Note-taking, Contact Zones, and the Creative Classroom

A common refrain of education scholars in the late 1970s, 80s, and early 90s was to “bridge the gap”—to overcome the divide between theories of teaching and the realities of the classroom. Part of the legacy bequeathed to us by this period of productive ferment is Writing Across the Curriculum—a host of cross-disciplinary pedagogical interventions and theorizations grounded in the practical improvement of student outcomes. One of the core principles of WAC is the power of writing as a heuristic tool to help teachers teach and students learn. This engagement in a novel rethinking of the teacher-student dynamic to improve student outcomes continues to define WAC programs to this day. In connection with our two workshops this week on Note Taking (for students) and the Creative Classroom (for faculty), I would like to focus my post on the intersection between note-taking, contact zones, and the creative classroom.

Note-taking remains a relatively underdiscussed and undertheorized aspect of the modern classroom—this even though a student’s notebook ultimately comes to form the majority of their writing for any given class. And since note-taking mediates how students integrate content from in-class lectures and out-of-class readings, note-taking truly serves as a primary nexus of teaching and learning. I think that it can be helpful to think of note-taking in the context of contact zones in the creative classroom. First coined as a term and elaborated as a concept by Mary Louise Pratt, contact zones are sites where “disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination.” Although contact zones correspond to the fault-lines of misunderstandings, contact zones also signify powerful opportunities for making meaning and fostering mutual understanding via improvisation and group interaction, like jazz musicians riffing on a theme. As we all know, misunderstandings between teachers and students abound; this is to be expected, for students and teachers are engaged in a challenging process of mutually constructing and interpreting course content. In this sense, then, students’ notes thus function as a sort of running real-time chronicle of misunderstandings and their potential remedies. If a student’s notebook contains the only tangible traces of this fluid, back-and-forth exchange, I would like to suggest that we can mine some of the untapped possibilities of note-taking by dedicating class time to discussing how students creatively process and make meaning out of course content.

For example, a page of notes is the cumulation of an incredibly complex process of constantly switching codes between discipline-specific concepts and terminology, a student’s own unique shorthand, and more universal mnemonic devices. However, as instructors we generally tend to take this complicated and dynamic feat of attention and memory for granted, and as a result very little class time is usually devoted to talking about the code-switching dimensions of note-taking. And yet knowing how our students are translating and synthesizing course content into notes is vital information for instructors and students alike. By regularly asking students how they are negotiating and making meaning out of course content, instructors can make the experience of note-taking itself an active part of classroom discourse that can in turn help instructors proactively revise or tailor lesson plans and teaching strategies during the term. Encouraging students to reflect on their own note-taking processes can likewise create new ways for students to participate in a course.

As the largest urban public university in the country, CUNY’s colleges are uniquely positioned to harness the rich, multilingual and multicultural experiences of an extraordinarily diverse faculty and student body. Although we may not generally think of note-taking as a site of dynamic exchange, a student’s notes constitute an unfolding terrain of interpretation, self-examination, and creative expression that can empower students and open up new ways for instructors to teach.