanced definition of a Greek word. In contrast, insights rarely benefit from footnoting, and the focus of this page should always remain on the scriptures themselves rather than what someone has said about them. Links are actively encouraged on all sections of this page, and links to authoritative sources are preferable to footnotes.
III. Stages of Development
A. Cleaning up formatting.
The first stage of development is simply to take the content we already have and present it more readably. This does not involve editing the substantive content that has already been contributed. We are within two or three months or so of largely completing this stage.
1. What I have been doing. Over the last year I have contributed some content and done a lot of systematic cleaning up. That cleaning up has primarily taken three forms.
(a) Formatting headings. About a year ago we opened up to discussion the issue of page headings or elements. I have been implementing the results of that conversation throughout the site, or updating the formatting of headings so far on more than half of the entire site. I have also been adding several minor tweaks to the way that these headings are formatted as I continue to improve on them. After stepping back and asking the big picture questions at the beginning of this post, I think there is another round of updates to implement.
(b) Combining pages. Second, I have been combining pages in order to do what I call “eliminating the desert.” As I began to update the formatting of headings in Leviticus, I noticed that there were an awful lot of empty pages. When I stopped to count, I found that while there was a lot of good content for Chapter 16, there was not a single word of content for al of the other 26 chapters combined. I asked myself just how many pages of empty desert we really want a user to have to click through when looking for content on Leviticus. I decided that asking users to click 165 times just to discover that there are in fact not hits would not result in a “positive visitor experience.” So I cut it down to 6 empty pages plus one good page for Chapter 16. I would love to go back and subdivide those large pages once enough content has been created, but we are simply not likely to get there any time soon.
Of course, there is the question of how I chose to split Leviticus up into 7 pages. This is NOT rote work and involves a lot of judgment. The short answer is, and it took me several years to stumble into learning this through experience, that on my first couple of passes through a text I just try to identify cohesive blocks of text before I worry about the relationships between those blocks. I look first for changes of scene or speaker, introductory phrases, and other indications that the speaker has moved from one block of text to another. I then look for relationships that allow one to build up groups of those blocks into chapters and groups of chapters. I recently saw an article suggesting criteria for identifying chiasmus, and I very much agree with the criteria that: The blocks of text comprising a chiasmus should be enjoy wide acceptance as cohesive blocks of text, even by those who disagree about the manner in which those blocks relate to each other. A quick review of several commentaries can usually serve a check on this for the Bible, but for the BM and D&C there is simply not enough literature out there.
I don’t know that I can give a much longer answer here without it taking over a large portion of this post. I will simply add that I have been working out outlines that trace an author’s train of thought since 1987, that the outlines for books of the Bible are informed by trips to the theological libraries at SMU and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and that I have often also posted outlines for each book that help to explain how I understand the author’s train of thought. In the end my outlines and page divisions will either enjoy a consensus of support, or they will not and they will get changed. This is, after all, a wiki. I do believe that these groupings and outlines, even where they may turn out to be wrong, at least encourage people to think about the text in chunks and are therefore better than having only an endless stream of verse level pages.
I think it goes without saying that not every passage of equal length will merit equally in-depth treatment or draw an equal amount of commentary. Five verses on faith in Alma 32 should and will draw more commentary than 5 chapters of Old Testament genealogy in Chronicles. Even where these differences may not persist in the long run, it is still a fact that they exist today; for example, there is currently more content for 2 Nephi 2 than for the entire book of Helaman. I have tried to adjust accordingly the number of pages dedicated to that content.
(c) Formatting content. Third, I have been reformatting the content. I do occasionally stop to edit the substance of the content, but 95% of this has just been rote clerical work. I am not yet entirely satisfied with the way this works yet either, but again I think it does at least resolve two issues. First, when every single comment or question got its own entry in the automatically generated table of contents, that table of contents became unwieldy and, I believe, stopped being helpful. So I have reformatted headings to individual questions and comments in a way that keeps them from appearing in the table of contents. Second, the formatting varied greatly from page to page so that it was not uniform. One of the basic tenets of good website design, or of typesetting a print reference work, is that all pages should look and feel as much the same as makes sense, and I have tried to implement some uniformity.
But I do am not yet satisfied that it really works yet as well as it ought to. The biggest challenge is on pages that have lots of short comments and a few very long comments. What type of heading system works for both? I don’t know yet. Places to look at a variety of possible solutions are First Corinthians, Hebrews, Nahum and _____. This is one place where I really would like feedback that solves the issue for me.
