Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Mark Robertson, who is an instructor of history at several California community colleges, teaching American and World History. He focuses on historical memory, race and racism, US foreign policy, and critical pedagogy. His true joy in life is to assist and empowering the interested to better know themselves as learners and as a part of our larger human community. You can find him on Twitter @calhistorian.
Norman Chella: [00:00:00] RoamFM.
Mark Robertson: [00:00:02] But to take the books that they’re reading, the sources that I’m asking them to read, critically, analyze them, draw the information out. We focus on the problem, solving the critical thinking and the analytical thinking.
Norman Chella: [00:00:17] Welcome to RoamFM. Here we dive into the minds, workflows and machinations of the roamcult, the believers of Roam Research.
My name is Norman Chella and I am on a mission to deconstruct wisdom from all walks of life so we can understand each other better. In this episode, we talk with Mark Robertson, who is currently an instructor of history at several California community colleges, teaching American and world history. His scholarly study focuses on historical memory, race and racism, US foreign policy and critical pedagogy. His true joy in life is to assist and empowering the interested to better know themselves as learners and as a part of our larger human community. You can find him on Twitter @Calhistorian.
We go through quite a range of topics from his origin story to becoming an instructor of history at these colleges, struggling to find the perfect tool, complement his thinking and discovering Roam through the intellect disagreement between Tiago Forte and Conor. The influence of the book, the past as a foreign country, on his perception of history, notion of life roaming, how he uses Rome to teach students live in college and why he refuses to lecture, the use of Socratic dialogue to teach students how to critically, I think for themselves and his workflow in teaching others more about history. Mark is a great person to talk to. So without further ado, let’s dive into my chat with Mark Robertson.
Before we start this episode, I just wanted to give a quick shout out to a review, the very first review for RoamFM, which you can find on our Podchaser page. This review comes from Dave Thackeray, giving us a four star review with the comment: a hugely insightful pod supporting one of the most useful apps in existence. Get Roam, get RoamFM.
Thank you, Dave so much for being a huge supporter and listening to our episodes. So I really do appreciate you sending over that review. If you’d like to give a review of your own, you can check out our Podchaser page as well as give us a review on Apple podcasts and I will link the both of these down below on the public Roam graph, as well as the show notes to this episode. And I will read it out loud for you in the next episode. So thank you again, Dave. Now onto the episode.
Mr. Mark Robertson, welcome to RoamFM. How are you doing?
Mark Robertson: [00:02:49] Oh, wonderful. I’m so happy you invited me on here. This is going to be a fantastic conversation and everything that I’ve heard so far with the, with the podcast has been great. So. I want, I want to, I want to listen to more.
Norman Chella: [00:03:01] I really do appreciate it. And you know, part of you listening to it more will be your own voice and your own thoughts on the show. So I hope that you not only the audience, the ones who are listening right now are learning from previous episodes, but we’ll be sure to learn a lot from your experiences with Roam, because I’m actually very, very interested and how you use Roam because you use it in a very specific manner.
We’ll get to that later on in this conversation, but. There has to be a time, which, which is what we’re going to call from now on the dark times, the times before Roam. So I would love to know more about Mark before Rome. What is your origin story? How did you stumble into the tool and what caught your attention?
Mark Robertson: [00:03:48] Well, I mean, a question that literally begins or, or has the concept of an origin story, um, is, is a big thing to ask a historian because the question always is, where do you start that story? I mean, uh, as I joke with my students, when trying to understand causation, right? When, you know, why did something happen?
Um, well, it doesn’t, it always start with the big bang, right. Or, or, or some other, uh, you know, prequel event. So I suppose, you know, specifically to that question, you know, how did I get to this? Or what, what was it like before? I mean, really, it was a struggle in how to kind of keep the knowledge in my head and just try and keep order.
I wasn’t a very good student growing up. I, I almost failed multiple years in primary school and secondary school. It really, it really created an, an issue for me in formal education to be able to kind of keep. Things in, in order. I just didn’t develop those skills. And so once I graduated high school, I never, decided to go to college.
I didn’t take the SATs or I didn’t try to even think about that. Um, it was nearly a decade before I decided, you know what, maybe I should try this college thing, but basically to stick to that, that origin story of how, how I get to Roam is once I started my first kind of really difficult college courses at a community college, a very small community college.
I really, that intellectual difficulty was not really a problem for me, even though I had thought that was the case for decades. Um, and I realized, you know what? I am smart. I’m going to take these courses and I failed them miserably and then I retook them, did them really well and I figured out how to learn, how to think.
And it was at that moment when I went on my trajectory towards, towards, uh, you know, college and graduate school and everything else. And it’s through that journey where I really struggled to keep order in my head. And I tried every tool imaginable to, to keep those thoughts in control.
