Before you tell me not to take notes

Don’t.

I mean it.  Please don’t. Just don’t.

You’re not encouraging me to engage with your talk; you’re not making your class more fun or easier for me.

hand writing math notes with a green stylus on a tablet computer

some rights reserved by Viking Photography (flickr)

I need to take notes, preferably by hand. These days that means with a tablet and stylus.   I use a tablet and keyboard when I forget and bring the bad stylus and in meetings. And in some situations, I post notes on Twitter.

When you tell me not to do any or all of those things, you’re actually alienating me. You’re making me feel unwelcome. And you’re stressing me out.

(And if any part of your talk has to do with reaching all learners – you’ve lost me already)

Don’t misunderstand.  I’m not saying that everyone should take notes.  I’m not saying that anyone but me should take notes.  I’m not going to project my preferences and my learning habits on to you — I’m just asking that you don’t project yours on to me.

Here’s a secret.  My brain is a super busy place. Not always a productive or focused place. Seriously, say one interesting thing and I am off to the races. It doesn’t even have to be interesting, really. Even something that just reminds me of something that’s interesting will do.

handwritten mindmap describing faceted classification including circles squares arrows and text

some rights reserved by Jason-Morrison (flickr)

(Okay, that probably isn’t much of a secret)

And I’m not complaining about this. I spend a lot of time in my brain and most of the time, I like it there. I like to think. I get excited by ideas and connections. I get an almost visceral thrill when thoughts snap into place.

And don’t take this the wrong way, but there’s almost nothing you can do, no amount of humor or engaging activities you can build in, that will be more fun or compelling to me than thinking about what you say. The more awesome you are? The more I want to play with your ideas.

Taking notes is how I stay grounded in your thoughts. Taking notes is how I stay present. Taking notes keeps me from chasing my thoughts down those intellectual rabbit holes right now – I wrote a note, I drew a star and a circle and an arrow to the other thing, I can relax now and go back to it later.

And I know you’ve given me a handout or put up a website with all your references on it. I really appreciate it – I do! I do this too. Who wants to be scrambling to write down sources and links? I don’t, but I’m going to write down the why, and draw the circles and the arrows to show how they fit in and work for me.

(And if I ever gave you the impression I didn’t want you to take notes when I pointed out the URL for one of those resource lists – I’m sorry. That’s not what I meant!)

Man with wedding ring  scanning a handwritten notebook page into Evernote with his cell phone

some rights reserved by Evernote (flickr)

If it makes you feel better, I even take notes when I’m alone. I couldn’t start reading on my tablet until I figured out a note taking workflow.

For marginalia and highlighting, that’s PDF + stylus + Notability, if you’re interested. But there’s also my Evernote moleskine, which I use to create my holding pen notes — a writing trick I learned from Vicki Tolar Burton that I also use now for reading.

The holding pen is basically a place to put all of those questions and thoughts I don’t want to lose, but which will keep me from reading to the end of the article (or writing this paragraph or section) in the time I have if I don’t put them somewhere –

This might explain that theme we pulled out of the interviews, but I can’t remember exactly what she said. Argh, didn’t that Juarez paper I read last year dealt with this trait. Hey, Laurie’d be interested in this to help turn that one project into a paper idea. Oh, maybe that term will work better in PsycINFO. OMG that’s a good example to use in class. Wait, no, I don’t think that’s what she was really arguing in that book. Ooh, that methodology might work for me with the other study.

Basically, I’ve been doing this a long time – learning in classes, in workshops, from books and texts, in lectures and presentations. I’ve had decades at this point to figure out how to make learning work for me, and while there’s always more to learn, I need you to trust me that I know what I’m doing, and to remember that for some of us, engagement looks a little different.

it is too much, let me sum up

There was a little flurry of conversation in my social networks about Mark Bauerlein’s recent offering on the Brainstorm blog (at the Chronicle), and i just realized that it was almost all in the rhet/comp corners of those networks – so in case library friends haven’t seen it – it’s worth looking at:

All Summary, No Critical Thinking 

Pull Quote:

From now on, my syllabus will require no research papers, no analytical tasks, no thesis, no argument, no conclusion.  No critical thinking and no higher-order thinking skills.  Instead, the semester will run up 14 two-page summaries (plus the homework exercises).

