Nearing the end of my undergraduate degree, when it was time to produce an original thesis not explicitly framed by the questions of any particular class, I was troubled by the apparent uselessness of my handwritten notes. I distinctly recall the sinking feeling I had when I began to question whether I had wasted hundreds of hours writing hundreds of pages of notes. It wasn’t as if I had inscribed them all into my memory, and yet I only ever consulted them a handful of times. Why did I bother? More often than not when I did refer back to them, what I really wanted was the citation around which the discussions and lectures had been based. But these citations were conspicuously absent – probably because they would have taken too long to transcribe in the moment I was trying to comprehend what was being said. There were citations for some of the passages I was seeking, but I was surprised by how inconsistently these helped clarify what I had been trying to capture in the notes. Often the page range of the citation was ill-defined, or the specific language being discussed was not immediately obvious (e.g. when a passage discussed earlier in class was being compared, tangentially, with something later on). Even when I was able to locate the citation and recall its connection with the notes, I typically found that there was enough to say from out of the immediate context of the pages I just reread. Perhaps I was anxious that the notes might prove embarrassingly basic or utterly incongruous with the new line of thought that I was just then in the moment of developing. The prospect of reconciling them with new line of thought was not only tedious; it also seemed to risk muddling the vitality of what I had yet to write down. Once I’d been relayed to the original text, I seldom returned to the notes and I certainly didn’t update them with whatever new insights I might have had while rereading the cited passage.
This familiar predicament raises several questions about the inherent mnemotechnical tensions of academic work:
- Is annotation most effective as an independent, hierarchical outline or as a marginal shorthand that is both typographically and conceptually close to the original text?
- Should an outline record the momentary connections that flicker in the mind of the student or transcribe more or less accurately what the teacher is saying?
- Should teachers distribute such outlines? Would the value of the class be undermined by this?
- Do the answers to these questions differ with regard to lecture and discussion-based notes?
- How often do class notes actually serve as a spur for formal essays?
- How often do essay outlines deviate irreconcilably from class notes?
- How often and to what extent are both forms of annotation more or less expunged from the memory of the student upon completion of the essay / class?
- How much collective mnemonic energy is wasted when every student in a class is simultaneously and independently attempting to transcribe some version of what is being said?
- Is it better for students to take notes independently and compare them afterwards or collectively in an interface that allows for real-time comparison?
- Obviously there’s something to be said for each individual’s ability to excise and organize the information to best suit their needs; each individual’s notes might be said to surpass an audio/visual recording of the class in some respect. Nevertheless, is the total isolation of each annotator entirely necessary?
- Would it be beneficial for the teacher to see this collective annotation in real-time and make interventions and emendations whenever necessary?
- Would such a pedagogical environment continue to require the continuous physical presence of all of those involved?
- Is it better for students to take notes independently and compare them afterwards or collectively in an interface that allows for real-time comparison?
Many of these questions (especially those concerning the possibility of collective annotation) I will return to in the following sections. Here I want to point out that, while it may be easier to write an essay from a structured outline than it is to improvise one from out of the margins of annotated passages, the citations in and of themselves often have a greater variety of uses and an enduring value beyond the immediate requirements of a class.
In my experience taking and teaching classes involving textual analysis, I’ve found that citations can be shared in a way that allows discussion to flow spontaneously, openly and with more potential for collaborative construction. Outlines, on the other hand, present immediate hermeneutic discrepancies between possible readings that can easily stifle conversation. One of the reasons students end up regurgitating an interpretation that has been clearly outlined ahead of time is that they struggle to question an interpretive structure after the original text has been truncated and subordinated to it. Too much structure creates the illusion that interpretation is a process of decryption – a textual riddle that can be “solved” with the “right” evaluation of the “right” pieces of information. Too little structure, by contrast, tends to generate elliptical and fragmented discussion (e.g. if I were to begin by asking the class’ thoughts about the assigned reading in its entirety). A curated discussion of carefully selected citations, however, can produce interpretations similar to what might have been presented at the outset in outline form.
The difference is that, when students read citations from the original text first, not only can they derive the interpretation themselves, they can begin to experience interpretation as a process that depends fundamentally upon a continued questioning and refinement of the tentative distinctions and evaluations hazarded by peers. These will inevitably differ from what might have been outlined beforehand, but this should be seen as a sign of productivity rather than inefficiency. If we use these deviations to revise and expand our thinking and teaching, then they are a compelling reason for repeating the course in real time and living space rather than recording it once and distributing it asynchronously online. Even if the interpretive structure arrived at collectively during the discussion of a citation did not deviate a jot from the way it was outlined in the lesson plan, it’s still advantageous for students to participate in the construction of this knowledge from the ground up rather than having it imposed in a hierarchical form and authoritative fashion. This is, perhaps, what students mean when they describe something as ‘relatable’ (rather than relevant). Certainly all of the information we could distribute to them in the form of an outline would be ‘relevant’ (insofar as the content of this outline is directly related to what they need to learn), but it would still lack the ethos of nonprofessionals relating to one another to construct a complex form of knowledge from a finite piece of information. What’s missing from the outline provided beforehand is all of the discursive and dialogical tension that goes into its construction (e.g. why certain distinctions and connections could not be sustained, what unmade them, how and why they were reformulated etc.).