I tried Evernote back in the early 2000s. I tried every different kinds, kind of, you know, Google docs and, and all of these others. And it really took a long time for me to finally settle on this idea of Wiki linking, which I found with Bear originally. Uh, and I went through some others as well, but. Sometime in November of last year, 1999 or 1999, 89
Norman Chella: [00:06:44] The historian talking.
Mark Robertson: [00:06:47] Yes. Yes. Uh, in 2019, uh, I heard I heard about it. I was following, I had just learned that year about Tiago Forte and, the PARA method and all of these other things. And I saw the beef beginning to build with, with Conor and, and, and Tiago, um, or friendly intellectual disagreement, let’s say between strong minds.
Um, and once I saw that and saw Conor talk about the tool, uh, I went to go check it out. And as soon as I started using it, All these barriers throughout my, you know, personal knowledge management journey started to fall so quickly and so fast that I went head first in thick all back in November and have been using it ever since. I’ve left in an attempt to see if something else could do it and I still can’t find anything else that works the way that Roam does as efficiently as it does.
Norman Chella: [00:08:01] Wait, what? If you found this tool in, in November and you’ve you tried it, why did you try to attempt to leave to find something better?
Mark Robertson: [00:08:11] I guess I’m an eternal skeptic. I mean, it’s true. It’s true. That, I mean, you might say I am one of those productivity app jumpers, right.
I want to jump to the, to the tool that seems to work best for the workflow, but I already had my workflow down and solidified five, six years ago, which we’ll end up talking about here. And I just couldn’t find the tool to fit it. And so I continued to try these other things. And once I realized Roam easily met 80 to 90% of my needs.
I and new tools came out and I was like, you know, maybe I should look at these others as well, because what if I can get that extra 5% before I really invest? And I couldn’t find it. Um, I still use some others, but by, by far, uh, Roam fulfills the vast majority of my needs. And the only issues I have honestly, um, are, are its lack of, uh, uh, offline capabilities. And other than that, I mean, I can deal with that. Um, but other than that, I’m very happy with the tool at this point.
Norman Chella: [00:09:27] Yeah, I see the value of offline capability as well, because there are times when I would want to either bring my laptop or bring my iPad to a different location, which may or may not have wifi. So there, there are limitations or at least there’s pretty much no point to having a second brain, if you can’t access it, no matter where in the world. So I am also, uh, looking forward to that, even though I know at the moment it’s a true believer, only feature, but we’ll see. We’ll, we’ll see it roll out.
Mark Robertson: [00:09:58] I’m sure. Eventually, uh, you know, it will get worked out. Uh, you know, for years I have been a native app person. I have avoided web apps like the plague. Ever since, uh, the mid-2000s when I was not necessarily burned, but kind of disillusioned by Evernote. Um, a couple years after it had, uh, it had started.
And I’ve tried to avoid it ever since, and it’s especially sensitive. Um, you know, I’m, I’m all in on Apple. Um, and I love the integration capabilities of, of Apple native native software. And so I, that’s probably also this, this other pain point but. I’m over it. More or less I can work around it. And it’s something that I talked about in my RoamBrain article as well.
Um, I still use automation. I still use a variety of ways, um, to, to integrate my other apps into Roam. It just requires the clipboard and copying and pasting in. Um, so, but that’s the way it goes.
Norman Chella: [00:11:09] You brought up an interesting point because I really do want to talk about that Rome brain article. I have to say it highly recommended for anyone listening, uh, an extremely in depth, look at your workflow, complete with screenshots and everything.
There is one thing I want to ask actually from that article, um, you brought up a book, which let me just bring up the name of the book here. Where is it? Oh yes. The Past is a Foreign Country.
Mark Robertson: [00:11:38] Oh yeah.
Norman Chella: [00:11:39] So I want to ask, what does that book mean to you?
Mark Robertson: [00:11:43] Oh, man. Um, that’s a big question.
Norman Chella: [00:11:47] Yes, it is.
Mark Robertson: [00:11:48] This is planned.
Okay. So my, as, as I was kind of alluding to, before my, my journey into becoming an intellectual, which to me, I have probably a much larger or much wider definition of what an intellectual is. Um, an intellectual is anyone who plays with ideas. Regardless if you sit on your couch all day long and you play with ideas, you are an intellectual. So that, that’s my view of how that works.
But basically I got to the point in which I wanted and to play with ideas and I enjoy playing with ideas through my community college courses and through history and this book in particular, the past is a foreign country, it’s a cross between methodology historiography and, uh, really just prose. It’s trying to present a way and a perspective to look at history. And so it’s playing with words obviously, right? Where the past is a, is a place that you seem familiar with. That you think, you know, but it is unknowable. It is impossible to know everything about the past.
