Volume 6


Special Section — Graphic Notes:

Acadoodling at the 2017 MATC Theatre History Symposium
by Brian Eugenio Herrera (Princeton University)

When I received the invitation to serve as the official respondent for the Theatre History Symposium at the 2017 meeting of the Mid America Theatre Conference, I knew it promised me—an MATC newbie—a unique opportunity to encounter this gathering of scholars.

I also knew I wanted to doodle the whole thing.

My practice of academic doodling began a little more than 15 years ago, when I was in graduate school. It manifested when I began to regularly attend talks by notable scholars visiting campus. I was mortified by the fact that, during such talks, my attention wandered so easily, even during the most engaging and interesting presentations. Ever the diligent student, I pulled out a pen and began taking notes by hand, as I might in a classroom lecture. I quickly discerned that scholarly talks, especially good ones, were built differently than classroom lectures and that scribbling madly actually interrupted my capacity to absorb what was being said. Somehow—I can’t say exactly how—I stumbled into what has become my practice of academic doodling, or what I sometimes call "acadoodling."

In my practice of academic doodling, I listen for whatever is most compelling about a talk—key words and phrases, essential names and dates, big ideas and resonant details—and then draw those extracts (almost as thought bubbles) on the page of my Moleskine notebook in brightly colored ink. As I continue to listen, I might ornament these words by drawing shapes around them or by thickening the lines of the letters themselves. The resulting constellation of lines, shapes, and text is labeled with the speaker’s name, the talk’s title, and the presentation’s date. (This video offers a time-lapsed glimpse into how one of my previous academic doodles actually manifested on the page.)

From the beginning, I found that my practice of doodling provided both a more gratifying experience and a more effective notetaking strategy. Doodling focused my attention on the talk, even when the speaker’s words or delivery did not. Keeping pen to paper readied me to catch the next fact, phrase, or idea that might spark my intellectual imagination. Doodling forced me to listen more mindfully, and the resulting word drawing also served a mnemonic function, capable of activating a vivid recollection of both the content and my experience of the talk.

Doodling soon became "just what I did" during talks, panels, and academic conferences. On occasion, my doodling was seen by some as evidence that I wasn’t paying attention. I knew the opposite was true. (I started my academic doodling practice nearly a decade before the recent spate in scholarship affirming "the cognitive benefits of doodling.") I experientially understood that the practice of doodling helped me to be a more engaged listener. I knew it helped me to absorb and receive the talk as it was offered, which usually deepened and clarified my understanding of the research being presented. On those occasions that I couldn’t doodle a talk, I found it impossible to listen as attentively. I also found I had to actively resist the distractions of critical fault-finding or casual daydreaming. Quite simply, doodling permitted me to encounter the work being presented in a generative and generous manner.

I had been doodling in this way for more than a decade when, about five years ago, I finally acquired a smartphone. The capacity to snap a quick photo of a doodle and then share it within moments transformed my acadoodle practice. Previously, friends or colleagues might look over my shoulder or ask for a peek at my notebook. But with my iPhone, I can post the images on Twitter or Instagram with the requisite tags before I even leave my chair after a talk or a panel. Sharing on social media has amplified my impression that my acadoodles occasionally also function as a form of critical documentation for the work scholars do when we come together. Indeed, though I do not consider my doodling someone’s talk to be an especial honor (as my doodle quite simply confirms that I was in the room while someone was giving a talk), the experience of being "acadoodled" seemed to sometimes deliver a peculiar sort of gratification to those being so tagged. This phenomenon reminds me that, as often as scholars speak in classrooms and at conferences, we do not always receive validation that we have been heard. I now understand that, for some, my academic doodles offer welcome confirmation that someone was indeed listening to them and to their work with interest and care.

I knew I wanted to bring my doodling practice to my work as respondent for the 2017 MATC Theatre History Symposium, both to enrich my encounter with the community of scholars that comprises MATC and to document the richness and complexity of the work being shared. I became increasingly enthused by the challenge of providing a "complete doodle portrait" of the entire proceedings. As my excitement mounted, I received a draft copy of the program and, in keeping with the conference theme, I realized: "Houston, We Have a Problem." Being an MATC newbie, I did not initially understand that the Theatre History Symposium runs panels concurrently. While a testament to the robust productivity of my colleagues, this also meant it was physically impossible for me to experience the entire symposium. Which meant no complete doodle portrait. This just seemed unfair. Wasn’t I charged with responding to the symposium as a whole? How on earth was I to doodle two talks simultaneously without NASA’s help?

The 2017 MATC Theatre History Symposium featured a total of 70 presentations (68 papers, one roundtable, and one keynote). The schedule permitted me to attend 16 of the symposium’s 24 panels. (Inevitable cancellations by a handful of scheduled presenters compelled some last-second shuffling of the program, including calling off a scheduled 25th panel.) I was thus able to be in the room for 40 paper presentations as they happened. With the help of symposium planners Michelle Granshaw and Chandra Owenby Hopkins, I invited the remaining contributors to email me drafts of their papers. 18 of 28 did. I ran those through an app on my phone and, as a computer-generated voice read their paper aloud, I listened and doodled almost exactly as I would have had I been able to hear their authors read them in person. By the conference’s end, I had listened to (and doodled) a total of 58 papers (40 in-person and 18 in the spare moments I could find before, during, and after the conference day). The completist in me does regret that I was unable to encounter the work of the remaining 10 contributors, but my doodling hand—not to mention the brain and body to which it is attached—wonders whether it would have been possible to meet the challenge of another 200 minutes of doodling.

The gallery of images posted above documents my acadoodling encounter with the work presented at the 2017 Theatre History Symposium of the Mid America Theatre Conference. These snapshots also guided the summary reflections I offered during my respondent session. (Special appreciation to Conference Organizer Chris Woodworth for maneuvering me sanely through my second "Houston We Have a Problem" panic—or that moment when we realized there was no projector scheduled for my presentation—thus guaranteeing that I could share my conference doodles with those whose work instigated them.) I share these academic doodles as a glimpse into my encounter with—and as documentation of—the vibrant work created and shared by the generous community of scholars that gathers annually at the Mid America Theatre Conference.