The hierarchical structure of the outline is too often the first and only form of knowledge organization even though it is the mode of annotation that seems least likely to endure – the most likely to be discarded once the individual composing it has achieved the goal at hand. The redundancy of so much academic notetaking suggests great potential for collaboration but the idea of a more systematic collaboration gets stigmatized as sign of laziness or even academic dishonesty. Why is it that so few courses ever provide guidelines on how to take notes effectively for the objectives at hand, let alone notes that can become part of a collaborative structure that endures beyond the term of study. This is not so much a failure of hierarchical organization as such as it is a failure of the medium in which these hierarchies are composed. Before the difficulty of coming to a consensus regarding the way ideas are subordinated to one another comes into play, there is an even more systemic problem with our inability to keep the links between citation and annotation alive. This is why alleviating the redundancy of academic coursework and generating more collaborative modes of learning will, at the very least, require the complete digitization of notes and the texts to which they refer.
After I acknowledged the extent to which my notes would be useless without clear and direct citational links, I began experimenting with different methods for improving these links using exclusively digital text and was far more successful thanks to their searchability and modularity.
Even if I vaguely remembered some phrases or key words associated with an idea I was trying to remember, I could now instantly search the entire body of my notes and the primary texts themselves. As a result, direct quotations copy-and-pasted from the primary texts began to replace the vague paraphrases transcribed in the moment. This kind of instant searchability allows us more direct access to what we’re thinking about while we’re thinking about it, enabling us to take notes closer to the moment in which our minds are saturated with the relevant context and possibilities of new connections. By freeing up our short term memory to think about the text rather than locate it, instant searchability keeps these momentary connections alive long enough for us to figure out what we were after when we first began reaching for them. Though the act of moving through physical space to consult a passage cited in a physical book seems to require a modicum of effort, this may amount to something rather significant when we are not sure where the idea is leading us in the first place (especially if there are several competing connections struggling to breech a level of consciousness upon which they can be preserved in memory).
Is it possible that, while immersed in thought, our minds censor many of the links that would actually require us to consult a book because engaging the perceptual-motor systems necessary find and search for it might obliterate any number of inchoate links (perhaps, even the links that prompted the search in the first place)? While we are, of course, “free” to pursue whichever links we see fit within the archives available to us, this freedom only really applies to the links of which we are conscious. If there were, indeed, a mnemotechnical mechanism designed to economize the preservation of preconscious links, then our freedom to browse digital text is in some way greater than that of written or printed text because the instant searchability of the former frees up the time and mental energy necessary for these links to become conscious. My point is that our freedom to browse is not as free as it might at first seem since whatever triggers us to actually connect what’s outlined in our minds with actual citations involves a surprisingly low ratio of invested time to projected payoff. In shifting to digital notes and texts, I cannot help but wonder how my writing might have changed if looking things up never required that I physically turn away from the page in the middle of reading or writing it. How many links went unexplored over the years because pursuing them would have taken a few minutes rather than a few seconds?
The thematic impulse may extend all the way down to this preconscious level on which links are forgotten before they’ve had a chance to become memories (to save us from the madness of Borges’ Funes) and all the way up to the superego of the academic institution that requires us to be more and more merciless in our demarcation of what is relevant.
Another great limitation of handwritten notes is that they make it prohibitively difficult and time-consuming to properly integrate something that occurs as an afterthought or to compile an early intimation of an idea with its subsequent iterations. The slightest whisper of inconvenience is often sufficient to sideline our intentions to revise – solidifying the inadequacies of a handwritten outline indefinitely.