Students will read the great books and assignments will ask them to summarize designated parts.

A soft description of the conversations I saw would be “skeptical.” There were those who thought this was an April Fool’s joke, until they noticed the byline.  I think it reads like an effort to solve a problem that’s not really about summary, but about reading.  I italicize “think” there, because I don’t really get the summary idea – it seems to me that people who only engage enough with argumentative writing to cherry-pick quotes from source texts will be just as able to create “summaries” that don’t reflect any more than a superficial understanding of those source texts.

Michael Faris pointed out Alex Reid’s excellent response, which does a much better job of problematizing the summary than I could:

The Role of Summary in Composition (digital digs)

I believe we misidentify the challenges of first-year composition when we focus on student lack and specifically on the lack of “skills.” Our challenge is to take students who do not believe they are writers (despite all the writing they do outside school), who do not value writing, who do not believe they have the capacity to succeed as writers, and who simply wish to get done with this course and give them a path to developing a lasting writing practice that will extend beyond the end of the semester.

Isn’t that a great, um, summary of why writing teaching matters?

Can we substitute “researchers” for “writers” here?  I kind of like the resulting statement, but it makes me uncomfortable as well, because – can we do, are we doing that with our current models?

doodling as pedagogy

ResearchBlogging.org

This one has been all over the news in the last two days, but if you haven’t seen it, it’s an Early View article in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology. The article suggests that people who doodle while they are listening to stuff retain more of what they hear than non-doodlers do.

As an unabashed doodler, for me it’s usually fancy typography-like versions of my dog’s name, this isn’t all that surprising. But my brain keeps going back to it — should we be figuring out ways to encourage our students to doodle in library sessions?

See, the article doesn’t say definitively why the doodling works.  But the author, Jackie Andrade, does suggest that it might have something to do with keeping the brain engaged just enough to prevent daydreaming, but not enough to be truly distracting:

A more specific hypothesis is that doodling aids concentration by reducing daydreaming, in situations where daydreaming might be more detrimental to perfomance than doodling itself.

So you’ve got an information literacy session in the library, with a librarian-teacher you have no relationship at all, about a topic about which you may or may not think you need instruction.  That sounds like a perfect situation for daydreaming.

And it’s not too hard to think of ways to encourage doodling.  Handouts with screenshots of the stuff you’re talking about – encourage them to draw on the handouts.  Maybe even provide pencils?  I don’t know – it’s not an idea where I’ve fully figured out the execution, but I’m interested.

My students, most of the time, don’t take notes while I’m talking.  Part of this is my style, I talk fast and I don’t talk for very long in any one stretch before switching to hands-on.  But I don’t think that’s all of it – most of them don’t even take out note-taking materials unless they are told to do so by their professor (and then they ALL do) or unless I say “you should make a note of this” (then most of them do).   And this isn’t something I’ve worried about.  I have course pages they can look at if they need to return to something, and I’m confident that most of them know how to get help after the fact if they need it.

But the no-notetaking thing means that they aren’t even in a position to do any doodling.  And as someone who needs that constant hands/part of the brain occupation to stay focused, I wonder why I’ve never thought about that as a problem before.

This study specifically tried to make sure that the subjects were prone to boredom.  They had them do this task right after they had just finished another colleagues experiment, thinking that would increase the chance that they would be bored.  And they gave them a boring task – monitoring a voice message.  Half doodled, half did not, and then they were tested on their recall of the voice message.

