Note-taking and the Myth of Accessible Content
(I know, two posts in two days!)
In a comment on my last post, which was inspired by students who were not taking notes, Magistra said something that clarified part of the problem in a way that really clicked for me (not for the first time!):
And lecturing/classes are very odd because nowadays they’re almost the only form of content people are exposed to that isn’t easily repeatable. [....] Now, almost anything you want is accessible long-term and can be reviewed & rechecked multiple times. One of the biggest incentives to make detailed notes about a book was if you knew you wouldn’t have access to it again; if you’ve got the full text online forever, there’s much less pressure to do so. There is a lot more incentive to develop memorisation and note-taking skills when they are also necessary for content access, than when they’re purely intended as study methods.
Read that last clause carefully.
Yep. That’s pretty much the whole problem in a nutshell. I’d never really considered that taking lecture notes was a study method, but I think that’s what our students think. Jeepers. This explains so much. (My apologies to all of you who are thinking, “Holy crap. ADM really isn’t even as smart as the average bear if she hadn’t figured that out!”). When I talk to my students about taking notes in class, I often add something like, “A lot of what I/we talk about in class is not in the readings, but you’re responsible for it. Besides, many people find that they remember things better when they write things down.”
What I am telling them is that they should be paying close attention and writing things down because this is information that they may not be able to access again — at least not in the same way. At the very least, they should note topics I’ve mentioned, so that they can look them up later (rather than looking them up on Wikipedia as I speak). In fact, I often use most of that entire first sentence, close to verbatim. It’s been a huge cause of frustration for me, because not only do I see this affecting their work, but dammit, it just seems so insulting to be ignored. It also makes for classes that are just dire, with me asking questions about the readings and the discussion from the last session, and hearing crickets.
What they are hearing, however, is not what I am telling them. It is not the wanh-wanh-wanh of the adults in animated Peanuts specials, either, although that’s what I’ve assumed, and may sometimes be true. What they are hearing is someone who seems woefully out of touch, because after all, we can always look stuff up, right? And yes, we can. Often. Not always, though. Sometimes, we need to just know things. I’m not even talking about the whole “when the Zombie Apocalypse comes and we lose power and have to rely on our wits to survive” thing. Not that that isn’t an issue. I don’t know how to clean a carcass properly, or which parts of animals you want to remove quickly to make sure that the meat isn’t contaminated. My first aid knowledge is also pretty rusty, because, well, I can always look it up on the internet! I don’t know any of my friends’ phone numbers by heart. If I only had one phone call, it would have to be my mom, my uncle, or X, (or someone on the university exchange, since I do know extensions!) because they are the only people in my life whose numbers I knew before about four cell phones ago. Oh, or my best friend. I know her number. At any rate, we need to know some things without having to look them up.
As I wrote that, I was thinking about how class discussion is so awful when people can’t recall basic information. And then I thought about what conversation would be like if we all relied on looking stuff up. Can you imagine having any sort of intelligent conversation — the sort of conversation that lets us get to know each other, the sort of conversation that gets all sorts of intellectual and emotional sparks flying, the sort of conversation that binds human societies together — if we had to look everything up? I freely admit that I love it when I have an internet connection for my iPod (no smart phone for me!) and can look things up if I need to. But imagine a conversation between people of different generations, or different countries, or even people whose interests are really different, in a world where more than half of the people have not acquired enough information about the world around them to have a framework for what they are looking up. One person talking about massacres as a result of a coup in another country, and how it will affect gas prices, and the others all at various stages of the conversation, unable to respond because they are looking up the country, the government, other places where oil might be found…(because seriously, why else do many westerners discuss foreign affairs, except in terms of how it might affect us or to feel some sort of superiority?). Longest conversation ever.
Just like some of my classes. Longest pauses ever. I must choose between allowing students to open their computers and/or read through books and whatever meagre notes they might have, if they do at all, or waiting in silence while they sit, confused and frustrated, sullen because my expectations are unrealistic, because I am being unfair by not allowing them their tools, while I feel all the joy go out of my day. Or I can start again, tomorrow, and talk again about notes and access to information. Because sometimes we just don’t have access. Sometimes, and I think most of the time, we need to be able to communicate with each other as people with agency. We worry about helping our students find their voices. Well, if they always look stuff up, because they always can, how do they find their own voices, unmediated by someone else? Where is their agency, where is the empowerment we talk about, if they are not themselves creators, agents? The unknowingly passive have no power.
Or, if you’d rather have the short version, it’s this:
There are people who can cook, and people who can assemble things from packets of pre-mixed ingredients. People who can cook can choose what goes into their bodies. People who assemble are prisoners of someone else’s decisions. I am a master chef (but without Michelin stars — those go to the scary smart folks!), and godsdammit, I am not here to teach people who might crack an egg and mix it with stuff from a box and think that’s cooking to mix up things from two boxes and a can and think it’s cooking. Cooking from scratch, people. Doesn’t have to be fancy, but it has to be yours.
Edited to add:
Just saw this via Twitter. My students don’t like to write on the internet. They don’t want others to see their work, because they are scared. Knowledge really is power. They know they don’t have it. But they should. I’m damned well going to try to help them get it. At least a little bit.