While this disinclination to compile threatens the overall efficacy of notes, it can actually be quite productive in other contexts. Sometimes it seems easier to handwrite an essay under time constraint than to type one without any form of deadline because the slower speed and greater fixity of the medium drastically restricts our inclination to revise. The syntax of our thought, impeded by the physicality of writing, more closely approximates that of a spoken conversation where redundancy, generalization and delay provide a rhythm that allows thought more time to connect what is currently being said with what ought to be said next. Typing, especially digital, touch typing, makes it possible for language to outrun thought – depleting the temporal buffer that allows for the logical flow of ideas to solidify. This often results in a rhythm of writing defined by fits and starts, where the idea gets evacuated prematurely. Rather than looking forward to the next line, the mind grows preoccupied with fixing what was just written. Too often the typed idea makes a muddle of what could have been spoken or handwritten clearly if a bit more slowly. This isn’t to say that ideas do not also get muddled during conversation or while writing by hand, only that the syntax of thought that typing promotes has the potential to distort ideas that are quite easy to articulate in other media. The freedom and ease with which we can manipulate anything at any time creates a level of revision anxiety that speech and handwriting can often attenuate. If you qualify too much of what you say in conversation, your interlocutor will lose focus or interest and may spur you to get to the point. If you erase or cross out too many times, you will run out of space or the paper will rip. These material limitations, subtle as they may be, are radically absent from digital type. Even a manual typewriter balances enhanced speed with the physical inconvenience of revision. Digital type, however, while in many ways superior in its ability to begin again without any material or social resistance, also suffers from this lack of resistance. Beneath the anxiety that comes with the freedom to revise infinitely, there is a more fundamental disruption to the syntax of our thought when it is deprived of this resistance and loses its rhythm.
I was only able to take full advantage of digital text once I had adjusted to the new rhythm and syntax of thinking that it required. After struggling to type a paragraph from beginning to end I began composing fragmentary outlines that I would later compile into more coherent blocks of text. Here the ‘enter’ and ‘tab’ keys used to create new lines and indentations began to replace the pauses that had formerly been marked by punctuation. My ideas could, thus, be divided into clauses that kept in sync with my actual thought process similar to the way in which instant messengers compel us to send fragments of our thought as they occur to us rather than later, when they can be articulated in paragraph form. There is a good deal of folk wisdom in the stigma against “writing novels” in our text messages. Not only because doing so keeps our interlocutors in limbo as ellipses flash on the screen, but also because trying to write this way with digital text inherently distorts the rhythm and syntax of our thoughts in a way that handwriting does not. The main difference between typed outlines and instant messaging, however, is the ability to regroup and rearrange these fragments of thought after they have been transcribed.
I found that this added modularity promoted more exhaustive, paratactical exploration of my ideas than I was able to achieve writing by hand. It encouraged me to experiment with sentence structures that I would probably have found tiresome, convoluted and Latinate. As it turns out, however, the genius of a Miltonic and Proustian sentence shines even more brilliantly when its clauses are parsed and subordinated in this manner. Outlining this way allowed me to compare and qualify more examples and contradictions in a more graphically intuitive manner than I ever could have while writing linearly. I knew I could pursue more tangential threads without losing sight of the overall structure of the idea. I could conceive entirely new ideas in the labor of delivering others without having to abort either. The ease of excising and grafting these new growths elsewhere made cultivating them more appealing. Being able to do so in media res actually seemed to enhance my writerly rhythm more than disrupt it. Thus, we can see how the shift from handwriting to digital type has the power to naturalize what would otherwise appear aberrant (e.g. the shift here from natal to horticultural metaphors).
The structural effects of digital type extended far beyond the individual moment of writing. Rather than turning over a new leaf each day and letting the calendar tacitly impose itself on the structure of my notes, I was able to review and rearrange them asynchronously without necessarily having to rewrite them. Many ideas that appeared new and disconnected during class later revealed themselves as estranged relatives of things mentioned earlier or later on. This reorganization often involved categories that were never introduced explicitly during discussion – themes that served to bridge different interpretations of the same materials between classes and themes that helped me distinguish citations that were of personal relevance from those that were of general relevance to the class. I feel that I began to develop the metathematic awareness necessary for making such complex organizational decisions only after the modularity of digital text made it more feasible. With enough time, even the my most eccentric passages and ideas began to congeal into meaningful themes, pushing back against the typically reductive movement of themes and suggesting that their flexibility is greatly dependent on the medium in which they are formed.
Self-generated themes can easily be regarded as the ideological blinders which, inevitably, they are. If my professors in college were to have looked at the thematic headings of my notes they would have seen, as if radioscopically, the ideological structure of my thought. But is such clarity part of the problem or the solution? If no one can purge their thinking of ideology, then why not don it with pride (or at least candor)? Presumably, because ideological presuppositions have the potential to undermine the integrity of the entire method of interpretation. Masking ideology in our own writing and exposing it in others’ may be the ur-trope of academic credibility, but it is also one of the greatest impediments to collaboration. Would it not be easier to confess the ideological blindness of our thematic choices from the outset by revealing the hierarchical structures of our notes and drafts? This question would seem to presume the visibility of the very structure that blinds us, but my point is not that any one of us can ever atone for ideological bias in toto, only that it might be easier to navigate this kind of bias collectively and strategically if we could easily see the organizational infrastructure behind the published draft – how certain themes are being coordinated hierarchically and how citations are being subordinated to these themes (or resisting this subordination).
