It occurred to me that if I wait for a big block of time to go back through the hundreds of old posts from the first iteration of my blog, that day will never come. So, inspired by nothing more significant than the fact that Monday and memory start with the same letter, I’ve decided to implement Random Access Mondays here. Every Monday, I’m going to spend a few minutes poking around in my archives for a post that strikes me as relevant, clever, or resonant, something that I want to pull forward to this site.

First up is a post that I referenced in a recent Facebook update, from 2005. One of the strategies that I use to break myself out of the writer’s block is something that I cribbed from 43 Folders back in the day, the idea of “breaking big nouns into little verbs.” It’s a strategy for elaborating the shorthand that we fall back on when we write to-do lists. Instead of working on my next Book or even Chapter With A Looming Deadline, the idea is to break those big nouns down into much more manageable chunks of activity. Do enough work at the level of sentence and/or paragraph, and voila, you’ve got an essay or a chapter, and eventually more. Small verbs are easier to handle, provide you with a time-bounded task to complete, and can ideally be done in a single sitting.

The frosting on the cake here is the list of note-taking strategies that I was working out back then. The idea behind this was to help students develop a sustainable workflow for taking notes that would be aggregable in the space of a seminar, but might also be useful for major projects like exam preparation or the dissertation.

[Note: I've pretty much left it as-is, with the one exception of scrubbing out dead links]

How to tell when Collin’s feeling punchy

Collin vs. Blog, 23 September 2005

Well, the first sign is that, if you have to ask, then I’m probably not.

When I’m working with minimal sleep over a couple of days, though, what I find is that I get increasingly manic. And while I hate hate hate being tired, one of the things that also happens is that I get increasingly efficient when it comes to managing all the bits and pieces of my life.

And so, little wonder today that, in my graduate course, we spent the first hour or so talking about note-taking strategies. I can feel my energy starting to ebb, now, but for class at least, I was positively chatty. I asked all of the students to sign up for Basecamp, a site whose virtues I’ve trumpeted here before. And I’d meant to talk about using it last week, but our conversation got away from us (me) a little. So this week. Note taking and organizing.

The big thing that I was pushing in terms of Basecamp was using the Milestones to keep track of deadlines and events, and then using the To-Do lists to manage time. Over the past two days, 43 Folders has re-run their two part feature on “Building a Smarter To-Do List,” an article I can’t recommend enough. My new mantra?

break Big Nouns into little verbs

It’s partly, I’m sure, because I’m a little tired/manic/punchy that this appeals to me so completely today, but actually, it’s on all the other days where I need to remind myself of this regularly. One of the things that I emphasized in class today was the need to develop systems that are sustainable, things you can do (and keep doing) after the initial motivation has passed and the glow has faded. And for me, Basecamp has pretty well fit the bill, even though I’m probably not still using it to its fullest potential (or giving it more control over my other projects).

So, organizing. And then note-taking. Again, I pushed developing a system that was sustainable. Derek and I have talked about this some, and here’s what I suggested to my students: buy a little notebook/journal from one of the bookchainz, and when you read a book (or a week’s set of readings), do this: put the info at the top of the page, and give yourself only 1 page, and only 10 minutes, to take a verbal snapshot of the reading. Some possible categories for this activity:

  • The 1-sentence summary. Obvious enough.
  • Keywords or tags. I’m more and more enchanted with this method of “distant reading” a text.
  • Yes/No. We talked about why we “go back” to texts, and often, it’s either because we want some support for a claim, or because we’re working against it in some way. So jot down 2-3 fairly central claims with which you agree, and 2-3 with which you either disagree or about which you have doubts or concerns.
  • Passages. Some people copy out key passages, but I’ve always found it more useful to do a quick transcription: page number, and a quick description. I often do this when I prepare to talk about a text in a course.
  • Top 5. Imagine being able to ask the author, based purely on the text in front of you, who their top 5 suggested sources would be. That is, what are the 5 texts that would help you read this one better?

I’m sure that there are other possibilities, but you get the idea. The idea is to only take 10 minutes and to use categories that are recognizable once the reading itself has faded from memory. Imagine being able to look over a semester’s worth of entries, and look for those authors whose names appear most frequently in the Top 5’s (this might answer the question “what should I be reading?”). Or being able to see some patterns in the kinds of claims you pay most attention to, or the thing(s) that you have the most skepticism about.

In a lot of ways, and I talked about this too, this has everything to do with what we’re trying to do with CCC Online. There are definite advantages to having pages and pages of reading notes (although my own graduate school experience yields depressingly few examples of this…), but there are also advantages to the kind of snapshotting (or what Gladwell in Blink calls thin-slicing) I was advocating today and that we’re accomplishing at CCCO. A little one-page slice, multiplied by 10-12 books for a course, by three courses a semester, and by 2 years of course work would give our students a fairly compact, searchable aide-memoire as they move on to exams and dissertations.

Of course, they could blog this stuff, but I think that one of the things that keeps folk wary of doing so, at least when it comes to things like class notes, is the public dimension. In the margins of our books, we don’t feel any compunction about drawing angry faces, harshly angled question marks, the occasional “WTF?!” and so on. Not so easy to do when it’s possible that a random ego-surf will bring your current or future colleagues to that entry. Maybe another way to describe the conversation I had today in class, then, is to say that I’m encouraging them to blog without blogging?

That’s all.