“Summer Syllabus” Pt. 2 (Note Taking, Methods and Examples)

2015-04-07 10.23.14

This is a picture of a young James H. Cone… with a sweet afro (1978)!

In my last post I revealed my “Summer Syllabus.” My goal is to read 3000+ pages before the end of my Summer break (June-August). Now you may be wondering, “How do you remember what you read?” Well, I take meticulous notes. “Ok,” you may say, “But what all does that entail?” So glad you asked! Let me show you…


Below is a picture of J. Kameron Carter’s Race: A Theological Account. As you can tell, I’ve done some major work on this book.
Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 12.18.42 AM
This looks more complicated than it actually is. However, it takes a good amount of dedication. Each “sticky note” represents a particular topic germane to the book I am studying. So the pink sticky notes represents unique contributions from Carter (e.g. Carter on Maximus and Christ the Slave) while the blue sticky notes are primarily concerned with Christology/The Historical Jesus (e.g. Christ’s Jewish Flesh as the World & Israel’s Story). This is extremely convenient for later reference because if I am looking to teach/write on a certain subject I have a visual-color-coded index right in my book! Nathan Smith was the one who originally gave me this idea and it has proved to be extremely helpful.

What can sometimes be vexing is when authors use unfamiliar words. I will refer back to the above picture–notice the giant yellow sticky notes on the front of the book. On that sticky note I have written various words/terms that Carter uses that I need to look up in Merriam Webster’s Dictionary. This helps to 1) follow the author’s argument and 2) to expand my vocabulary when writing and/or teaching.

When it comes to taking notes on what I’ve read I have developed a fairly meticulous method.

1. Highlight said passage(s)
Pic 1 ←Picture 1

2.0. Put the appropriate sticky note on the margin of the page
Pic 2 ←Picture 2

2.1. If I’ve highlighted multiple passages on a particular page and have therefore had to put multiple sticky notes on the margin of the page, I write a number on the sticky note to correspond with a specific paragraph (e.g. In Picture 1, it shows three highlighted paragraphs. In order to avoid future confusion Picture 2 shows that the passages dealing with “Whiteness and Israel” have a purple sticky note as well as a circled “1” and a “2” on the sticky note. The green sticky with a circled “3” is for the passage dealing with the patristic thinker St. Augustine. If you look back at Picture 1, you can see a circled 1,2 and 3 in the margin of the page–these numbers help me connect the paragraph with the colored sticky note).

3. Also in Picture 1 you can see I have circled footnotes in the body of the text (footnotes 17 and 18 to be specific). This just means that I have highlighted that particular note (Picture 3).
Pic 3 ←Picture 3

4. You can also see in Picture 3 that I have put two “!!” in the margin. Ultimately, this just indicates that this bit of the book was especially interesting. The other two symbols I use are the asterisk* and the hashtag# (it will become clear why I do this in 5.3).

5. After I have done all the above, I type out the entire highlighted passage in a word document specifically dedicated to the book I am reading. I have provided a PDF copy below for those curious (Picture 4, J. Kameron Carter Race: A Theological Account).
Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 12.43.25 AM
PDF Notes on Race: A Theological Account Picture 4↑

5.1. Or, if I’m lucky, I can simply copy the passage from an E-book I own and then paste it in the word document (I usually get E-books from Google Books, Open CultureBookSee.org or Logos).

5.2. If I am ever trying to remember a quote from an author, I open up the word document, type in a key word in the “search bar” (e.g. “pseudotheological” or “Weltbürger”) and then Word highlights anytime that word/term is used in a paragraph all throughout the document.

5.3. As I stated earlier (see point 4 above), I write specific symbols next to paragraphs that are especially appealing to me. This helps later when I am searching for a favorite quote. Rather having to type/remember a specific word in the search bar, I simply put a # or an *. This highlights all the passages in the Word docx where I have put a # or an *.