And what you can know is simply through reference. As I, as mentioned in the article through, through relics and memories and other histories, we need to think about history as more than just the past, because they aren’t the same thing. History is not the past. History is a representation of the past, just as a map is a representation of the globe. A map does not represent every kernel of truth of the earth that we live on and neither does history.
And so it’s trying to kind of present this perspective that we visit the past. We visit and we are bound by the limitations in the amount of time that we spend in the past, by the things that we’re able to see in the past and what we can’t see. Just as if you go on vacation in a foreign country, are you truly going to know that foreign place?
No. I mean, you will know a great deal, right? And you will learn a great deal, but it’s about the heart of what history is that kind of perspective on history is something that I’ve grown to, to really develop much further in my own mind about how we understand the past, how we know the past, how we write about the past.
Particularly on the societal level, right? How a culture understands the past or how institutions or individuals or the schools system understands the past. And so that’s something that I play a great deal with now. Um, I did a lot of that and graduate school as well, trying to understand. Are there patterns. Are there systems, how do we understand the past? And that book really started me on that journey still ongoing today.
Norman Chella: [00:15:11] Well, that’s pretty fascinating, actually. It sounds more like the book. Is 50% history and 50% perception of history. Like it’s trying to introduce a framework or a specific way of looking at this of history.
I’m assuming that there is this mass public perception of what history is. You are trying your best as a lecturer, or at least as an intellectual to let people know that. No, that’s not the only way you should look at it. Also as a representation of the past, ie. history that is recorded. In a specific manner.
I’m assuming that there’s also that, as well, brought up into book.
Mark Robertson: [00:15:53] Yes, no, absolutely. It’s it’s about, um, the, the fact that there is a massive, massive, certainly I’m only speaking from the context of the United States and in particular, The West coast, mostly since I live in California. That is, that is my personal experience, but through study, it’s pretty obvious that in the United States, the perception of, of our past as well as the global past is skewed in my belief and in my opinion, in some troublesome ways.
That is not to say that I expect perfection or that others don’t have the same biases and perspective, but just to give you a ridiculous example, if you were to ask young children in France, in Germany and England, and India and in China and in Japan, I have asked students who I have, who have come from these locations, how much they know about their own national and or regional pasts. And it is so much more, so much more in depth. And part of that problem is we have a particular perception of what the past is, and it blocks out so much. Right. And it, and it doesn’t allow. There’s so much cognitive dissonance about anything that is different from the narrative that we’ve been instructed in primary and secondary and even in tertiary, you know, higher ed as well.
So I am fighting the fight, not to necessarily challenge anyone’s view of the past. I’m not an activist in that sense, but I want people to recognize that how they know, what they know is a part of a system of power and institutions. And, and if they, if they at least get that through the context of whatever class I’m teaching, I am a happy person.
Norman Chella: [00:18:01] Yeah. I’ve had that experience actually firsthand, from, doing an exchange in Tokyo and looking at a critical look on the history of Japan in World War II. And I think that most, maybe you might be super interested in this, but I’ll just share with you anyway. The most prime example is the censorship of textbooks and who won or how did the war resolve? And we had actual examples of textbooks that censored up information. And it was to the point where some of the books had black lines covering the text up to full pages. Like, you know, okay, you have these like cities that are ruined because of war and all that. Of course. And you have these classrooms and people are learning outside because, you know, they have, there are no rooms, roofs and shelters, et cetera.
But the textbooks that they were learning from barely had any text. And like 40% of it, because it was blocked out because Japan wanted to cover its losses. So that’s an example of, I’m not sure what’s the proper word to describe it, but essentially it’s history that is refined in a certain manner so that they will teach a generation of people to grow up, knowing that their countries are perceived or given, you know, put in a certain outlook. We can tell, we talk about this in a completely, other episode. I’m sure because I make you as it can, as you’ve already shared, you have a lot to say about how generations will grow up, looking at history, thinking about history and, looking at it.
Trying to give people the opportunity to question their current perception of history through your classes, in community college. So let’s get right into that. I know that you do a lot of Live-Roaming, if that’s the right word or at least touching. Yeah.
Mark Robertson: [00:19:55] Yeah. That’s, that’s, that’s the, that’s the phrase, uh, that, that I used, I had a couple different ones, but I also did a call with, Rob Haisfield, um, several months ago.
And he concurred that he thought that the, the phrasing was, was appropriate. And so, uh, I’m running with it now. Uh, but yeah, uh, Live-Roaming. We can do the backstory if appropriate, but it really comes down to the kind of principles I have in terms of teaching a course because I don’t lecture. Um, I refuse to lecture.
