6 Discovering Topics and Connections

Every note is just an element in the network of references and back-references in the system, from which it gains its utility. Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998)

It’s so much easier to see what worked than to predict what might work.
Sönke Ahrens

In this chapter, we will look at the practical issues involved in choosing a topic and the ways we can connect ideas and create Point Notes. To begin with the practical: if you are a student, there’s a degree of arbitrariness involved in your note-making that probably does not apply to independent scholars pursuing their own interests. For example, the texts you’ll need to work with, early in your education, are probably givens. In English they are often the “classics,” books that a consensus of informed readers have identified as the most significant of their times. In History we also have texts (primary and secondary) that are foundational to our understanding of an event or a period.

The process of becoming a classic or a core text in a discipline is interesting and involves both the innumerable readings the texts have undergone and the ongoing construction of our common culture. But that’s not really the point we’re exploring here. The particular texts you might be responsible for understanding in a given class were chosen out of a universe of possible texts because they fit together and because, as a group, they lead somewhere. When you figure out how they fit together and where they lead, you’ll be well on your way to understanding the overall theme of the course or discipline – which, remember, is also a text!

Because my father (who wrote the first version of this handbook) taught surveys on the foundational literature of Euro-American culture and I am a historian, at the risk of sounding like an old fart I’ll say just one more thing about “classics.” Whether we respond positively or negatively to the works themselves, or to what ‘s included and excluded from the list, it’s difficult to ignore their influence. When we off-handedly characterize something as being “Quixotic” or “Kafkaesque”; when our newspapers and popular magazines talk about “Progressives” or the “Frontier”; when political cartoons, hip-hop music, and even Sunday comics depend on our familiarity with Beowulf and Odysseus and Malcolm X and Viet Nam in order to get their points, then we would be wise to become familiar with these concepts, characters, and events.

In any case, whatever their source, as we’re educating ourselves we engage with texts: a set of assigned readings, lectures, discussions, books, articles, videos, podcasts, archives, etc. Let’s think of them as a challenge. How are we going to make these texts meaningful to ourselves? This is a basic question in life. Every day we deal with things not under our control. The poet Robert Frost once claimed that every one of his poems was “one of these adaptations that I’ve made. I’ve taken whatever you give me and made it what I want it to be.” We’ve already begun responding to this challenge by taking notes on what we have read and heard. Even if a discussion and essay assignment in a class is very directed – “Discuss the relationship between Quixote and Sancho Panza in Don Quixote” or “Compare John Muir’s attitude toward wilderness with Gifford Pinchot’s based on their writing about the Hetch Hetchy controversy” –  there’s nearly always a way to make an aspect of the topic your own.

If, on the other hand, you have a chance to discover your own topic, you’re faced with a different challenge – but that’s still no reason for panic or “writer’s block,”. You’ve already begun the process. Your notes are written thoughts, and they are the source of what you’ll contribute to a discussion or write. Passages you marked in your text or notes you wrote in your notebook have already begun becoming your own thoughts as you turned them into Source Notes. These represent the main facts and ideas you were looking for, and record your personal reactions to what interested you in the text. That’s why everybody’s notes are a little different. When you think about and expand upon these personal reactions, you’ll discover the beginnings of your individual interpretation of the texts and the “Points” you want to pursue.

Review your Source Notes one at a time and follow these clues you have left for yourself. Some will go nowhere. They’ll turn out to be inappropriate for the assignment or there won’t be enough material to support an argument. Or, if you’re pursuing a topic of your own interest, the ideas just don’t seem as fascinating to you on the second encounter. But some thoughts you recorded will remain interesting, appropriate, and supportable. Bring them to a discussion. Write about them. What your instructor wants (if it’s a course), what your readers will appreciate (if you’re writing, what you’ll thank yourself for in the future (if you’re pursing your own questions) is evidence of your thoughtful response to the text and elaboration of that response into your own ideas.