Final Tips and Tricks
Now for some final suggestions regarding annotating and the likes:

-Follow the goodies–i.e. follow the footnotes! This seems like simple advice, but I think for a lot of people this can be tedious so they just bypass the goodies altogether.

-On a similar note, if an author is continuously referencing a specific article or book investigate that source! Most of the Essays in my Summer Syllabus have all come from reading footnotes in various books.

-Something that has proved to be invaluable for me has been Zotero. If you check out the site and watch this video you will see why.

Well there you have it! Hopefully this has helped and hopefully it has inspired you to create more of your own methods for annotating your books/articles. Be sure to let me know as I am always looking for ways to be more scrupulous! 

Josiah R. Daniels

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  • Michael Wiltshire

    This was so awesome. Here is some of what I do–I think Nathan influenced us both because we have some things in common..

    Writing in top of page: Headers for themes & Ideas

    Writing in Sides of pages: My own thoughts & Critiques

    ? written in margins = I don’t understand what the author means, don’t understand the vocabulary, or something I need look up or come back to for any reason.

    “Cf. p.17” works as a note to cross reference. That is, “there is similar idea on page 17” or “This picks up on an idea page 17 began to unfold”

    Use back pages to create your own index that is customized my own interests.

    Brackets [like this] are main points.

    Underlined text within a larger bracketed section are good summary quotes.

    Underlined text outside of brackets are secondary/interesting but not critical points.

    Squiggly lines under words are key vocab or names of other authors the writer explicitly looks toward.

    If I have to write extensively on a book, for a research paper for example, I will use colored tabs in a very similar way to what you’ve shown above and will always write a few pages of quotes per book. So if I am writing a final research paper on Acts for example, I will actually have topic headers (e.g. The use of Psalms in Acts, Lukan authorship, etc) and then write any quote from any author in that section. Then when I write the paper, I have three pages of notes form different authors which I have at my disposal. The idea of having a library of quotes however is something I never thought of and really wish I would have saved all of this stuff when I was finished!

  • masthewitt

    That is quite meticulous. Wish I had been thinking along those lines 3 years ago. I’ve just started using OneNote to type up the quotes. Unfortunately, the ebooks I’ve gotten are Kindle and I haven’t figured out how to copy and paste my highlights. I also have used a lot of library books to keep my book budget under control so that changes how I would do this. But there are definitely some great ideas. I just need to organize my own thoughts to figure out how I would color code things.

    • Just get kindle for your computer, download purchased books and begin the copy and pasting.

      • masthewitt

        I had been using the cloud reader on my PC and it doesn’t allow for copying. Downloading the app works. Thanks for the clue.

  • If I may highly recommend the work of putting quotes/commentary into a wor doc, I would do so. Highly effective method for paper writing.

    The writing down quotes thing has worjked wonders for me. Two reasons. 1. We can go back to that same document and use the quotes again in further research just by copying abs pasting again. I typically write my added thoughts down when the wuote is being entered. These can turn into important paragraphs for the pAper later on.

    2. When I’m forming the argument, the typing quotes/making notes thing allows me to print these notes off, color code them with a highlighter with each color representing a chaper or major section of the paper. Once every paragraph/quote has a color, I then start collating from all my books/articles and add the colored quotes together via copy paste to form the argument of each chapter.

    It seems like a lot of work up front, but following Josiah’s idea on this actually makes you write most if your paper before you even start the composition. As a professor, I am looking for students who have synthesized ideas and complentary or opposing authors.

    • Michael Wiltshire

      After I write the quotes from other authors in my doc for notes, I will also add my own thoughts by indenting under their quote and underlining anything that is written by myself

      • I have found that the more I do this, the more the paper is written before I ever get to the writing stage. At that point, I’m organizing the argument, bridging my independent thoughts/quotes and/or throwing entire quotes into the footnotes as supportive but not substantive info. I have tended to just put quotations around actual quotes and leave my thoughts unquoted. Your approach sounds more thorough and safe.