(d) Derivative passages. Another smaller change I have also made systematically is to take, for example, all the comments about Isaiah that were put in 2 Nephi 12-24 and move them to Isaiah 2-14, leaving behind in 2 Nephi only the comments that address Nephi’s use of Isaiah. The idea is that someone looking for content about Isaiah should not be expected to also look in 2 Nephi.
(e) Talk pages. Yet another smaller change I have made is to often move some content from the talk page to the main commentary page. The idea is that substantive content ought to be where people will see it. I see the talk page as discussing why something was done to the main commentary page. I do not know that I always got these changes right, and even when I did, that content probably needs more editing than usual since it was intended for a more intimate audience.
2. Current status and time frame for completion. These three changes – formatting headings, formatting content, and combining pages – are currently about three quarters done across the entire website. I expect to reach the 90% level in another month.
What this means is that people can now go in and improve the substantive content of many pages: (1) on which all the boring formatting tasks have already been done; (2) with logical verse groupings on each page that should make it easier to draw connections between verses and to comment on the big picture; and (3) that already have enough content to edit, to serve as prompts, and to not feel that one is starting to write on a blank page.
OT: I have done about half of the Old Testament, essentially all except Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Samuel, 2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel.
NT: I have done from Acts to Revelation (except First John). I have done bits and pieces of the gospels, but may not soon try to finish them off systematically because I think they will be much more involved than anything else.
BM: I am within about 15 chapters of being completely done.
D&C: I have just started this, but I expect it to go quickly and will tackler it soon.
PGP: Done, except that it was done before I realized that I was often still leaving desert in my wake, and so I may go back and consolidate a few pages.
3. Where does this leave the site at present. Once I finish this stage of work, my current best guess is that the site will have about 1,200 pages of content, broken down roughly as follows.
OT: 500 pages consisting of Psalms: 150 (just because I think it has to be a page for each); Isaiah: 100 (total guess); Genesis & Judges: 100 (but I need to go back and consolidate desert); and everything else: 150
NT: 175 pages consisting of Gospels: 15-35 each; and everything else: 60
BM: 250 pages
D&C: 200 pages, or about 1.5 pages per section for 138 sections
PGP: 64 pages, though this may go down a little.
Resource pages for OT, NT, BM, DC, PGP: about 25 pages
B. Inviting volunteers to work on a limited number of pages.
The second stage of development will be to pick several books (or at least large groups of chapters) to develop as models of what mature wiki pages ought to look like. I expect it will take the rest of the year to get this done. I suggest this as a stage separate from the next because I expect this stage will confront us with issues that we need to work through before tackling the third stage.
When I suggest First Nephi, I mean not only the top level page, but also all of the subpages. However, I say that the pages are “mature,” not “polished” and ready to publish as a print commentary. I am okay with undeveloped bullet points that beg for further development. I think that is an excellent way to turn visitors into contributors. But I some of the content would be polished and that the pages work as well as we would expect for pages on which people have spent a significant amount of time thinking, contributing, and editing a continual work in progress. The question is not whether First Nephi is “done,” but whether the pages “work.”
Here are several suggestions:
First Nephi: Just because everyone looks at it and thinks they already know it. If we are going to start pushing the site when Gospel Doctrine hits the Book of Mormon, then we probably cannot leave this off of the list.
Second Nephi: Because it would force us to deal with several of the page relationship issues I have seen. 2 Ne 2 needs four subpages just to handle all the content. 2 Ne 12-24 all fits on a single page and quotes to Isaiah.
Ether: Because it is manageable and I think it will be easy to give people a positive experience realizing they have learned to understand something much better than before.
Ruth: Because enough content is already there and just needs to be wrestled into shape. Also because it will force us to address the issue of long solo contributions to a page.
Daniel: Because it is easy to do, easy to give a positive experience, and a lot of the footnoting is already done.
Obadiah: Because it makes sense from the outline and is very short.
Malachi: Because it is important, manageable, and I can knock people’s socks off.
First Corinthians: Because there is already a lot of content from people who are not me
D&C 42: Because a lot that is insightful can be said.
D&C 89: Because Joe has written a lot already.
