I’ve written down a few thoughts here about why I incorporate “analog” note-taking methods into my classses. It’s connected to a presentation I’ll give later this week at the annual Association for Asian Studies (AAS) conference in Toronto on March 19, 10:45–12:45 (Willow Centre, Mezzanine). Our roundtable is called “Digital Pedagogy for the Analog Past: Technological Tools and Methods for Teaching Premodern Materials,” and the title of my presentation in it is “Premodern Workflows for Learning Premodern Sources.”
Warming Up the Old in Order to Know the New
My presentation title is a clumsy attempt to signal the connection I am trying to make between the present and the premodern past in the classroom. I’ll focus on workflows that students use for note-taking, and I’m hoping to demonstrate that there is some value for students in continuing to use “analog” technologies, even as our university classrooms become more and more “digital.” One assumption is that the closer we hew to the ways in which the authors of our premodern sources worked, the better we can apprehend and appreciate how they acquired knowledge, organized their thoughts, and recorded them. A good example would be the copying and recopying of texts that generated multiple variants (about one hundred for the Tale of the Heike 平家物語), errors, nearly unintelligible cursive scrawls, and similar problems about how to do even small things like leaving spaces in texts to be filled in later. My main argument is that digital tools can enhance rather than replace analog ones. In other words, instead of relying solely on technologies such as keyboards and applications to take notes, I want to make a case, in Confucian terms, for “warming up the old in order to know the new” (onko chishin 温故知新).
Ideally, I suppose we would all intern in a premodern-style room somewhere taking notes or doing our work with paper, ink, and brushes (see the photo below from the Yamagata Preectural Museum).
However, I do not know of any opportunities to do this, and, even if something cool like this existed, I’m not sure we would have time left over to graduate, publish, earn a living, spend time with family and friends, and finish watching Onna jōshu Naotora 『おんな城主 直虎』 (this year’s NHK historical drama about Ii Naotora 井伊直虎). Practicing a bit of calligraphy on your own at home probably wouldn’t hurt, but it isn’t practical for note-taking in the classroom anymore, and it is prohibited in the archives, so it isn’t great for daily use. Understandably, we have to modify our workflows a little and move a step or two away from what people in premodern times did.
“Digital” Tools Designed to Reduce Mental Labor
In the long span of recorded history, we’ve only had a few generations that haven’t relied on handwriting in one form or another for note-taking. Computers, tablets, projectors, and other “digital” resources haven’t been around long in the classroom. And, we’ve had even less time to incorporate “digital humanities” into learning environments.
As we do move closer to a point at which students can go through university, and maybe even the entire K-12 system, without picking up a pen or a pencil in class, it’s a good opportunity to think about why we take notes in the first place. After all, technology can do a lot of the legwork for us now. It is entirely possible to record lectures and have the audio and visual content transcribed for us (Dragon, for example). Or, we can download a digital Kindle book that comes pre-highlighted (the “popular” highlighted passages are marked — see Lifehacker for a unique take on what these highlights might tell you).
Inefficiency and Retention
Technology does a great job of capturing and sorting data in our “silicon brains,” but there isn’t so much emphasis on bridging the gap to get that content into our “meat brains.” What about retention of course content? This mundane-sounding objective might have been obvious to teachers and students up until a generation or so ago, but I am not so sure anymore. It isn’t uncommon to see students employing a clever version of Toyota’s “just-in-time” manufacturing philosophy to quickly look up only the data they need, when they need it, and not to waste mental capacity trying to retain it in their brains. There is a certain efficient logic to using our silicon brains do what they do best (store and manipulate data) and using our meat ones to think critically about that data. For some students, this might be more than adequate to get by, graduate, and get a job in the “real” world.
Note-Taking and the Humanities
Yet, this efficiency is at odds with some of the inefficient goals of a liberal arts education. As I understand it, an education in the humanities aims to: 1) challenge our assumptions about society; 2) help us better comprehend the world around us; 3) have us reflect on values and ideas for personal growth; or 4) teach us how to find pleasure in the pursuit of knowledge. And, the “just-in-time” method of attending university certainly has little bearing on the work of a historian, who is interested in: 1) questioning how the societies and cultures we see around us today came into being; 2) deepening our understanding of the rich human experience across time and space; 3) exploring how the past shapes and defines our identity(s), and; 4) training our brains to think historically by locating, analyzing, and assessing various kinds of evidence in order to arrive at well-informed opinions (something essential for civic engagement).
There are far more coherent and compelling explanations for what a liberal arts education and a study of history are. For an autobiographical essay on why a liberal arts education matters, see Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education (2015). Historians have defenders as well. See, for example, John Tosh’s Why History Matters or the first couple chapters of his Pursuit of History.
At any rate, I see note-taking in the context of a liberal arts education as a meaningful, creative work that is greatly aided by organizing our thoughts and writing them down as we draft and re-draft to further refine our understanding. How much more so when we have to make sense of unfamiliar, premodern Japanese sources? Personally speaking, I don’t know how many times I have illustrated family or textual relationships on the board, and I wonder how well this has made it into notes. Occasionally, students will simply photograph the board, but is this “note-taking”?
OK. Maybe you agree that note-taking is worthwhile. But, now we have to think about how to go about doing it.
