should I just throw out my university course notes?
March 21, 2007 5:58 PM   Subscribe

should I just throw out my university course notes? (more details below)

I am a psychology graduate student in my first year of master's degree. My partner and I recently moved in together into a very small 1-bedroom apartment. The physical space is definitely an issue. Right now I have probably 25-30 3-hole binders full of course notes from my undergraduate degree (and some from high school).

My question is whether I should just take it all and throw it out or keep holding on to it? There is always a chance that I may need some of this one day, but I'm starting to wonder whether all the multiple square feet that this stuff will occupy for years is actually worth it.

I know there were previous questions on how to organize all this information, but it's already pretty organized. I'm just wondering whether I should dump it all? I'm thriving for more or less clutter-free life (e.g. regularly drop off used clothing at value village; listed most of my textbooks for sale on Amazon).

I wonder if this is different, because this is "knowledge". I think I'm attached to these papers because of how much time and money it took to accumulate them all. Realistically, though, I think it would be faster for me to just look up a concept in Google, rather than search for it in my course notes.

(Most of these course notes are in psychology area, but some are also math, history, women's studies, philosophy, ethics, etc.).

What do you think? If you are in a similar situation, please share your experience? Thank you!
posted by esolo to Education (41 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I would throw them out, but then again all the notes I took in all the classes in HS and college combined would fit in a single notebook so I wouldn't have kept them in the first place.

I would say your guess about Google is right. Keeping knowledge is great. Keeping your hurried, scribbled first impressions of knowledge...not so much.
posted by DU at 6:08 PM on March 21, 2007

If you know anyone who is still at the university and could benefit from old class notes, give them to him/her, otherwise throw em away.
posted by jckll at 6:08 PM on March 21, 2007

Go through your notes and pull out the "greatest hits". I still have a few key lectures/handouts from undergrad. I didn't keep anything from high school -- can't even imagine that coming in handy. If you start noticing that there's little of value, you will have your answer.

Alternatively, scan your notes to PDF. It's time consuming, but you could do it while watching TV or something.
posted by acoutu at 6:10 PM on March 21, 2007

Are you going to be teaching at all? You might want to look back at your old notes if you're ever putting together a course of your own.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:11 PM on March 21, 2007

You could do what I did which is save them for about ten years and a few moves and then say "Why am I cluttering up my house with all this stuff?" before throwing them out. If you did any big papers or other projects that may be useful in some way, you might want to keep them, but otherwise I think you will find that the vast majority can be thrown out (or given to another student as suggested above).
posted by TedW at 6:13 PM on March 21, 2007

You can get rid of the notes for the required classes outside of psychology without much problem. Unless you have an interest or a hobby that relates to a certain class, there is no need for you to hold onto your notes from a history or oceanography class.

You can also ditch all of your notes from high school, you probably will never need those again, ever.

As far as your psychology classes, it depends. I'm not a psychology major myself, but depending on how likely you would need to refer back to your material while studying for other courses, I would assume it is not necessary to keep. I might hold onto the notes from courses like statistics or chemistry for your masters degree, as you might need a refresher, depending on your graduate coursework. Once you are done with school though, I would get rid of them.

I think a lot of people will hold on to things because of the time investment put into them. I would recommend David Allen's Getting Things Done.
posted by debit at 6:15 PM on March 21, 2007

In college I did some work with the school archivists and they mentioned that they would appreciate donations of class notes, personal email printouts, etc.--anything that documented the daily life of a student. If your school has something similar you might want to offer to give them your notebooks. And that way you'd know that if you ever *really* needed to access the stuff, it'd be there.

Personally, I still have notes around from high school and I intend never to get rid of them; partially because of the contents of the notes, mostly because of funny stuff I or my friends drew and wrote in the margins.
posted by phoenixy at 6:18 PM on March 21, 2007

When I finished my undergrad degree I had to decide what to do with several years worth of carefully organized and kept notes, as well as selected notes from high school. I realized that I rarely consulted my old notes already, and that the likelihood of doing so would decrease over time.

Three years into a PhD and I've never missed them. I do use my old textbooks though (some of which have useful annotations).
posted by grouse at 6:19 PM on March 21, 2007

I think it would be faster for me to just look up a concept in Google, rather than search for it in my course notes.

I believe that you have answered your own question. Make room for things that give you joy now.
posted by ferdydurke at 6:22 PM on March 21, 2007

You should be safely able to get rid of anything that isn't psychology or otherwise immediately, obviously useful (ie, statistics, math, or other methods-related).

