Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Visualizing the Academic Mind

The Social Sciences began experimenting with visualization as early as the 1910s, when Franz Boas applied Kwakiutl place-names to an ordinary map to help him better explain the Kwakiutl world view. In the 1940s, scholars of folklore began abstracting these geographical diagrams into "synoptic diagrams" that showed concepts in relationship to each other. Since that time, scholars around a range of disciplines have used mental maps and synoptic diagrams for their powers at synthesizing a range of information from diverse fields.

James A. Notopoulos, “The Symbolism of the Sun and Light in the Republic of Plato. II,” Classical Philology 39, no. 4 (October 1944): 223-240.

Briefly, visualizations do two things to rational argument that text is very bad at doing.

Synoptic diagrams are excellent at getting people on the same page. For this reason, anthropologists in the 1960s used them to synthesize everything known about cultural binaries, making sure that divergent scholars came to a consensus about the shape of world view. For this reason, too, "visual journalists" were hired in Silicon Valley from the 1970s forward to draw synoptic diagrams of a discussion, live. When everything everyone has said in a meeting appears on the wall, visually organized by the proximity of arguments, the meeting tends towards agreement. With a visual record, it's more difficult to suddenly disagree, reposition oneself from the outside or challenge the record. Visual diagrams lend permanence to thoughts and help to establish universal, structural arrangements, organizing all intellectual manifestations.

Visual diagrams are also particularly useful for ability to pan out. In a text document, it's often hard to get an overview without relying on an arbitrary abstraction like a table of contents. When reading a map, however, the scholar bends over to see more clearly the detail around a particular city, or steps back to see the nation as a whole. Just so, a visual diagram of an argument allows the reader to very quickly slip between the finite details and the big picture -- making sure that the argument fits exactly where it's supposed to.

For both of these reasons, I've found, as a scholar who produces text, that visual diagramming aids both my ability to recall large numbers of facts -- and to organize them into a larger picture without repeating myself.

There's much to be said here, but I'll confine myself to mentioning two of my favorite tools and their uses.

1) PersonalBrain

Key uses:
- Notetaking at conferences/lectures when facts may be needed for later recall
- Organizing facts related to an overview of a broader field
- Brainstorming in a relatively new subject area
- Keeping track of large numbers of dates, characters, and places when these items are new

PersonalBrain is a sovereign organizer of images, notes, and web links -- it allows you to drag and drop URL's, jpg's, and text from your daily reading program into a map. A few keystrokes allow you to type "thoughts," quickly linking "up" to "parent thoughts" -- overarching categories (History of Chicago < History of Cities) -- and "down" to "child thoughts" (History of Chicago > Ship and Sanitary Canal).

PersonalBrain is amazing at making million-thought outlines at conferences. Using it to take notes allows you to, over time, create an extended map of your entire knowledge of things-people-have-told-you-about-the-periphery-of-your-field.

Say I'm listening to presentations at the Anglo-American Conference, and one of them includes a colleague lecturing on balloon housing in the history of Chicago. When I begin taking notes on "Balloon Housing," I link it to the "History of Chicago." PersonalBrain remembers that I have other notes on the History of Chicago, and suddenly, my two sets of ideas are connected. Everything the colleague now tells me about housing and construction is now linked, however distantly, to the larger thoughts, The History of Chicago and the History of Cities. Should I ever need to locate those thoughts again, there they are, linked up with their related subjects.

Over time, these expanding larger categories ("history", "modernity", and "landscape" are key ones in my case) come to be enriched with detailed information garnered from sitting in conferences, job talks, and other lectures.

Five years from now, when I'm suddenly called upon to teach an introduction to Western Civilization, there will be my lecture notes: matching my colleague, his references to Chicago, all the notes I took, and any other notes I happen to take on Chicago after now. Say I'm planning that lecture, and want to recall how Chicago fits into everything else I know about modernity. PersonalBrain allows me to pan back from the single-thought view. It creates a map -- weighting thoughts related to each other so that they float near each other. On a big screen, entire branches of knowledge become clear.

