Wednesday, July 27, 2005

How Much Information is Too Much Information?

For the past couple of weeks I have been doing a major revision of King Alfred's Grammar, the grammar book I wrote to teach Old English when I became dissatisfied with the existing grammar books on the market. King Alfred's Grammar has had some success, I think: one of the students taught with the book has gone on to absolutely elite M.A. and Ph.D. programs and others have had success in Old English during their Junior Year Abroad study in British institutions. A fair number have gone on to success in translating Beowulf in independent study with me.

King Alfred's Grammar goes along with the King Alfred computer program, which is undergoing a complete rebuild this summer. King Alfred gives students a sentence to translate, provides help through the translation (by giving students, say, the case of a word, the gender, the number, the definition and, finally, the translation), tracks all of the student work and then provides customized feedback (i.e., "King Alfred suggests that you go over the Accusative Case" and then gives a link to a discussion of the Accusative). The original version of King Alfred worked, but it was hacked together using Filemaker and a whole bunch of proprietary cdml code and javascript and so hasn't held up very well to the changes in the web since 1999. The new version runs on a MYSQL database and is being written by a Computer Science professor and so is much more elegant and efficient.

At first the program and the grammar were intended solely for my students. Then I started giving away the html version of the grammar to anyone who wanted it (and it is on my website: ). But last year a press got interested in the grammar book, so I put together a prospectus, etc., and began collaborating with a scholar from the University of Toronto program, Bruce Gilchrist (who had emailed me out of the blue with an incredibly detailed and helpful critique of the grammar).

The press ended up not offering a contract for the grammar due to some equivocal readers' reports. These reports, I should add, were on the whole very helpful, and the press encouraged me very strongly to revise and re-submit, which suggests that someone on the editing staff is serious about publishing the book (a good sign). But the readers' reports also pointed up the biggest problem I have had in writing and revising the book: how much is too much?

The reason I wrote King Alfred's Grammar in the first place was that existing grammar books had too much of certain kinds of information and not enough of other kinds. My students did not need a short course in Anglo-Saxon dialectology, but they did need an explanation of what a direct object is. I wanted a book that was as stripped down as it could be (not the least because I had to photocopy the thing myself and front the money for books for the entire class) and I managed to get it down to 110 pages, generously spaced (thanks to MS Word's hideous layout capabilities and my desire not to re-lay-out the book in InDesign).

But as I am revising in light of the readers' reports, I am coming under pressure to add in more exceptions, more explanations, more details, which is making the book more like, say, Mitchell and Robinson's Guide to Old English (though even if I tried, my book couldn't be as confusingly organized as theirs). The whole thing that separates King Alfred's Grammar from everything else out there is its laser-like focus on the needs of beginning students. If I start providing all of the phonological details, if I try to go over syncope and breaking and i-mutation, I will no longer be able to get through Old English grammar quickly enough that we can translate Seven [Eight] Old English Poems by the midpoint of the semester and lines from Beowulf by the end.

But the readers for the press wanted something that works as a complete reference even as they very much liked the fact that I explained what a noun is. So I am stuck trying to cram things in or write appendices. Frustrating.


Frank said...

This is just a wild idea from the top of my head, but could you maybe do a two volume thing, maybe a "beginner" and then a "more advanced." You could keep the first volume pared down the way you like it and then put all the exceptions and more complicated stuff in the second volume for when the students have gotten a good grounding. Like I said, just a wild idea.

Natalia said...

This wouldn't satisfy the editors, but there is always the possibility of a bibliography. When you want a reference book, there's nothing quite like using, well, a reference book.

Otherwise, I guess appendices are the way.

Mitchell and Robinson is classic, but so confusing. I wish I'd learned with King Alfred.

J said...

Well, what if you organized it into primary chapters with supplemental chapters in between for all the gory details (rather than all at the end as appendices)? Then instructors who wanted the tight version could just assign the primary chapters, but it would still be useful as a reference. I would certainly buy that. Actually, I'd buy the original idea, too, but they won't publish that.

Eric Kingsepp said...

The above commenters already said my first idea, which is to have a "more advanced" Part Two for those who have mastered Part One.

The other option is to include all the gory details where you want them, but to format them smaller or more indented...something to set them apart as "For Further Study" or some such appellation. Then you could explain that beginners only need read the larger-print paragraphs which, taken all together, would supply a coherent beginner's course of information. In essence, tell them they can ignore the small stuff for now. The people that aren't ready for that information will gladly pass over the smaller paragraphs, whereas people like me who want to know everything at the beginning have it right there.

The only book I can think of at the moment that does this is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. While its index is horribly deficient, its method of maintaining a "hierarchy of knowledge" actually impressed me.

Tiruncula said...

I'd strongly urge you not to compromise your desire for a streamlined approach, even if it means going with a different press. There are too many grammars that offer complete reference grammars and another one is not what we need. A carefully-thought-out, lean-and-mean beginner's grammar would fill a niche, even if it's not a Toronto niche. Stick to your guns.

Derek the ├ćnglican said...

Please use Quirk & Wrenn as an example of how *not* to write a grammar...

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