A nice tool for note taking

Like most faculty, I imagine, I am constantly getting ideas related to my classes, scholarship, and creative work. Keeping track of these thoughts, especially over time, can be a challenge. I have tried a number of strategies and platforms for organizing and storing these bits and fragments, and none have been especially good. I usually end up with multiple documents on different devices and places, and no clear record of my thoughts about a particular class or project.

A few weeks ago, Anne-Marie sent me a link to this ProfHacker column by Alan Jacobs. While the focus is on how Jacobs uses the iPad in his workflow for his classes, I immediately zeroed in on his pointer to Notational Velocity, a note taking application for the Mac that syncs with Simplenote. After a week or so of looking at the NV website and thinking about whether I wanted to download the program and open yet another online account for Simplenote, I decided to make the move, and have been happy that I did.

We are reaching the end of the term, and this one the times of year when I get a lot of suggestions and ideas for improving my classes. The first thing I did with NV is generate a note about assignments for my intro class. I now have notes for all of the courses I taught this term, and have also been generating notes for an upcoming conference, blog posts, and pieces for PopMatters. I am also going to try using it for taking notes while screening DVDs for review.

One of the taglines for NV is “data not documents”, and that captures one of the main reasons I find it useful. The bar for starting a new note is also a search bar. This helps with the duplication problem.

The fact that I can sync with Simplenote means that I can have my notes across multiple devices without having to move documents around or make copies in different formats to store in different places. Being able to make notes from work, from home, and on my iPhone and have them appear in all three places is invaluable for tracking and adding to different ideas.

The one flaw in the system right now is that tags do not sync, which affects transfers both from NV to Simplenote and to different machines running NV. However, with the rich search/compose function in NV, I am not sure how significant this flaw will actually turn out to be. I suspect that tagging is more important for finding different notes in Simplenote on my iPhone than in NV on my laptop at home or my desktop at work. I haven’t decided what to do about this issue. Maybe just tag in Simplenote, and wait and see if the problem gets worked out in the next version of NV. Or leave aside tagging altogether.

The other ‘problem’ I have discovered is that I keep thinking of new ways to use NV. Last week listening to student presentations in one of my upper division classes, I had the thought that it would be a better means of taking notes for scoring later than my handwritten scribbles, and would give me a more permanent, or easy to store, record of my comments and responses. Right now, doing that would mean bringing my home laptop to school, something that I have not been in the habit of doing.

Using NV does require adjusting one’s thinking about what it means to make, store, and find notes. Connections, and the organization of the notes into data, are more rhizomatic than linear. So, you have to let go of conventional ways of thinking about ‘documents’ to use the program with comfort. That’s probably why I took I week to think about it, trying to get my head around how the program works. Once I did, and began using it, it quickly felt more intuitive than any of the old systems I have had for doing the same tasks.