Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Justice Breyer on "Fresh Air"

He's currently promoting his new book, Making Our Democracy Work. The half-hour segment can be found here; you can download an mp3 version for listening on the go.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

More on note-taking geekery

Couple of days ago I rambled about how to take notes (here). Now, what about all the geeky (and not-so-geeky) tools that are available to take notes? There is tons of stuff available for $$ and for free, but which tools are most useful?

Let's start with some criteria to evaluate the tools: First, I don't want to pay much for them. I can buy a paper-based notepad or notebook for little money, so I don't want to pay more for computer-based tools. Second, tagging is important. I want to mark information with keywords, tags, or the like, so that I can retrieve the info I need without reading through stacks of notes on all kinds of topics. Third, I want to synchronize my notes across computers. I use three computers in different locations – work, home, mobile. While synchronizing through flash drives is always possible, it's easier to do so online. Fourth, the possibility collaboration is a plus if you take notes in class – notes typically improve if they are the work of several brains. Fifth, I want to write about tools that I've actually tried. If you have further suggestions, please use the comments.

I haven't found the perfect tool yet, but there are several that I think fit the bill for most of the requirements that I listed:


The classic tools for any collaborative writing are wikis. While the super-geeks can try to host Wikipedia-style wikis on their own servers (and I have no clue how to do this), there are several wiki services available for which you don't have to pay. I have worked with Wetpaint and PBWorks in the past, and I found both easy to set up and use. Both types of wikis allow tagging. Access to the wikis can be restricted, if you do not want to give the whole world access to your notes. Wetpaint and PbWiki use ads to finance themselves, but they both have programs for ad-free educational wikis. (And if you're bothered by ads, there is also always Adblock.) One downside of wikis is that all your notes are online; if you don't have a network connection, you're out of luck.

There are more wikis out there. You can find a useful comparison at WikiMatrix.

Google docs

While Google docs is not a note-taking application per se, it can be used for this purpose, and it satisfies almost all I want from a note-taking application. It is free, you can share documents (and collaborate on them) with other google users, and the documents are online and thus accessible whenever you are online (so synchronization is a given). There are no tags, but there are folders, and you can put documents in several folders - in other words, the folders function precisely as tags. The downside is that one has to be online to use Google docs. As with wikis, if you don't have access to the internet, of if the network is down, you're out of luck.


If you don't want to collaborate with other notetakers but you work with several computers, Evernote is a great choice: You can install Evernote as a freestanding program on your computer and take notes even when you are not connected to the intertubes, but you can also use Evernote online in your browser. Synchronization is a breeze, you can tag notes, you can email notes to your Evernote account, complete with folder and tag definitions, and if you are on the go, you can also send yourself a note by SMS. (I often forget ideas or appointments that I do not immediately write down; sending myself a note takes care of the problem.)

The main downside of Evernote is that full collaboration is not possible: You can publish your notes, but you cannot easily work with others on them. This doesn't matter so much for me, since most of the notes that I take are not collaborative, but if you want to work with others on classnotes, this is a dealbreaker.

What tools do I currently use myself? I still use pen and paper a lot, particularly when I am not sure whether I am going to take notes beforehand. Paper is light to carry, it's noiseless to use, and cheap. For things I want to remember and file away, I use Evernote. It's easy to use, easy to synchronize across computers, and I have copies of the notes on my harddrive (I figure if Evernote goes under – it's a fairly new company, and you never know – I won't lose my notes). For occasions when I have to collaborate with others, I like PbWiki. And as a super-geeky lightweight (though completely offline) toy to play with, I have Vim with Viki on my slowish xubuntu netbook – perfect for some quick writing that I can easily find afterwards.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Prezi on the research process

Just created a prezi presentation for my Political Science Research Methods class. I like that this presentation format allows the viewer to look at the big picture and then zoom into more detailed points. Last term, several of my methods students complaint that they lost track of the bigger picture - they weren't clear on where did the specific methods and steps of the research process that they learned in class fit in. I think I will use this prezi slide repeatedly, possibly adding more detail, to remind students of how what they do fits into the overall course plan. Any suggestions on how to improve the presentation are welcome!

Take a look and let me know what you think.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Notes on notes

The beginning of a new academic year (a week later than usual at JMU this year) is a good opportunity to take a look at some useful note-taking and scheduling tools. I do enjoy the occasional new geeky toy; playing with it adds some extra motivation to doing the work I need to do.

Obviously, before deciding on a tool to use, we should first consider what we use it for.

I find that many students do not know how to take notes and why. OK, you take them for exams, but the filtering step between information intake and exam use seems to be pretty blurry. For class notes, for example, many students simply copy whatever comes up on powerpoint slides or black/white boards, and nothing else. Others try to copy every thing an instructor says.

I find it useful to think of class notes using business meeting minutes as a model, in part because this connects class-room work with skills that are needed in the "real world," and because I think that the mindset of "others are going to use my work" helps improve the clarity of one's notes. For good minutes, we have to listen carefully and critically and identify the points that everybody involved should remember. Obviously, this includes the action items (what do we have to do by which deadline?), but not only. Since meeting minutes are typically one or two typed pages long, it's really important to focus on the main points and main arguments of the (class) meeting. Add enough detail to understand the main arguments, but not more.

The good thing about thinking about class notes as meeting minutes is that a meeting is not usually like a lecture (although you get too many boring PowerPoint presentations out there). You typically have several people speaking up, asking questions, discussing questions, and the minutes have to include the main points and conclusions of these more free-wheeling exchanges as well. Just as in a class meeting: Often, I find that the most important points come out of conversations between class participants, not from my lecture notes. (And I also find that students stop taking notes in non-lecture classes...)

But how to use such meeting-minutes-as-class-notes to study for exams? After all, they include the main points, leaving out a lot of detail that may show up on the exam. The solution to this problem is to use the notes to identify what questions are important, and then use the readings and one's own (and one's fellow students') memory to identify all the details that "belong" to the main questions. Great way to memorize stuff, by the way!

You can find a good summary of how to write business meeting minutes from (a website run by SMART Technologies, a company that specializes in presentation technology). The Dartmouth Academic Skills Center has a great page on Taking Lecture and Class Notes, which includes detailed handouts not only on note-taking but also on how to listen (and how not to listen). If you are in a hurry, you can check out this Lifehacker post on the Cornell note-taking method.

So what about the promised tools to take notes? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

This year's Washington Monthly college ratings...

...are out. You can find them at, with a number of thought-provoking articles on college education. The ratings focus on graduation rates (expected, based on the student population, and actual) and service to society provided by students and alumni, besides research. I find the graduation rate focus interesting, as it looks at educational outcomes instead of inputs (as in SAT scores and the like). But graduation is only one outcome; the quality of learning that (hopefully) comes with graduation is not assessed.

JMU does pretty well in the ratings for Master's-level universities (28th out of more than 500 nationally). On top of the U.S. News ranking of JMU as 3rd-ranking public regional university in the South, that's more good news! Way to go!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Listen to the proms!

The Beeb lets you listen to (and watch some of) the Proms concerts online for seven days after their broadcast. Check out if you have time. (Listening to an amazing performance of Shostakovich's first violin concert, I noticed that the iplayer's volume goes up to a spinal tappish 11. Nice.)