Log in

No account? Create an account
Previous Entry Share Next Entry
"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...)

Honestly, I think much of this kind of thing is better served as a webpage anyway.

It takes away the "this is huge and intimidating" -- because you don't necessarily see how big it is. It lets you look for the information you need, without necessarily having it physically slotted next to something that would be intimidating or overcomplicated.

I can understand that -- indeed, I think that having an online version of the book would be a great idea -- but I'm old-fashioned enough that I do still like having a paper copy. (Indeed, the SCA historian in me *loves* the KWH, since it says so much about how the Society views itself at different points in its evolution.)

How much do you need to have it in printable format? I'm a huge fan of wikis for this sort of thing, but it's been years since I looked at the KWH so I don't remember how things are laid out.

Yeah, dulcinabradbury makes much the same point above. While I'm fond of having the paper, I think you're correct that an online edition would be more useful in many cases...

What bugs *me* is the concept that this is the BIBLE for your SCA life. You HAVE to know everything that's in it, and you HAVE to know it, or it will somehow end up on your permanent record or some shit.

It's moderately nice to have, IMO. That's about it.

Hmm. I wonder how true that is? I've never really thought about it that way, but I can see how it could at least give that impression. (Which is actually a good deal worse than my criticisms above, if so...)

(Deleted comment)
I haven't had a chance to see the book yet, but I agree that a general problem we have when dealing with newcomers is what I call "infodump" - we're so excited that they're interested that we want to Tell Them All The Things Right Now. It takes a skilled Chatelaine to learn to recognize the glazed-over overwhelmed look.

Heh -- yeah, I've lived through a few too many demos where I was squirming in the back of the room while someone droned on and on about their pet passion. My primary advice to Chatelaines these days is, "Edit, edit, edit -- less is usually more when presenting to new folks"...

Before reading the post, since I forgot to put dibs at Council...

I'd like one of the old copies since I've never read any version of it, with permission to pass it on once I'm done if I decide I don't need it. I'm dithering as to whether I want the newest old version, or the oldest old version... arguments could be made for either. Leaning slightly toward the oldest.

(I have a feeling after I actually read the post, my opinion is going to be the old saw that the part of "In Service to The Dream" that's a problem isn't "Service" or "Dream", it's "The".)

Well, the one that I actually have *spares* of is the most-recent-before-this one (fourth edition?). Others you can read through at my place, but they're not being given away...

Hrm. I've always thought of the Handbook as a sophmore level text, but that may reflect my outlook and background; when I was a chatelaine we seldom had people ask for the Big Book of Knowing of the SCA; they just weren't manual types. (Then again, when I was a [failed] chatelaine, I was also always being told to back off the newbies and not talk to them so much. :)

The old handbook was very dated, of course. I haven't seen the new one (I keep meaning to get one but get distracted). The old one was sort of a miscellany, in the sense of Cariadoc's Miscellany, Stefan's Florilegium, or the practical notes in Le Menagier de Paris. It seemed to suffer from a lack of focus, to me-- but then I came into the SCA significantly later.

Edited at 2011-03-15 03:56 pm (UTC)

I think you're correct that in practice it *is* a sophomore text, but I'm not sure we do a good job of conveying that. It would be interesting to find out, in practice, how many new folks buy it.

And yes, it's still a miscellany. Really, it hasn't changed that much structurally: the new layout just pushes it to the point where I *noticed* how intimidating it could be...

Yeah, I'm with the wiki crowd - does ANY newcomer actually read the actual artifact? I stumbled across it many years after my intro, and was moderately entertained by it, but I don't know that I would have found it at all useful at the beginning. I am certain that we never handed it to anyone when we were Chatelaines.

I suspect that by the time most people know enough to care what's in it (by which I mean truly care, not think you need to read it because it Sounds Important and you don't know any better), they know enough to not "need" it at all.

I have a copy of the 1992 edition of the KWH that was given to me by a friend who used to be very involved, and found it to be very helpful in a lot of ways; it also seems easier to read & digest to me than the new edition does--perhaps that's just a quirk of mine because I read the earlier one first, but that's my opinion. I do wish the new edition had a better section on food; other than talking about it in the contexts of camping, they don't really discuss food in terms of bringing dishes to potluck events, where to find useful information on period food & cooking, some quick-and-dirty shortcuts when you're still learning about the topic (or when you know the topic pretty well, but are under major time constraints), etc.--seeing it as another significant part of "going period" and providing some good, basic, general info in the contexts of scholarship, preparation, and as a part of socializing (feasts, etc.). The expanded costume section would be very helpful to a newbie, but looking really spiffy won't really help if her/his stomach is growling...

Yes, the topical sections are in general a bit hit-and-miss depending on the interests of the authors involved. My slant on the games article -- a selection of games to help you get started on gaming at events -- was pretty specifically aimed at providing practical advice to relatively raw newcomers, but not everybody took the same approach, and the book has some gaps. (I can't really blame the editors for that: just herding the cats to make a book like this happen at all is a pretty monumental task. Trying to get editorial consistency -- well, that's well above and beyond.)

And yes, I agree that the new edition feels a little harder to digest than the '92 one, but I'm not sure that that's really because of anything other than physical layout -- the way the articles run together just *feels* denser. Topically, I think the mix is at least fairly similar...