This flexibility and permanence become rapidly useful when you're juggling large numbers of concepts whose relationship to each other is still unclear to you.

A perfect example: rewriting a syllabus. I recently sat down to reconsider the syllabus for a graduate course in Digital History, which I teach at the University of Chicago in Winter 2010-11. The course I teach has three parts -- one, a history of information revolutions since Gutenberg (with readings by Bob Darnton, Adrian Johns, and Ray Kurzweil). Two, an overview of contemporary issues like privacy and copyright (readings by Larry Lessig and Dan Cohen). Three, an introduction to new methods like GIS, network analysis, and collaborative writing.

That's a lot of information to teach. The class only goes clearly if one divides up the syllabus nicely into classes where each meeting offers a small dose of each subject. How to make sure I'm covering my bases? Brainstorming with PersonalBrain helped: I outlined issues and grouped texts together before creating time-oriented thoughts like "Week 1" and dividing them. Take it for a whirl:

Digital History Syllabus
(Hint: the "+" in the menu expands to a more elaborate view; the spider-icon allows you to switch from normal view to expanded view where you start to see the big picture.)

Personal Brain's one weakness for my purposes is that it's not designed to allow you to write in paragraphs. Your "idea" is only allowed to be about 40 or so characters long.

The program is therefore not ideal for writing essays. Thus, the thousand notes on railways i took at the Huntington Library last year: not so great. They're a beautiful outline. They're wonderful to lecture from. I can rearrange them, elaborate them in the "notes" view, and then export them as a text outline. It's very difficult, however, to work sentence-by-sentence through my notes, to make sure that every thought goes in an explanatory order, and that conclusions follow after facts.

Since that visit to the Huntington, I've figured out that a better piece of
software for outlining notes that go into essays is MindManager, a mind-mapping program designed to fit seamlessly into Word.

2) MindManager

Key uses:
- taking notes on a historiography
- taking notes for an essay while moving towards the ultimate structure of the essay

Mindmanager allows you to take notes on a project and move them around in a 3d map
until they make sense. Because the essay view is synoptic, the writer's eye can constantly move back up the tree hierarchy -- to make sure that this thought is in the right place -- and down the tree hierarchy -- to make sure that every statement is thoroughly supported with adequate evidence.

The essay is written as a branching tree. Each sentence and paragraph can be dragged-and-dropped into place; entire sections can be rearranged, with their entire structure intact, into the linear flow of the essay. In this way, the essay's structure is constantly being reorganized for clearer flow.

The writer has the ability to easily zoom in and out of a particular view. As one zooms out, viewing the entire essay as a map, blank spaces of insufficient support become visually clear. That ability alone decreases the chances of convincing oneself that one has adequately supported a point only to remember, when printing the essay out, that insufficient evidence has been cited.

Such tools increase the writer's chances of catching redundancies early, and decrease the likelihood of writing and rewriting the same essay over and over again. A few weeks' work suggests that Mindmanager doubles the writing speed of an average essay, at least.

Once the thoughts are organized in what seems to be their proper shape, sufficiently elaborated, the writer exports to a text document. The visual, hierarchical mindmap instantly becomes a linear essay.

However: MindManager doesn't allow you to make the million-point 3d
map of your own brain. It's marvelous for moving from a visual brainstorming diagram of main points down to support; it's less good at creating permanent ideas in a branching tree of knowledge, giving large ideas permanence, and making connections where none previously existed. For brilliant note-taking at conferences where people are throwing you information you might need to find again in 5 years -- much better to
use Personal Brain.

For my own purposes, I've chosen to adopt both tools for different uses. I use PersonalBrain for taking notes in other people's lectures -- for organizing my knowledge of things of general interest -- and mindmanager for taking notes specific to your own project -- for turning note cards into essays.

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Credit where credit is due: Thanks to Jerry Michalski and Cathrine Dam for plugging me in!

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