My, my main issue with lecturing, even though I love a good story. I love a good lecture. I will listen to lectures that are online for hours on end, and they’re amazing. Beautiful storytellers. But for me, I believe first and foremost in the community college mission. And so I need to first preface. The, the idea that what, what I’m trying to do is to work with as many students as possible in community colleges. And for clarity, if, if that’s not a term that is widely known, um, these are two year institutions. So it’s your freshmen and sophomore year, uh, in universities, in the United States. Um, and they’re often much cheaper, but the perception is, is that a community college is easier. A community college is worthless. And that coming out with an associate’s degree, which is, you know, the result is pointless and I’m fighting against that too, because the most revolutionary educational experience I ever had was in a community college. And that by tenfold, I went to wonderful universities after the fact. And nothing compared to those original moments.
So I’m trying to create this space, um, as a space of, of dialogue and discussion within my classrooms. That requires me to have knowledge on demand basically. And so I operate my classroom based on socratic dialogue and project based learning to put it, you know, the kind of simplest way possible.
Project based learning is, is in effect a system by which you ask students to do two things basically. You ask students to complete a project, whatever that may be something, something tangible, something that takes time. It’s something that’s constructed more than just a one off, but, but something that requires a significant amount of construction overall. In the process of completing that project, we use what I call milestones. So signposts weigh points, right to the end of that project. Um, by which we go through the historical skills, we go through the historical content and all of this. Now that’s not all that revolutionary, right? I mean, lots of people do project based learning, but what I’m not going to do is to then lecture or as I like to call it, deliver content.
When, what I really want them to do is to not necessarily decipher audio content. But to take the books that they’re reading, the sources that I’m asking them to read critically, analyze them, draw the information out and be able to construct that project that I’m asking. And so in class we focus not on delivering content, even though that ends up happening, we focus on the problem, solving the critical thinking and the analytical thinking.
In my course, you are given a set of historical questions. I give them depending on the semester, since I teach five week classes, eight week classes, 10 week classes, 15 week classes, 18 week classes. So it all depends, but I give them a set of questions. And the course is basically this, here are the questions.
How can I help you answer these questions? The questions are complex. The questions ask you to do intellectually rigorous work, but I’m there in a Socratic fashion to address their concerns. Often what is asked right off the bat is what the hell is this question even asking? And to me, that is the most beautiful question.
And ever, because in essence, you are trying to interpret something in the world in which you don’t have the tools to know how to interpret. And so I want to be there to say, okay, here’s the question you have, let’s go down this road. Let’s talk about what analysis means. Let’s talk about what deconstruction means.
Let’s talk about these different concepts that you may need to understand this question. Mostly historical-specific, right? The historians toolkit as we like to call it, but it’s, it’s a way for students to emerge into them, their own selves as intellectually capable to solve very, very complex problems.
And so with that, as the foundation, I could get any question at all at any point in time. And so, although I consider myself to have somewhat of a good memory. Um, but not really. Um, frankly, I think I have a horrible memory compared to some of the professors I’ve had in my life, um, where they can drop facts right off no, no problem.
I need something. And that’s where Roam filled all those gaps that I needed. I realized that I needed something. Wiki-linking like I mentioned before, I had found something to help me with that, but Roam gives me the capabilities to, if I don’t know the exact answer to their question, I can quickly on the fly, pull up the information that I need to answer that question. But that’s only one aspect. I mean, does that make sense so far? I mean.
Norman Chella: [00:26:27] Yeah, it does. Um, I am currently imagining myself as a student in your course, and I think that’s the best, uh, it’s the best way for me to immerse myself in your explanation. So. You know, standard courses, at least the ones that I have taken, uh, tend to be 12 weeks, a lecture every week.
There’s a tutorial. So it’s sort of like a, you know, like a classroom, everyone comes in and then they might do a presentation. They might do like an exercise sort of like high school, right. Except that there is a lecture element. And you have an extra hour block for delivering content. And this delivered content tends to be extremely dense or at least you cannot absorb all of it in one hour and I think that brings up the disadvantages of lecturing as a format, as in you are, you have to be concise. It all depends on your speaking ability. It all depends on how much or how in depth are you going? And some people may not be great at learning from hearing someone speak on stage because you lack the synchronous feedback or the synchronous response, especially because you’re lecturing one to 1000 as opposed to a one to one talk.
I really liked the way that you would one, accept that you may not remember everything. So you would have Roam be a compliment to you answering questions from students to help with students. With answering obvious questions, like, what is this, like, what am I supposed to do here? Because at the very least you recognized that they’re attempting to answer it as opposed to not even try it, which is a whole other story to go
But yeah. Please keep going. I do have a question, but maybe I’ll just save it while you’ve got it.