We should pick at least one book each from the Bible, Book of Mormon, and D&C because the front or top level pages will have differences. At least one book each with a single page, two levels of pages, and three-plus levels of pages. Some pages where I have added a lot of content that ties things together as in Ether, some where another single person has added most of the content as in Ruth or D&C 89, some where there is a lot of content from multiple contributors. Some pages with a lot of questions. Some with some very long contributions, and some with lots of short contributions. At least one page with lots of good footnotes.
C. Inviting public use and contributions.
The third stage is getting the site to the point that it is worth pushing to invite the public. For me that means getting the site to the point that an average visitor would decide to bookmark the site and return. That means having enough useful content that visitors will find it worth returning.
When it comes to usage and content, I see wikis as social media. It takes content to get usage, and it takes usage before visitors contribute content. It is a self-perpetuating cycle, whether good or bad. But this is not a chicken and egg question. The content, or at least enough content, must come first.
I cannot possibly write enough by myself to get the site to the point that it becomes a major destination. But I think that I, and hopefully a few others, can at least get the site to a critical point where visitors have positive viewing experiences often enough that they begin to visit regularly and then begin to also contribute. When that happens, the virtuous cycle of growth will take over, and the site will no longer be dependent on the contributions of particular individuals. Most of what I have done on the site over the last year or so has been aimed at getting the site to that critical take-off point as efficiently as I can.
I think a reasonable goal for reaching that critical take-off point is January 2016 when the Gospel Doctrine course will return to the Book of Mormon. I can think of two things that would serve as a benchmark indicating that the site has arrived at that critical point. I think it is reasonable to believe that these could happen in time to start pushing the site before the gospel doctrine course reaches to the Book of Mormon in December 2015 at the end of next year.
I would measuring when the site reaches this benchmark as follows:
(1) Half of the approximately 250 wiki pages on the Book of Mormon result in a positive viewing experience for readers who have an average level of understanding. That means both breadth and depth. To get there, we need both to have some content and to have that content in a shape that is readable. When this is true, I think casual visitors will return.
(2) The wiki pages that pertain to each weekly reading assignment have a combined total of at least two really good insights around either of which a gospel doctrine teacher could build an entire lesson. That is only a hundred concepts, or about one concept for every two wiki pages. When this is true, I think teachers will come back.
(3) A third item that would be nice, and perhaps also realistic, is lots of links. When people want to find any online articles about a Book of Mormon passage that have appeared in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, the Maxwell Institute, or the Religious Educator, they know they can find them by just going to the wiki page for that passage. When there is a tool, such as alternate translations, they know those links are right there handy on the page.
I do not suggest this as a mechanical target that ignores the condition of the rest of the site, but as a rough indicator of the entire site’s usefulness.
I think the end of next year is an ideal window for us to shoot for.
D. Finishing systematic construction
I would characterize most of what I have done on the site so far as systematic building. I think it is worth paying systematic attention to the following things until they get done. I think this will cement a consistently positive experience when visiting the site. I might quit worrying altogether about systematically building out the site when the following are all in good shape:
(1) the top level page for 90% of the books and of D&C sections
(2) the second level pages for half of the books that have them
(3) the resource pages for the OT, NT, BM, DC, PGP
(4) lots of interlinking among the gospels
I think the site will have become what I hope and expect when two things are true:
(1) there is a lot of traffic visiting the site, perhaps 10,000 unique non-robot visitors per week; and
(2) there is enough new content that the current 1,200 or so pages have grown significantly to somewhere between 1,500 – 2,000 pages.
● MISC NOTES
To improve accessibility, I have added summaries at the top of each page, just like on Wikipedia, and have otherwise messed with the names and arrangement of headings. And I have tried to start with what is known rather than what is not known. Here is an example why. For over four years the very first piece of content for the entire Book of Mormon was this question on the page for 1 Ne 1:1-5:
Colophon. Was Hugh Nibley right about these introductory verses being a colophon? Is this literary structure or formula unique to Nephi in the Book of Mormon or did other authors use colophons throughout the Book of Mormon also? Do you agree with John A. Tvedtnes or Brant Gardner on this point?
