Tuesday, November 22, 2011

reading and taking notes

When you have to write an essay, the recommended SOP (standard operating procedure) is that you brainstorm first, outline next, then write a series of drafts. My feeling is that, if you're reading and you need to understand the material, you can work the process backward and try reverse-engineering an outline. This technique is especially good if you're reading something completely uninteresting: the creation of an outline is an analytical process; by creating an outline based on the reading material, you're forcing yourself to break the material down into parts and organize those parts correctly.

Let me show you two examples of this technique. The first example will be the more straightforward one: we'll be outlining text of an obviously academic nature. The second example, however, will come from a work of fiction, and will demonstrate that narratives, too, can be rendered in outline form.

FIRST PASSAGE (from SparkNotes, here):

The Italian Renaissance followed on the heels of the Middle Ages, and was spawned by the birth of the philosophy of humanism, which emphasized the importance of individual achievement in a wide range of fields. The early humanists, such as writer Francesco Petrarch, studied the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans for inspiration and ideology, mixing the philosophies of Plato and other ancient thinkers with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Under the influence of the humanists, literature and the arts climbed to new levels of importance.

Though it eventually spread through Europe, the Renaissance began in the great city-states of Italy. Italian merchants and political officials supported and commissioned the great artists of the day, thus the products of the Renaissance grew up inside their walls. The most powerful city-states were Florence, The Papal States (centered in Rome), Venice, and Milan. Each of these states grew up with its own distinctive character, very much due to the different forms of government that presided over each. Florence, considered the birthplace of the Renaissance, grew powerful as a wool-trading post, and remained powerful throughout the Renaissance due to the leadership of the Medici family, who maintained the city's financial strength and were intelligent and generous patrons of the arts. The Pope, who had the responsibility of running the Catholic Church as well, ruled Rome. As the power of the northern city-states grew, the Papacy increasingly became the seat of an international politician rather than a spiritual leader, and many pontiffs fell prey to the vices of corruption and nepotism that often accompanied a position of such power. Nevertheless, Rome, the victim of a decline that had destroyed the ancient city during the Middle Ages, flourished once again under papal leadership during the Renaissance. Venice and Milan also grew wealthy and powerful, playing large roles in Italian politics and attracting many artists and writers to their gilded streets. Venice was ruled by oligarchy in the hands of its Great Council of noble families, and Milan by a strong monarchy that produced a line of powerful dukes.

Perhaps the most prominent feature of the Renaissance was the furthering of the arts, and the advancement of new techniques and styles. During the early Renaissance, painters such as Giotto, and sculptors such as Ghiberti experimented with techniques to better portray perspective. Their methods were rapidly perfected and built upon by other artists of the early Renaissance such as Botticelli and Donatello. However, the apex of artistic talent and production came later, during what is known as the High Renaissance, in the form of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michaelangelo, who remain the best known artists of the Renaissance. The Renaissance also saw the invention of printing in Europe and the rise of literature as an important aspect in everyday life. The Italian writers Boccaccio, Pico, and Niccolo Machiavelli were able to distribute their works much more easily and cheaply because of the rise of the printed book.

Alas, the Italian Renaissance could not last forever, and beginning in 1494 with the French invasion of Italian land Italy was plagued by the presence of foreign powers vying for pieces of the Italian peninsula. Finally, in 1527, foreign occupation climaxed with the sack of Rome and the Renaissance collapsed under the domination of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. The economic restrictions placed on the Italian states by Charles V, combined with the censorship the Catholic Church undertook in response to the rising Reformation movement ensured that the spirit of the Renaissance was crushed, and Italy ceased to be the cradle of artistic, intellectual, and economic prosperity.

The Italian Renaissance isn't the most exciting topic for most American high schoolers (and at a guess, it's probably not that exciting for Italian high schoolers, either), so let's do this as quickly and as systematically as possible.

First, I see there are four paragraphs, so these will be our I, II, III, and IV. Outlines shouldn't be essays: every part of the outline should be succinct, containing only the very essence of the information that's relevant for study. Students will be delighted to know that they should avoid complete sentences when taking notes or outlining. Personally, I encourage students to rely on whatever shorthand works best for them to get the job done... even if that means relying on (gack! barf!) online-style English.

Here's the skeleton:

Italian Renaissance = IR

I. IR's origins

II. IR's spread: where & how

III. IR's prominent features

IV. IR's decline

Textbook-style prose makes it easy to figure out how to write your outline: the people who wrote the information were probably using outlines to begin with!

With the skeleton in place, it's time to flesh out the outline by hunting down and listing main ideas.

