Finally getting into geography honors. And surviving, somehow, with grades that still might count as ridiculous-in-a-good-way. The one big change I’m getting used to is the need to take actual hardcore notes.

For eight years, most classes I’ve gone to, both inside or outside school, have been straight from a book or handout, which would be so easily read and comprehended (…to me) that any notes would be a waste of energy. A couple science teachers would make us take notes and count them as a grade. All you had to do to get an A was write down most of the important bits, even if the chapter sections were written in exaggerated cursive that took up half the page and there were random teddy bears straddling the margins, as in my notes.

There was a stage in maybe seventh grade where I told myself I would make neat, doodle-free notes that actually summarized the stuff in biology (the easy seventh-grade kind (not that we still remember all of it)), and to get to that goal I would force myself to use only one page for each section, with a special way to mark the vocabulary words. It helped studying a little, but the stage didn’t last, and I ended up doodling again.

Even when the going finally got tough and understanding became a nontrivial task, I still had irrelevant embellishments and a bunch of artificial fonts for my “notes”. Even in the days when I was free to go to the Chiao-Tung University for classes twice a week (and still get consistently ridiculous grades, judging by the score breakdowns the prof gave us after every test), my notes looked like this.

[L'Hopital notes]
Exhibit A: mathematical analysis/advanced calculus notes, circa 2010

And then, there was one more year with the abstract algebra classes, but the book was so easy to comprehend and so combinatorially engrossing that I skipped quite a few sections ahead on my own and ended up spending some actual class time secretly doing other homework or reading Pendragon books instead. (I know how this sounds. I’m sorry.) Around this time was the big bad blood test of December 2010.

But then freshman geography honors comes along and we have articles and videos and articles and videos, some of them eight pages or half an hour long. And all of a sudden notes become not just helpful, but absolutely essential to survival. Previously notes were an aid to studying I had opted out of; now, all of a sudden, they had become the entirety of studying, and I was having a hard time.

[Notes on 9/11 and the Middle East]
Exhibit B: recent notes from the 9/11 video we’re watching

This is still a phenomenon unique to geography: English notes are written slowly on the “Smart”Board and the teacher repeats every important bit at least three times, as well as in the next class; biology notes are written into a printed copy of the slides with blanks in (not-very-)strategic places and can be filled up at home thanks to Google Docs; Chinese important bits are highlightable in the textbooks or on handouts; 80% of the other people in Spanish don’t know or care what is happening, so I get to ask the teacher whatever I want.

It’s the class of geography, just this single class, that makes me realize how seriously slow my handwriting is. I can write somewhat neatly if I try, in my opinion, but this means making great concessions in speed. It’s simply not fast enough for getting my thoughts down fully, or for notating all the important bits of the people talking in the video. The fast mode produces an ugly sketch that takes a little effort to decipher (but is still easier to read than either geography teacher’s handwriting ;) ) and occasionally even manages to short-circuit my spelling instincts, which is very annoying when I take a second look at the notes. Luckily, I suppose, Mrs. B is very accommodating about pausing the video when we need it. Unluckily, my reflexes are slow at deciding when the threshold for too-much-to-write is passed, and often this interrupts the speaker and splits a thought into two irreparable fragments.

Anyway, since I missed a bunch of video-watching classes, I got to borrow the video and take it home to get some of the missing parts down. I decided to experiment with taking notes by typing on a computer, like some college people seem to be doing. It didn’t work: I was transposing and substituting letters in every other word with any significant length and still had to pause the video just as often. I can break the 100-wpm we-think-you’re-a-robot limit on TypeRacer easily, but I guess it doesn’t translate to scenarios where I have to allocate so much of my brain-power to figuring out what I need to type. So I went back to hand-writing.

Yesterday, during another freewriting session, I thought of adopting cursive. I still remembered from third grade or something how most of the letters ought to look, but writing with it was and still is a very conscious process for me, not much faster than print and more error-prone when I accidentally stop my M’s prematurely and turn them into N’s, or fail to record the difference between a U and a V, or accidentally loop the top of an I into an E, or detach a D into a CL. After the stage of cursive drills every morning stopped, I thought it would never really come in handy again, except for the occasional fancy lettering on a birthday card or something, and I think Reddit’s hive mind agreed. Now I have second thoughts.

I tried going for a couple paragraphs in cursive in my random-thoughts notebook, and I’m starting to think it might just be a worthwhile investment. Although I can’t help but wonder if in maybe ten or twenty years, cursive will become an entirely obsolete skill, only functioning as a historical reminder, and I’ll be one of those guys who can perform it on the streets, charging people to have their name written in cursive. With this ancient artifact called a “pencil” on this sheet of “paper”. Sharing stories about how when I was young, all of us had to take notes at school and complete assignments this way, and maybe explaining this obscure archaic meaning of the word “write”.

Of course, there’s a long history of people — reporters, secretaries, that sort of person with getting ideas down on paper quickly in their job description — writing in much more hardcore shorthand, resulting in text that looks more like a bare-bones rendition of a wavy sea than writing to the uninitiated. A long time ago, I had this sort of idea, and created a bunch of symbols that could substitute for certain combinations of letters in writing. Nevertheless, most of the symbols were so elaborate and infrequently usable that not much time was saved writing. But I never really had a place to use it, anyway, so time erased it from my memory. I have no doubt that I don’t have the time to learn a hardcore 150-wpm shorthand system that looks like stickman-style waves on an ocean, and even if I did it wouldn’t be a worthwhile investment. Nah, I think you’d have to go all the way there to earn a place performing on the street with it in the future.

Wikipedia says:

Notetaking is an important skill for students, especially at the college level.

Although, you know, all things considered, right now I really should be doing more math instead.

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