I don’t mean to suggest that information literacy sessions are inherently boring; I don’t actually think they are.  But I think some of the conditions for boredom are there, particularly in the one-shot setting, and I don’t think there’s stuff that we can do about all of those conditions.  Some of them are inherent.  The idea of using the brain research that’s out there to figure out some strategies for dealing with that interests me a lot.

——————–
Jackie Andrade (2009). What does doodling do? Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.1561

words that mean pretty

This blog will never die.  It will never die because of this post.  Written in, I think, in about 15 minutes this post was just a quick thing to share a new tool that I was (and still am) really excited about.  And I’m not the only one.

So I never expected that this post would have more legs than any other post I’ve ever made – it doesn’t have the highest hit count, but of all of the posts on this blog it is the tortoise-est one.  Every day it picks up one or two or three views.

Unfortunately, those views come from people who are looking for something else.  Well, I shouldn’t say “unfortunately.”  I suspect a decent number of those people have never seen Wordle, and think it’s pretty cool.  So it’s cool by extension that they see that post here.  But they come here looking for (and this is almost always the exact wording of the search, it’s weird) – “words that mean pretty.” So, they want synonyms for the word pretty.  I’m thinking that they know what pretty means, and that they want some other words that mean that same thing.

So there are a couple of information literacy issues here, right?  The first, and probably most obvious, is that entering keywords into a search engine is not the best way to answer this particular question.  There are better tools out there.

Information Literacy issue #1

Using Google, the Wordle post comes up #8 on the result list for the words that mean pretty search right now.  So I assume that this is where most of the hits are coming from.  It doesn’t appear on Yahoo  (though there is a result about “how do I increase my dog’s understanding of words” which I find really intriguing).  Anyway, sometimes it’s a little higher on the Google list, sometimes a little lower.  Always on the first page.  The reason why people click on it is clear – most of the other results are obviously not relevant.  We have:

#1 – this one seems like it might be relevant, but it is actually a dictionary page for the word perhaps, not the word pretty.

#2 – this is a Yelp San Francisco query looking for non-english words that mean pretty.

#3-5 are random blog posts that use phrases like ‘words fail me” coupled with “pretty boring,” or “pretty words mean nothing.”

#6 is a link to the lyrics to Dirty Pretty Words.

#7 – we finally get a result that might work.  It’s a WikiAnswers question that just says -  “words that have pretty much the same meaning.”  But the description says “other words for pretty, same meaning as pretty” and so forth.  But when you click through to the page, you don’t see those questions. Instead, you find out that the initial question was looking for a definition of the word “synonym.”  Still, asking the question on WikiAnswers would probably work.

And then my post at #8.  Not that I really have to convince anyone who reads this blog that a search engine isn’t the place to find synonyms and antonyms.  So the first information literacy issue is a tool issue – there are things called thesauri and they can be really useful!  Check them out.

Information Literacy issue the second

Which connects to the more subtle information literacy issue here.  Which goes beyond how search engines aren’t a great starting point when you’re trying to find or generate synonyms – to finding and generating synonyms is a pretty fundamental part of effective keyword searching in search engines.  If you understand how keyword searching works, you know that the search  words that mean pretty will bring back anything with the disconnected terms words, mean and pretty. Which as the result list above indicates, is a whole lot of stuff you’re not interested in, including a random blog post about Wordle.   So when you get that result list, if you know how keyword searching works, you can troubleshoot that search and say “hey, I think I need a more specific term to get at the concept words that mean.”  If you’re really savvy at that point you might get the word “synonyms” from the WikiAnswers result and re-search using the terms synonyms and pretty.  That search works – you get result after result listing other words that mean the same thing as “pretty” does.

But here’s the thing – a lot of people don’t know how keyword searching works, in search engines or elsewhere.  Or they maybe kind of know, but they don’t really think about it.  And they don’t know how to troubleshoot that first failed search, or to find synonyms that will work better.  So I went looking – what would work better?  Because, as it happens, I’m working on a new keyword assignment – that I started talking about a few days ago, and that Sara talked about here – for beginning composition that will try to get at some of these issues about keywords and how they connect to critical reading, writing, thinking, as well as searching.