This is fine as a thought-provoking question for sophisticated users. But if that is the first thing a newbie sees on the website, they will be justifiably intimidated and may never return. I do not see that as merely unfortunate; I see it as downright hurtful. The message conveyed to newbies was that understanding the scriptures is an academic pursuit beyond their reach, a message that is simply not defensible. So if we have a site that people are going to stumble across on Google searches, then I think we have an obligation to ease people into the site so that when they do get down to that question and realize they have hit something beyond their abilities, at least they already know that other large portions of the discussion are within their abilities. So, while I have no problem with meaty discussions, I feel they need to be prefaced with milk.
When linguists try to understand text at the level of the paragraph and above, they look for cohesive blocks of text, for the relationships between those blocks, and for the relative importance given to various blocks. A linear verse by verse treatment strips out all three of those clues to the author’s meaning. It is like reading a fifty page report with all the headings and paragraph breaks removed.
As my children leave home and seek on their own to find understanding, what I want to make available for them is a reference that will walk them through that process enough times that they learn how to do it on their own, then start to second guess me, and finally edit my commentary on the wiki to improve it for my grandkids. I have started to do an okay job of that in Ether.
Janet Lisonbee has wonderful contributions in Ruth and Leviticus 16 that can stay where I have moved them from behind the discussion tab to the main commentary pages. She also has an excellent contribution about the Sabbath Day that I have moved to the commentary page for Geneses 1. I know that it did not belong where it was, hidden behind the discussion tab of Gen 2:1-5. Now, out on the main commentary page for Genesis 1, it will at least be seen. But, I think the right place for it might actually be on a Janet Lisonbee subpage, with the Genesis 1 commentary page containing only a short summary and link. But while it may be okay to go around moving other people’s contributions to their own talk pages, that is a step I hesitate to take for the first time. (I do like user subpages better than blogs because the author can keep going back and refining their own work).
My vision is that a BYU freshman or recent blue collar convert or interested non-member should be able to read that summary and already have some sense of what he is about to read and what he ought to be getting out of it.
Another issue to think about that will eventually have to be tackled is: Also look at 2 Ne 2, which has more content than all of Helaman or Mormon. I frankly cannot figure out a more logical place to break the subpages than at every fifth verse, so I have stayed with that. When it comes to actually turning those pages into something coherent, we will face the issue that at some point you quit trying to overview on every next lower level and you just let it be a sequential jumble. I think.
I am also trying to get not only the headings, but also the content formatted in a way that makes it easy to scan and keeps the table of contents useful (done Helaman to Moroni).
I generally like what I have done, but here are a few pages to look at. Alma 54-55 is a good example of how it makes the page much more friendly. 1 Ne 5-6 is a good example of how items of greatly differing lengths do not benefit much from this formatting. I am still open to ideas.
Perhaps my view of them can be expressed this way. I understand as well as anyone that questions are valuable tools for learning. Everything on the Book of Mormon: Unities page can be traced to my asking why Ether was placed or made to fit at the end rather than the beginning of the Book of Mormon. But in the end this valuable tool is merely a tool for achieving a purpose, a means to an end, and not the end itself. The end or purpose, I believe, is understanding and perhaps application. It is not pedagogy. And what this insistence on straining to ask one meaningful question per verse (yes, really, look again at 1 Ne 3-4) does is make the site quit being about its purpose and to instead be about the tool. But who wants to read that? That is not what made wikipedia and Mormon Doctrine and the Bible Dictionary such standard references.
My current thinking is that the summary section as I have it in Ruth, Chronicles, etc may on average be the most useful and important item on a page, distilling all of the content down to its essentials. I don’t drive for the sake of driving, I do it to get somewhere.
And I go back the test of: is this something I want a new rural, blue collar member in a strugglinng branch to read? If it going to cause problems for him, then maybe it is not worth posting an unanswered, unguided question about that particular verse.
So I am trying to have a good attitude about most of the individual questions, but in the aggregate they frustrate me tremendously.
I do like the concept of a heading for questions. I don’t even mind if some questions get two or three contradictory answers. I just want questions to either raise the quality of discussion, or else be individually sincere.
I guess I have two main critiques.
First, I have doubts about the usefulness of this practice.
It is true that it can be helpful to show people how to learn by asking questions. But it is just as important to teach them how to answer a question well. If what you mostly post is questions and rarely answers, then you have only done half the task. You have not also modeled what a good answer would look like. And when the question suggests that the person posting is withholding the answer, I just get annoyed. It ends up striking me as someone getting too infatuated with a pet pedagogical theory and forgetting about all the other parts of learning that also matter, and filling up the site with that stuff instead of the useful comments that the person is capable of.
