Mind, Body, World: Foundations of Cognitive Science
Saturday, September 28, 2013
Writing and the Dictionary of Cognitive Science
Disseminating knowledge is one of the most important
elements of my job.One of the most
effective means of disseminating knowledge is writing about what one has
discovered, and publishing this writing as a journal article or as a book.
Writing, however, is an activity that requires a great deal
of practice.There are times when one
cannot write during a research project – for instance, when a project is just
starting or is ongoing, and you do not have any results to write about!How do you keep your writing habits sharp in
such lean times?
I try to keep in the writing habit by taking on projects
that permit me to write when the need arises, but which can be left alone when
other kinds of writing projects are put on the ‘front burner’.One of my most important tools for
maintaining my writing habit is the University
Of Alberta Dictionary Of Cognitive Science.It is a perfect writing project, because it can be left dormant for long
periods of time.When the need arises,
it is easy to extend, because you simply find terms that can be defined, and
which do not currently have a definition on the site.
This Dictionary of Cognitive Science is simply that: a web
resource that provides brief descriptions of terms that are related to
cognitive science in one way or another.Most descriptions in this dictionary talk about a term in a paragraph or
two, and provide a handful of references.The Dictionary is organized alphabetically, and is also searchable.It currently has entries for 373 terms,
beginning with ‘abecedarium’
and ending with ‘z-lens’.Since June 12, 2012 I have been tweeting
links to its entries, in random order, every weekday as a ‘cognitive science
word of the day’, or #cogsci
#wotd.I will have exhausted this
list sometime by the end of 2013, and will have to add more definitions to
continue this practice!
The Dictionary of Cognitive Science began as a class writing
project.Students in a graduate course
on cognitive science wrote a handful of definitions, and I posted these
definitions on a website that was being delivered by a lab SPARCstation.One of my former graduate students, David
Medler, wrote some routines for searching and posting on this website; David
and I even published an account of this as a pedagogical activity (Dawson &
Medler, 1999).The current version is
maintained as an Adobe Dreamweaver site on my office desk machine, and is
served out on a new Linux box that is housed in my basement lab.
The Dictionary started as a class writing exercise, but it
soon took on a life of its own.It
turned out that a lot of people were connecting to it.As a result, I began to feel a responsibility
to grow it, and to clean up entries in it that I felt were substandard.I started this phase of the project in 2009.In addition to editing existing entries, I
added new entries related to material being moulded into a book on LEGO robots and embodied
cognitive science (Dawson, Dupuis, & Wilson, 2010).After another hiatus, another set of terms
were added while I was writing my current book on the foundations of
cognitive science (Dawson, 2013).
While the Dictionary of Cognitive Science exists as an
internet resource, its control structure is a narrow plywood bookshelf that is
slowly being filled with hundreds of index cards.This physical instantiation of the Dictionary
stands in my office, as shown in the image below.The writing process proceeds as follows:First, I scan through the Dictionary, looking
for terms related to my current work that have no entries, or looking for terms
that need to be revised.For each term
that I could create or revise, I write the term on an index card.Second, I take a handful of these cards home,
and spend a while writing an electronic version of a definition for each.Third, I create a page for each new term in
Dreamweaver, and update the required links in the website that permit the new
definitions to be indexed.At this time
I stamp a ‘completed’ date on the index card of each definition that has been
created.I then upload the updated
Dictionary to the server, and am ready to post the new entries on Twitter, one
day at a time.With every post, I stamp
a ‘posted’ date on the index card, and then place the card on its alphabetized
shelf in my office.
As the fall term comes to an end, I will have run out of
current Dictionary entries.Fortunately,
I am working on a couple of new projects (relating neural networks to Bayes
theorem, and a book about interpreting the internal structure of neural
networks trained on musical tasks), which will serve as a source of (needed)
new material for the Dictionary of Cognitive Science.I am stocked up on index cards, and ready to
write new definitions to keep the rust off my writing while I collect new data
on these new projects.
M. R. W. (2013). Mind, Body, World:
Foundations of Cognitive Science. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press.
M.R.W., Dupuis, B., & Wilson, M. (2010). From Bricks to Brains: The
Embodied Cognitive Science of LEGO Robots. Athabasca University Press,
M. R. W., & Medler, D. A. (1999). The Dictionary of Cognitive Science: One
approach to teaching students how to create their own WWW instructional
materials. International Journal of
Educational Telecommunications, 5, 65-78.