Mark Robertson: [00:28:06] Sure. And, and, you know, some, some, some things that you stated, you know, made me reflect and, and, and to emphasize this point, It’s incredibly valuable for one as, as an instructor to say and be willing to say, I don’t know.
I have no problem with that. I have received a uninvited criticism from, from mostly Twitter, which, you know, that’s just the way it goes, which I am not opposed to critique and criticism. I’m not opposed to that at all. Uh, but, but whether you look at the students who really dislike my course or these individuals who might want to criticize this and say, well, why don’t you just teach. And that to me is the problem, right? Teaching has this very narrow definition in the public mind, mostly.
And I want to expand that. We get more value out of solving the problems that students have in the moment than replicating the things that they can easily get from other sources. For example, Why would I repeat what the textbook says? That seems to me like a waste of your time. I can understand like space repetition, perhaps, right?
Maybe you read the textbook the day before or the night before, right. Or, or sometimes earlier in you’re getting reinforcement in the classroom. I don’t like parallel reinforcement. I want conflictual reinforcement. I want you to hear what I have to say and ask yourself, does that align with what I’ve already been exposed to in my own history, right?
In the past of my education or in the resources that I’ve been reading. Wait a minute, wait a minute. The textbook says X, Y, and Z. And you just. One didn’t go X, Y, and Z. You went 1 Y 3. Why, why are you screwing with the narrative here? Because it’s in that way that we’re able to actually study the world that we live in, as opposed to these kinds of silos.
Right? So I think it’s best to say here’s students, here’s what we’re doing. Where do you need help instead of repeating what they already know. I mean, I would hate to be the one that talks for an hour and everyone’s like, why did I buy the textbook? If you were just going to tell me what was in the textbook or vice versa, right?
Why am I here in class? If I could just read the textbook? True, then go read the textbook. Why, why would you be there? So I want to provide an environment in which we can have a conversation about the myriad of ways to look. At X, Y, or Z, and deal with the difficult questions deal with the whys and the hows and the consequences, not the names, dates, and figures and all of these other things.
And so I see this Socratic approach, this, this chaotic approach as far more valuable in return for the real world, real world. Like education isn’t real, but anyway. But also how the mind works. Right. And, and, and how learning works and stuff, uh, with that long, long preface. Right. Um, how I directly use Roam is.
Usually it’s a question of, I want to make sure I get like the order of significance, right. To something, or students are asking specifically, where do I find this information? Because that is something I want them to do. I tell them the first day in class, when they were in, in the introduction, I asked them your job is to ask me what the answer is. My job is to help you find and discover the answer.
So if they need to find some, some concept in the textbook, I can pull up Roam. Since I have my textbook in Roam, textually, I can, and it’s tagged appropriately and everything else I can find and filter every instance, if they’re looking for. Um, some conversation about the black civil rights movement in the 1960s, or they’re asking about the conservative revolution in the United States in the seventies, 1970s and eighties, I can cite the passage, the paragraph, as well as the primary and secondary sources that I also would offer to them immediately.
And so I can actually be the guide that’s in there with them as opposed to someone that says, yeah, it’s in chapter 13, you didn’t read it yet? Go read it and you’ll figure it out. I don’t see any value in me being a waypoint or, or a, or a kind of a director. Right. I want to, I want to be with them the whole time.
Trying to figure out all of these problems. And so Roam allows me to do that, but since I also use a digital whiteboard, I don’t actually write on a whiteboard or a chalkboard and I don’t use PowerPoint slides or anything like that. I use a digital whiteboard on my iPad, and I have Roam in a slide over, which is the little window on an iPad that you can pull up on the, on the right side.
The students can’t see it, but I can drag and drop. Uh, snippets of texts from my notes. And I tell them here, here’s what I have in my notes for this topic. I’m giving points of significance, or something like that. And then they can look at what I have and ask further questions. And so I can drag and drop.
Texts. I can find the information I need. I also have in Roam links to resources in my DEVONthink database. So as, as we know, um, Roam is not efficient in dealing with anything other than text at this point, right? I mean maybe in the future, it will. That has no bearing for me. I’m not going to use it for that.
I want it for text and text only, but I want to drag and drop images. I want to drag and drop off audio files. I want them to see movies and videos that I can pull from my database. And so, uh, in line with all of these data points in Rome, I have callback links to DEVONthink, and that immediately pulls up once I click on it and drag and drop it into my digital whiteboard so that they can have that element as well.
And not just texts.
Norman Chella: [00:35:29] Yeah. Actually the notion of DEVONthink is a question that was brought up on Twitter, when we were preparing, for this. So at @Colby95113256 with his name Colby, pretty interesting Twitter username. So shout out to you Colby. I was about to ask you if, uh, how did you integrate, uh, DEVONthink with your workflows, but I think you’ve covered most of that.