A good discussion, essay topic, blog post, podcast, article, or book most often comes out of your response to an external stimulus such as a text. An interesting response deals with a basic question that isn’t too easily answered but that isn’t so large that it can’t possibly be answered. This requires focus. A good topic, formulated in a few words, could become the title of your response and engage your audience immediately. If it’s not meaningful to you, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll make it meaningful to your reader.

By now you should be beginning to see how these tasks – making notes, preparing for discussions, formulating a topic – all build on one another. The two authors who have contributed to this handbook have been, basically, lifelong students ourselves. We know from experience there is rarely time to go back and redo things. But if you put some effort into these steps as you go through them, your notes will generate ideas for discussion, either with other people or with yourself inside the note system (Luhmann referred to his zettelkasten as his “discussion partner”). Discussions will help you focus on the most promising interpretations, and you’ll be on your way to a solid response. The worst thing for a student, professional, or motivated amateur is to be facing a deadline with no idea what you are going to say. If you work at each of these steps, that won’t be a problem.  The topic and probably a lot of the points you want to make, will jump out of your notes at you.

Discussion, either with others or yourself, is an ideal way to try out ideas and interpretations that will become Point Notes and might lead to output. When you write notes for discussion, they’re for you. The ideas on your Source Notes can be half formed: questions you don’t yet have answers to. Bouncing these ideas off a group (or yourself after a little time away from them) will help you develop them and will tell you which ones are most interesting to others and to yourself.

Settling on a Manageable Topic

At some point you may be asked to turn in a tentative essay topic, or you may set yourself a goal of making a plan to produce output. In a less open situation you may only be able to pick a topic from a set the instructor provides. In any case you should keep in mind that:

  • Your purpose is to explore some specific part of an idea or a text and its relationship to some general idea you’ve interpreted;
  • Your time (and your audience’s time) is limited, so choose a topic that allows you to produce the output on time;
  • Your composition requirement is typically set rather than open ended, if you are writing in a particular format such as an essay, article, blog post, or video script;
  • Your readers have read usually read (or can read) the texts you’ve read, or are familiar with the material; they want your insights, not a summary.

Remember the scope: when you receive an assignment or take on a project, you are usually going to write a short interpretation of a specific topic. Not to resolve for all time how James Joyce’s Ulysses changed the nature of the hero in modern novels or to trace all the influences of the French Revolution on the development of American nationalism. The scope of your project is most often pretty specific and it will naturally narrow some more, as you focus on what interests you. That’s a good thing.

An Example (from literature)

Imagine that when you were reading The Odyssey in a World Literature class, you found yourself interested in Homer’s portrayal of women. You marked some passages, wrote comments in the margins of your text, paraphrased your thoughts into Source Notes, and brought them up in class. After clearing up the “facts” – who did what? when? how? and why? – maybe you still want to know: Why did I respond the way I did? What was Homer doing?

“Is there enough material to build an interpretation?” you ask yourself.  More specifically: Who are the female characters Kirke, Kalypso, Nausikaa, Penelope, Helen, Klytaimnestra, Eurykleia, Arete? Do they have anything in common? Differences? How does Odysseus seem to view them? Is his reaction consistent or does it vary? How do they respond to him? How does this affect Odysseus? How does their interaction relate to the world depicted in the text? How do they function in relation to the larger theme? Does any pattern emerge?

Once you’ve read, thought about, and discussed something that interests you, you are ready to pursue a general and still unshaped topic that is appropriate and certainly has enough material to investigate more closely and develop a description of “Homer’s Portrayal of Women in The Odyssey.” This is probably not yet a manageable topic for a short paper, but it’s already better than a more general topic like “The Odyssey.” As you focus you might narrow your topic into a comparison of faithful wives to unfaithful wives, or of wives to mistresses, or of those women who provide security and continuity to those who offer adventure and experience. You might find that these categories are unsatisfactory to you. Good! Develop your own perceptions of how these characters function in the text.

Another Example (from social science)

Now imagine that in a US History class you are given an assignment: Compare Booker T. Washington’s approach to race relations in his 1895 “Atlanta Exposition Speech” with W. E. B. Du Bois’s approach in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). You read the two texts and discover that Du Bois is highly critical of Washington, and Souls is his counterargument to Washington’s position.