Research on “Analog” Note-Taking
There is research to suggest that we should not abandon “analog” tools such as pen and paper (stylus and tablet?) when we introduce digital humanities into the classroom. Many students actually fare better with pen and paper. The process of note-taking, especially by hand, has also been shown to require a surprising amount of cognitive effort, though I suspect the resulting benefits of pen and paper may have less to do with the medium itself than the fact that students can avoid the distractions of multi-tasking that come bundled with laptops and mobile devices. This is not to say that some students, especially ones with special learning needs, might well benefit from the use of computers. In general, though, the research tends to favor analog note-taking.
Here are a few sources that you can read to learn more about what researchers have come to understand:
- Bui, Dung C., Joel Myerson, Joel, and Sandra Hale. “Note-taking with Computers: Exploring Alternative Strategies for Improved Recall.” Journal of Educational Psychology,105, no. 2 (May 2013): 299-309.
- Davis, Richard C., James Lin, Jason A. Brotherton, James A. Landay, Morgan N. Price, and Bill N. Schilit. “A Framework for Sharing Handwritten Notes.” UIST ’98: Proceedings of the 11th Annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology (1998): 119-120.
- Fried, Carrie B. “In-Class Laptop Use and Its Effects on Student Learning.” Computers and Education 50, Issue 3 (April 2008): 906–914.
- Piolat, Annie, Thierry Olive, and Ronald T. Kellog. “Cognitive Effort during Note Taking.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 19, Issue 3 (April 2005): 291–312.
- Sana, Faria, Tina Weston, and Nicholas J. Cepeda. “Laptop Multitasking Hinders Classroom Learning for Both Users and Nearby Peers.” Computers and Education 62 (March 2013): 24–31.
- Smoker, Timothy J., Carrie E. Murphy, and Alison K. Rockwell. “Comparing Memory for Handwriting versus Typing.” Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting 53, Issue 22 (2009): 1744 – 1747.
For podcast fans, see NPR’s “Attention, Students: Put Your Laptops Away” episode.
Personal Wikis / Personal Databases / External Brains
Two of the organizational models I recommend for note-taking are the “zettelkasten” and “bullet journal.” The zettelkasten is an index-card method for note-taking that was created by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927–1998). In this system, he took notes on index cards, gave them unique identification numbers, and linked them together as he regularly reviewed the content, making connections in a way strikingly similar to what we do with hyperlinks and wikis today. Take a look at Lumann’s essay on his zettelkasten for more.
- Lumann, Niklas. “Communication with Index Card Systems. An Empirical Account or Communication with Slip Boxes.” Translated by Manfred Kuehn. Dates unknown.
Johannes Schmidt is doing research now on Lumann’s 90,000 notecards.
What is really exciting about building your personal database nowadays is that you can share the work and build it together with your classmates — there is constant communication about course content that I find very satisfying to see as an educator. I’ve written on my blog about using Evernote for this: “Evernote in the Classroom.”
Another approach is to use the Ryder Carrol’s “bullet journal.” It’s mainly an analog task-management system, but it’s also used to record other information, kind of like an early-modern European “commonplace” book. In the bullet journal, Carrol builds linkages to an index section and other notes as he goes along, so if you use it for note-taking, over time you’ll build up a rich, inter-connected record of your studies. Two aspects that distinguish it from Luhmann’s method are the task-management techniques and the strong chronological organization (each note is numbered and part of a bound notebook that progresses from 1 to n). Lumann also has numbers (the analog equivalent of a UID, or “unique identifier”), but no fixed order, and the organization of content occurs more organically as the zettelkasten grows and themes emerge from it.
As an undergraduate, I took notes by hand, but they were primarily written in anticipation of future tests, and, with the exception of courses directly connected with my major (East Asian Languages and Cultures), they had no relationship to other courses. In fact, after I graduated, my notes disappeared, and now I do not have a single piece of paper from all those years of studying. With a personal wiki, personal database, or an “external brain,” courses are no longer discrete units — they become part of an interrelated whole, and content can surface again and again as links are made and new ideas occur across disciplines and over time. With Evernote, it’s even relatively easy to make the handwriting searchable (for more, see my post “Evernote: Getting the Most Out of Handwriting Recognition“).
I wish this technology had been around when I was an undergraduate. Knowing that my notes were part of an evolving personal resource, I think I would have put more thought into my notes, and I probably would have retained more of the course content. At the very least, if I had digitized and kept it all, I could look back now and see how much I have forgotten 🙂
I’ll end here with flashcards. As I was taking notes for my presentation and composing drafts, I originally focused only on note-taking, but realized at some point during the revision process that flashcards needed explanation more than the notes. Outside of language courses, I suppose many teachers do not bother to incorporate them into their teaching, but I think we are missing out on an opportunity to breathe life into our notes.
In order to make the flashcards, I identify content in my silicon brain that I think is important to get into my meat brain, make flashcards, and then review them to master it. Digital flashcards are ideal for this, because they can handle images, maps, screenshots of premodern sources (handwritten manuscripts), and so forth. I’ve already written posts about flashcards, so I won’t rehash all of that here, but the point I want to make in this post is that they are an outgrowth of this larger note-taking process.
It’s not enough to think through and digest what you read in books or hear in lectures; somehow, you have to internalize it and make it your own. If we do not teach students how to do this, or perhaps even make the cards for them (I usually do this), then it probably won’t happen.
I typically voice the answers and/or write them down as I go through each deck, so even though I use digital flashcards, it is still an analog activity. Doing it this way has been a huge help, especially with flashcards for Japanese characters or manuscripts.
I’ll post more details later in the week on specific workflows and apps that could be useful for folks interested in the specifics of combining analog and digital tools for better note-taking.