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2.2 Taking Notes in Class

Okay, you are in the classroom, you've got the proper attitude, your instructor seems eager and energetic and you're ready to learn. Your instructor starts talking about the diffusion and popularization of science in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. You listen to the first few words and then you begin to take notes. Copious notes. At the end of 90 minutes you have literally re-written the lecture. Your hand is sweaty from the constant writing and you've filled up seven pages of your notebook. But one thing is missing. You forgot to listen to the lecture.

This is a common problem not only in history classes but in all classes. You are so afraid that you might miss something "important" that your tendency is to write everything down. I know this for a fact. We all do because we have all committed this error at one time or another. I realize it's easy for me to say this, but it is much better to listen to the lecture carefully and record only those things that were genuinely important. Fine. Just how is this done?

[1] If your instructor has assigned reading for that particular day, make sure you have read it. The reading assignment is there because your professor plans to discuss that topic on that particular day. If you have read the assignment, and perhaps even taken notes on your reading, then the lecture is going to make that much more sense. And instead of listening to your professor covering unknown territory, you will already have an idea of the subject, thus making listening to the topic a bit more enjoyable and in the long run, more worthwhile.

[2] Since your professor will undoubtedly give you some type of exam on the material--whether essay or objective--be sure to determine which points of the lectures are given more weight than others. Some instructors will come right out and say something like "This is important." Others will not. In the last analysis, you have to read between the lines to determine the importance of those points being made during a lecture. Of course, a conscientious professor will hand out an outline so that you can, at a glance, grasp the meaning of the entire lecture.

Because so much of your understanding of history depends upon interpretation, you have to be able to differentiate your interpretation from your professor's and from the assigned reading. In my own classes I stress individual interpretation. That is because (with the exception of lower division courses, like Western Civilization), I always assign essay questions on exams, exams which are more often than not, completed at home rather than in class. However, if you are confronted with an essay question which demands an interpretation, realize that you must be knowledgeable of many interpretations and not just your own, or your professor's. Of course, some professors will demand that you parrot back only information that they themselves have given you. While I regard this as most facile, you should make every effort to "read" the desires of your instructor.

[3] It goes without saying that your notes should be written legibly. I wouldn't suggest re-writing your notes after every class but sometimes this will help you understand and recollect the material better. Organize your notes into brief sections. Do not write everything out in paragraph form. If you do, you will find your notes nearly impossible to understand when exam time rolls around. Use arrows, stars, asterisks and other notational devices to highlight things that seem really important. If there are some things you wrote down which were not adequately explained then you have to bring them to the attention of your instructor. If he's worth anything, he will explain them to you. As a rule, if there is ANYTHING you don't understand, bring it up during the next class section. If not, you will be doing yourself, and everyone else in the class, a great injustice.

I can't tell you how many times I've lectured about one topic or another only to find that one or more students were confused about something fundamental to the entire argument at hand. Why didn't they raise their hands? This is education, you know. They are afraid. I know that because I was once there myself. You have to raise your hand and ask away. Embarrassed as it makes me feel, it was quite late in my academic studies that I finally understood the meaning of the expression, "the end/means justifies the means/end." So today, when I teach, I stop every so often and ask whether everyone understands the word "hegemony" or "ideology" or "aphorism" or the concept of a renaissance. And if you find yourself attending a class where the terminology escapes you, it is your responsibility to bring this to your instructor's attention. Unless you make your difficulties known, there's a good chance your instructor will never know. So, raise your hand and ask your question!

[4] Always record the title and date of the lecture since your instructor may refer to it in the future. This is good organizational practice as well. Make sure the notes follow the order in which the professor conducted the lecture. After all, your notes will later serve as a basis for reviewing when studying for a test or writing assignment. Feel free to revise your notes at some point after the lecture, usually the same day. You may even want to get into the habit of underlining or highlighting topical headings or defined words or ideas. And speaking of definitions, it's also a good idea to keep a glossary of frequently used names, ideas, and words in your notebook for future reference. You'd be surprised at how helpful this becomes later down the road.

For instance, in my Twentieth Century Europe class I announced on the first day that all students should write the word modernism at the top of a sheet of paper and every time they read or hear or think about something that has to do with modernism, they should write it down. Since the first six weeks of the class are about modernism, and they will be writing an essay on modernism, such an exercise seems necessary.

In another class, A History of European Socialism, I demanded that while my students were reading a number of works by Marx and Engels, they ought also to keep a running Glossary. Since Marx and Engels use so many words and expressions (ie., proletariat, ideology, means of production, ruling ideas, capital, etc.) that are unique to themselves and their historical period, students will become lost unless they have a common vocabulary from which to obtain their ideas and valuations.

In fact, a glossary of important words, events, ideas, and people would be an aid even to the best of students. Why settle for less when you are easily capable of more?

[5] If your professor has a film scheduled that does not mean it is an excuse to sleep or to not pay attention or to not show up at all. The film is there for a purpose. I assign several films in many of my courses and they always end up as integral parts of the course as a whole, otherwise I would never have included them. Every paper topic I assign asks the student to consider a specific film as well as lectures and readings. Should you take notes? Well, the only way you can take any notes is if you know beforehand why in fact your instructor has decided to show you the film in the first place. So, you should ask your professor if he does not tell you.

I routinely show Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" and "Dr. Strangelove," Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," Chaplin's "Modern Times" and Lucas' "THX-1138." A film, like a novel, can be "read" on several different levels. The task for you as a viewer is to determine how this or that film might fit into the topic under discussion. Again, if your professor doesn't tell you, ask!

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