why I still take notes

We have reached the point in the semester where my students are about to begin taking notes for their semester projects. I require a research project in both my history survey and the upper division class I teach in cultural and intellectual history. Note taking is hard and I get a lot of resistance to it. The research culture is changing generally and people like to “clip” what they need from the Internet or make photocopies of their sources or use post-it notes to mark the pages in a book that are relevant. Then, when they are ready to write, they spread their sources around them and try to figure out what belongs and what doesn’t.
Here’s why I don’t think that’s a good idea for a historian:
Taking notes makes writing easier: When I write history, I must, at some point, engage intellectually with the material I am studying. I have to do that hard work sometime and doing it as I take notes instead of while I am writing transforms the act of writing. It makes writing seem more like pouring water and less like chopping ice with a butter knife.
Side note about how I take notes so you can understand why something that sounds harder actually makes life easier: As a precursor to writing, I develop research questions and then take notes to answer those questions. That’s what research really is, isn’t it? It’s answering a big question and maybe a bunch of little ones that lead me to my big question. And, if I have a series of questions, and I answer them in my notes, I have gathered all my relevant evidence into one place. It is in the act of writing notes that I answer questions, and in answering my questions, I am engaging in the act of thinking.
One of my note cards from my book. I’ve condensed the
research question into keywords: How did evangelical
counselors view secular psychology?
Once I answer all of my smaller research questions and review my notes—my evidence—I am able to see the relationship between all the smaller questions I asked and how those questions are, in turn, related to and answer my big question.
Here’s where we get to the part about why note taking makes writing history easier: It is indeed possible to answer research questions without taking notes, but I argue that it is a lot harder primarily because it merges two distinct tasks: research (answering questions) and writing (interpreting the answers to my questions). Without notes, it is harder to step back and get a sense of my research as whole.  Trying to answer my research questions and write my own interpretation of that evidence simultaneously is tough. And it can cause a really severe case of writer’s block.
Besides making writing easier, taking notes makes writing better. Frankly, it’s easier to make mistakes when I don’t take notes. In the heat of writing maybe I forget where I got that important quote or I don’t write down the page number or my words merge with the words of the author of the book I am reading and I miss that because I’m working so hard to get it all down. It’s just too easy to slip into plagiarizing without realizing it. It’s easy in those circumstance, too, to play fast and loose with the evidence—to read carelessly or to misinterpret in a way that favors my own interpretation.

I take my job as a historian and scholar seriously and it’s my job to be as honest and true to the evidence as I can be. Most historians are not postmodern. Most of us still believe that any legitimate claim or interpretation must be supported by evidence. And in a world where a lot of people think they can say anything without offering a shred of evidence—just because it’s their opinion and they’re entitled to it—that’s an important contribution and good reason to take notes for a research project.


About Susan Myers-Shirk

Professor of cultural and intellectual history
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