Annotated Pivoting with Hypothesis during Covid by Christine MoskellChristine Moskell (Hypothesis | OLC Innovate 2020 | YouTube)

Kicking off OLC Innovate 2020, Hypothesis held two free workshop sessions on collaborative annotation with members of AnnotatED. The sessions each started with a "Getting on the same page" introduction from Jeremy Dean of Hypotheses, followed by "Notes from the field", where a variety of AnnotatED community members talked about what's happening with collaborative annotation at their schools and participants had the chance to discuss ideas and questions with these experienced practitioners.

In this clip Christine Moskell, Instructional Designer at Colgate University, shares examples of how instructors used Hypothesis during the Covid pivot. 

Christine Moskell talks about a professor’s final exam design prompting students to go back to annotations and add new commentary (or links to other related knowledge) that they’ve gained during the length of a course.

This is very similar to the sort of sensemaking and interlinking of information that Sönke Ahrens outlines in his book How to Take Smart Notes though his broader note taking thesis goes a few additional steps for more broadly synthesizing ideas into longer papers, articles, theses, and books.

Dr. Moskell also outlined a similar tactic at the Hypothesis Social Learning Summit: Spotlight on Social Reading & Social Annotation earlier today, though that video may not be accessible for a bit.

How can we better center and model these educational practices in our pedagogies?

Zettelkasten Overreach

The zettelkasten is just that, it isn’t a calendar, a rolodex, a to do list or a hammer, saw, or even a jackhammer.

The basic zettelkasten note taking method is very simple and clear cut as originally described by Konrad Gessner in Pandectarum sive Partitionum Universalium (Zurich: Christoph Froschauer. Fol. 19-20, 1548) to Sönke Ahrens’s book How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. Just a handful of bullet points can outline the elegance and simplicity of the system. This dramatic simplicity leads to some tremendous value and complexity.

However, in modern use as seen online since roughly 2018 on, the idea and the digital tools surrounding it, has seen some severe mission creep. Zettlekasten has moved to the fad stage and we’re “zettlecasting” everything under the sun. While it can be used as a productivity tool specifically for writing, some are adapting and using it (and tools built for it) for productivity use writ-large. This includes project management or GTD (Getting Things Done) functions. Some are using it as a wiki, digital garden, or personal knowledge management system for aggregating ideas and cross linking them over time. Others are using it as a journal or diary with scheduling and calendaring functions tacked on. Still others are using it to collect facts and force the system to do spaced repetition. These additional functionalities can be great and even incredibly useful, but they’re going far beyond the purpose-fit functionality of what a zettelkasten system was originally designed to do.

Ahrens highlights the zettelkasten method as being simply and specifically designed to do its particular workflow well—no more, no less. He cleverly analogizes slip boxes to their larger box cousins, the shipping container, and the way that that they revolutionized the shipping industry.

In hindsight, we know why they failed: The ship owners tried to integrate the container into their usual way of working without changing the infrastructure and their routines. They tried to benefit from the obvious simplicity of loading containers onto ships without letting go of what they were used to.

Following this analogy, many people are currently trying to not only revolutionize shipping, but sourcing, manufacturing, distribution, and marketing as well. While this may be interesting and the digital tools might accommodate some of these functions, are they really custom built from start to finish to really excel at these functionalities? Can they really do all of them at once? While some may come close and do well enough, the added complexity and overreach of all these functionalities may be diluting the base power of what the zettelkasten is capable.

People conflate the idea of note taking and the zettelkasten with tools like Obsidian, Logseq, and Roam Research. This is not necessarily a good thing. If they expect it to do everything and it’s not capable of that or well designed to do what they expect, they’re more likely to get confused, frustrated, and eventually give up. I’ve seen it happening more and more.

As an example, in a book club related to Ahrens’ text in which many highly educated and talented people have been using these tools and have even previously read the book, many are still far too confused about what these tools are and the value that can come from them.

For those who are just coming to the idea of a zettelkasten, I recommend you limit yourselves to just that basic functionality. Don’t muddy the waters with other productivity functions, to do lists, journals, diaries, kitchen sinks, or the latest wiz-bang plugin. Don’t throw in buzz words like GTD and MOC. Stick to the simplest script for a few months and focus on finely honing a small handful of questions and ideas each day from your reading to see what happens. Write, link, repeat. Don’t get caught up in the collector’s fallacy by keeping and saving every single fleeting note (thought) you’ve got (or if you must, put them into a folder off to the side). Focus on the core idea.

Once you’ve got that part down and it’s working for you, then consider adding on those other functionalities. Experiment with them; see what works. But don’t be surprised if those other portions aren’t the magic bullet that is going to revolutionize your life. We’re likely to need new tools, functionality, and a system built from start to finish, to make those other things a useful reality.

Featured image: zettelkasten flickr photo by x28x28de shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

I’m excited to join Dan Allosso‘s book club on How to Take Smart Notes as a means of turning my active reading, annotating, and note taking into papers, articles and books using Obsidian.md and Hypothes.is

Details: 

cc: Ian O’Byrne, Remi Kalir

Replied to How to remember more of what you read by Aaron DavisAaron Davis (Read Write Collect)
Across a series of posts (1,2,3), Steve Brophy explains his use of Roam Research and the Zettelkasten methodology to develop a deeper dialogue with what he reads. This is broken up into three steps, the initial capturing of ‘fleeting notes‘, rewriting the text in our own words as ‘Literature N...
Some useful looking links here. Thanks Aaron.

I’ve been digging deeper and deeper into some of the topics and sub-topics.

The biggest problem I’ve seen thus far is a lot of wanna-be experts and influencers (especially within the Roam Research space) touching on the very surface of problem. I’ve seen more interesting and serious people within the Obsidian community sharing their personal practices and finding pieces of that useful.

The second issue may be that different things work somewhat differently for different people, none of whom are using the same tools or even general systems. Not all of them have the same end goals either. Part of the key is finding something useful that works for you or modifying something slowly over time to get it to work for you.

At the end of the day your website holds the true answer: read, write, respond (along with the implied “repeat” at the end).

One of the best and most thorough prescriptions I’ve seen is Sönke Ahrens’ book which he’s written after several years of using and researching a few particular systems.

I’ve been finding some useful tidbits from my own experience and research into the history of note taking and commonplace book traditions. The memory portion intrigues me a lot as well as I’ve done quite a lot of research into historical methods of mnemonics and memory traditions. Naturally the ancient Greeks had most of this all down within the topic of rhetoric, but culturally we seem to have unbundled and lost a lot of our own traditions with changes in our educational system over time.