I. IR's origins
    A. followed Middle Ages
    B. arose from humanism
    C. ascension of lit and arts

II. IR's spread: where & how
    A. began in Ital. city-states
    B. cities that were major centers
    C. papacy's role

III. IR's prominent features
    A. furthering of arts
    B. advancement of new techniques & styles

IV. IR's decline
    A. French invasion (1494)
    B. sack of Rome (1527-- foreign powers?)
    C. Charles V's final nails in coffin of IR

The final bit of fleshing-out means the addition of meaningful, relevant details:

I. IR's origins
    A. followed Middle Ages
    B. arose from humanism
        1. humanism emphasized indiv. achievmt.
        2. early humanists (e.g. Petrarch) studied Gk.& Rom. classics
            for inspiratn. & ideology
        3. classical ideas were mixed w/Catholic thought
    C. ascension of lit and arts

II. IR's spread: where & how
    A. began in Ital. city-states
        1. merchants & politicians supported & commissioned great artists
        2. "products" of IR "grew up" inside city-states
    B. cities that were major centers
        1. Florence
            a. birthplace of IR
            b. was wool-trading post
            c. remained powerful thanks to Medici family (big art patrons)
        2. Papal States
            a. centered in Rome; Pope ruled
            b. papacy gained power, became seat of intl. politics; corruption, nepotism
            c. Rome flourished under papal leadership
        3. Venice & Milan
            a. grew wealthy & powerful
            b. attracted many artists & writers
            c. wielded great political influence
            d. Venice = oligarchy, noble families
            e. Milan = monarchy, powerful dukes

NB: For Section II above, did you see that I changed the outline slightly to reflect the information I had gleaned upon rereading?

III. IR's prominent features
    A. furthering of arts
        1. refinement of technique of perspective (painter Giotto, sculptor Ghiberti)
        2. followed by those who built upon their work
            a. Botticelli
            b. Donatello
        3. High Renaissance = apex of talent & production
            a. Leonardo da Vinci
            b. Raphael
            c. Michelangelo
    B. advancement of new techniques & styles
        1. invention of printing in Europe
        2. rise of lit's importance in everyday life
        3. easy distrib. of works of Boccaccio, Pico, Machiavelli

IV. IR's decline
    A. French invasion (1494)
    B. sack of Rome (1527-- foreign powers?)
    C. Charles V's final nails in coffin of IR
        1. econ. restrictions of Charles V
        2. censorship by Catholic Church in response to Protestant Reformation

The above outline takes a bit of work to make properly, and it requires you to sweep through the text several times in order to put everything in its proper place. But the effort is worth it, because you'll have looked over the text several times, and will have had to decide where, exactly, the various details should be tucked into your outline. The outline itself, once made, can now serve as a useful tool for review when it's quiz or test time.

Let's try the above technique with a bit of fiction, now, shall we? Below, I quote from an online classic: Terry Bisson's science fiction short story titled "They're Made Out of Meat." Enjoy the story, then look at the outline that follows it.

SECOND PASSAGE (from here)


"They're made out of meat."


"Meat. They're made out of meat."


"There's no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They're completely meat."

"That's impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?"

"They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don't come from them. The signals come from machines."

"So who made the machines? That's who we want to contact."

"They made the machines. That's what I'm trying to tell you. Meat made the machines."

"That's ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You're asking me to believe in sentient meat."

"I'm not asking you, I'm telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in that sector and they're made out of meat."

"Maybe they're like the orfolei. You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage."

"Nope. They're born meat and they die meat. We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn't take long. Do you have any idea what's the life span of meat?"

"Spare me. Okay, maybe they're only part meat. You know, like the weddilei. A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside."

"Nope. We thought of that, since they do have meat heads, like the weddilei. But I told you, we probed them. They're meat all the way through."

"No brain?"

"Oh, there's a brain all right. It's just that the brain is made out of meat! That's what I've been trying to tell you."

"So ... what does the thinking?"

"You're not understanding, are you? You're refusing to deal with what I'm telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat."

"Thinking meat! You're asking me to believe in thinking meat!"

"Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you beginning to get the picture or do I have to start all over?"

"Omigod. You're serious then. They're made out of meat."

"Thank you. Finally. Yes. They are indeed made out of meat. And they've been trying to get in touch with us for almost a hundred of their years."

"Omigod. So what does this meat have in mind?"

"First it wants to talk to us. Then I imagine it wants to explore the Universe, contact other sentiences, swap ideas and information. The usual."

"We're supposed to talk to meat."

"That's the idea. That's the message they're sending out by radio. 'Hello. Anyone out there. Anybody home.' That sort of thing."

"They actually do talk, then. They use words, ideas, concepts?"