First thing to do is to write today's date on several pieces of masking tape and use the pieces to ``seal' the binders. If you haven't opened a binder in a year or two, pitch it, unless you happen to for-real know that there's some immensely valuable thing in there.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:25 PM on March 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

You could always scan them and pitch the hard copies.
posted by Doofus Magoo at 6:33 PM on March 21, 2007

Chances are you'll never look at those notebooks again. However, I'm like you - I've been out of school for some time but can't come to get rid of my textbooks let alone my notebooks.

My opinion is that I may never have any real use for the notebooks I've filled but I put a lot of work into them. Why just throw them away? Then again, I'm odd and a pack rat.

Honestly, you worked hard, why just throw it away?
posted by ASM at 6:38 PM on March 21, 2007

I think they could be valuable, but only you can determine that. How high-quality are they? How personalized are they (i.e., do they contain clever insights or doodles)?

You didn't ask for organizational suggestions, but: 3-ring binders can take a lot more space than just the papers alone, and binders don't fit on a shelf well. Have you considered putting the paper contents out of the binders and filing them in a file box or two? I bet that would take a lot less space. Or you could get them more neatly bound at an office-supply store or printers'.
posted by amtho at 6:42 PM on March 21, 2007

I still have notes from high school, and I always enjoy it immensely when I look at them. But that's probably because my mind wandered a lot, and there are weird musings, drawings, etc. all through my notes.

And my handwriting - aagh. And remembering my teachers.
posted by amtho at 6:43 PM on March 21, 2007

Second the scan and toss the hard copies idea. If you put them in PDF format, there are a bunch of applications that will index them for you and make them searchable (might have to look into OCR etc. for converting handwritten notes into text).
posted by purephase at 6:47 PM on March 21, 2007

It would be kind of cool if all your old notes ended up in the archives somewhere. But yeah, you can toss it all and never miss it. As you head into graduate school, you will more and more need to go to the source (primary texts, journal articles, etc) rather than relying on tertiary sources, such as lecture notes or a general textbook. I have kept none of my notes and miss them not at all; I know of no one who relies on old lecture notes, but maybe they are just keeping it quiet.

If it concerns you, toss it in stages. First lose the highschool notes, then the peripheral stuff from college (whatever isn't your current focus), then the rest of the college stuff.

(That said, I was recently talking with a professor who was in the process of retiring, and in cleaning out his office he found all his original dissertation drafts and notes. He said that he was always paranoid that someone would call and say, "I'm sorry, we made a mistake and lost your thesis and we need to you redo it and turn it in again," so for more than four decades he kept a huge box of papers in his office, out of fear that his doctorate might get taken away. Even after retiring as a full professor, he found it very hard to toss the dissertation notes. So you are not alone in holding on to unneeded papers.)
posted by Forktine at 6:49 PM on March 21, 2007

I had to get rid of all the notes from grade nine until the end of university. It was very hard, because, like you, I assumed I might still need them some day.

Not true.

I brought some of the textbooks with me, and I have used one paragraph from one of the books just once since I started grad school. That's it.

I did keep some of my favourite essays and project reports, but the actual notes don't even make sense anymore after all these years. I was a very geeky note-taker, using different colours and drawing lots of tables. Hours on hours of work went into these notes, and still, they'll never be as important as they were when you took that course.

Once you go through your notes, you'll find courses you forgot you took, and you might want to keep the notes out of nostalgia. Don't do it! Throw it out! Make a pile of everything you're tempted to keep, and look again after a few weeks. Still want those notes? Probably not...
posted by easternblot at 6:49 PM on March 21, 2007

I say toss 'em. You'll do it eventually, you might as well get it out of the way now.

However, if you can't bring yourself to toss those notes, consider re-binding them. Three-ring binders are not a very efficient means of soring paper and they certainly don't store well. I'd be willing to bet that you can find means of rebinding that will reduce the space your notes take up by half.
posted by lekvar at 6:56 PM on March 21, 2007

I started culling out my undergrad notes during my MSc. I've just been too lazy to get rid of the rest of them.

Instead of throwing them out, I'd suggest going through them - I found some of my old papers and such; most were forgetable, some were really bad, but there were a couple of gems. One graded paper prompted me to contact an old prof to thank him for helping me improve my writing style and I eventually ended up writing a letter for him towards his getting tenure.

I kept all of my textbooks, though.
posted by porpoise at 6:59 PM on March 21, 2007

I recently had this same issue, and threw away all the notes.