So, if you are wondering where you can find some information about other words that mean pretty – check these out:

Lexipedia: Where Words Have Meaning:  This one is interesting – it is based on the WordNet project at Princeton, and it creates, fairly quickly, cool webs of related words –  synonyms, antonyms,  fuzzynyms and more.   The webs are color coded so that you can glance at them and know that synonyms are olive green and antonyms are dark red.   The site looks a little bit messy, and it is hard to find.  While it has the domain “lexipedia.com” – a search on “lexipedia” brings back a lot of references to another project, about Wikipedia and handhelds.  Still, this one works pretty fast, provides a lot of terms that might be useful, and I like the glanceability of it.

Similar to this is Visuwords – an online graphical dictionary.  This one is prettier, but the resulting display isn’t as complete, and I’m not sure as a tool for finding additional terms and synonyms it would be more useful

And for the more textually oriented, there’s Definr, that also uses the WordNet project data.  Interestingly, it’s main selling point seems to be speed.  And it does define words really, really fast.  Not surprisingly, given the source data, it also provides some synonyms and related terms.

Both definr and lexipedia are user interfaces on top of the data generated by WordNet at Princeton.  This project, which groups words into “sets of cognitive synonyms” has about a million related projects listed on its website.  And the idea of cognitive synonyms is interesting, right?  For thinking about connecting terms to concepts and troubleshooting searches?

And now, as a bonus librarian answer – according to the OED, the first definition of the word pretty (adj.) is “cunning,” “crafty” (originally), and “clever,” “skillful” or “able” (later).  It was first used in this way in 1450.  “Aesthetically pleasing” is the second meaning, and it was first used this way about 10 years earlier.

“Sitting pretty” dates back to 1915, in Lincoln, Nebraska and “pretty please” dates back to 1891.

fancy search everywhere

Not quite on the heels of why I don’t like Ebsco’s new visual search, parts one and two, there are suddenly all kinds of different ways to search for news and information to try. I’ll admit, I don’t totally get any of these yet. I’ve barely played with them, which is part of the reason for that. I think that they’re not fully ready to be gotten yet, though as well.

What’s interesting to me is this common thread running through all of these attempts — the idea that people searching want to see how their results connect to each other. They want to see connections and context. I think this is true, and I think that it’s something we have a hard time doing when we research, especially keyword-research, online. I’m liking the trend, though I’m still a little unclear on the execution to date.

First, from Google Labs

Google Experimental Search. If you have a Google account, and you choose to “join” this experiment, you get some additional options for your results. (A note – all of these images are to screenshots. You have to be logged in and part of the experimental search to see what I’m seeing)

search results page

At the top, you can choose to look at these results in info view, timeline view or map view.

The “info view” seems to be about refining your results. You can choose to focus on a particular location, or a particular period in time. Here’s the WGA strike search, refined by “Vancouver.”

screenshot

I’m not sure exactly what the cool factor is with the timeline refining feature – it seems to pull out results about a particular time, not so much results that were from a particular time. So things like Wikipedia articles, which include lots and lots of dates tend to appear pretty high on those results, no matter which timeframe you try to limit to. I appreciate the concept behind these options, but really, I didn’t find nearly as much to play with as I did in the next two options, at least not yet.

Silobreaker

Next, we have Silobreaker. From the site:

More than a news aggregator, Silobreaker provides relevance by looking at the data it finds like a person does. It recognises people, companies, topics, places and keywords; understands how they relate to each other in the news flow, and puts them in context for the user.

As you can probably imagine, the idea that it’s looking at things just like a person would is a little bit suspect. And from what I can see, it does better recognizing fairly concrete things like people and places than more abstract concepts or (especially) keywords that can mean more than one thing.

