By the time I went to the seminary, I had developed my own process for learning that worked like gangbusters. For me, anyway.
Some people do their best learning by ear: they soak up everything the prof says during lecture time. Or they make sound recordings of the lectures and listen to them over and over. Others thrive on learning by eye, pouring over books and carefully written notes. I seemed to learn best by hand. And I learned so well that, without having to cram before exams, I consistently got top-of-the-class, next-to-perfect marks. People called me "the Sponge."
It got embarrassing when they asked me to help them study or, worse, to lend them my textbooks or my notes. I'm sure they learned more about what goes on inside my head than about the academic subject. For the margins of my books were filled with scribblings: smiley faces, angry faces, question marks, exclamation points, asterisks, five-pointed stars, arrows, parallel lines, wavy lines, and laconic notes to myself. The text, meanwhile, was littered with underlinings, shapes drawn around names and words, lines relating key points to each other, letters and numbers representing points on the outline on which I was mentally mapping the text.
I had a system, known only partially to myself and not at all to anyone else, determining which type of shape or squiggle I used to indicate agreement or disagreement, promotion or demotion in my conceptual pecking-order. At exam time, I needed only flip through the book to refresh my memory of where I had drawn circles and rectangles in the text, or numbers in the margin, and I would be ready to set the class curve. Meanwhile, when it came to daily reading assignments, this process of interacting with the text, and the physical act of decorating it, impressed its details on my mind so clearly that I hardly ever missed a question in, say, Professor Marquart's True-or-False quizzes.
My class notes, if anything, were worse. Written in a virtually illegible scrawl, they were basically useless for review purposes. Yet I scribbled feverishly through every class, even when most students were calmly listening. Again, I believe it was the act of processing what my ears heard into what my hands wrote that enabled me to file each lecture in my memory. It wasn't that meticulous note-taking made my review sessions efficient; rather, my tireless, hasty, unpardonably sloppy writing enabled me not to have to review at all.
The only things I wrote down with care were the koan-like droplets of enlightenment with which certain profs sprinkled their daily lectures. I had to be clever with some of them. Dr. Scaer didn't like to catch me writing down such verbatim remarks, dreading the idea that I was amassing evidence against him. He needn't have worried. I took those notes home, copied his best lines into my diary, and laughed at the tipsy feeling they gave me. One day, when Scaer has passed beyond danger of a malicious heresy suit, I may share some of the best quotes I collected.
In order to bring a semblance of legibility to my notes, I searched far and wide for every reliable way to abbreviate words and retrieve what they meant. I really regretted not learning an authentic form of shorthand or speedwriting. So I made one up for myself, a system of one- and two-letter abbreviations for words that constantly came up in theological lectures. Here are some of them, for your amusement. If you're a seminarian, you're welcome to steal them. Just out of perversity, I'm going to add a few abbreviations I used in my clinical notes as a case manager for "seriously mentally ill" adults. They're not necessarily original to me; some of them I probably picked up from others on the clinical-note-writing staff; but their usefulness could go way beyond the healthcare industry.
@: at or about/around (determined by context)
AC: Apostles' Creed, or Augsburg Confession
Ap: Apology of the Augsburg Confession
Ax: appointment; or, the book of Acts
ax: ask (sheepish grin)
BOC: Book of Concord
c.: circa; around, or about
CB: call(ed) back
CF(s): church father(s)
D/O: drop off
DS: Divine Service/liturgy
eg: for example
EO: Eastern Orthodox
FC: Formula of Concord
F/O: find out or fill out
F/U: follow up (believe it or not)
GW: good works, or get with (+ name)
HC: Holy Communion (see also LS)
HG: Holy Ghost
HM: Holy Ministry
HS: Holy Spirit; or, in a non-theological context, High School
JC: Jesus Christ (see also X)
LC: Large Catechism (of Luther)
LCs: Lutheran Confessions
LG: Law & Gospel
LJC: Lord Jesus Christ
L/M: left a message
LP: Lord's Prayer
LS: Lord's Supper
L/U: look up
LW: Luther's Works
LXX: Septuagint (actually a Roman numeral!)
ML: Martin Luther
N/A: no answer (if preceded by PC), or not applicable
NC: Nicene Creed
n/o: no one
NT: New Testament
NTX: New Testament exegesis
OT: Old Testament
OTX: Old Testament exegesis
P/C: phone call
PM: Philip Melanchthonm
Pr: Pastor, or (sometimes) prophet
pr: prayer, or (sometimes) preach
P/U: pick up
QV: Athanasian Creed (Quicunque Vult)
RC: Roman Catholic(icism)
Ro: (book of) Romans
Rx: medicine/prescription or reaction (determined by context)
SA: Smalcald Articles
sax: sacrament(s) - sometimes "sac" was the singular
SC: Small Catechism (of Luther)
S/U: set up
Sx: essence, or saints/sainthood (determined by context)
TC: Ten Commandments
Tr: Trinity, or sometimes Treatise
T/W: talk with
VM: Virgin Mary, or voice mail
WC: welfare check
WS: word and sacrament
X: Christ (from the Greek letter "chi")
XP: Christ (Greek "chi-rho"), sometimes superimposed
In addition to these alphabetical gimmicks, my notes often included abstract shapes. A valentine shape meant "heart" or "love." A dagger could mean either "died/death" or "cross/crucifixion." A five-sided star indicated an assignment. A triangle could stand for the Trinity. Inspired by certain Bible concordances, I used the Greek letter "psi" for Psalm. I have my own personal ampersand, which looks like a backward 3 with a vertical slash through it; I cultivated it because of its resemblance to the Latin word "et." I kept it because it was easier to draft than any alternative, and harder to confuse with something else.
An arrow from one person, place, or thing to another could indicate movement toward someone, somewhere, or something. But more often, it meant a logical consequence; one thing leads to another, or implies another. A question mark could stand for the word "question," or at the beginning of a line it could mark the location of a question. An exclamation point, especially at the beginning of a line, marked something really noteworthy. A light bulb could mark a flash of insight. A dollar-sign was sufficient to cover any mention of money. The word "number," even in the name of the book of Numbers, could be spelled with a pound sign (#).
My class notes, too, were often decorated with smiles of agreement, frowns of disdain, and even disrespectful little faces sticking their tongues out or crossing their eyes. Some of my hand-drawn emoticons winked knowingly, some gaped in astonishment, some grimaced in frustration or squinted in confusion; a few spewed projectile vomit, reflecting moments of intense disgust. At some less stimulating lectures, I recorded my boredom with out-cold faces (X's for eyes, etc.). Some faces had halos, others had horns; perhaps one or two wore asses' ears. In drawing these things, I wasn't simply doodling. I was making a record of my emotional and critical reaction to the things I was reading and hearing.