C and Other Notes

Sometimes we can be grateful and baffled at the same time by articles we read about education. A good example is one sent me by a friend, an invaluable conduit of research and a thinker about teaching whose letters and conversation go beyond thought-clichés. This article includes a review of three studies comparing students according to the technology of note-taking they used. “In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.” The authors of the studies offered an explanation: since longhand can’t keep up with the professor’s words the way keyboarding can, longhand note-takers are ‘forced to process, condense, and use their own words’. All this real-time thinking done in the heat of the moment becomes memorable as well as effective.

This discussion took me back to university, and in particular to the classroom of Professor ‘C Minus’ Schilling, the superb but exigent teacher of a course on American foreign policy. I had developed a technique of note-taking by which I would try to discern the controlling ideas and the underlying outline while taking notes, marking the outline points with the ‘Romans’ and ‘Arabics’ of the old-fashioned outline form as the lecture proceeded or later that day.  In the margin I would make quick judgments of what was in the main body: an exclamation point marked a good item, while a star marked something of central importance. Question marks identified puzzles or dark matter. Statements of questionable value got the mark of ‘BS’.

I had neither an eidetic memory nor the power of instant synthesis, so these notes helped, particularly in C Minus’s class, where my and my classmates’ pens would smoke across the page as his lectures proceeded. Did this real-time ‘processing’ that we did while taking longhand notes help us to comprehend and remember what C Minus said? It is hard not to think so; hence my smile of recognition as I read these findings.

But I wasn’t smiling at another part of the article. You would think that research verifying the value of longhand notes would yield only one conclusion—but no, our author went in an unexpected direction. Instead of promoting individual note-taking in longhand, she promotes ‘designated note-takers’ to type for the rest of the class in turn, posting notes on a class web page.

The ostensible benefit is that each student thereby has his notes scrutinized by the teacher and learns thereby to do better. There is some merit in that claim, but not as much as in the practice we used to call ‘comparing notes’. In the case of C Minus’s class, a bunch of us would go over our material from time to time, editing in light of our discussions and anchoring our insights in conversation. Contrast this and the ethos of having the material ‘just a click away’ and you will understand where the problem lies.

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While preparing this posting I Googled C Minus’s name and was saddened to learn that he had died in 2013 after a 59-year career at my university. Students who braved his severe marking to take his course were nearly uniform in praising it as a highlight of their undergraduate studies. Students who visited his office after receiving one of his low grades on the midterm came away convinced that, yes, they deserved the mark they got and resolved to do better on the final exam. I was prouder of the B+ I got from him than of many of the A’s I received from other professors.

His unique style of lecturing included remarkable and sometimes hilarious ‘enactments’. I remember especially his imitation of a MIRV-missile attack. He had the curious habit of reinforcing his points by drawing series of parallel line segments on the blackboard. By the end of the lecture the board would look like one of Jasper Johns’ line pictures (do a Google image search of Jasper Johns Lines). I eventually realized that he would start a new doodle when he shifted to a new argument or main point and could use the doodles to help organize my notes.

One day a classmate asserted that the Spanish-American War was promoted by American business interests in general for their profit. He said, ‘That’s an interesting thesis, Madam, but there is not a shred of evidence to support it.’ I looked at a classmate of mine, and we both started ducking as we wrote, like ‘Milton’s Daughters Taking Dictation’ by Romney. The panzer cannon let off its first BOOM, and then for the next twenty minutes C Minus shot the thesis to rubble.

We all knew that he was destroying the thesis and not our classmate, who was not kept by the experience from asserting other ‘theses’ later in the course. On the last day of class he ended early with the unexpected announcement that he ‘objects in principle to students’ conducting evaluations of their professors.’ He then said, ‘For all I know, you will find the packet on my table of interest’ and left the classroom. One of us went up to inspect it, and it turned out to be forms for the students’ ‘course evaluation guide’. We filled it the forms in, ignoring C Minus’s last word of the term, and one of us took the forms to the Guide. When it came out at the end of the year, C Minus ended up with the strongest overall rating in the department.

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