I did reference the KWH when I first started, but it wasn't the first thing I saw - it wasn't until I'd been to a few events, met a lot of interesting people, and was helped by many people in person before someone said, hey, you might find this book useful, and it was once I'd gotten past the "gosh this place is kind of neat" phase.

I think your observations are likely spot-on, and might be worth passing on to whoever edits the next edition.

When I first started in the SCA, someone handed me the KWA and said "if you have a question, it's there"

I read - a lot - and I enjoy it. But it was so frustratingly choppy in quality that eventually, I stopped - about 2/3 of the way through. When someone asked me what I thought of it and what I wanted to do with the knowledge in it, I said, "find them an editor, truthfully"

Since then, my "known world" information has come from asking around in different groups and countries for "who knows a lot about X" and then asking them for their input. That and doing research from real books.

The KWH has always struck me as a lovely idea that desperately needs an editor...

Yep, it's a miscellany all right. The new version (Fourth Edition) corrected some flaws of the Third Edition, but it still wasn't perfect either.

For example, the Third Edition reprinted all the formal rules for the Society martial arts -- but, hey, rules change. I guess that was necessary in 1992 when the Web wasn't part of people's lives, but now all that formal verbiage can live on the Web and there was more space for the actual physical techniques of fighting. Now, I am not a fighter and never have been, so I don't know whether fighters actually read that stuff. I would have liked to see a wider variety of writers on martial topics -- Duke Paul seems to have written most of the articles -- but maybe that was a function of who could be recruited.

I am a little surprised that embroidery and calligraphy basics were in the Third Edition but not the Fourth.

pearl, who wrote the natural-fiber article that begins on page 44 of the Fourth Edition, led a critique of the new KWH a few months ago.

I suspect that which topics were represented and which weren't is simply a function of who volunteered to write. Far as I could tell, I was the only person who offered to write a games article. It *is* surprising that there isn't a calligraphy one -- hadn't noticed that gap -- but I assume it's simply that the right people didn't get word that it was needed.

Hadn't seen the other thread on the topic -- thanks for the pointer...

::head:laptop:: It's frustrating having to deal with things like this. I used to recommend it but now... not so much. Web pages are good but unfortunately, contrary to some gentles' beliefs, not everyone has access to the web. When I was chronicler for two different groups ::mumble mumble:: years ago I made sure that we had a pamphlet to give newbies. We were also fortunate, as my current Shire is as well, in having a number of gentles who have been in the Society for a long time and are also good at speaking to those who have just begun their journey.

Personally I have found that the best way to handle newbies is to have them 'paired' with more established members who can guide them through their first few events. Making sure they have feast gear, guiding them to the parts of events that they are most interested in (Ah! You like blacksmithing? It just so happens...), meet others (Allow me to introduce you to...) and have someone to talk to during the event. I have run across 'lost' newbies and made an effort to keep them near me for the rest of the event (or until I can put a bug in the ear of whomever brought them or someone in their local group) so that they are not left alone. I always bring extra feast gear* and ask 'lost souls' to eat with me and mine if they don't already have someone to sit with. It's amazing how much that helps them and encourages them to come again.

*That is, when I've been able to go. Currently my health and our finances have Not Been Good™.

The pairing model is a good one if you can make it work; we've had difficulty applying it rigorously, though. First you have to find enough experienced people who are *willing* to do it; then you have to winnow out the ones who *shouldn't* be doing so for one reason or another; and then you kind of want to get a decent personality match. That's hard enough that we've never managed to keep such a program running for very long.

But in general, yes: there's simply no substitute for personal contact and interaction...


I for one am new (slightly over a year)

I really appreciate the Handbook. Despite it's "foibles" and "issues" it is way less intimidating than the jumping in the deep end that one does as a new member. Frankly, I still find it intimidating - not in the scary sense but in the "where the heck do I start" sense.

Members tend to use "SCA words" and SCA names and assume that newbies know what they're talking about. It's wonderful to have a book to curl up with and "get some answers".

I'd love it if the SCA/Kingdom/Local sites were more informative...
And I will say that I have to fault the SCA (books, sites, etc) on the same thing you do.
- Don't tell me what YOU want me to know - Tell me what I want to know.

Yes, good point. The KWH may have this problem, but it's far from unusual in that. Indeed, that's really the main reason I wrote this critique: the next edition of the KWH probably won't be written for another 5-10 years, but there are new websites and guides being written every day that could stand to think about this stuff.

If you find yourself with some time and inclination at some point, I would *love* to know which sections of the KWH you've found particularly useful. (Both as part of understanding how to use the KWH as a tool, and generally to refresh myself on what the interesting topics are.)

Thanks for chiming in! Too often, there's too much of an experienced-members echo chamber talking *about* new members, without getting the most important viewpoints...

This is why people don't read the manuals.

So much for being for beginners.

Wow - I'd never seen that Official FAQ before. Seriously that's for real? Gracious - it's amazingly awful.

Yeah, that was pretty much my reaction. Doubly so because I maintain the Questions List FAQ (which is generated from an absolutely pure process of, "Oh, God, we're tired of talking about this one"), so I was hugely amused at how completely different the Official FAQ was...