Most researchers write notes every day. This banality positions note-taking as practice requiring little explanation: We read something, attend a lecture, or make a research observation, and then commit it to paper (digital or otherwise), storing it for retrieval at a later date (or not). As educators Lavinia Marin and Sean Sturm (2021) point out, note-taking is largely considered a mechanical process at best and boring and ineffective at worst. But to take note is to quite literally define what is considered notable, and, by extension, what is not ( Gimenez & Pinel, 2013). These noted observations then become evidence for the claims we make. Notes may not be frequently discussed, but they are part of the very foundation of the institutional production knowledge.
Bound up with my own frustration with note-taking as a graduate student in the overlapping space of social sciences and humanities, I use this paper to position notes as critical media for academic knowledge production and thus one useful space for feminist methodological intervention. To do so, I situate this piece in the existing literature on notes and note-taking as well as the contributions of the Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) online community in relation to feminist concepts of knowledge production. I then consider how notes and their organization can be used support the production of interdisciplinary and justice-oriented knowledges, outlining four intertwined concepts which shape my own note-taking methodology as well as their technical enactment via Obsidian, a free software I use to render my own notes.
While some attention has been made to emphasize the importance of producing accurate and representational notes—sometimes offering practical tips to inform note-taking practices—there is little discussion about what to do with these notes once they have been produced. This gap has consequences, as the knowledge a note produces is always also informed by its contextual relationships, including its location and its relationship to other notes and ideas. Organizing notes into particular themes, sources, and categories via folders, notebooks, and boxes inform what kind of claims can be made with them in the first place, often siloing particular information from others. Notebooks or digital My Documents folders—shared or private—are thus similar to institutional archives in that they are always tied up with power: They inform what is worth knowing and shape how it can be known ( Schwartz & Cook, 2002). How can we take notes to serve a commitment to producing socially just knowledges? What do we choose what to include in these notes? And how should we organize them, especially in the virtually endless storage capacities of digital systems today?
Notes are rarely framed within the context of social justice but they can inform the collection, synthesis, and retrieval of knowledge, especially in research contexts. This makes note-taking foundational to academic knowledge production and thus worth considering critically in our everyday work. Developing a networked note-taking system, I argue, presents one ordinary space where new paths can potentially emerge which challenge the “default setting” of academia towards more socially just ends ( Ahmed, 2019, p. 160).