First, I think sorting through the notes and then trying to make sense of them is a waste of time in most cases. If you need to get back up to speed on a topic in a hurry, you can buy or borrow a book that will tell you what you need to know.

Second, a lot of stuff from undergrad will not really help you in grad school unless you are in a technical major. Same goes for notes and books from grad school helping on the job. This has been my personal experience.

Finally, if you need space so badly, there is no good reason to have that much paper around. Unless you keep these binders stored probably, you'll have a bug problem and the pages may begin to yellow and deteriorate after a time.

Good luck.
posted by reenum at 7:00 PM on March 21, 2007

Another vote for scanning. With an automatic document feeder (ADF, like on a nice photocopier), my HP scanner rips through double-sided notes pretty quickly. I may never look at the notes again, but I feel better tossing hundreds of pages knowing that I still have them on a CD (or a zip file, or whatever).
posted by onshi at 7:34 PM on March 21, 2007

I didn't even hold onto notes from semester to semester. Toss 'em.
posted by solid-one-love at 7:57 PM on March 21, 2007

I'm grappling with this right now, with both notes and textbooks. Is there someone you can pawn the stuff off to for a few years, like your parents? If at any point in the next few years after you give it to someone for storage, you find yourself wishing you had it, then you'll have your answer (and because you've organized it so well, maybe they'll even be able to get you what you need). I found that once I was about five years out of high school and college, I finally felt confident that I could get rid of the stuff and it was easy because I had gone so long without needing it. If there isn't anyone to give it to, I would say ditch high school, keep only the big/important stuff from the non-psych classes, and keep the psych stuff.
posted by ml98tu at 8:03 PM on March 21, 2007

Response by poster: mr_roboto: Yeah, I will probably teach at some point, so that was part of the reason for my hesitation. But again, what's the likelihood I will actually pull my old binders and be able to reassemble what's there? :)
posted by esolo at 8:35 PM on March 21, 2007

Response by poster: ml98tu: my parents actually had most of this stuff throughout my undergrad. Now I moved into a relative permanent place of my own (as compared to moving 3 times a year) and they shipped these boxes to me as fast as they could... So now, I'm faced with boxes of stuff that lived under the stairs for the last couple of years, at least.

I would not hesitate to throw everything out if I was in the workforce now. But on the other hand, I don't think I even remember what's there any more! :)
posted by esolo at 8:37 PM on March 21, 2007

esolo writes "mr_roboto: Yeah, I will probably teach at some point, so that was part of the reason for my hesitation. But again, what's the likelihood I will actually pull my old binders and be able to reassemble what's there?"

Depends on what you've got there. For me, old homework sets are super-useful. Class notes not so much, unless they're really high-quality (ha!).
posted by mr_roboto at 8:43 PM on March 21, 2007

I took great notes in college and tossed them all at graduation. A few years later I was in grad school and so sorry. What was the name of that book that my professor at Chicago recommended? Scan them.
posted by LarryC at 8:57 PM on March 21, 2007

- substantial papers you wrote
- syllabi for every course
- full course notes (or at least greatest hits) for anything you especially loved or might possibly teach.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:27 PM on March 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Meant to add: If your note-taking efficiency is in the normal range, you can probably cut your 25-30 binders down to 2 or 3.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:34 PM on March 21, 2007

Post a notice in department notice board to give them away for any student who needs them.
If there's no reply from 1 or 2 weeks just throw them away and remove the notice.
posted by WizKid at 9:40 PM on March 21, 2007

Second what LobsterMitten said, preferring the 'greatest hits' option. I did my culling as I went, semester by semester, but you could simulate that process now by culling one semester's notes each month, or some such schedule.

Now, undergrad contains, overwhelmingly, stuff that is common knowledge (i.e., not even worth a citation) in the post-grad world, and for most generical-education subjects, all syllabi are of roughly equal value. So if you don't care for geology, ditch the notes, and if you ever really need to know something, start with Google, and then just go find a prof for a quick brush-up.

But if you've got something rare—the lecture was taught by a real pro, and there was all sorts of unusual stuff in lecture that wasn't in the books, or you satisfied a general-ed requirement with an unusual Honors course that the prof developed himself—hang on to it without question. That stuff is gold, whether it's in your field or not.

