The Reading & Note-taking Process

Reading and Note-taking is an ongoing process I ponder and re-ponder constantly. I recently spoke to my colleague Shakina Rajendram about the difficulty in finding a good system for managing our readings, our notes, our references for our research work.

I have been feeling overwhelmed and disconnected from my readings, despite having read many things over the years, I just can’T seem to get a hold of the information I need when I need it. So I have worked out a new system that has assuaged my anxieties somewhat. Basically, I organize my notes into General and PhD. General is anything and everything interesting that I come across, that friends send me, that profs recommend, readings from courses, readings that have to do with side-projects I’m working on…. They are usually tangentially related to my PhD work, but I reserve the PhD notes only for things that will go in the Thesis proper.

I try to think of my reading and note-taking process as a kind of funnelling of ideas towards appropriate areas. Reading one text one day, may lead to a certain train of thought, based on what I am thinking of or paying attention to that day. A few weeks or months later, reading the text again, I may pick up entirely new ideas from it. So there is lots of overlap involved in the reading and thinking process. I think being comfortable with my General areas of interest is important for me before I can start funnelling towards the PhD.

Contextualizing the readings is important too. I used to dump all my pdfs, out of context in one giant folder because I didn’t like stashing them away into thematic folders where I would forget about them. But grouping pdfs by themes, searches, dates is really helpful to contextualize the ideas you are reading and remember them better. For this, I have decided to categorize my NOTES rather than the PDFs, although I do sort my pdfs by type: Articles, Books, Book Chapters, Book Reviews, Reports, Weblogs, Theses, etc. While the pdfs are sorted by type, I sort my notes based on how I read.

Flow Chart of Note-taking and Reading process. The boxes represent folders.

Thinking of the most common ways I approach readings, I sussed out 3 main methods: by Journals, by Themes, and by Authors. I read the pdfs that has been placed in a temporary folder (the same one as my notes - they shouldn’t be in there, so it means I haven’t read them yet), take notes and move the pdf to the general folder where they are organized by type (Article, Book, Reports, etc.). All that remains in my notes folder are then Notes, organized by Journal, Theme or Author. I may revisit the same pdf a few times when conducting the readings according to one of these categories. For instance, I might read a paper by Bonnie Norton on identity and SLA and take notes on what ideas she contributes to the notion of identity in SLA research and how it contrasts to other researchers who discuss identity (by Theme). I may also revisit that same article when I go through all the papers written by Bonnie Norton over her career, situating her work within the genesis of her career (by Author). I may visit that same paper a third time, if I come across it in one of the journals I regularly read, this time contextualizing it with the other research that was published at the time (by Journal).

My notes end up looking like long annotated bibliographies. I always put the full citation of a paper in bold, and all the ideas I extract from it with page numbers and quotation marks, and my reactions/questions and comments underneath. It’s probably not necessary to read and organize notes this way over your whole career as a researcher, but for me in this initial years, and trying to figure out what is what and who is who, this is very helpful. Once I start to remember what’s been done by whom, and why that mattered, I know I’m on the right track, getting comfortable with an area.

This process is really part of getting a deeper connection with my field of interest. Although, I should say, I don’t read all the texts the same way and for the same amount of time. I use different reading strategies to save time — that will have to be another post.

*When doing readings by Journal:

This helps me get a feel for the dialogue that is happening within a particular journal, who is getting published, what key words are trending, the style of the journal. Put into relief with other journals, it gives me a broader sense of the field.

Process:

Set up .pages (or .word) document with references from journal. Read through abstract, or article quickly and make notes on pertinent ones in the .pages file. If the notes apply to some other area, copy those notes and reference in the Thematic notes .pages file. or Author notes .pages file.

These are all annotated bibliographies around a Theme, Journal or Author.

Add references of articles skimmed or read, with abstract, in Endnote generously, you never know what you might need to search for later in Endnote… For simplicity’s sake, I only add the reference, the abstract and keywords to Endnote. Not the pdf files. Download pdfs of articles that seem very pertinent and put them in the Articles folder. Any any relevant notes to the Theme or Author notes.

