Course Planning with Scrivener

A couple weeks ago on the history blog Junto, Michael D. Hattem wrote about using Scrivener for his dissertation writing process. Like Hattem, I am also a big Scrivener fan. I discovered the program about half way through my own dissertation writing and now use it for almost all my writing related projects. In this post, I want to share one of the main ways I’m been using it recently – to develop course material for two different classes that I begin teaching when my university’s quarter begins at the end of this month.

An Introduction to Scrivener

Scrivener is a writing program that was created to help novelists and other long-form writers have a way to easily access file material, organize their thoughts with ease, write without distractions, and edit effectively. Instead of opening up a “document” (as one does in, say, Microsoft word or Google docs) the user opens a “project.” Each project includes: 1) a “binder” on the left side, 2) a column in the middle where the writing happens, and 3) several different tools to help the viewer organize their thoughts and save their material.

Each new binder in the generic template includes the folders “Draft,” “Research,” and “Trash.” These can be re-labeled – though on basic writing projects these folders work fairly well for sorting material.

The user has the flexibility to build as large a project as they want with these components. For example, one might organize their binder into subfolders made up sections or chapters. Or as Hattem discusses in his post, a research-based writer could use their  binder to organize dozens of PDF primary resources.

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Binder with Generic Template

 When the user wants to look at any portion of this binder, they simply click on it and the content appears in the center screen. They can look at a single section, several sections, or the entire binder at once. Scrivener also has this great little function that allows you to look two window panes of material at once, which means that you could look at reference notes in one pane while you draft in the other one.

screenshot-2015-10-16-11-20-27While all of these features are great, what really sets it apart are its added tools. For example, in Scrivener you can view your material in several different modes, including what’s known as the “Cork Board.”Each file and folder in the binder is attached to a virtual “notecard” on which the user can write summary information. When you are in Cork Board view, you can look at all the notecards at once and rearrange them if you want.

So let’s say you are writing something and you decide that you need to completely reorganize your sections of writings.  This is where the Cork Board view mode comes in handy.  If a person wants, they can develop their entire concept with the notecards in the Cork Board view before they even begin to consider the details of their written content.

The Cork Board as a Brainstorming Space for a New Syllabus

The Cork Board is my best friend when I’m making a new syllabus. Whenever I begin to plan a new course, I begin by opening up a new project in this view. Since my classes are ten weeks long (I’m on the quarter system), I usually start by creating ten cards where I begin to type in key themes and subjects. Once I get the general gist of my content down and arrange it to my liking, I typically label the cards by week and date. I add tests, assignments, and vacation dates into the notecards content….and because I am a visual person, I usually color code this material.

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My Survey of Western Art Syllabus in Process, with color coding for exams and holidays

Once I have my schedule established, I shift to document view and add in the readings I plan to assign to the students. Sometimes this is a back and forth process – a little visual brainstorming, slow additions of various readings, and back again. Once I’m done working on this part of the syllabus, I add another file in the binder dedicated to general information and policies for the class. After I’m done fleshing out my content, I compile these files using Scrivener’s export functions into a single syllabus document where I play around with fonts and margins to finalize the look of syllabus.

Scrivener is my Home Base Throughout the Term

screenshot-2015-11-08-17-07-08The beauty of the “project” structure of Scrivener is its flexibility. When I begin a project for a class, I do so with the plan to use it multiple ways. Namely, once I’m done constructing the syllabus in it, I use it as a central space for course content development. The folder labeled “research” in the generic template becomes my “lesson plan” folder. I make other folders labeled “discussion and supplementary” and “exam related material.” Throughout the term, I use the space to write and store lesson plans, which I subsequently export and print before each class. As I’m working on these various files throughout the term, I make good use of the dual viewing options I mentioned above. Scrivener becomes the main space for all of my course material, from discussion sheets, to lectures, to review sheets.

I like this system because it contains the chaos of a class, which is absolutely critical for me because I’m often balancing several different kinds of projects at once. I have a central space where I can work, and a central archive where I can retrieve information should I ever teach the class again. The only things I don’t create in scrivener, in fact, are my power point presentations. This organization system has made teaching classes a second time remarkably easy; usually I just import material from an older Scrivener project and make minor adjustments and tweaks.

There you have it – one of my processes for keeping myself organized during the academic year.

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