Did I really write all of those notes?

It’s been thirty-four days since my exams. It takes about a month to clear my head after the intensity of the effort. I didn’t touch or think about this year’s study materials for the entire month.  As I started to put away my year’s work I thought about the comments posted in response to last week’s blog.  How are we to produce first class essays in the three short hours allotted at exam time?  I imagine a triangle with ‘Reading’ assigned to one corner, ‘Notes’ to the second corner and ‘Essays’ to the third. Tug one corner and you alter the other two; change one aspect of study and maybe some unexpected results occur in the other two aspects.  As I review three years of notes and materials that I’ve produced some interesting relationships and patterns emerge.

This review has given me some interesting perspectives on the evolution of my study habits and their effectiveness. The sheer volume of notes is staggering. Did I really write all of those notes? Are they of any real use to me? Did they contribute to my success at exam time?  I now have three years of notes. An interesting pattern has emerged. The common thread to real learning is multiple readings of primary texts and my original writing. Both have increased over time.

My notes from twelve Renaissance comedies fill six very large binders. Only a few pages are in something like essay form. I read the texts one time albeit very slowly. When I read the essay – like pages I recognize material I was able to incorporate successfully into the exams. I also have seven four-inch binders dedicated to Explorations in Literature 1.  About twenty pages are essays. They aren’t really essays at all; only elaborate answers to study guide questions on several texts.  I read these primary texts more and could write about them more easily.

This year I read nine primary texts at least three times each. The 2010 notes are all summaries of my original ideas about them. My notes on secondary texts are also summaries and are cross referenced with the primary texts. Everything is written in essay form. While revising for the Approaches to Text exam I found a twenty page essay on Post Colonial theory that I could not even believe I wrote. It was so thorough and complete I thought I forgot to cite the author. It was written on texts I read repeatedly over the past three years. This very different preparation made it possible to the exams with precious minutes to spare instead of with the buzzer.

Tugging the ‘Reading’ corner of my triangle over the past two years changed ‘Notes’ and ‘Essays’ almost without realizing it happened.  This is the year to tug the ‘Notes’ and ‘Essay’ corners of my triangle. I’m sure it will affect how I read. Ideally I want my notes to extract arguments and my writing to construct them.  It isn’t easy; but just because something isn’t easy doesn’t mean we’re not good at it.

2 thoughts on “Did I really write all of those notes?

  1. Wow! A twenty page essay for Approaches to Text and seven four-inch folders dedicated solely to Explorations 1 – that really is a preternatural, and admirable, effort. However, I cannot help but wonder, like you youself did, if all those notes were necessary, and if a twenty page essay perhaps veered off course on occasion. I am faced with those very two modules in this my first year of studying, and what you describe seems like an impossible amount of work for me to achieve. I suppose it boils down to “different strokes for different folks”. Anyway, you definitely deserve credit for your hard work. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Hi Grant, Thanks for the comments. I hope you enjoy your course this year.

    “Different Strokes” is very important. And also the insight that our methods change over time. I didn’t set out to fill those binders. Following some really great note taking advice in ‘The Good Study Guide’ and ‘Writing About Literature’ by Joyce MacAllister helped me develop a note taking style. I did not work this way in 2009/10. Thanks to all the 2008/09 work in those binders writing about character, theme, structure, etc became easier for me so note taking changed. For me, that note taking process was an important stage because I summarized the texts into my own words. Everybody approaches things differently. For me there is no substitute for writing.

    As for the ’20 pages’, this is the kind of work I intend to produce this year in several research papers on specific topics. This first ’20 pages’ was an in-depth look at characterization in The Merchant of Venice and The Jew of Malta. For me, looking in depth is now most appealing. It was fun and interesting work that I look forward to repeating this term. Of course on different topics. I found a ‘research paper’ focus on a narrow topic was actually the quickest way to get the most information out of the texts.

    Good luck with Explorations 1!- Catherine

    P.S. The MacAllister text contains student essays covering things like character and theme. She also sets out exercises to develop ideas on these topics. It was hugely helpful.


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