This semester I am doing an independent study with one of my graduate students that focuses on the practical, nuts and bolts aspects of research and being an academic. This week’s topic is note taking and, in particular, the zettelkasten method.

zettelkasten traditionally relies on note cards

Photo by plindberg

Why Talk About Zettelkasten Method?

The topic might seem too mundane or basic. It certainly falls into that category of topics that don’t get talked about openly in graduate school. I think we often assume that everyone just knows these basic skills. But I have found that is often not the case, sometimes even for fellow faculty members!

In my own case, I learned note taking for research initially in high school. First, in my English and history classes, we were taught to use the old school notecard method. Second, on the debate team, we used a very similar method, but one that relied on cutting quotes from sources, pasting them onto paper, and then re-cutting and re-pasting into our cases and other arguments as needed. I followed this process all through my undergraduate years with great success.

But then, when I got into graduate school, for some unknown reason I got it into my head that “real scholars” must do something differently. There must be something more to research and note taking than source briefs, annotations, notecards, quotes, etc. As it turns out, there isn’t. The old methods not only still work, but they really are the best, in my estimation. While I no longer use paper and physical notecards, I do follow the same principles in electronic form, primarily using Evernote.Below I have pasted a list of resources that I provided my student for this week. We start with some more theoretical musings on the importance of note taking from Niklas Luhmann and C. Wright Mills. Then we have some more practical pieces about implementation of these ideas from Umberto Eco, Christian Tiezte, and Dan Sheffler. I’m posting these here in case someone will find them useful.

The Theoretical Stuff on Note Taking & Zettelkasten

Communicating with Slip Boxes by Niklas Luhmann

Luhmann on Learning How to Read

C. Wright Mills, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship,” from The Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press. 1960.

The How-To Stuff on Note Taking & Zettelkasten

Chapter 4, “The Work Plan and the Index Cards” in Umberto Eco, How to Write a Thesis.

Posts from the Zettelkasten blog:

Posts from Dan Sheffler’s blog:

And for extra fun, you can go and Google the term “commonplace book.” It’s a very similar idea that is also well worth reading about.

Photo by plindberg