Are there any tricks or shortcuts that you use in particular with that? Or is it more about just backlinking to specific files on your DEVONthink?
Mark Robertson: [00:35:59] It’s it’s mostly, um, I mean, there, there are two way, two reasons why I use DEVONthink one. It, it was my prior note taking database. It accepts Wiki links as well.
And so I used that before, but it’s not iPad friendly. The Wikilink part, everything else is iPad friendly, but they don’t support the Wiki link on DEVONthink to go. But DEVONthink is an extremely powerful, file manager. Its search is superior. To basically everything that I’ve seen out there. Um, it has boolean operators.
It has near operators so you can find a word four words away from the word you’re looking for. Right. It it’s, it’s extremely powerful in that regard, but it has, uh, the now relatively common feature that every file in that database has a unique URL. Most web apps refuse to open a local X callback URL. Evernote. Won’t do it. Notion won’t do it. These are all others that I’ve tried. Roam doesn’t. This is one of those barriers that probably was the biggest in all my search in, in years prior was what app could open an ex callback URL. That was web based, uh, since I couldn’t find a native app that would, that would really solve my problem.
Uh, Dynalist doesn’t do it either. Right? So each is, it has a unique URL and it pulls it up and I can drag it and drop off of that. So that’s, that’s probably the most used feature I do with that, but I also export and backup my Roam database and markdown files in my DEVONthink database, and there are two uses to that one it’s offline.
And so if I really need access to something, I can get at least right. What 70%, right? Since not everything transfers in the markdown files, but I can get the text and I can search it and I can read it. And I could add stuff if I want, but I’ll add it somewhere else, which is another story, but the search capabilities are superior there.
So I can find anything in my DEVONthink database, whether it’s image file video. Or part of my Roam database. Um, so those are the two reasons why, why I would use Devin think it’s just a superior file manager in that regard. Um, and it has a significant amount of automation and everything else that I would use, you know, for other reasons.
Norman Chella: [00:38:35] I should check that up actually, because if it was a way for me to refer to a lot of PDFs that I have on hand, especially a journal citations that I want to use, uh, whilst having Roam open. I think that’ll be really useful.
Mark Robertson: [00:38:50] You can even link to a specific page and a PDF document. So you can, you can append question mark Page equals whatever the page is and it will go right to that page. So for me, I have my journal articles and everything else that I need for my students, I can go right to the page.
I will drag and drop that page out of the PDF and drop it onto the whiteboard. And we will read it together, highlight it together, annotate it together, and move on with the rest of the sketch noting dialogue. It’s very, very useful.
Norman Chella: [00:39:27] Oh, wow. Okay. All right. Okay. Okay. You’re you’re converting me here. Okay. Okay. I will definitely check it out.
Mark Robertson: [00:39:33] I will stop.
Norman Chella: [00:39:34] Okay. That there is something I want to ask now that you brought it up because you said that you would bring it up and then you would highlight and annotate it together with your students. Do you keep a record of every iteration or interaction of these sources on your Roam for other classes to refer to. And what I mean by that is say, for example, that you’ve just done a summer class or a, you know, or a spring class where you’ve already done this course before, like last year, do you find value in showing the interactions or conversations or a highlights from last year’s cohort and sharing them with current cohort, or is there some sort of friction there that I may not be aware of?
Mark Robertson: [00:40:22] Uh let’s let’s let’s describe the myriad of ways. Um, first, first and foremost, Um, after the first couple of weeks of a class beginning, I will invite any student to come to any of my courses if they wish, whether that’s the same class or a different class. Because as, as I think might be obvious by now, there’s value outside of content.
Right. Analytical thinking in the light. So any student can visit any course they wish within reason, they got to let me know first and you know, I got to keep track of who’s coming in and who’s going, but there’s that I record all of this for one. So, um, this is available in transcript form in video form, uh, as well as in PDF form.
So if someone wants to go back and listen to the video and watch the whole thing over again, That’s there for you. If you’re just looking for some of the text or the images that I wrote down, you can look at the PDF or if you would like the text, you can just read it. And there are numerous web services and, or accessibility features on a device that’ll just read you the text. Um, so there’s that as well.
I also, um, do the vast majority, I take a kind of short hand on demand notes on my day daily page in Roam while I’m doing this. So I will often if, if, because I talk too fast for one, and so one way that I’ve discovered that I can slow myself down is I am writing what I’m doing into my day page and Roam during class.
So I’m typing away and I will query in a live to find the sources that I need and have the query built, and then I can then share, I will pull it out, but I will share the, uh, my side, my memory of the course as well. Okay. And I am totally accepting and willing and I do share all previous semesters with any student that wishes.
