Clay Shirkey on the need to continually rethinking our workflows

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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Commonplace Book, a Verb or a Noun? by Aaron Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

One thought on “Commonplace Book, a Verb or a Noun?

  1. Sometimes the root question is “what to I want to do this for?” Having an underlying reason can be hugely motivating.
    Are you collecting examples of things for students? (seeing examples can be incredibly powerful, especially for defining spaces) for yourself? Are you using them for exploring a particular space? To clarify your thinking/thought process? To think more critically? To write an article, blog, or book? To make videos or other content?
    Your own website is a version of many of these things in itself. You read, you collect, you write, you interlink ideas and expand on them. You’re doing it much more naturally than you think.

    I find that having an idea of the broader space, what various practices look like, and use cases for them provides me a lot more flexibility for what may work or not work for my particular use case. I can then pick and choose for what suits me best, knowing that I don’t have to spend as much time and effort experimenting to invent a system from scratch but can evolve something pre-existing to suit my current needs best.
    It’s like learning to cook. There are thousands of methods (not even counting cuisine specific portions) for cooking a variety of meals. Knowing what these are and their outcomes can be incredibly helpful for creatively coming up with new meals. By analogy students are often only learning to heat water to boil an egg, but with some additional techniques they can bake complicated French pâtissier. Often if you know a handful of cooking methods you can go much further and farther using combinations of techniques and ingredients.
    What I’m looking for in the reading, note taking, and creation space is a baseline version of Peter Hertzmann’s 50 Ways to Cook a Carrot combined with Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking. Generally cooking is seen as an overly complex and difficult topic, something that is emphasized on most aspirational cooking shows. But cooking schools break the material down into small pieces which makes the processes much easier and more broadly applicable. Once you’ve got these building blocks mastered, you can be much more creative with what you can create.
    How can we combine these small building blocks of reading and note taking practices for students in the 4th – 8th grades so that they can begin to leverage them in high school and certainly by college? Is there a way to frame them within teaching rhetoric and critical thinking to improve not only learning outcomes, but to improve lifelong learning and thinking?

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