*When doing readings by Theme:

This I employ frequently when I get the urge to go hunting for readings. Perhaps a very exciting article has made sparks fly and I want to go down the references rabbit hole to learn more about a specific topic. This is helpful to see what are some of the major works cited in a given area, and who are the big names tackling this topic. This is probably the messiest of the 3 searches, but also the most fun.

Process:

Set up .pages document with references in alphabetical order. If it’s purely a thematic search, date and label the file. Create an annotated bibliography of articles found. Create a temporary folder labeled for theme of articles downloaded to skim through.

Go through the folder of articles shortly after search, take notes in annotated bibliography if deemed pertinent. Add pdfs to Articles folder and references, with abstract, to Endnote.

*When doing readings by Author:

This is when I want to get a sense of a given authors’ work over their career. What major ideas have they contributed to the field, when and how did they formulate them. How have they changed as an author and a thinker over their career as well. Sometimes, I can link it back to the Journal reads and try to see if there was a shift in the zeitgeist that led to any changes. It helps me to link the person to the ideas to understand more holistically where they are coming from and what their passions are in research. It also helps to see their style if it is someone I admire and think about how I might carve my own path out in my work.

Process:

Set up .pages document with references in chronological order. Create an annotated bibliography of articles, books, book chapters and reports found. Create a temporary folder with all the works downloaded from that author.

Go through the readings and take notes in annotated bibliography methodically. Add pdfs in Articles/Books/ Book Chapters folder, and references in Endnote.

*BONUS: When going through recommended or unsorted readings:

Inevitably, there will be some strays that come across your desktop. What to do with them? Where to put them? These can often turn out to be gems of insight that launch you into whole new adventures so they should be managed carefully. I also like to make a point of reading things that people send me (as much as possible!) because if someone has taken the time to send me something, it's probably for a reason! And it's an opportunity to connect with that person intellectually.

Process:

Determine whether the article is being sorted by Theme, Journal or Author. Add reference to appropriate annotated bibliography. Copy those notes to any other relevant annotated bibliography.

Move pdf to Articles/Books/Book Chapters/Reports folder, add reference to Endnote.

Reasoning:

This may seem like a very complicated process, but I want to be familiar with every pdf on my computer. I have become more frugal with pdfs after lugging thousands around for years with out ever getting around to reading them properly. This is where Endnote comes in to help me. I want to have all the references of the readings I have glanced over, whether I have taken notes or not in my Endnote. This will help me when I have to search for a topic, theme and I want to review what I have already read.

I don’t need to have the pdf for every article I read, in fact I may delete a lot after I’ve read/skimmed them. But I should have notes if it seems important, and the reference should be in my Endnote. It creates a kind of pyramid of information I can sift through and come back on easily. In particular, the notes I take in the long annotated bibliographies can be copied and pasted and reorganized into shorter annotated bibliographies when I want to be tailor a more specific bibliography about a topic.

Overall Process: Create a folder in my Notes folder to temporarily place all the downloaded pdfs into. Read through the folder, make notes and move the relevant PDFs to the Folder by Type: Articles/Book/Book Chapter/Reports folder once it has been recorded in the notes document.

Add reference to Endnote.

PDFs in the Notes folder have not been read yet.

PDFs in the Articles/Books/Book Chapter/Reports folders have been read or annotated.

This whole process requires that I schedule regular time slots to do searches, sort info into difference folders or software (e.g., EndNote), and give myself time to read and interact with the texts meaningfully. It’s definitely a challenge, but I consider this to be part of the doctoral life regiment - when else am I going to have the time to do all these readings! It gets easier over time because the field is not infinite. Once you have the bases covered, it becomes a matter of keeping up with the new research mostly. That will be another in a few years I hope!

You must have your own system, questions, challenges. How do you deal with your readings and note-taking? There are probably issues I haven't thought of!

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