And favor your upper-division major classes. That's where you start getting stuff that's genuinely valuable in your field.
posted by eritain at 9:55 PM on March 21, 2007

Find a copier that does the sheet feed function. I did this with a bunch of notes. All you have to do is put them in a stack and it feeds them through and outputs a PDF. Once in awhile you'll get a jam, but I did ~300 in less than hour.
posted by geoff. at 10:02 PM on March 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

In general, I would recommend tossing them. Others have noted some possible exceptions that are worth considering.

Saving things because they represent knowledge is one of the pitfalls you see a lot in my line of work - I'm a professional organizer. (That goes along with saving things because they represent love, and saving things because they might be useful someday.) But you already HAVE the knowledge - in the sense of core understandings, ways of approaching problems, etc. The rest, as you say, you can almost certainly find with Google (or a decent library). If you get rid of the symbols, that's all you're getting rid of: symbols.

Something to ask yourself: If you get rid of the notes and then later wish you hadn't, how big a deal will it be? Weigh that against the sure costs, right now, of having less space for the things that matter to you.
posted by jeri at 1:49 AM on March 22, 2007

There is some value in saving syllabi and your own papers (although again there is zero reason to keep any of that from high school), at least from classes in your field. If nothing else, the papers will be a good reminder of how bad you were then, and hence a reason to cut your students some slack, and conceivably your old syllabi could give you guidance when putting together a course. But really, your intellectual work as an academic won't be built off of papers you wrote as an undergrad, and I would hope your teaching will not be based off of classes you took 6 or more years before as an undergrad.

So even for these things, if you keep them, do so out of nostalgia, not out of a belief that you will use them for important and ongoing contributions to your life as an academic.
posted by Forktine at 2:31 AM on March 22, 2007

I used to be a packrat for this stuff. In 20 years I've never looked at any of my undergrad notes.

Furthermore, in the event you needed to revise basic material, you would do much better to make new notes from recent texts.

If you wrote something that you're proud of as an assignment - an A paper or whatever - maybe keep that.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:32 AM on March 22, 2007

Although I came out above in favor of throwing most of it away; I would like to add that since you may teach, one of the few things that I have found worth saving are not so much papers that I wrote in college, but their bibliographies. This is especially true for older articles that may not be available online (or at least not easily found). A personal favorite is this classic paper (Watson and Crick on the structure of DNA), even though it is obviously available online.
posted by TedW at 4:53 AM on March 22, 2007

Your field may be different of course (I was in English) but when I went to college I brought all my notes from my intensive AP English high school courses. Never used 'em. When I went to grad school, I brought my notes and handouts from relevant courses. Never used 'em. The likelihood your notes will come in useful is small.

If you have a paper that was especially salient, or you're proud of, keep that.

I do agree with TedW that if you plan to teach, it might be useful to keep the bibliographies. If you decide to do that, go somewhere with a page feed scanner, and scan 'em into a PDF.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 7:27 AM on March 22, 2007

It's been about 20 years since I graduated college. I saved all of my notes for about 10 years and then went through and dumped the stuff that I didn't think would ever be useful again to me. (I figured that after 10 years I had a decent idea of where my interests lie.) All that I have left now fills up about one storage box.

I wouldn't pitch all of your notes, but only save the stuff that is highly specialized/unique such that you might not be able to easily locate the information elsewhere if you needed to. (As you said, you can just Google basic information on a subject if you ever need to.)
posted by jurczyk at 8:26 AM on March 22, 2007

I'm sorry that I didn't keep some of my papers from college. If you can make the time to review the binders, keeping only what seems to have very high-quality work, then put it in file folders, and keep about 1 milk crate worth of papers, which should be about 1/3 or so of the current space use.
posted by theora55 at 12:23 PM on March 22, 2007

I still have my notes from undergrad, masters, and phd laying around in a box in my dad's garage. After all that effort of writing down all those notes, I just didn't have the heart to toss them. If I had them with me right now though, I'd probably work on scanning some things and chuck them. I think tests, homework, problem sets, and any kind of essay or paper would be worth preserving in some form. But realistically, unless you are going to teach those classes the lecture notes and the rest are probably never going to be referenced again, and if you did seek out that knowledge you'd probably go to a book and not your notes. Now... what to do about all those textbooks I have accumulated...
posted by mikshir at 2:59 PM on March 22, 2007

a late but slightly different take: in preparing to move overseas (fingers still crossed), i threw out all the notes and any homeworks (etc.) that did not represent my own personal creative or academic effort. the remainder is about 20% the original volume (and mass - uffda). same went for the books and texts - if i wasn't in love with it, it went up for sale or to a younger student.
posted by whatzit at 5:32 PM on March 29, 2007

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