Posts in misc
Notion Template for Drafts & Notes

I started using Notion this year and my Very Short Review is that it's incredible and everyone should be using it. My only complaint is that I want to use Notion so much that it has tended to be cluttered faster than I'd hoped when I first started using it this summer.

The point of this post isn't to get you to use Notion (although you can try it for free and you use this link for $10 in credit towards a paid account), it's to document an incredibly simple and effective writing template I discovered recently that's really changed how I write.

The template is based off work by Edward Tufte and the tufte LaTeX package and in particular the tufte-handout document class in LaTeX (and Rmarkdown!). I've used the Tufte-styled handouts for a few years and I think they're fantastic. In particular, the side-margin for notes, references, graphs, and other marginalia is something I actually adopted for hand-written notes much longer ago. I adopted the Cornell method between undergrad and grad school, and anecdotally it seems to have made a big difference.

The original purpose of Tufte's design, as far as I can tell, isn't the same as the purpose of the margin in teh Cornell method. However, the basic principle of dividing your writing space into two unequal columns -- one for primary content and the other for a secondary stream -- is the same.

The Template

When I write in Notion, the template I use is based on a synthesis of these ideas. First, I create a new blank page and set the page to fullscreen width. While Notion does have built-in notes and blog post templates, these don't match how I typically think about writing notes.

Next, I add two headers: Draft and Notes. The titles of these may change depending on the purpose, but usually it's these.

Then I use the drag-and-drop functionality in Notion to create two columns from these headers and I adjust the width of the columns to reflect the Tufte/Cornell margins. From what I can tell, Notion currently divides the vertical space in a page into 16 equal parts, and I use a ratio of 13/3 on the page. The video below shows how this works in practice.


Once the draft is written and ready to be sent out or converted into another document, Notion has a built-in Markdown export for any page that will easily convert the document into human-readable Markdown. This is where the template really shines, because the "Notes" column is converted to a separate section at the bottom of the page.

Since one of the main uses of the "Notes" column is things like references and footnotes, the links from these get listed at the bottom of the Markdown page in single spot, which is really nice. Even better is using the MMD syntax for footnotes to make sure that when the document is used for other things those notes (now endnotes rather than marginalia) are associated with the correct sentence or paragraph.

Finally, I use John MacFarlane's pandoc software to convert the exported Markdown document into a *.doc, *.html, or even a *.pdf with the tufte-handout class! The footnote syntax makes sure that the notes get connected to the right part of the document, and it lets me export from Notion into any format I want.

An example chapter from my dissertation that uses this template.

Because Notion has a template-building feature with the "Button" blocks, I don't have to go through this process every time. I have a template button that creates a new page with these dimensions and then I just drag the page wherever I want it to live in Notion.

If you have your own Notion account you can see an example of the template page here.

Chart Fight

So, here's a bad chart:

bad chart

The source describes a real and important phenomenon: Americans are broadly and significantly wrong about crime rates. But the chart. The chart is bad.

Why is the chart bad?

The central issue is that the double y axes are representing drastically different variables. Generally, putting two lines on the same chart where the scale is the same is good. Both scales go from 0 to 100. But when just one scale is a percentage it actually masks the very different variables being measured here.

What are those variables? The orange line is the national violent crime rate, from 0 to 100. Out of what? 1,000? 100,000? 1 million? A little searching suggests that the rate is out of 1,000 but you wouldn't know this here.

The blue line is the "percentage of survey respondents who said that crime has increased locally over the past year." Here's the thing. People can absolutely be correct that the crime rates have increased locally while they drop nationally. In fact, almost everyone could say correctly that crime rates have increased locally while they decrease nationally, as long as crime rates are decreasing significantly enough in certain parts of the country. This isn't a perception gap if people are correctly identifying local trends while national trends go in the other direction.

Even if we (incorrectly) interpret the blue line to represent what percentage of respondents say crime is increasing nationally over the past year, there are several years where people are correctly identifying crime rates. From 2005 to 2006 and from 2010 to 2012 crime does increase nationally. So survey respondents who say crime rates are increasing over the last year in 2006, 2011, and 2012 are correct! There's a perception gap here, but it's on the part of survey respondents who deny that crime rates are increasing.

The large yellow area ominously labeled "PERCEPTION GAP" suggests that there's some permanent (since 9/11, roughly) disconnect between what Americans believe the crime rate is and what it actually is. And this is likely true. But the chart doesn't show that!

There are still plenty of interesting questions to ask about these lines and the gap between reality and our perception of it. Why does the blue line spike and drop when it does? Why does public perception seem to restabilize and basically flatten after 2005? Is the blue line bump in 2009 due to Obama's inauguration (and the racist backlash that followed) or is the blue line just delayed by a few years and the bump is due to the actual crime rate bump in 2006?

I'm also in broad agreement that Americans' views about violent crime are way off-base. However, charts like this one give us the appearance that something exists while actually representing something else entirely. That's a more worrisome perception gap.

Why We Unionize

On Tuesday, August 15th, 2017, the collective bargaining agreement between the University of Illinois and the Graduate Employees' Organization (GEO) expired.

On Monday, January 29th, 2018 - 168 days later - the GEO filed intent to strike paperwork that would permit a legal strike.

On Wednesday, February 7th, 2018 - two days before a strike would be legal - the University bargaining team declared a strike over tuition waiver protections would be illegal.

On Monday, February 26th, 2018 - 15 days from today - the GEO membership will strike, shutting down the better part of the University of Illinois campus.

During the term of this Agreement, Graduate Assistants and Teaching Assistants will not have their tuition waivers reduced while they hold qualifying assistantships, are in good academic standing, and are making proper progress toward graduation in the program in which they began.

There are many reasons to form a union. Solidarity. Protection. Stability. Here are a few of mine.

I am a member of the University of Illinois and also the GEO. Over the last six years I've taught hundreds of students at the University of Illinois. I've graded their papers, held office hours, and answered their emails. I've also discussed with them what it means to live a good life, showed them how to avoid lazy and fallacious reasoning, and helped them develop an authorial voice that they recognize as their own.

A lot has happened to me since I started grad school, both good and bad. One thing I've never had to worry about was whether I would lose my tuition waiver. I can be confident that I'll keep that tuition waiver only because of the 42 word sideletter to the contract quoted above that the GEO won in 2012. For many (and I suspect most) graduate students a tuition waiver is the only thing that grants them access to this level of education. Without a tuition waiver we would not be here. And so, without the GEO we would not be here.

I also recognize that the GEO protects a lot of people whose lives are significantly different from mine. To make graduate education accessible to everyone we must provide everyone with the foundational stability and ease that is necessary for academic pursuits. Call it σχολή or otium or whatever you want, but people can't be students, they can't be teachers, and they can't do research if they are hungry, sick, or destitute. Some of what the GEO fights for doesn't apply to me but it does apply to my fellow graduate students and that's enough.

So, if the University of Illinois really is "the pre-eminent public research university" with a mission to "enhance the lives of citizens in Illinois, across the nation and around the world through our leadership in learning, discovery, engagement and economic development" then the Administration should have no qualms about maintaining the promise they have made to anyone who wants to pursue a graduate education: that they can do it here. To do that we need healthcare, a living wage, and a guarantee (not just an 'eligibility') of a tuition waiver. They have 15 days to make their commitment to pre-eminance clear.

You can donate to the GEO Strike Fund here.