Some say, why would you give it? Almost people hear it and they say, they, they almost interpret it. Like I’m giving the answers or the value of some other course to this course. And they don’t have to work for it. Well, I’ll tell you what, if you hear a conversation 12 weeks into my course, and you’re in week two into the same class.
You’re not gonna know what the hell they’re even talking about. Right. And so it’s just another way of getting the content and it’s voluntary. So if the student wants to do that, there’s, there’s this emotion, there’s this desire. To, to have another direction or another avenue of inquiry into the content and so have at it.
Right. I have no problem with that whatsoever.
Norman Chella: [00:43:32] Oh, that’s amazing. Because that really promotes a student’s desire to learn from as many angles as possible. Even if it’s looking into a past cohorts interactions or conversations to see if, you know, like you play as a third party person, you’re looking into this context from beforehand and you’re asking yourself, how did they come to the conclusion?
Why did they say it that way? How did it get this source? Or maybe they brought up a source and you’re just asking yourself like, Oh, well, I didn’t know about that one. I can probably ask the lecturer or I can probably ask a professor for more. Oh, okay. I really liked that. I really liked that. I thought you was…
Mark Robertson: [00:44:09] Roam is the stitching, right? Yeah. Without Roam, I can’t do much of this. I mean, I tried with Notion. I tried with Bear. I tried with Evernote and it just isn’t as capable. And it’s far more effortless in Roam than any other.
Norman Chella: [00:44:24] It’s that seamless integration, regardless of where it is in your database of knowledge.
Uh, I think this is where, uh, Roam itself has such a distinct advantage over other applications in that structure as a concept doesn’t play a part or isn’t really so much of a barrier when it comes to trying innovative things like this. When you were referring.
Mark Robertson: [00:44:47] I would have to say, sorry. My apologies. I would, I would have to say it’s, it’s not a barrier, but I want to push back ever so slightly with the common narrative that Roam ignores or is oppositional to structure. I extremely disagree with that concept. Right. However, as most acknowledged, I think it’s, it’s a ground up, right? It’s, it’s built as opposed to dropped so to speak. Right. And so I feel like you, you know, our brains create the structure, right. And the structure that we build is unique to us, the architecture we build.
The spatial recognition that we build is valuable and useful, but it is still highly structured, but you can, well, here I go with the puns again, you can easily roam it, right? You can easily traverse that geography of your, of your mind palace, right. And without Rome’s fluidity, as, as you suggest, and everyone argues without that fluidity, I don’t think it would be useful if we couldn’t then create.
Uh, there is a debate, a discussion from Malcolm Ocean and, and many others about what we call the spaces that we, that we build in Roam. And it’s, to me, I read it as Jesus graphy, right? It is, it is a place. It is a region, it has landmarks, it has buildings, it has paths, right? And, and Roam is so fluid and flexible that you can build anything with it.
That’s why I’m going to continue with it. Uh, and I’ll try other things, of course, but I doubt anything will draw me away.
Norman Chella: [00:46:40] I mean, you’d probably dabble. And then two weeks later you would be just asking yourself, why does this not have linked references? Why are these blocks not moving? And then you come back to, because…
Mark Robertson: [00:46:53] I still use a obsidian for publishing.
Right? So, um, Just like, I use all my markdown files and DEVONthink. I use all my markdown files in Obsidian. If I want to build something that I kind of want to reimport back into Roam. So, you know, here and there and everywhere, I guess.
Norman Chella: [00:47:12] Yeah. I’m sure. I mean, for intellectuals is having a toolkit, a variety of tools at your disposal and trying to one, think, two, right and three, present all the work that you’ve done. You may not find all of it in one app, which is perfectly fine. That’s why Roam is quite organic in its versatility. I think, I think maybe another way to look at structure from Roam’s perspective is that the structure is so great that it’s fluid. Like it’s so organic that you can mold it into anything you want.
Instead of it being a tool that has no structure. I have my fingers up here. No structure. It is a tool that has such great organizational structural features that it adapts to anything that you want, like it shapes to any, uh, any former shape of your brain that you desire. So I think that’s a, that’s what we’d like to the most.
Mark Robertson: [00:48:12] Beautifully put. Beautifully put.
Norman Chella: [00:48:16] No, we are coming up on time, Mark, but I’m sure that. Okay. We could probably talk about like four or five hours, but just for this episode, we are coming up on time. So I would love to end this conversation with a couple of segments, but seeing as how you’ve listened to a few episodes, you might already be expecting this.
So the first question, the first question is how would you describe Roam to someone who hasn’t started using it yet?
Mark Robertson: [00:48:41] You know, I did hear, uh, you know, once I listened to the third episode of the podcast, I was like, Oh, okay. Pattern here. All right. I see where this is going. Um, and, and it’s wonderful because of how interpretive it could be to anyone.
