There’s a phrase that I got from Laurence Veysey, via Gerald Graff (although it appears in other places as well): “patterned isolation.” Veysey uses the phrase to explain the growth of the modern university and the way that disciplines grew without engaging each other, but I tend to apply it on a more “micro” scale. That is, there are many things we do as teachers and scholars in patterned isolation from our colleagues, tasks that call upon us to reinvent wheels over and over in isolation from one another. Fortunately, with the Internet and all, much of that is changing, as folks share syllabi, bibliographies, and the like online.
But I’m constantly on the lookout for ways to short circuit patterned isolation. For me, reading notes are one of those sites. I’m not a great note-taker and never have been–I’m too reliant on visual/spatial memory and marginalia. Disconnecting my own notes from the physical artifacts that I was processing didn’t make sense. Now, of course, I’m lucky sometimes if I remember having read a book, much less what I scrawled in its margins, so I wish that I’d been better about taking notes and I admire those people who have already internalized the lesson that it took me 20+ years to figure out. So one of the things that I like to do in my graduate courses is to aggregate the note-taking process. Rather than asking or expecting each student to take a full set of reading notes for the course, I rotate the function among them. There’s nothing to stop a student from taking more detailed notes on his or her own, but I want all my students, when they leave the class, to be able to take with them a full set of notes that they can refer back to later.
For me, the trick to this is making the notes relatively uniform–there’s a part of me that resists this, because different folks/strokes and all that, but I think it’s important to make the notes themselves scannable and consistent. Also, I think that the process needs to be sustainable–part of the challenge of reading notes is that they tend to shrink or expand based on available time, and they shouldn’t. The notes should be brief enough that one can execute them quickly (when time is short) but elaborate enough that they’re useful 5 or 10 years down the road when the text has left one’s memory. For me, this means keeping them to about a page, and doing them in a format that should take no more than about 15 minutes for an article or chapter. So here’s what I’ll be asking my students this semester to do for their reading notes:
- Lastname, Firstname. Title.
- Full MLA citation of article/chapter (something that can be copy/pasted into a bibliography)
- Abstract (50-75 words, copy/pasted if the original already has an abstract)
- Keywords/tags (important terminology, methodology, materials, theoretical underpinnings)
- 2-3 “key cites” – whose thoughts/texts does this article rely upon
- 2-3 “crucial quotes” – copy/paste or retype the 2-3 most important passages from the essay
- 1-2 questions – either questions that are answered by the text, or questions it raises for further exploration
And that’s it. I’ve futzed around with different categories, but these are the ones that have stuck with me through multiple iterations of this assignment. The notes aren’t meant to be a substitute for reading, but they should provide the basic info about the article as well as some indication of how it links to others. And it’s meant to be quick.
This seems really obvious to me now but I can tell you that, when I was in graduate school, it wouldn’t have been. I can’t tell you how happy it would make me now to have taken notes like these on everything I’ve read since grad school. Especially for all those things that I’ve forgotten I’ve even read.