"Oh, yes. Except they do it with meat."

"I thought you just told me they used radio."

"They do, but what do you think is on the radio? Meat sounds. You know how when you slap or flap meat, it makes a noise? They talk by flapping their meat at each other. They can even sing by squirting air through their meat."

"Omigod. Singing meat. This is altogether too much. So what do you advise?"

"Officially or unofficially?"


"Officially, we are required to contact, welcome and log in any and all sentient races or multibeings in this quadrant of the Universe, without prejudice, fear or favor. Unofficially, I advise that we erase the records and forget the whole thing."

"I was hoping you would say that."

"It seems harsh, but there is a limit. Do we really want to make contact with meat?"

"I agree one hundred percent. What's there to say? 'Hello, meat. How's it going?' But will this work? How many planets are we dealing with here?"

"Just one. They can travel to other planets in special meat containers, but they can't live on them. And being meat, they can only travel through C space. Which limits them to the speed of light and makes the possibility of their ever making contact pretty slim. Infinitesimal, in fact."

"So we just pretend there's no one home in the Universe."

"That's it."

"Cruel. But you said it yourself, who wants to meet meat? And the ones who have been aboard our vessels, the ones you probed? You're sure they won't remember?"

"They'll be considered crackpots if they do. We went into their heads and smoothed out their meat so that we're just a dream to them."

"A dream to meat! How strangely appropriate, that we should be meat's dream."

"And we marked the entire sector unoccupied."

"Good. Agreed, officially and unofficially. Case closed. Any others? Anyone interesting on that side of the galaxy?"

"Yes, a rather shy but sweet hydrogen core cluster intelligence in a class nine star in G445 zone. Was in contact two galactic rotations ago, wants to be friendly again."

"They always come around."

"And why not? Imagine how unbearably, how unutterably cold the Universe would be if one were all alone ..."

Reverse-engineering an outline from a piece of narrative fiction is, in some ways, harder than pulling the same stunt with a more academically-toned text. But because stories normally move in phases (think about the distinct scenes in a typical stage play), outlining is possible. So-- what are the phases in Bisson's story? You might analyze it differently, but here's what I see:

I. They're meat beings!

II. They've got brains and thoughts? What do they want?

III. What should we do about this discovery?

Those are the three major phases of the story. By now, you realize that the two interlocutors are unbelievably ancient aliens (they measure time in galactic rotations; the Milky Way rotates once every 250 million years, making Earth only about 20 rotations old!), and the meat-beings in question are human beings. That's right: we're the thinking meat! We're the ones making squishy meat sounds by flapping and squeezing air through our meat, the ones projecting our meat-thoughts via radio, the ones looking for other life out in the void. It's enough to make you wonder what the alien scientists are made of. In Arthur C. Clarke's fictional universes, superior aliens are often like gods-- incorporeal after having shed their material bodies aeons ago. Are Bisson's aliens like that? Or are they made out of a much tougher form of matter-- something that isn't as susceptible to the ravages of time? Perhaps these aliens are a bit naive; they do seem capable of surprise, despite being so well-traveled.

Fleshing out the above skeletal outline will involve adding a bit of detail. With a story this short, it shouldn't be hard to fill in the gaps. Here's my attempt:

I. They're meat beings!
  A. really made of meat
  B. not made of something else?

II. They've got brains and thoughts? What do they want?
  A. talk to other life
  B. explore the universe
  C. contact other aliens
  D. swap ideas
  E. they use radio to transmit meat sounds which represent meat thoughts

III. What should we do about this discovery?
  A. officially? contact them
  B. unofficially: leave them alone and remove all evidence of our existence
  C. contact other intelligences in this region of the galaxy

That wasn't too hard, was it? Just follow the narrative flow, and you'll be able to outline any story more or less systematically.

The point of all this, though, isn't that you should embrace only one particular note-taking technique. The deeper point I'm trying to make is that it's necessary to spend time with a text if you truly hope to understand it. Outlining a given passage is simply one good method for making you stop and analyze the information at hand-- to see how all the parts relate both to each other and to the whole. And as I mentioned above, an outline, once made, is an indispensable study tool for quiz or test time: it's a quick summary of the essentials.

You may be tempted to think that you can simply pick up a text, read it, miraculously commit everything to memory, and somehow manage to ace your tests. If you've got a photographic memory and a highly analytical mind, you might just get away with such laziness. But for most of us normal folks, it makes more sense to buckle down and do the hard work of reading actively and intelligently, taking notes as a way to organize and retain information.

There are no magic solutions, I'm afraid. As has been true over the millennia, study has always been an exercise in time, effort, and focus.


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