Duly noted at higher ed

It’s almost embarrassing how often I rely on Stephen Downes to highlight things of interest. Today he links to an apparent rant by “Professor Anonymous,” all aflutter because college students use laptops in class and might not be listening to the lecture.

Some suspect the post is a parody. It’s hard to tell with insights like these:

  • [Over a period of ten years]…other than a couple of tweaks…[my] lectures are pretty much the same.
  • On one side of [my PowerPoint slide] is a neat outline or a definition. On the other side, there’s an image that’s usually aimed at gathering a few cheap laughs.
  • [I use the class website] for posting links to additional reading and for reminding students of the next class assignment.

Lectures R UsSomehow the post, and especially the discussion (over 50 comments) made me think of Starbuck’s. Or McDonald’s. Or Jiffy-Lube.

Anonymous (does she call herself “Professor” outside of faculty meetings?) seems to care about her field, and in a way to care about her students. I’m not sure, though, that she’s ready to abandon the notion that lectures with note-taking are the ideal way to teach, let alone an optimal way to learn.

I myself can be a pretty good note-taker — in college, note-taking was my main method of dealing with boring classes, though it failed me in that soporific course on Augustan literature.

I take a lot of notes now, too, long after I’ve recovered from MacFlecknoe and The Rape of the Lock. Stepping back mentally, I see the note-taking occurs in mainly three contexts. Since Professor Anonymous is clearly a believed in a body of knowledge, I’m seeing those contexts as relating to a different kind of body: a Significant Other.

Context 1: In Search Of

When I begin a new project, I often don’t know what’s going on. I’m not familiar with the “body” in question — bodies like pharmaceutical manufacturing, health claims for atomic-weapons workers, or vendor-managed inventory.

So I take notes as I go through background materials. In some cases I’m making my own outline of a relevant document; the process of condensing and arranging is helpful for me. It’s a reprocessing that works better, in my case, than simply reading.

In some cases, I don’t return to those notes; the note-taking helped me get started. As I began to understand what’s important to my client, I listen better and ask better questions.

Context 2: We Can Work It Out

I return to note-taking further into the relationship, usually a week or so after discovering how much I didn’t learn initially. I forget who said it, but it’s not the things you don’t know that get you in trouble; it’s the things you know that aren’t true.

In interpersonal relationships, and in relationships with a body of knowledge, I find over and over that somethings become more complicated, more nuanced, more contextual than I’d assumed. In a work context, I find that taking notes and sketching processes helps me focus. I try to simplify, to create a high-level understanding. That gives me a framework from which to hang the more accurate details.

Context 3: You Were Always on My Mind

The most important notes I take are the ones that seem least vital at the time. I push myself to keep a daily log of what I’ve been doing. This isn’t the same thing as blogging. My Whiteboard is for thinking out loud and inviting the comments of others.

No offense, but I don’t want to invite you to read my end-of-the-day notes.

For one thing, here on the Whiteboard, I don’t talk about current clients by name. If something’s worth talking about, I’ll invent a name and possibly another industry so I can muse without revealing any confidences.

In the relationship analogy, it’s like taking time to think about your significant other, whether she’s close by or off on a trip as mine is this week. What builds your relationship isn’t the trip to Edinburgh or Paris (though those can help); it’s day-to-day awareness.

So, what's been going on in your life?When I’m working on a project, then, one of the most valuable things I can do for myself is to take 10 minutes or so at the end of a workday to note down what I’ve been doing, whom I’ve talked with, and especially what I’m either elated or concerned about.

It’s a form of mindfulness — something I decide to do (and with luck actually do) to focus on what I’ve been doing and why.

Going back to Anonymous’s post, I wonder if she and other commenters don’t view note-taking as an end in its own right. My own view is that they’re a tool to help me process what I’ve been doing. That process is at the heart of true learning.

Office-door image created by Matt McVickar.
Dalai Lama photo by Bruce Bortin.