Sunday, January 5, 2014

Best Practice for Tagging Academic Notes

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by Allan Johnson, Impact of Social Sciences:

Allan Johnson is Assistant Professor in English Literature at the City University of Hong Kong.

His teaching and research interests centre broadly around twentieth-century British literature, critical/cultural studies, design/media, and literary influence.

In conjunction with our post earlier today on using Evernote for knowledge mobilization, Allan Johnson provides some useful guidance on establishing an efficient tagging workflow to make the most out of online note-taking and project management. 

In practice, tagging can become an extremely helpful way to get to the information you need and to spot previously unrecognised relationships between ideas.

Since I have set some time aside this week to take stock and review my plans for the coming year, I wanted to share one of the things that keeps my note-taking organized and ultimately helps to support my work as an academic: a clear, consistent tagging system that I use everywhere I can.

The academic life is a chaotic mixture of teaching, research, service, knowledge transfer, partnerships, publicity, and planning, so it has been important for me to find a way to seamlessly blend these strands.

To this end, every piece of information that I put into Evernote or Things immediately gets these types of tags (I use the hashtag to denote a type of tag–these don’t actually form part of the tag itself):

Context > #Output > #Topic > #X-Ref

Because I use this same tagging system in both my task manager (Things) and my note taking software (Evernote), it is incredibly easy to cross-reference details or to find the information that I need.

Before I explain how these tags function within Evernote and Things, here’s a quick summary of each: 


You’ll notice that ‘Context’ doesn’t have a hashtag before it - that’s because this is a notebook (in Evernote) or a project (in Things). There is a common tendency to create individual notebooks or projects for every course, meeting, idea, or brainstorm.

This is fine at first, but the number of notebooks will quickly get out of hand, relegating the most important notes to the background and making digital note taking less effective. Instead, I have just six Contexts that I use at the moment, and which cover the full scope of my academic work:
  • ‘Hollinghurst’ - Alan Hollinghurst was the topic of my doctoral thesis, a project which has led to a number of  conference papers, journal articles, and a book. Understandably, I have quite a few notes on this topic, and there is still some more in the coming year.
  • ‘Absence’ - The key focus of my current research is the idea of negative space in twentieth-century literature. There are loads of notes for conference papers, articles, and knowledge transfer partnerships here.
  • ‘eReading’ - A secondary focus in my research is the effects of digital books on comprehension and analysis. As time progresses, this will overtake #Absence as the dominate research theme.
  • ‘AcademicPractice’ - My blog has its own notebook (this is partly because my blog is going to be expanding dramatically in the coming year, owing to some new partnerships and developments).
  • ‘Teaching’ - All of my teaching notes, regardless of the course, fall under this Context.

Context is the primary bucket that each note or task gets sorted into. Pretty straightforward. But the real magic begins when the remaining tags are put into place. The first tag category I use is #Output. There are four tags that I use here:
  • #Lecture - This includes note taking and any relevant materials for lectures.
  • #Seminar - This includes note taking for seminar preparation or teaching strategies in general.
  • #Conference - This includes note taking for conference papers.
  • #Publication - This includes note taking for publication.

So, there are five ‘Context’ buckets and four #Output tags. Drawing on my rusty math, that means that these tagging conventions have already created 70 unique and meaningful locations for my information.

Only at this point do the tags become a bit more free and lose. For the #Topic, I include a simple tag addressing the topic of the note.

Since I work primarily on literature, the #Topic is often the author’s name (e.g. Shakespeare, James, Woolf), although sometimes it is thematic (e.g. modernism, architecture).


Although my tagging conventions are set up to show key themes and trends connecting all notes, I still instinctively include at least one cross-referencing tag.

For example, my notes for a lecture on Mrs. Dalloway that goes into great detail about domestic architecture might also get the #X-Ref of ‘architecture’.

I use Evernote for all of my note taking and Things as my task manager - across both of these I use the same tagging system so I always know where to find the information I need.

In practice, this becomes an extremely helpful way to get to what I need, and to spot relationships between ideas that I hadn’t previously considered. For example, earlier today I was writing a lecture on Shakespeare’s use of language for an introductory course on the Bard.

My notes got these tags:
Teaching > Lecture > Shakespeare > Language
Rather than being hidden away in some notebook that I might never look at after this semester, these notes now carry tags that will help me long into the future.

Because notes can only be in one notebook yet can have a wide variety of tags, it really is an invaluable investment of time to tag each note with #Output > #Topic > #X-Ref.

When these tagging conventions are used in a task manager like Things, one is able to sort tasks in a variety of ways. Want to see what lectures you need to prepare for?  Just select ‘Lecture’.

Want to double-check the progress of a research-led course on Henry James? Just select ‘James’ to bring up all of the research and teaching tasks related to the Master.

I’ve used these conventions for some time, and have rarely needed to include more than these tags to bring some sense and order to my research and teaching. These few extra seconds it takes to throw in specific, contextual tags really is worth it in the long run.

What kind of tagging conventions do you use in your note taking? What other tips do you have for combining the various strands of the academic profession? I’d love to hear!

This originally appeared on Allan Johnson’s personal blog The Art of Academic Practice and is reposted with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. 

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