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Approaches to making notes

How do we most effectively make notes for historical research, thinking, and writing? Are all notes the same? Should you make notes during class lectures and discussions? Should you make notes when reading for class?

To know or not to know? That is the question.

One aspect of the explosive growth of the world wide web, the pervasiveness of search, and as of this year, the availability of something like OpenAI's ChatGPT, is the sense that any fact is easily and ubiquitously at our fingertips. The accessibility of data has shifted our collective sense of the nature of knowledge. What does it mean to know something if you can pull the supercomputer out of your pocket and look anything up instantly? What does it mean to write, if a computer can generate convincing text based on probabilistic models of language? You know, bullshit.

The biggest threat of machine learning isn't that Skynet will take over the world, but that we will redefine knowledge and learning as that which AI can do. There is significant temptation here, because deeper forms of knowledge require work-- they are active, whether acquired through watching videos, attending lectures, reading texts, writing texts, or doing things. Passive consumption does not work. But all of us are, to some degree or another, lazy.

What are the things we do in the practice of History as a discipline of knowledge? At the most basic level, we read, correlate, synthesize, and re-articulate historical evidence. Much of this evidence exists textually-- as archival material, social theory, academic book and journal manuscripts, etc. Some of it exists as material, aural, visual culture. Most of what we work with in class, though, is textual. Historical knowledge is not simply about collecting data, whether that data is story, dates, names, locations, events. Historical knowledge, and by extension understanding, is a synthetic process and an interpretive act.

We are going to read a lot in this class. We are going to write a lot in this class. We are going to talk about what we're reading and writing. As simple and predictable as it seems, this structure is still the core of historical work.

At the center of all of this is the postulate, writing is thinking. And, both writing and thinking are processes. And if writing is thinking, then what we are doing isn't taking notes, it is making notes. Making notes that help us actively think.

Making Notes

The types of notes we write are predicated on context in which we make them. So, let's divide this into two categories: 1. Readings; 2. In-Class notes.


Okay, given all of that, how do you take notes on readings. What is the process? Let's divide this up into a few steps.

  1. Read actively, with a highlighter and/or pen in hand. This is the first form of note-making.

Over the last thirty years or so, researchers have consistently found that reading on paper leads to better comprehension than reading on on screens. In a perfect world, each of you would print out your pdfs and physically mark them up. That is not always realistic. So, if you read on screen you need read on a laptop or tablet. A phone screen is too small to comprehend readings at the paragraph and page level, which is an important part of piecing things together. If you are reading on screen, take advantage of your pdf viewer's ability to highlight passages. On paper, use a highlighter and annotate your thoughts in the margins. Mark sentences that you think are significant for the article-- for identifying its argument and key concepts, categories, and claims at work. Skim when necessary, but stop when you see something worth highlighting.

If it helps, imagine ourself in dialogue with the author. Put all of questions or reactions into the notes, annotated by the page or passage that prompted them.

Do not cut/paste your highlights into a note file.

  1. Review your annotations. After you finish reading, go back and review your highlights. Do you see patterns? Rephrase the important ones in your own words, but make sure to include the page number and citation with you notes. Synthesize groups of similar highlights into summary notes, but keep track of the citations. Keep individual notes fairly short and focused.

  2. Write a précis and/or research memo based on the notes you've written.

There is one exception to my warning against transcription-- and that is in processing primary source material in the archive or afterward. This can be even more true when you're working in multiple languages. But, once transcription is done, the same type of note-taking process needs still to be done, if it isn't incorporated into your transcription.

Where to keep these notes? This workflow can be completely paper-based. Bring the physical article and your hand-written notes with you to class. It can be completely computer-based. Bring your laptop with the highlighted pdf and your notes. It can be hybrid, with paper copies of the readings and computer notes. Just remember, do not transcribe long sections into your notes!

You can use any number of applications to make and keep your notes. Google Docs, Microsoft Word, Microsoft OneNote, and any number of note-specific applications can be effective. They are all most effective when you use consistent file names, so that it's easy to later find what you need. My current favorite is Obsidian, which also allows you to link notes together.^[This website was also written in Obsidian!]


The rise of PowerPoint and other slide presentation software has changed the lecture, and attendee's experience. And not necessarily for the better. Text heavy slides encourage transcription, and also anxiety over missing out on transcription. But, just as in the section above, transcribing slides (ie, copying verbatim just what is on a slide) does not adequately register the connections in and between lectures in working and longterm memory.

Lecture note-making is beneficial in two ways-- 1. the process of note-making; 2. the product of note-making. The first relates to the intake of new information during a lecture, and the second relates to review of notes later. Concentrating on transcribing slides isn't great for either objective.

So, during class I would encourage you to take notes actively on paper or in your note-taking software, and to do so in the mindset that you are annotating what we discuss in class. Imagine that you are explaining what I'm saying to someone, or to yourself. Listen for concepts, categories, etc., and write them down as you go. Raise your hand and stop me if you don't understand something or want to clarify that you're on track. Look over the syllabus before class and think about what the focus of the week is, what questions we're working on, what the narrative arc of the semester is. Let that guide you as much as the text on the screen.

For exams and essays, if you do this you will have no problem thinking through the prompts because you'll have already been thinking through writing along the way!