On Taking Notes

I don't want to own up to how little organization I have. I don't want to think about all the good stuff I've lost.

On Taking Notes

i'm just the note taker. - molly conger

I need a better note-taking system. I don't want to own up to how little organization I have. I don't want to think about all the good stuff I've lost. I just want better notes.

Colorful notes. Markers telling me what I was studying. Short summaries of essential points. Gossipy anecdotes. Notes nested within notes. Corresponding details, ideas, and thinkers. Quotes by scholarly authorities and short takes by me. Pictures. Questions I need to answer.

I want every notebook to resemble the product of building a Dungeons and Dragons character. Just like I'll have a page dedicated to how my character tanks damage in different situations, I'd like a few pages to how different philosophers use the term phenomenology.

What should notes achieve?

  • I should want to explore my notebook, as if it were the coolest thing in the world
  • A notebook should put me in a position to probe my experiences further
  • If I wrote it down, it'd be nice to discuss it at some length
  • Notes should give me parts. Things I can take and arrange to create longer works

I get now why wizards have spellbooks in DnD. Why their lives are nothing but their spellbook. If you were a scholar and everything you did had power, then your notes and research are the whole game. The singularity of your book makes it a book.


You can see this is not how we teach note-taking to students.

We talk about retaining information. Efficiency. Study habits.

Maybe for writers and creatives we talk this way? I vaguely remember Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird mentioning how she wrote down significant moments during her day on slips of paper. The goal was to revisit those slips later and write at length.

But we don't talk this way generally, and there's a price to be paid for that. My notebooks from high school worked for me then. I'd hear what I needed to say for the test. I put it down. I reviewed it later and got a good grade.

That was fine for high school. Unfortunately, that's where I got stuck for a long, long while. I don't think a YouTube video or a class on study habits would have changed that, either. What I really needed–what we all might need–is some enthusiasm for why a notebook matters.


When I tutored in a well-to-do area, it was abundantly clear that the teachers there wanted to give their students everything. I read Grendel and Excellent Sheep and the discussions I had with the students were thoughtful. You didn't need the entire book to get them to talk about moments that mattered. You could start with the title–Grendel is about an adolescent who is also a monster–and ask about isolation and whether power would fix that. You could ask what they imagined college to be and sort through the marketing and hype with them.

I've been wondering about elite schooling recently. Maybe there is a college which gives its students cards they can put in an ATM and withdraw all the cash from. Maybe it is possible to go to a school, meet POTUS, tell them what to do and see it in a headline the next day. But while we do have stories of outrageous privilege, it doesn't seem like that's what essentially separates rich versus poor schooling in America. My suspicion is that attention is the whole game. More privileged students get all kinds of attention in ways they may barely notice. While the discussions I had tutoring were good, when I pointed out to students how their teacher was trying to reach out to them, it was like a meteor had landed. The notion that someone was trying to tell you something that mattered was a revelation.

I don't know if wealthy schools are teaching students how to take good notes. I do know they're not teaching to the test in the same way other schools must. I do know that if a student in them wants to pay careful attention to the cultivation of their own thought, the resources are present. (Though access to this too can be contingent.)


Note-taking isn't just note-taking. It can be a measure of the attention you're given. It can be a measure of the value you give your own thoughts.

It's about thinking on the page, giving your brain multiple places to work. Wittgenstein once asked if a thought could be in the throat. His comment pushes not just against the identification of thinking and the brain, but thinking and the mind. To what degree is thinking a social process, something we might only perfect publicly? Going a slightly different route, to what degree is thinking something that happens through balancing multiple voices? How do you address what you previously put down?

Note-taking in this sense lends itself to environments which are eager to hear their students speak. Places which want them to respond to the material, develop their own thought, and walk us through what they see. In that vein, what I want to perfect as a scholar and teacher is being a student, first and foremost.