Right. And, and how they’re going to describe this. You know, I don’t have anything unique to add necessarily other than. So there’s kind of two ways I would look at it here. How would I describe it to someone who is as much a nerd as I am right. And that’s different, right? Um, I would, because I have a five-year-old and a, and a 16 month old at the moment.
Um, I, every time I think about this, even though in college, I thought about mental geographies and mental landscapes. Right. All I can, I can’t get this out of my head. I don’t know if anybody is going to be familiar with the movie, but there’s the Disney movie it’s called Wreck-it Ralph Breaks the Internet.
Right and they walk around the internet. Right. And the internet is represented by a physical 3D space. And so that’s how I would describe it to someone as, as a, as, as the, as your mind in 3D in which you can traverse and travel. But if it’s someone, if a student is asking or wondering, I mean, I would just basically describe it as, you know, the most effortless way to take notes and thoughts that that is available at this moment.
I mean, you don’t have to think about anything except for your thoughts and to put them in there, right to begin with. Right. I mean, once, if the question is, how do you get someone to be able to conceive of it, that’s what it is. You can type and your thoughts emerge into this kind of world that you’re creating.
Norman Chella: [00:50:46] I think the, the answer to that question specifically, you’ll have to take a more Socratic perspective because. It will be once they have onboarded onto the tool, they have to search answered themselves and they will find guides and advice and tips and tricks from roamcult than anywhere else. But in the end, Oh, you know, Roam is what you make of it, right?
No matter if you are a student or a whatever profession or field of interest that you’re involved in. You have to seek it yourself and in the end, like your system and my system is completely different. Like I’ve looked at your workflows and mine is quite different, but we shar the same commonalities and that we understand the potential oh, from using the tool for whatever that we’re using. So that’s why we are having this conversation, right? I really liked that you brought up a Disney movie to, to help with understanding this. That’s a really good way to, you know, a really good analogy to explain to people how it works, because if you could just imagine it to be the internet, but it’s your brain through this movie.
I think that that would be, yeah. And, and of course, a final question, what this Roam mean to you?
Mark Robertson: [00:52:00] Yeah. And I think I’ve, I’ve, you know, expressed this a few times, you know, by now, but, but to, to, to, you know, to put it succinctly, it is almost more than a landscape for me or a landscape of my mind. And it’s really, it’s almost like spiritual geography, right?
I mean, because what is in there. It’s not text. It’s not just ideas. It’s not just concepts, but thinking. It is my spirit texts textified. I don’t know. Right. It is. It is. It is embodied in these words, in such a configuration that is unique to me. Right. And, and all the only word that is ambiguous enough or wide enough to, to encapsulate that is, is going to be spirituality. Right? It is my experience right in there, timestamped and with text.
Norman Chella: [00:53:10] I love that. Oh, I’ve never had that explained in that manner. So thank you for that. I think that people would really resonate, with the notion of these words, embodying who you are, or at least a reflection of your thoughts, in a chronological format, especially because we’re in a daily page format for a lot of things, which I think is a very underrated feature.
A lot of people don’t talk about it enough when we’re trying to compare this tool of anything else. The daily pages format is like the sole tag to put every single note beneath it. So thank you for that. And in the pursuit of traversing the spiritual geography that is your mind and your thinking, Mark. Thank you so much. If we want to reach out to you to contact you for anything related to Roam or how you use it, in community college or how you use it to do Live-Roaming, how do we contact you?
Mark Robertson: [00:54:07] Twitter is always the best. I’m very busy and so I’ll ignore my email for a long time, but if all I have is 256 characters and maybe a couple of repetitions of that, I can, I can fire off anything rather relatively quickly.
But if I sit down and write, that’s less likely. So Twitter is definitely the best. But, for those of you recognize my handle, I mean, I’m on the Slack channel a lot. I’m on the forum, which hopefully will grow soon. And in many other places, in terms of automation and, AppleOS kind of stuff all throughout the internet.
So, I don’t know if anybody else has got that handle. So, if you see that somewhere, it’s probably me.
Norman Chella: [00:54:55] And of course, links to all of these, and you can find Mark in all these channels will be in the public roam graph to link to this episode. So, Mark, I will see you on Twitter.
Mark Robertson: [00:55:08] Thank you.
Norman Chella: [00:55:09] Thank you for listening to the show.
Make sure to hit subscribe in your favorite podcast listening app and for a full version of the show notes. To this episode, you can check out the public road graph. The link to that will be in the description right below for more updates, comments, feedback, and suggestions. You can reach out to me at roam FM on Twitter.
Keep roaming your thoughts, and I will see you in the next episode. Take care.