Does Prof. Hacker take requests? You bet! For example, Katy writes to ask:
I don’t know if you officially take requests, but I have one for you if you’re willing. I’d love a post on how you keep your class files organized. I’m in the process of trying to come up with a logical filing system for all of my class notes/handouts/exams etc. and am struggling with how to do it. By class taught? By subject area? By author? Also, how much student work do you keep and how do you file it?
Excellent questions all!
First, a principle, which I am stealing wholeheartedly from Merlin Mann: “Lose the shells”:
The idea here is that you probably don’t have a place in your home or ofﬁce where you store the shells from every peanut you ever ate. If you did, you’d deﬁnitely want to organize them by the year in which you ate them, perhaps keeping separate jars per-month or per-location where you ate the nut. You know. For posterity. But you don’t do that. It would be insane. Once you eat the peanut, the job of the shell is done. So lose it. Ditto dead email. Never organize what you can simply discard; and if you can’t discard it, throw it onto one big pile.
This is where you protest, “but class notes and handouts and such aren’t dead e-mail, and they’re not peanut shells. They’re an important part of my work, and they need to be Organized.” Because it’s an affront to their dignity if I don’t have an excellent taxonomy that lets me find the handout in its proper spot.
Mann’s point is that whichever taxonomical scheme you choose will be the wrong one later. If you organize files by course taught, then chances are you won’t remember le handout juste when you teach a different class. Organize ‘em chronologically, and you’re always having to make fresh copies of things. There’s got to be a better way!
I know this will shock the Prof. Hacker community, but I recommend saving almost no paper copies of teaching materials–this is what computers are for. You don’t need a filing system; you need to be able to search for the right file at the right time. Your Mac doesn’t care about your elaborate filing scheme–you’re going to use Spotlight to find the file anyway. You can use applications such as Evernote or DevonThink to index your files, or you can do cool keyboard ninja searches with Quicksilver–it doesn’t matter which.
The only organizational scheme you need, then, is the one that gets you through the current semester. I have a folder on my desktop called “active,” which contains a folder for each class, a folder labeled “service,” and another labeled “research.” At the end of the semester, I move the contents of the first two folders into another folder labeled “archive”–and I’m done.
As far as student work goes, unless I’m keeping something as a model to show other students, I throw unclaimed papers out after a semester.
One caveat: Your university–or your state if you are at a public university–might have regulations about how long to keep things like old gradebooks. But even there you can usually digitize a copy and save that.
All of which is just to say: Don’t file. Search. Lose the shells.
Is this wrong? If you have a great filing scheme, leave it in the comments!
[image by flickr user craigemorsels per creative commons license]