I have learned a lot about learning just by copying how other people explain their subject matter. A very large percentage of what I have figured out about the gospel can be traced back to the outline for Lectures on Faith: What is it? How do you get it? How much of it can be gotten? and What are its effects, or why bother? But Lectures on Faith would not be a great book if it stopped on the first page after announcing three of these questions. Rather it is a great book because it then models how to go about answering those questions. After reading it during my mission, I was armed not only with a good set of questions that I could apply to charity, humility, etc., but also with a sense of how to go about answering those questions and of what is required for a high quality answer. In contrast, I have never learned anything – or been satisfied – from playing guess what I am thinking.
I do not want to teach people how to more efficiently reinvent the wheel from scratch. I want to show them how the wheel was invented so they can more efficiently invent new stuff that I have never even imagined. So if I have an answer, I am going to share it so they can start from a position further along than I started. I am not going to make them duplicate my work. Thank you Alma (spirit paradise) and Brother of Jared (the Lord had a spirit body) for doing the same for me.
I understand that many people find thoughtful brainstorm questions helpful. But many of the questions I am complaining about are not thoughtful brainstorms. They are worksheet quality homework. Write a good question. Then explain why you think it is a really good question. Then provide a textual or doctrinal context for the question. Then suggest possible directions for exploring possible answers. Ten of those will teach more than a hundred of the other, and be more satisfying to the reader.
Second, I think the practice is frankly unhelpful.
Answers are satisfying. Unanswered questions are usually not – unless they are really good questions. Simply asking in Moroni 7 “What is faith” is not one of those satisfying high quality questions. And pages with little more than endless streams of unanswered questions will never provide a satisfying experience. People won’t come back. So they won’t contribute. So the site never reaches a critical mass of satisfying content. And the circle continues. In order to get more contributions, the site needs traffic. And to get traffic, page views must be satisfying to most viewers. That is why I am replacing the outlines at the top of each page – which I prefer – with non-hierarchical bullets. That is also why I am willing to spend so many hours doing what is really minimum wage rote work in regrouping pages to eliminate the desert effect. Because when 90% of page views are unsatisfying, no one will come back. If we can reverse that to 10% of page views are unsatisfying, then we will get repeat traffic. My view of my role is to be important in getting the site to the point that I am no longer important.
Again, I am not against questions. Well thought out questions can bring repeat traffic. But many many of the questions I see posted at the rate of one per verse strike me not as likely paths to insight, but as stubborn attempts to not understand. And not many people will come back to read more of that. That is why I do not currently send people I know to the site, and I want to get it to the point that I can start doing so with confidence that they will go back on their own as repeat traffic.
More perniciously, I worry that it may be unhelpful by turning some people off not just from the website, but from scripture study. Hegel used the word alienation to describe a situation in which you picture an ideal and believe that you cannot achieve it (like what the world has done with the concept of God). Unlike you and me, a poorly educated new convert or a BYU freshman might read a page like that and leave with the impression that they should be able to come up with answers that they cannot. We then will have pointed out how much they do not know while providing very little guidance about how to change that situation. If I get frustrated at many of these questions, then I worry that someone less comfortable with their own abilities will get frustrated instead at themself. That would mean that not only have we failed to help, we have actually done harm.
There are several people in my ward who are not bookish, don’t understand the scriptures very well, don’t have a good source I can just point them to, and are painfully aware of all that. And sometimes they get called to teach gospel doctrine. One of the key things that drives me is a desire to provide something that can get those people past the position of alienation. I don’t worry that they will read stuff they could never have come up with on their own. They already know they are not wizards at this stuff. I think they would love reading the page on Ruth. What I do worry about is that they again get frustrated in their efforts to understand, and perhaps even turned off at their inability to even answer, or sometimes even understand, these short simple questions that sound like they ought to be simple to answer – verse after verse, page after page.
So it is not questions per se that I have a problem with. I have even posted a few myself, including two in the Points to Ponder section of Moses 1 that I spent time individually thinking about and rephrasing. What I do have a problem with is the systematic drive to populate the site with mostly questions regardless of quality. Even Lectures on Faith and Alma 5, with all of their famous questions, are mostly about answers.
