I have really been enjoying following Chris Aldrich’s exploration of note-taking, commonplace books and Zettelkasten. Whenever I read about the various ideas, I feel like I do not necessarily belong. Thinking about my practice, I never quite feel that it is deliberate enough. For example, I do not sort my book notes by colour or anything, I do not collate information using index cards to organise my thoughts and ideas, and I do not methodically reorganise my pieces. Yet, as I read about the different methods, I feel like I can see myself in there somewhere. What I wonder is whether note-taking is a constant practice or something that should evolve over time?
When I read about the various historical cases, one of the things that intrigues me are the origin stories that seem to be washed over. Did people find their particular flavour and stick to it for life? Or is it just history that provides that perspective? Aldrich himself reflects on his early experience of note-taking with index cards:
My own anecdotal experience of research and note taking with index cards dates to 1985 when, in sixth grade, I was admonished to take my notes on index cards so that I could later string them together in outline form to create a narrative.
Unlike these static stories of method, Aldrich’s personal journey seems like a case of trial and error. For me, his reflections documented in his blog tells a tale of what Angus Hervey describes as ‘holding on tightly and letting go lightly‘.
Don’t say “I’m right, and you’re obviously wrong.” Say “at this point, given all the evidence I’ve considered and having made a genuine effort to try and see if from the other side (point to some examples), the balance of the argument seems to rest on this side for these reasons, so for now that’s what I am going with. If new evidence, or a better argument comes along I am totally willing to change my mind about this, and I’ll also be pleased because it will mean I’ve gained a deeper understanding about the world.”
Aldrich always seems to be tinkering with a new process or application to work differently. As technology ebbs and evolves, he seems to work out what works and what does not. The process of coming up with the right workflow seems just as important as the workflow itself. In some ways this reminds me of Clay Shirky’s tendency towards ‘awkward new habits’.
I actually don’t want a “dream setup.” I know people who get everything in their work environment just so, but current optimization is long-term anachronism. I’m in the business of weak signal detection, so at the end of every year, I junk a lot of perfectly good habits in favor of awkward new ones.
This reflection makes me think about my own journey. Personally speaking, I have written before about my journey to being a ‘connected educator‘. However, I have always felt that focusing on people overlooks connecting through the page. With this in mind, I am taken back to a time when I used to collect clippings of reviews and readings inside books. This is a habit I inherited from my grandfather. For a time, this led to scanning documents to keep them digitally. I also kept a book of quotes. This was not really organised, more of a collection of random dots. Each of these acts could be seen as being a part of the journey to now.
In the end, just as defining digital literacies is as important as engaging with digital literacies themselves, I wonder if discussing and defining what we actually mean by concepts such as ‘commonplace book’ is just as important as the commonplace book itself?
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