Review: Unsolicited Study Annotations

hand written notes

pictured: notes on the text, on the text

What’s on test: The merits of the handwritten notes commonly found scribbled in the margins of communal-use study texts, often in pencil, usually by an individual studying the same subject or field as the new reader.

What we found:

Pros: Our testers approached this review assuming that anyone who actually physically writes in a book (especially when removable stationary aides are easy to buy or make) doesn’t necessarily possess much in the way of intelligence. This assumption is almost always subsequently borne out in the quality of the scribbled observations.

The evidencing of this was found to be positive in many ways. Primarily, our testers felt a kind of reassurance that his or her own observations were of a higher quality than at least one other person, albeit someone who physically writes on books. The scribbler’s writings also provided ready-made dummy ‘contrary’ arguments i.e. the kind that the writer introduces with “Some may argue…” or “Others have noted…” before flamboyantly dismissing with evidence and academic bon mots.  Indeed, many of our testers felt more ‘academic’ after reading the notes in question.

In fact, some of our testers even felt that the standard of the notes often helped the reader appreciate the quality of the source text all the more. That said, it was also suggested that the notes were of some use to the reader, as many of them were found to be informed directly from cues in teacher’s guides, and as such at least pointed to what would ultimately be worth marks.

Cons:  Many of our testers felt that, unless they immediately highlighted the existence of the 3rd party notes to the owner or guardian of the book, then they themselves would be implicated in the crime, causing unwelcome stress in an already stressful situation.

This also resulted in a degree of bad feeling towards the note-writer, and some of our testers  found it difficult not to slip into one-sided fantasy debates with those individuals, whose approach and conviction in those daydream arguments were usually as brief and under-developed as the notes themselves. Our testers often wasted several hours involved in these strange internal parades. In fact, one of our testers even suggested that the notes could have been deliberately placed by a scholar of the same subject or course, in order to trigger this kind of time wasting, or even throw the reader off the ‘correct’ interpretation (ironically by suggesting that very interpretation). Conversely, one of our testers felt that the notes could be perceived by the reader as a message for someone else, like a secret code or treasure map.  This disturbing misinterpretation was found to be alarmingly common during all-night cramming sessions or last minute essay deadlines.

Finally, it was noted that there did exist the potential for the points within the notes to be better or more obscure than anything the reader had previously considered, giving rise to a situation where the reader may question their own abilities, even going so far as to consider cheating. Our testers found this prospect distinctly unsettling, given that there also existed the possibility that the notes could be for an entirely different book (re. the intelligence of an individual who writes books).

Verdict:  On balance, we found that unsolicited study notes were largely unhelpful, not just because they rarely provided any observations worth assimilating, but also because they presented a future stumbling block for more naive students. As such, almost all of our testers felt compelled to not so much remove the offending notes as update them with correct observations, as much for the benefit of those who may have read the previous inaccuracies as for those as yet unaware of them. Our testers were largely of the opinion that when an individual attempts to impose their understanding of something onto someone, they generally don’t understand that something, or understand that someone, and it was therefore important to avoid that happening, even if it meant writing over the old notes in biro.

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