Friday, June 21, 2013

Blogging to My PhD: Meta-Post (How the #*%& Do I Study for This Thing?!)

When I take notes on a book or in a seminar, I'm pretty good at capturing both the main ideas and my own supplemental thoughts. Most of the time, I don't even need to go back over the notes. Simply having written them down puts them in my mind in a way that lets me build on them. My notes are often detailed and sometimes physically complex (as in, there will be little symbols written next to them or stuff jotted in the margins or arrows connecting ideas to one another or different colored ink for different levels of thought).

When I started taking notes for this exam, I just picked up one of the books and got going.

I'm now several books in, and I realize that I've weaved myself a very tangled web.

Deadly Web
I'm supposed to be the spider, but I'm growing increasingly
suspicious that I'm actually the fly in this metaphor. 
I use (and love) X-Mind (which is free!) to take notes on most things that I know I'll be writing about later, so it seemed like the best thing to use for this exam. In some ways, it's working really well. I am able to type direct quotes that I want to be able to use later, give summaries to chapters and whole texts and color code them, and use symbols to denote particular themes that I can look at later. This is basically the same method I use when working on a seminar paper, and it is usually fairly effective. 

But I am usually taking notes at that level of detail on four or five books for a seminar paper. For this exam, I am working on eighty. I'm not particularly strong in math, but that's a lot more. 

It is, I've decided, too much to try to handle with my usual methods, so it's time for some innovation. I can't even screen shot the entire thing in one screen when it's zoomed out as far as it will go and I've only read fifteen books so far

Aw. That's not so bad, but what happens if I expand to see all the notes . . .


I am definitely the fly. 

In the past, I would use the little symbols to mark things with themes that I wanted to be able to find later and then just skim the page to find the symbol I needed when I was looking for a particular quote or idea. 

But this is just too big of a map to have to skim every single time I want to find something. 

I may have accidentally stumbled upon a solution though. While I was typing some notes on Augustine, without even realizing it, I typed "#pathos" at the end of a sentence. Yes, my social media discourse habits leaked into my notes and I was hashtagging on auto-pilot. 

At first I laughed at myself, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. If I turn each of those little symbols into a hashtag instead, the entire text of the document will be searchable. I can then type in whatever hashtag I want and have it highlight every section that's marked that way. I won't have to scan the whole thing every time I need to find a quote, and I can make new hashtags more easily than I can make new symbols because I can use multiple tags with varying levels of complexity and interaction. 

I can't say for sure yet, but I think that my social media addictions may actually be helping me become a better processor of complex information. (I know, I know, the internet is making us all stupid, but give me this moment of excitement, please). 

How do you handle keeping track of lots of data that you plan to use over a long period of time? Any magic tricks I should know about? Also, has there ever been a time when a skill you learned in one place turned out to be surprisingly useful somewhere else? 

Photo: Gerald Yuvallos

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