But as you read Du Bois’s criticism of Washington and go back to the “Atlanta Exposition Speech” to see if that’s really what Washington said, you find yourself feeling one way or another about the debate. Maybe you think Du Bois misrepresented Washington’s position. Maybe you think Washington was a realist and Du Bois was an idealist. Maybe you agree with Du Bois that Washington was an appeaser. Maybe (best case) you become aware as you read and discuss the ideas with others or in your notes that different people have reacted in all these ways to the texts. Now you’ve got the basis of an essay that can look at both texts, discuss the variety of reactions to them, and then – if you choose to – stake out a claim of your own. Even though your topic was assigned to you, with a little thought you can take it in a direction that interests you and that will allow you to build your own interpretation.

The important point in both examples is that once you’ve read a text carefully and made good notes, you can begin the process of making the ideas your own and making an original contribution by bringing your experience and imagination to bear on a central idea – a topic – that especially interested you. Your notes will lead you back to the areas that caught your attention as you wrote them. Most of the time you’ll find your topic there. You can test out and refine that topic in discussion, and see how others respond to it. As you work with it, you may find that there’s something in particular you want to say about this topic. That particular something will be the thesis of your response, which we’ll discuss later.

Making Point Notes

The basic building blocks of your own output are ones where you have not only summarized and paraphrased the information you received from another source, but you’ve analyzed it, interpreted it, and have something to say about the idea it contains. Others have called these “Main Notes” or “Permanent Notes” or “Evergreen Notes”. I called them Point Notes to remind myself that when I write them I should be making a point.

In many fields there are data points or pieces of evidence, and then conclusions that you draw or support by using them. When I save them in my notes, the pieces of evidence are usually Source Notes and the argument they support is described in a Point Note. Sometimes this Point is as direct as something like “If X is true (cite card for X) and Y is true (cite card for Y), then Z must be true.” Or “The argument presented by A is contradicted by those of B and C. Here’s a way of understanding that disagreement.”

Often a Point Note describes a connection between two thoughts and creates a new idea bridging those thoughts. For example, when I was preparing for this section I wrote a Source Note that said “Luhmann read with his slip-box in mind”. Luhmann said this himself and many scholars studying his system have mentioned it. On another I noted that connecting one note to another and “being able to back-trace an idea to its source is critical”. As I was reviewing these I wrote the Point Note pictured, continuing the train of thought that advocates of the zettelkasten system often claim it “shows” you what some people call “hot nodes”, which can tell you (sometimes surprising) things about the topic you are pursuing. This would be a very positive outcome, which helps explain why so many enthusiasts are trying to perfect a system that will help produce these insights.

I think claims of magical moments of “emergent complexity” where the note system reaches some sort of critical mass and begins spitting out answers like an oracle are probably exaggerated. They sound a bit too much like the Singularity. But it’s also true, I suspect, that by reviewing our notes regularly, comparing Source Notes and making Point Notes out of them, and diligently connecting new ideas into the train of thought they emerged from, we’ll create a tree that will have more branches and leaves in some places than in others. Those branches will be where the action is; where we can expect to find a lot of material we can turn into output.

Writing a Point Note about an idea can trigger a cascade of other thoughts that you can explore on their own (and write additional notes about). These are the types of discoveries you might miss if you don’t make the effort to write the first note and connect it to the system of thoughts. It’s also true that creating a structure of folders (a process preferred by many digital apps) and dumping Source Notes into them without doing the additional work of interpretation probably fails to result in new insights. Apps that create a predetermined hierarchy of folders may also make it more difficult to follow your interests. The ability of these apps to “transclude” data or employ bi-directional links doesn’t seem to answer this need — at least not without a steep learning curve! Doing the work of linking ideas together, whether in a digital or analog system, seems to be the only sure key to creating connections that will allow you to return in the future and follow the same trail of ideas.


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