Zettelkasten as a structural idea

James Parker
February 1, 2024

The organising principle of this curriculum is the “zettelkasten”, which is an admittedly peculiar choice that needs some explanation.

A zettelkasten is a digital or physical note-taking system where notes are organised into conceptually interconnected cards, allowing for easy retrieval and creation of new ideas by linking new cards to existing knowledge. Usually, this is a system for one person to use to organise their own individual research. Here, the curriculum holds together pedagogical propositions that have been contributed by many people.

One reason for doing this is to avoid determining a taxonomy of categories and subcategories in advance. Within a zettelkasten, the groupings and categorisation emerges from the actual material (as opposed to what the material is imagined to be beforehand). This leads to a less generic, more meaningful and surprising structure.

Another important dimension of the zettelkasten is its seriality. The web is full of filters and sorts that give users a sense of agency about the material they encounter. But in a series (a stack of index cards, a bookshelf) there are choices to be made about adjacencies and proximities. Moreover, these spatial relations can generate an awareness of gaps and connections. The responsibility of adding a new topic into the curriculum includes positioning it somewhere in the series (before this and after that) rather than just adding to the heap.

Finally, as the zettelkasten serves not just as a repository for research but also a tool for writing, this curriculum is envisioned as a tool for study. It is unlikely that anyone would do the entire thing, but rather they would enter into the curriculum and produce routes through it.