Sunday, September 3, 2006

Note Systems

Success in qualifying exams and later with the diss depends upon a reasonably comprehensive note-taking system. It's true, it's true. Who would argue? (And so it's a truism hardly worth restating).

I took so-so notes throughout coursework, but I also experimented a little bit too much, often making do with something messy and sketchy or other times accepting as good enough a summary or some other sort of page long response to the reading. From coursework, then, I have an assortment of notes. I mean the category of notes includes all kinds and classes: stickies, composition book messes, legal pads with many-an-in-class doodle, blog entries in the reading notes category, and so on. Some are proving useful for exam preparation, but many, regrettably, must be brushed up. In the weeks ahead, I've many notes to groom. I should add, however, that much of the writing that happens beyond the edge of intelligible notes is also worthwhile. So I wouldn't say that coursework would have been sharper for me at the time had I taken more methodical notes. Yet with relatively minor effort, I could have focused my coursework notes into something that, for being more regular in form and scope, would have served me better later on (i.e., right now). So many lessons.

Of the many small bumps and ruts I passed through this summer (toward reasonably smooth progress on exams), the biggest one involved settling on a method for keeping good notes. It had to be sustainable. It had to be searchable. It had to be typed (bc my handwriting...bird-scratch illegible). It had to involve tagging and other schemes for organization. And it had to function like a robust database. Aesthetically appealing. Affordable.

Exams vary considerably from program to program, as you would expect. Ours involve a major area (two questions; a pair of three-hour sittings to answer each on a single day) and two minor areas (one, we have the question for a week, then write it on site in three hours; the other, we write at home throughout a one-week stretch). Add it up, and it comes to nine hours of writing in a whatever's available space in the department (often the grad office) and a week-long take home essay that, when said and done, ought to be "publishable quality." As of this moment, it still seems possible to me that I'll be ready to kick things in motion with the all-day major exam on Dec. 1 and follow with the two minor exams before the holidays. If a crappy semester, the alternate date is sometime in January.

But I set out to write about my notes system. I eventually settled on something systematic back in early June, and, aside from a few due and appropriate lulls, I've been posting notes fairly regularly. I'm satisfied that it's coming together, doing, I mean, what I think a notes system should do--keeping me focused, moving along, registering thinned and concentrated versions of what I've read. And I share it now, after close to fifty entries, because I wanted to be sure it was up and running before I pointed to it. And so it is.

Comments are closed, and I haven't made use of any internal trackbacks yet, although I might if I decide that such a thing would be helpful. I've been most pleased with the tagging system (tags-in-common trigger the "Related Entries" feature at the bottom of each individual entry). It's also tied in with a private (for now) account for other categorical clustering. The dates assigned to each entry are rough approximations of the dates I produced the notes (you'll see, for instance, that the book I'm on now is posted already for tomorrow). And the minor exams are yet underdeveloped for some of the reasons I mentioned above--many of those notes are on paper or in other places.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at September 3, 2006 10:30 PM to Qualifying Exams