The default search is called the 360 search and it brings back a big bunch of different ways of looking at results. At the top is the expected list of articles and other resources, with things like photographs and YouTube videos in the right-hand sidebar. Below the fold, you’ll find the additional options:

screenshot from below the fold

On the right, you can choose to look at a network view of your results, or a “hotspot” map. You can also choose to just do your initial search in any of these views.

Of these, I found the network view to be the most fun. It was really more fun for me to see the people and places that Silobreaker included in the network than it was for me to drill down to the articles and webpages associated with those people and places, but I can see where this would be valuable for certain searches. There’s also the “trends” view at the bottom, but I haven’t figured out why that’s cool yet. I don’t think I’ve been doing the right kinds of searches.

TextMap

Finally, TextMap. From the site:

s a search engine for entities: the important (and not so important)people, places, and things in the news. Our news analysis system automatically identifies and monitors these entities, and identifies meaningful relationships between them.

Time and place are some factors TextMap uses to contextualize results, but its main point of organization is the “entity.” Do a search, and your results come back listed by “entities” – which can be people, places, companies and more. From the main TextMap page, you can also browse by predefined entities. Click on an entity – and your results come back clustered around that entity.

(And at this point, the word “entity” has started to look really weird to me)

screenshot of different visualizations -

Like Silobuster, TextMap’s options include a network view and a heatmap view. There is also a “reference time” view and juxtapositions between your entity and others.

There’s some awkwardness and “not quite getting it” pieces to all of these options for me. Part of this, of course, is from the fact that I just haven’t played with them very much. Part of it is probably that the underlying metadata won’t really support the types of visualizations they’re trying to provide well enough – or that the sites they’re drawing data from are uneven in their metadata, so the existence of the metadata is skewing what you see in the results. Still, the idea that the user needs and wants to see the contextualization, and the relationships between the information sources they’re using, is exciting.

Why I don’t like Ebsco’s visual search interface, part 2 of 2

(Go here for part 1)

Because it isn’t any fun.

The old interface, with the circles and the squares, let you zip around and zoom in on an idea and then when that didn’t work, zoom out on the idea and try something new. I know that for some people, it didn’t work. For some people it was slow, and jerked around. And I get that. But for us, in our classrooms and on the computers in the Commons, it was fast, and kind of fun.

Here’s the column view of the new interface.

There’s a little bit of zipping around to be done there, but really, it’s just not as cool. It’s too hierarchical – it gives the sense that there is just one direction to explore – from the narrow to the broad and back again.

I was teaching a class a while ago and before we got started I was listening in on the small talk in the room and this one guy said to another one, “dude, I spent a couple of hours last night on Wikipedia so I didn’t get my math done.” That kind of blew me away. I mean, Wikipedia. It’s almost all text, with limited graphics. It’s written in boring, neutral encyclopedia style (at least it’s supposed to be), at least I think it’s safe to say that it’s not the prose sucking people in. And on top of it all it’s only mostly right (a description lifted almost verbatim from one of Jessamyn West’s talks).

But for all that, we all know it can be a bit of a time-suck. I think it’s the hyperlinks and the flattened browse that it facilitates that does it.

Here’s a visualization of the linked structure.

You go in, you click some links, and pretty soon you’re looking at a list of everything that happened on October 18. You’re not necessarily drilling down in a traditional sense, though you can do that, but you’re bouncing around a lateral plane of topics — and checking out connections you might not have even considered yourself. If it wasn’t fun, you wouldn’t do it. If it wasn’t easy, you wouldn’t do it. But it’s both.

Now, the old visual search was hierarchical too, and most librarians I know didn’t really like to use it themselves in part because they didn’t like the categories that the database generated for subtopics. But it didn’t feel hierarchical in the same way. To use it, you didn’t have to go back up and down the hierarchy – you could jump from one subtopic to the other and explore it non-hierarchically within a topic, even if you couldn’t jump from topic to topic easily.

Here’s the other view of the new interface – the blocks.

