Embracing Nonlinearity and Doodling

At the beginning of this summer I created a mental list of goals. One being create a website (official domain is coming next month) and the other narrowing down my research interest based on my readings and conversations throughout my first year of of PhD coursework. Closely related to this second goal was learning how  to better process ideas so that I could push my own thinking and memory beyond what I experienced as a master’s student.

I figured that one way to better understand, remember, and apply my ideas and the ideas of other scholars, teachers, and graduate students was stepping away from  print literacy and embracing visual literacy. For most of my academic and fiction life I’ve been married to the word. I’ve believed in the word as a memory device and as a teacher.

But as a newcomer to multiliteracies, I’ve taken up the call to bring in the other possibilities of communication, not to overthrow print, but to let other modes become more visible to students as viable choices in academic writing.  It’s easy to say  this to the entire field; harder still to actually do it ourselves. I’ve thought about how I can consciously disrupt the privileging of print in my own work (a recent Atlantic article on the cognitive benefits of doodling reinforced my commitment to this goal and pushed me closer toward visualizing ideas).

I bought a Moleskin dot grid notebook last month to begin the process. Form shapes content; content shapes form. Lines in a composition notebook encourage linearity, structure, logic; dots encourage non-linearity, spontaneity, messiness. Lines say, “Words only.” Dots say, “Words and shapes welcome here.” Of course, a maverick can “break” the lines and force  words and shapes into the composition notebook, but the author (or company, in this case) never intended the lines for that use, and an English teacher peering through said notebook would probably frown at the lack of paragraphs. Every type of paper has a purpose.

Surprisingly, stepping away from print literacy took a little time. While I was reading I defaulted to print. I made lists of words, phrases, and sentences, and I only drew a few arrows to organize the ideas in a very linear way. If you read David Berry’s Philosophy of Software and then look at my notes, you’ll find that I’m recreating the order of Berry’s argument.  While finding the most important details in a piece is important, I think lifting those details out of order and putting them in other places can be just as productive. Nonlinearity is connection. Nonlinearity is association. Different shapes working with words makes connection and association possible.

After I did some reading , I mapped the connections I saw, and I found that seeing a snapshot affords instant understanding that reading words doesn’t allow. I drew one or two word concepts and let the shapes–dots, circles, lines, arrows boxes–make those concepts come alive. When you take facts and bring them in conversation with other facts in other disciplines, you construct knowledge, and I find that for me doodling helps that knowledge construction. The photos below don’t quite match what I have in mind here, but the idea does derive from concept mapping. I think the map I drew isn’t necessarily groundbreaking; the map does represent a discovery, probably something other scholars knew already but they themselves had to make the same discovery. I do think the map allows me to see where something is missing, what in the nonlinear story needs to be added.

Classroom Practice

This change in how I document my learning has some implications for my students. I could emphasize that when they read any text their note taking and annotations should be nonlinear. Capture the main details as  they appear, but then on paper (yes, any paper will do) make associations with the ideas within the text. Move the words around a bit and then write about how they work together. Remix the information in a way that makes sense to you. This kind of approach to reading might inspire better analysis and critique of what they read, and it might come in handy for peer review and pre-writing activities.

Another thought for classroom practice: applying this same technique to “reading” new media may require a bit more thought for the student: the concepts are not always explicitly–students must draw their own inferences. In addition, new media itself appears to be nonlinear. But once they create their own working list of ideas that appear in the order that makes sense to them, the students can then mix and match the concepts and explains how they work together within the new media text.

Notes and Arrows



Concept Map 

Published by aabyrd

I'm the instructor for WCATY's Media Studies in a Digital Age course for Summer 2015.

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