Thought prompts. If what you are suggesting is another heading with brainstorm ideas for how to approach a verse, then I would not even use the word Questions in the title (but yes in the italicized description). You can muse about a possible approach to a verse just as well in the indicative tense as in the interrogative. “I wonder how ….” and “It would be interesting / might be useful to think about ….” work just as well as “How does …?” Plus, they have the benefit of not sounding like an assignment, or that I am supposed to already know the answer and aren’t I stupid for not knowing it.
A note explaining my transition from outlines at the top of each page to bullet summaries, especially in light of my comments above about questions.
Linguistics at the level of the sentence and above often focuses on three concepts: coherence, relationship, and prominence. Coherence is defining the unit of thought that coheres together. We use periods, paragraph breaks and headings to help us identify these coherent units. Relationship is how these units relate to each other. Transitions help us to identify those relationships. So do scripts or pattens, like setting, inciting event, climax, falling action, and conclusion. Prominence is identifying the really important parts. For example, the ending phrase in a sentence, or the middle of a chiasmus.
One reason I like outlines so much is that they are a very efficient way of communicating all three concepts with regard to a passage. But I am starting to realize that their brief descriptions and lengthy list feel can turn people off when it is the first thing they see at the top of the page.
The bullet points still do a good job with coherence, but not so well with relationship and prominence. But they appear friendly and allow for more words that provide context, describe an item more clearly, and make up in part with regard to relationship and prominence. In addition, because the bullet summaries only commit themselves regarding coherence, refinements regarding relationship and prominence require less adjustment at the top of the page. In other words, it is both friendlier and easier to avoid being wrong with a bullet summary than with an outline. I did a nice job on a bullet summary this morning for Mormon 8-9.
I have formatted all of that content in a uniform manner. Except that in First Corinthians and Hebrews I have left in place a wide variety of options for formatting content. The content within each page is formatted in a uniform manner, but each page is done in a different way (or at least most of them are). Why don’t you and other folks take a look at those pages for a while and let’s discuss what is good or bad about each formatting option and settle on a final set of style guidelines. You might also take a look at other sites including wikipedia.
I don’t pretend to have arrived yet at a final set of best practices, but I do have some interim thoughts:
1. I do not want every new comment to create an entry on the automatically generated table of contents. That just makes the table of contents so unwieldy that it becomes useless.
2. In typesetting, a heading in bold is strongest, a heading in bold-italics is weaker, and a heading in italics alone is weakest and is reserved for a lower level of headings. Underlined headings add strength but may not be an option on a webpage.
3. Headings in bold and bold-italics are easy to see. Headings in italics are hard to see or read. Headings in bold-italics are harder to read than just bold.
4. A leading bullet “*” makes a heading easy to see, but it makes consistent formatting difficult when the text of the entry continues in the same line. I really like it in the Questions section where the test of the question can always fit in the same single paragraph as the heading itself. I am less happy with it in the Discussion section where the content that follows a heading may run for multiple paragraphs.
I have not yet done much editing of other people’s substantive contributions. But one thought I have about voice is that I like two different things that perhaps should both be encouraged to exist on a single page. Some things are better said impersonally, like the Historical Background of First Nephi. Even the Summaries, which are not documented with cites, are better written in this impersonal voice. But I also like the personal and conversational tone of many of the comments in the Discussion section for two reasons: (1) It lessens the authority of the statement, which is often appropriate, and thus allows people to say things they think are correct without having to be 100% correct and yet still be intellectually honest and not misleading to a novice reader by communicating to the reader that lack of authoritativeness. (2) It is more inviting for other readers to add their own two cents.
You can now look at what I have done to the links for the word “natural” in 1 Cor 2:14. I have linked to two different sites because I prefer the way each handles different parts of the process. The first does a nice job of letting you jump from the KJV text to the Strong’s number. The second gives me a bit more comfort about the definitions being authoritative since it is from Thayer’s Lexicon, while the first says it is based on Thayer and some unspecified “other sources.”
I am still open to someone pointing out a more useful or authoritative source. I am not planning to go through and systematically add these to First Corinthians and Hebrews until we work through all the content formatting issues also.
Another problem was the bloated tables of contents that were so long and detailed as to not be useful. I have tried to tackle these issues. But I am not satisfied that I yet have the final answer, especially under the Discussion heading. I implemented one version largely throughout the Old Testament. I have implemented something else that I like better throughout the Book of Mormon. There are several different options that I have left in place for comparison in First Corinthians, Hebrews, and Nahum.
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