As paradoxical as it sounds, I believe the mnemotechnology I’ll be discussing later can actually help us see this ideological blindness more clearly, but only if we embrace the necessarily digital imperative of citational infrastructure. The infrastructure of citation must be digital in order to move beyond the twofold insularity of the scholars working with private texts within semi-private institutional niches. Thus buffered, our ideologies will continue to hide and be hidden. As digital communities, however, we might construct an infrastructure capable of indexing the most nuanced articulations of our ideological framework – a knowledgebase that links citations, annotations and publications in a way that helps sustain more rigorous debate about more exigent and specific topics while lessening our inclination to skirmish trivially over the validity of ideologies in general. I will expand on all of this later but my main point is that printed and written annotations prevent us from inscribing ideology collectively within the kind of knowledgebase that could actually allow for amore transparent and productive discussion of method.
On a more personal level, greater citational infrastructure promotes a more meaningful and autonomous relationship with the themes which, in a healthy academic body, serve as a kind of backbone – a structure that is stable without being ossified. As I mentioned earlier, the themes I constructed after migrating to digital notes enabled me to reflect upon my methodological and citational choices and to distinguish the interests of the class from my interests overall. I learned how they must expand and contract as the body of information grows. Seeing my own generalizations swell and burst into more particular categories was far more educational than having these tensions pointed out by others. While I might have suspected my teachers of pushing me to adopt their interpretive frames, seeing generality as an informational, organizational problem of my own making pushed me to take more responsibility for it.
When I handwrote my notes I tended to adhere more closely to the substance of the lecture or discussion, purging them of the occasional connections that might have occurred to me at the time. But when it was time to write the essay I felt compelled to pursue the very connections I had previously excluded simply because using my notes as an outline seemed like regurgitating everything we had already discussed in class. Often I ended up staring dazedly at the quotes I intended to analyze with only a vague sense of how they related to the assignment and, more often than not, my efforts resulted in an awkward grafting of materials we discussed briefly (if at all) onto more general questions raised during the discussion of passages we discussed more extensively. The feedback I received typically suggested that the conceptual leaps I was making between various passages were as interesting as they were confusing, but this only made me try that much harder to bridge this gap – amassing ever more obscurities hoping, perversely, that they would somehow illuminate one another perfectly. I mistook the difficulty of the work for its sophistication. Really, my writing would probably have been easier and smarter had I a keener sense of what might be achieved within so limited a scope. The vagueness and sloppiness of those early analyses stems from an inability to distinguish and balance what was important for the class and what was of interest to me.
I know many teachers who see this kind of anguished indecision as a necessary moment in our intellectual coming-of-age. While I do think there should always be room to question and doubt our own approach vis-à-vis the established methodology, I cannot help but regard this rather romantic outlook as something of a cop out. Is it not this glib embrace of formlessness that scares many students away from the discipline in the first place? Is there really nothing that we can do to make the organizational needs of such formal assignments more transparent?
I, for one, found it much easier to extract essay topics from class discussions once I began outlining my notes on a computer. Having already worked up a kind of running categorical scheme for most classes, I think I was starting to see for myself how some things just couldn’t be accomplished in a few thousand words. When faced with the reality that many of the categories I had created already contained more material than the assignment would allow, I was forced to check my impulse to synthesize everything under the sun and try my hand at selective excision. While this process of selection will never be entirely free from indecision, the anguish of this decision can be greatly alleviated with even the most rudimentary form of citational infrastructure. Teaching and administrating this infrastructure on an institutional level, however, will require the additional capacities of a knowledgebase.
Returning to the original question about the basic function of notes – whether their purpose is to transcribe a class accurately or capture insights that might have greater relevance beyond the class – I admit that digital notes are not really a solution per se. Even though they make it easier to record more of what transpires in a class, we must also account for our tendency to manipulate or dismiss each other’s ideas when they begin to encroach upon our own or challenging our the thematic infrastructure on which our ideas are constructed. The modularity I’ve been praising also makes it easier to efface such tensions. When the various pieces of information in an outline can easily be rearranged and reassigned to different categories, it is easier to lose track of why they did not fit in the first place. It would be unwise, then, to just dispense with these traces for many of the same reasons that it would be unwise to just disseminate the outline of a lesson without animating it through live discussion.
How, then, should we regard the various lacunae that appear in the initial drafts of notes taken under time constraint? The lapse may be the arbitrary result of distraction or sleep deprivation, but it may also be worthy of further examination. Lines of thought that terminate in unanswered questions are not necessarily a sign of poor discussion, instruction or understanding. What would we lose if the silence following such questions were effaced? How, in a system of collective and continual annotation, do we maintain the digital equivalent of this silence? Individual lapses in the record will probably remain inscrutable, but collective lapses may speak volumes for those with the (prosthetic) ears and eyes to detect them. Considering the significant role these lapses play in the rhythms of private reflection and public discussion and their general obscurity in digital text, we should insist that any mnemotechnology worthy of the name provide some means of tagging and engaging them.