Jojo Karlin has been drawing since she was young, but during her graduate studies, she saw new possibilities for using art in her academic notes. Jojo, a digital scholarship services provostial postdoctoral fellow at NYU, is interested in ways our impressions of people influence and contribute to our understanding of their ideas.
Her visual note-taking is a multimodal process, and instead of writing words exclusively, she draws as she listens, reads, and processes ideas. In this interview, she shares examples of the artistic technique she uses for note-taking and hopes to incorporate into ongoing research.
Caption: Fig. 1 At NYU Libraries’ IDBE Day of Learning event, Jojo quickly sketched everyone present as they introduced themselves. With so many speakers and a loose agenda, she said it was tricky to track the conversation’s breadth.
Can you tell us about the work you do?
JK: I started drawing when I was young, but during my graduate studies, I began incorporating art in my academic reactions as I reconsidered how we process and communicate information. Working at the CUNY Graduate Center with Nancy K. Miller on a graphic memoir, Matt Gold on praxis-based digital humanities, Wayne Koestenbaum on the spaces of art writing, and Mary Ann Caws who has always appreciated a good face, I began to develop an approach that engaged my multimodal process of taking notes. I draw as I listen, read, and process academic ideas.
Can you tell us a little about your visual note-taking technique?
JK: I’m interested in the ways impressions of a person influence and contribute to our understanding of their ideas. In a world excessively photographed, I like to take a slower (though still rapid) approach to record speakers and scholars. As I take notes of phrases that resonate with me, I quickly sketch the person speaking. Rather than trying to capture a photo-realistic snapshot of the event, I work with gestures and lines to visualize the concepts at play.
Do you have a name for your technique?
JK: I’ve toyed with a bunch of different words. I started off using the hashtag #jojodoodles because I thought about my work as casual doodling while I absorbed people’s ideas. As I began drawing my dissertation, my advisor and I talked about how the work I was creating wasn’t quite an illustration. We considered “graphic scholarship” and “transmedia” as classification terms. Several colleagues have suggested that I seek employment as a “live event illustrator” or “meeting illustrator.” Visual notetaking is a term that also has traction in education and industry.
While it’s far from a perfect term, I always return to doodling. Even in my self-assessment, I don’t want to aggrandize or overly formalize how I think about what I do. I need to tell myself it’s casual or I lose my ability to focus on the speakers and their words and instead think about my notes as a product.
When did you start taking notes this way?
JK: I started submitting drawings as academic responses in class in 2015. Once I had the idea that I would draw my dissertation, I carried sketchbooks with me, and I started actively drawing panel discussions at departmental forums. Soon I was sketching at digital humanities conferences. I even drew during a panel session I was on at the Society of Scholarly Publishing conference.
Caption: Fig. 2 Introduced by Vice Provost for Undergraduate Academic Affairs and the Humanities Georgina Dopico and Provost Katherine E. Fleming, Professor Bryan Stevenson gave an inspiring talk on October 12, 2020. Jojo recorded Stevenson’s encouraging words to get proximate, to change narratives, and to always be hopeful.
Are there advantages to your illustrated notes?
JK: My illustrated notes help me remember. The time I spend working out the details of a person’s face helps me think through what the person is saying differently. Mapping quotations on the page allows me to draw my connections between the ideas and my personal associations. Beyond the immediate benefits of taking notes this way, I find that posting my process to social media invites follow-up conversations about the events.
What type of programming usually inspires your illustrations?
JK: Throughout my graduate work, as I both interrogated and formalized my drawings, I have expanded my doodling to all programs I attend. I doodle in classes, lectures, smaller talks, concerts, and casual get-togethers. I have found it particularly useful, however, since programming has moved online. On a basic level, I am alone in a more static workspace with access to my materials. Virtual platforms also frame the speakers in interesting ways. My doodling keeps me from getting distracted and gives me something reassuringly material to do when human connection feels strange and unsettled.
Is this a technique used around Libraries? Or is this a unique skill you use in your work?
I love the idea of all library staff and users constantly drawing detailed portraits of each other. My work is my personal response, which is why I find the results helpful. By sharing them, I express my gratitude to the presenters. I also hope to call attention to how we each develop quirky ways of taking notes. We have individual methods of paying attention when we aren’t the ones talking and have to listen to absorb someone else’s content-loaded words.
Caption: Fig. 3 With a full-day orientation for the new faculty, Scott Collard and Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz presented on behalf of the NYU Libraries in September. Given the detailed agenda, Jojo was able to structure this drawing with more detail than usual.
The New York University Division of Libraries is a global organization that advances teaching, learning, research, and scholarly inquiry in an environment dedicated to the open exchange of information. Stay connected, and follow us on Instagram and Twitter.