All that is solid melts into wifi: note-taking in the digital age

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BA and MA notes

As I’m doing a little bit of teaching on art-historical methodological texts next term, I’ve been digging right back into my BA notes. Partly this is to remind myself why I hate Said’s Orientalism so much, but also to think about how you think and note-take as a student. What’s evident mainly how much the way note-taking has changed in the giant leaps we’ve made in technology in the past ten years, perhaps fundamentally changing the way we engage with texts. Is this a good thing? Well, it’s a thing, for sure. A thing that might be even more boring than moulding profiles, but I’m still going to put both on my blog.

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An example of BA3 note-taking

The notes for my BA at the University of Manchester and my MA at The Courtauld Institute fill three whole lever-arch binders (the majority of which are for my third-year BA, not including the dissertation). Ten years ago, if you brought a laptop to a lecture, you’d stick out like you’d brought your own sandwiches to a lunch meeting at a mediocre café. Everyone would look down on you for it, even if deep down they thought it was a rather good idea. But nevertheless, I was never the one to make this faux-pas, resulting in reams of A4 paper with fountain-pen notes. I developed a system of organising notes – for both set texts and lectures – into sections, using bullet points or indenting as the argument deepened, and returning to the margin when a new idea was introduced.

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Some PhD note taking

I attempted to continue my developed system of tiered note-taking (the “classic” type, I have thus dubbed it) into my PhD. The problem is that, whereas in taught, structured classes with assigned reading, it’s easy to organise all this thought on to paper, it’s much harder in the flowing, free-form nature of your own thesis. Despite my determination to hold on to my fountain pen, it was never going to work. I found myself sometimes turning through page after page of my folder trying to find the reference for something I’d written down when writing part of a chapter. My little red ring-bind folder was abandoned before it even approached the size of my BA notes, for the referencing system Zotero, which can hold all your bibliography and notes thereon in the Cloud. As long as you hadn’t imagined making it, no note is ever far from your grasp.

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Lecture notes

Writing however, continued to be useful to help understand things rather than simply to record: most of all lectures. My golden age of the “classic type” of note-taking survived into the extensive notes I take during academic talks, not necessarily to remember what they said, but to have some sort of exercise in front of me to understand the facets of their argument. For much of the three years of my PhD, these were done in notebooks. Increasingly, my scrawl became ever-more spidery, and if anyone was to research my archive if I suddenly die in a bizarre gardening accident (the latter far more likely than the former) they’ll need to train themselves in palaeography at a level usually reserved for Babylonian cuneiform. Marginal doodles of Gothic tracery reached their apex during the middle of year three, suggesting I may have being having some sort of episode by then.

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Microsoft OneNote (not as many spelling errors visible as there usually are)

For the past year, I’ve been note-taking in lecture rooms with Microsoft OneNote on my ASUS Transformer laptop-cum-tablet, as now it’s socially acceptable to have a “device” with you. Of course, the tab key is the ideal way of maintaining the “classic type”, preserving a system that was developed on the page in the screen. The great thing about this is now I don’t have to keep these notes anywhere, I can make them and forget about them, and never have to destroy them – even if most of them I will never read again. Possibly the only downside of all my notes being perfectly legible is if at a conference anyone gives a paper so bad I stop taking notes and type something rude about it, if they sit next to me later on they might read it.

Of course, rather undermining the whole analogue-to-digital conceit of this post, my essays have always been done digitally. I cannot imagine writing long-form prose without being able to pre-emptively launch into a draft without an introduction, move bits about, revise and rewrite chunks, slot bits in, and all the other things that personal computer word processing has made widely possible for at least 20 years now. Probably someone reading this will give me the full-on Four-Yorkshiremen treatment of how they had to do their PhD before the big bang, when we didn’t have all this “time”, “space” and “matter” that you kids today take for granted and that’s totally fine but I’m sharing my own inconsequential personal story about taking notes and I’m nearly finished now so just hold off a little bit longer and then you can tell me that I don’t even know that I’ve been born.

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My PhD reading and notes organised into consecutive folders

The weird thing is, I don’t actually remember writing much of my dissertation. Just editing and refining these essays I wrote for my supervisors in the manner of assessed work. Despite the fact emerging pretty early on that trying to structure your PhD in the manner of a taught module was a stupid idea, I stuck with it till the bitter end (although the name of the final folder may reveal my recognition of this). Some of these were directly turned into chapters, others swallowed up into the larger picture.

Making the leap from systematic, linear note-taking to cultivating truly original research is not straightforward, and I’m sure everyone has had their own way of making the shaky transition from student to not-student. But the tools easily available to us now with Cloud-based note taking systems I think truly do help us organise thought and information in a more holistic and adaptable manner. It doesn’t make things any easier than before, but it does mean we can do more. However, on occasion, I still like to pick apart a particularly complicated text with my good old fountain pen.

 

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3 thoughts on “All that is solid melts into wifi: note-taking in the digital age

  1. M-R

    I think I really like “The spread of sedilia”: it sounds like notes on the plague !
    I also really like your tag that reads “This post is a bit boring sorry” …
    Honestly, James ! – only you could turn so erudite a post into something amusing. 🙂

    Reply
  2. SJK

    So, why do you hate Orientalism so much? I read it decades ago – I remember that the ‘explanation’ for Orientalism was that Arabs enjoyed sex more than uptight Europeans – can i be remembering right?

    From a loyal reader who lives in Egypt and England (not as much fun as it sounds)

    Reply
    1. James Alexander Cameron Post author

      Oh boy now I’m for it.

      Basically the argument is that “The West” (whatever that is) projects an image onto “The Orient” that “feminises” it as “an other” in order to subjugate it. Indeed much of that is the fiction that Arabs lie around in harems charming snakes, wearing curly shoes and rubbing teapots in the hope that a blue Robin Williams pops out.

      It’s notorious for taking enormous liberties with the facts and chronology of colonialism to fit the argument. The book itself is written with what I find to be an uncommonly (for the modern humanities) arrogant, aggressive and certain tone. But I think ultimately it promotes cultural opposites and conflict rather than finding productive ways forward for cultural exchange. It’s an essential problem in discourse that people argue with reference to extremes, and a much more fruitful way of discussing postcolonialism is with reference to hybridity – how cultures interact and develop.

      Of course I’ve only engaged with it very superficially so don’t want to get too much into it. (But then what little I know about Dante means I realise Said clearly felt the same about the Divine Comedy…)

      Reply

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