Monday, April 09, 2007

Conferencing: part the second

I take fairly good notes at conferences--I was a superlative note-taker in college, if that's something to pride oneself on--and over the years I've wound up with pages and pages of notes recording the authors, titles, and main arguments of just about every paper I've ever heard. I jot down the names of seemingly useful books, underline things, and draw little arrows to the stuff that seems really important. (I also write nasty comments to myself when I think the speaker is an idiot--but I always try to remind myself of WHY the speaker is an idiot, so there's some record for posterity; even when I'm a bitch, see, I'm a conscientious one.)

The problem is, when I get home, I staple all those pages of notes together, clip them to the conference program, and put them in a file folder (usually labled by year: "Conferences 2006," "Conferences 2007"). . . and then I never look at them again.

I always assume that my memory will be jogged at the right moment--say, on that day ten years in the future when for some reason I'm struck with a burning desire to teach Donne's "Anniversaries," or write on Timon of Athens--but I'm beginning to suspect that this is untrue. Now, when the information that I receive is immediately useful to a current project, I usually have no trouble remembering it; I go home and put a sticky note on my desk, or add a title to my working bibliography, or whatever. But when the information is only possibly useful? At some point in the unknown future? It disappears into a black hole.

Maybe I need to cut up those notes so that they go into topical folders ("Misc. Shakespeare," say) that I might actually have a reason to refer to in the future. Or maybe I need to stop being such a nerd about note-taking.

But I don't know. How do people use conference notes? Do they, in fact, use them? And does anyone ever remember anything s/he doesn't write down?

10 comments:

anthony grafton said...

One way to do this is to shlepp your laptop along, take notes on it and file and crossfile them with your other research notes. I don't do this all the time--but I find that when I do, I actually remember to retrieve and use the notes. A big help in later years, as memory fails.

Dr. Mon said...

I rarely take notes at conferences. When I do, they are usually directly connected to something I'm working on at the moment so that I have motivation to look at them when I get home. But that may change now that I'm out of graduate school and can go to conferences to listen instead of worrying about "professional" stuff.

dhawhee said...

I'm so glad you posted this; I feel the same way about notes I take at any sort of talk, really. (Except job talks, where the notes form the basis of my evaluative response.)

I think there's something to be said for the bodily experience of note-taking. Perhaps because we were good at this as students, it reminds us that we're engaging with a certain style, note-taking helps us to track lines of argument as the talk goes. (It's very hard for me to keep a talk in my head, esp. the kind that the speaker reads.) As a result of notetaking, we might have something to say in a post-panel conversation or we might be able to offer more pointed questions. IOW, I think the usefulness is more fleeting than not.

But (or So,) I really rarely keep track of notes--don't even file them, though I do think keeping track is a good idea in case one needs to recall details from a talk, or a scholar's name, down the road.

Hieronimo said...

I agree with dhawhee: note-taking is definitely a practice that helps with listening. I take notes at talks and at conferences--though not too many--but then I usually throw them out at the end of the conference, unless there's something that I need to follow up on for my own work. Then I put that on my To Do list. Still, plenty gets away from me and I find myself wondering what that book was that I knew I should have read...

(PS My word verification was "dadinxnw"--could they make them a bit shorter?)

adjunct whore said...

i bring a notebook with me and take notes as ideas, speakers, arguments, references speak to what i'm working on or some larger theoretical thread that interests me. when i get home, i re-read them and circle the pieces that i may use or follow-up on in my current work. otherwise, they stay in the same notebook without context, forever. i do periodically pick up these notebooks and peruse to see if i forgot something important. sometimes i locate that something, often, i don't.

Inkhorn said...

This is something I've worried about for a while. I think dhawhee is right that writing things down can assist memory -- there's got to be some Renaissance art of memory or something like that that says basically that, right? Somewhere? But I also think there's another side to this, which is that obsessive writing down of everything actually impairs the capacity to get the fundamental, and most important, points. I've recently witnessed someone literally transcribing a whole 40-minute talk, feverishly, into a notebook. I'd love to see this person's place: it must be a vault of notebooks and notebooks and notebooks. Someone else in fact told me they had seen the same person apparently actually taking notes on their *own* comments, which is spectacular. Anyway, I think there's an academic impulse to record, preserve, and document everything, which may finally run counter to the real spirit of the whole enterprise.

Inkhorn said...

(I mean, by the way, really actually writing the whole talk down word for word, not taking notes on the main point: you'd have to see the person I have in mind: it was a perfect case of "some by stenography": a complete transcription).

StyleyGeek said...

I do the same as you wrt notes at conferences. But I do one further step which hopefully means I will find my conf notes if and when they become relevant to my research (which has happened once or twice and my system has worked.)

When I get home, I enter the talk titles and details into my bibliographic database, with a note on where the notes are ("grey filing cabinet, binder ALS conf 2005" for example), and with keyword tags.

It helps that I keep one enormous database of everything I have ever read/heard (bibtex is good for that), and that I am generally consistent with keywords. It makes everything wonderfully searchable. I'm dreading the thought that one day I might reach some sort of limit on filesize (I have over 1500 entries in my bib file so far), but hopefully that's a long way off yet.

Flavia said...

Good advice here, as always--maybe in one of my summertime fits of organization (read: procrastination) I'll go through those folders and see if anything leaps out at me.

I do think that DHawhee is right about the way that taking notes inspires more active listening--and given that I myself am an extremely visual person and often have a hard time processing information aurally, that's probably an argument right there for continuing with the practice.

And Inkhorn: it sounds to me as though someone's mother, despairing of her sweet boy or girl ever getting an academic job, helpfully paid for a secretarial class or two.

undine said...

I have tried taking a laptop into sessions but was worried that it distracted others and stopped.

Otherwise, my conference note-taking system sounds just like yours: take careful notes, label them, and then have them decorate the interior of a filing cabinet forever more.