This one seems more active and fun to watch, but you don’t feel like you’re controlling the movement. It’s not intuitive (at least not to me). I’m moving around between topics, which are still hierarchically arranged, and I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m not controlling my browsing, not controlling the display, in the same way.

So why do I care if it’s fun or not? Well, because I want to encourage students to take the time to explore topics broadly before they make up their minds. I want them to put themselves in a position to find some new things out about their topic before they start to write. I mostly work with first- and second- year students doing cross-disciplinary gen ed type work. They do a lot of current events or similar type topics for their papers. They frequently have some idea of what they’re going to write about and what they’re going to argue, and it’s very tempting in a 10 week term to just jump in and gather together the kinds of articles that will support their preconceived idea of a thesis. I totally get that. I mean, seriously, I’ve done it.

But we know that deep learning is supported by authentic discovery. And because of Carol Kuhlthau, we know that taking the time to explore supports focus formation – the most important part of a research process that supports learning. And we know that when we ask students to explore before making up their minds about what they’re going to write we’re asking them to open themselves up to anxiety and uncertainty. We’re asking them to explore broadly, to consider sources and ideas they might not use when they are facing deadlines and anxious that they won’t figure out what they want to write about in time. And beyond this, we’re asking them to open themselves up to the possibility that they’re going to encounter some new idea that will force them to rethink some of their beliefs. This is scary stuff.

So – I say, let’s build them tools that make exploration fun. Wikipedia does this, and we encourage all of our beginning composition students to use it in this way. Ebsco’s visual search used to do it too.

Let me say one thing at the top – I am decidedly not saying “these kids today with their video games and their cell phones, everything has to be fun or they can’t learn.” I don’t believe that’s true, and my chapter in this book uses a lot of words to say why I don’t think that’s true. I’m not saying that the graphics alone made the Ebsco visual search fun.

No, I’m talking about the ways that learning, just plain old learning, not tricked out or dressed up as anything else, is fun. Remember what it was like when you were a little kid? When you’d check out books on bugs or the pioneers or maps from the library just because you were interested in bugs or the pioneers or maps?

When you’re a little kid you’re adding facts, and you’re learning about things for the first time, and that’s fun. And it’s more complex cognitively than we thought, and even little kids have to be willing to let go their preconceptions to learn, but learning then for a lot of us felt simple and easy. Then you get older and you start learning about harder stuff, and you start re-learning stuff. And for some of us, that leads to the little thrill you get when you read something or hear something or see some result in the lab that suggests everything you used to know about a topic was wrong and that what you’ve just learn will have a ripple effect – it’s going to make you think about things in an entirely new way.

I think this is one of the gaps that tends to crop up between those of us in academia on purpose as teachers and researchers and our students — our students don’t come to us with the idea that research and learning is supposed to make you rethink what you know, and that you’re supposed to engage in a process of constructing new knowledge. How College Affects Students reminds us that most people get to college just when they’re beginning to reach the developmental stage that lets them see knowledge itself as something constructed, not revealed.

I think this is crucial for us in libraries, and especially for those of us interested in information literacy to remember. What we do gives our students the tools and the understanding they need to find the information they need to build new knowledge and meaning for themselves. And when they come to us, most of them aren’t even thinking about knowledge in that way.

I think a lot of people who go on to get Ph.D’s can think back and point to formative experiences where they first realized how much fun research and learning and scholarship could be. Some of us have had that thrill for so long that we forget it’s entirely new to our students. And that it’s scary. And that it’s not that they want to be closed minded or that they’re refusing to learn – but that what we’re asking them to do is scary.

So that’s a really long way away from Ebsco’s visual search. Alone, did the little boxes and circles lead to seismic shifts in our students’ epistemological understanding? Of course not. But it was fun, and now it’s not. And the basis for authentic discovery is exploration. It’s looking at stuff that might be new to you, with an open enough mind that those new ideas might affect you. And anything we can do to encourage students to take that time, to explore, to learn, is well worth it. The visual search is less fun now, and I think it will be less useful for my students because of that.