Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur
jducoeur

"Here's what we want you to know"

[Warning: some strong opinions and mild criticisms of common SCA foibles ahead.]

So I finally got myself a copy of the new edition of The Knowne World Handbook, the Society's periodically-rewritten Big Book of Everything for those who are learning. (BTW, I have a *bunch* of copies of the previous edition, potentially available to boroughs and others who want to loan them to newer folk. I don't even remember why, but I seem to have five copies. And while it's not technically current, it's still almost entirely accurate and useful.)

I will admit that my first reaction was some chagrin: my own article (the introductory games discussion) got fouled up in typesetting. Somebody clearly failed to realize that, for this article, the illustrations aren't just random, they need to be at specific places in the text. (In fact, not only are they in the wrong places, they're in the wrong *order*, making the discussion of Tafl quite confusing.)

But my main reaction to quickly skimming the entire book was, "Man -- this thing is really intimidating!"

To begin with, there's the feel of the text itself, which comes across as a wall of words. They clearly made a conscious decision to flow the entire text, with articles simply leading directly one into the next in the middle of the page -- even chapter breaks are only visible because the page headers change. I assume that this was due to practical issues of pagecount and cost, but the upshot is that the thing is really, really dense (even moreso than the previous editions, which were pretty impressive doorstops), and confers a somewhat forbidding aspect on the whole book.

Then there are the articles themselves. It wouldn't have occurred to me until going through it in order, but the book desperately wants to be reorganized. The thing is, it's organized strictly by topic, which makes it lovely for *reference*, but is kind of horrible for someone who just wants to start learning about the club. The introductory articles are side-by-side with ones that are much deeper and more detailed -- and let's get real, those have very different audiences. Basically, the SCA 101 and 201 articles are right next to each other, with nothing pointing out to the newbie which ones they should be paying attention to.

A few things particularly made me cringe when looking at it through a newcomer's lens. The section on awards made me twitch. I mean, it's almost at the front of the book to begin with, which reflects the Society's typical obsession with the award system. And while I do think it's appropriate to give new folks a *brief* spotting guide to the high points (the concepts of Lord/Lady, Peer, Baron, Royalty), I think it does folks a real disservice to get them overly focused on the damned thing too early. And then there are the little "How much do you really know about the Society?" quizzes scattered through the book. These are great for the medium-experienced folks who want to push their own knowledge -- but this sort of thing can make a newbie feel ignorant and insecure.

Overall, there's a mild element of the Society's usual syndrome of "Here's what we want you to know" burblage. This is sadly common in our interactions with new folks: instead of focusing on their questions, or what they *need* to know to cope with the SCA, or how to have fun playing, we instead overwhelm them with the information that *we* care about. It's not at all unusual for these well-meaning forays to accidentally drive people away instead of welcoming them in. Basically, we talk too much and listen too little. (The comically horrible "SCA FAQ" is the prime example. It is in no way an actual FAQ -- rather, it is the questions that the Society's bureaucracy *wishes* people would ask more, as far as I can tell, and bears little resemblance to the questions people actually ask frequently.)

Anyway, the moral of the story is that we need to be a little more careful to think about how new folks are really going to view our materials. The new KWH is a great effort, and I suspect will be quite useful to motivated SCA sophomores who want to dig into particular topics in more depth. But it's a real pity that it is (I believe) going to be so impenetrable for people just starting out. Extracting all of the truly introductory articles to the beginning of the book, or simply providing a brief annotated index of, "These are the key articles for the new member to start with" (with a really acid definition of "key"), would have made a world of difference.

(To be fair, we might be able to ameliorate this. I should look up the Society Chatelaine and suggest a webpage that at least provides that introductory index. Not as good as having it in the book itself, but better than nothing...)
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