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Class notes and note takers

At the start of most semesters, someone in our Office of Disability Services sends a message like the following to all of the students in one or more of my classes.

We are currently looking for a volunteer note taker in Fill in the Course. In this capacity, a note taker shares a copy of their notes with a student who has a disability. You would not have to change anything about your notes, although we do request your notes are labelled with the date they were taken. We would ask you to come into our office and photocopy your notes one or two times a week. Your photocopied notes would be left in the office to be picked up by the student needing them. Notes may be left Monday-Friday 8:00am-5:00pm and in the evenings Sunday-Thursday, 6:00pm-10:00pm. Alternatively, if you have an electronic copy of your notes, either typed or a scanned copy of handwritten notes, it may be emailed to me.

Why do we request note takers? Some students need note takers as part of their accommodations. Why do we accommodate students? In part, because the Americans with Disabilities Act requires us to do so. But, more importantly, because we want to make sure that all Grinnellians can succeed, even if they have differences that may get in the way. Why can’t people take their own notes? Sometimes it’s due to a physical disability. Sometimes it’s due to a processing disability, such as dysgraphia or difficulty reflecting on ideas and writing at the same time. There are also other reasons I do not know, or have forgotten.

There are some people out there who are probably saying something like If they can’t take notes for themselves, why should anyone take notes for them? After all, they won’t have note takers after they leave college. They should learn to adapt now. I don’t accept that claim. In part, college classes may be very different experiences than their post-graduate work. We throw a lot of ideas at students in a very short time. A note taker can allow the student to focus much more closely on the ideas at hand. In part, I don’t think we can make assumptions about what they will be doing after Grinnell. Some will be successful enough that they make enough to hire note takers. Others will work for companies that also think accommodations are appropriate.

Whether you agree with my perspective or not, you should accept that the law requires us to provide accommodations.

In any case, there are a variety of issues regarding note taking that trouble me every semester. First, if we are required to provide a note taker, why are we asking students to volunteer, rather than offering to pay them? I expect that a professional note taker is much more expensive than student wages. We probably don’t even need to offer student wages. We could even offer some token reward other than just the good feeling of helping others: A dinner, a small stipend, a gift certificate to the bookstore. At some point, we call it a leadership opportunity, but I’m not sure what leadership is involved.

Second, it is rare that we get volunteers. Why does that trouble me, given my concerns about (lack of) compensation? Because Grinnell’s core value of self governance suggests that students have responsibility to each other. That means that students should take responsibility to provide notes for each other, particularly when they know that other students need notes.

Third, I wonder whether our failure to get volunteers reflects my teaching style. I know that research evidence suggests that most students learn when they take notes, even if they never look at those notes again. However, I also know that some students struggle to both think actively in class and to write down what is happening. Given that choice, I’d rather that they think actively about what is happening in class. And so, for as long as I’ve been at Grinnell, I’ve used a computer as my whiteboard, and have recorded most pertinent things I say during class [1]. You can look at an example in the form that students see during class and the nicely formatted version that appears after class. I call these electronic whiteboards eboards.

In some sense, the eboards are intended as a form of Universal Design, even if I didn’t think of them as such when I started writing them. They should support students who need note-taking accommodations. They should support students who cannot be physically in class [2]. They should also support students who don’t need those accommodations, but want a more comprehensive summary of class than they would take themselves.

But I don’t want my eboards to replace note-taking for most students. I still want the students to take notes; just fewer, more targeted notes. I want them to have the time to think through issues, but I also want them to write down a bit as they go. And so there should still be people who take notes in my class that they should be willing to share. I think there are people who take notes, but there are fewer than in most classes, which decreases the probability that we’ll get a volunteer. Some may also worry that they don’t take enough notes, or that they take incorrect notes.

I will admit that if I were asked to share my notes from classes I was in (as opposed to classes I teach), I might also share that reluctance. I doodle a lot. I include snarky comments. I miss things that are said, and I record some things incorrectly. My handwriting is atrocious [4]. I don’t know that my notes would be useful to anyone but me [5]. I might resent the extra effort to visit an office just to make photocopies, and the implication that my time is not valuable.

Where does that leave us? In the end, in most semesters, the students who need note takers make do with my eboards. I think they suffice. But I’d still like to see more students take notes, to see those students be willing to share their notes, and perhaps even to see the notes that those students take.

[1] At times, I also record things that did not happen during class, such as jokes that I did not say out loud.

[2] I have had students who, when they miss class because they are sick, sit in their room and repeatedly refresh the eboard to see what’s happening. The more clever ones even find a way to contact me with questions during class [3].

[3] After one of them interviewed at Google, and the interviewer said It’s so nice that your faculty member notices when you’re not in class, I stopped putting the names of those students in the eboards, and did my best to erase any past records.

[4] Looking at my notes, I think I wrote atrocious. It may have been attributable or attractive or perhaps even delicious, although that seems like an odd way to describe my handwriting

[5] In actuality, when I’m in meetings, I take electronic notes regularly and I share them with anyone who I think may want them or who asks nicely for them. My notes are snarky (although probably not quite as snarky and nasty as I’d make them if they were just for myself). People who read them tell me that they are useful and sometimes funny. They also tell me that they are surprised that I can take notes and participate actively. I think that’s one of my super powers [6].

[6] It may be my only super power.

Version 1.1 of 2017-02-07.