Image linked from BulletJournal.com blog.
Bullet Journals as Literate Practice:
Genre, Collection, & Extended Mind
Bullet Journals & Genre
The diversity of bullet journals represented online raises the question of what these inscription-based practices are doing, what constitutes a bullet journal, and what bullet journals need to include to be called “bullet journals.” Ryder Carroll established the bones of this practice by defining the primary tools of bullet journaling (to-do lists, monthly calendars, migration, etc.) in his videos and website. However, different users have very much made bullet journals their own, incorporating new spread formats and abandoning others as needed.
So how do we know what a bullet journal is, and what it isn’t? Peter Medway’s concept of “fuzzy genres” is helpful here. In Medway’s study of architecture students’ notebooks “Fuzzy Genres and Community Identities: The Case of Architecture Students’ Sketchbooks,” he suggests that “the notion of genre needs to be fuzzy”(2002, p. 141). Instead of judging a genre by “textual regularity,” Medway suggests that “[t]he essential criteria are rather that the practitioners find themselves in a socially recognized and typified situation, and engage in a semiotic activity that is socially recognized as a response to that situation and has meaning in relation to it” (2002, p. 142). While the larger “situation” for each bullet journal user might be different, it does seem that each person using a bullet journal is faced with many demands on their time and a desire to use their time more effectively. (While there may be additional situational aspects that lead to bullet journal use, further study would be needed to know what these are.)
Medway’s work on sketchbooks also helps us understand how texts without intended audiences (beyond their creators) can function socially. (Of course, refers to users who do not post pictures for their bullet journals on social media, but more on those folks later). Medway notes that the student journals he examines typically employ “a publicly accessible discourse” that serves as “partly rehearsal, of specific arguments and more generally of a discourse, for an expected or imagined future performance” (2002, p. 144). Through these notebooks, students practice the discourse of their chosen field in a way that “confirms and realizes the culture” of the profession of architecture (Medway, 2002, p. 145). This means that these personal texts do, in fact, serve a social purpose. As Medway puts it,
“[o]nce epistemic desires seek realization through the mediation of a generic pattern, they are converted into social motives (Miller, 1994, p.30); the urge is socialized and gives rise to a recognizable and intelligible product, an artifact readily identified as belonging to the community’s repertoire of practices” (2002, p. 145).
It’s not clear that bullet journals usually allow their users to practice specific discourses in the same way architecture students’ sketchbooks do. However, the writing in bullet journals is often explicitly future-focused, from daily to-do lists that serve as a guide to completing a day’s work, to planning and goal-mapping pages that help the bullet journaler imagine the steps required to a desirable goal. The text of bullet journals helps the user identify and create new ways of being in the word that will, presumably, bring them additional satisfaction and prestige.
Bullet Journals As Collections
Liz Rohan’s work on collections is also helpful when considering how bullet journalers use and experience the process of bullet journaling (2010). Rohan defines collections broadly; collections can be “undertaken consciously for an overt and culturally clear purpose—as with arranging photos in a photo album,” or they can be “more or less haphazard” (she offers the example of an office bulletin board) (2010, p. 55). Bullet journaling can be seen as collecting in a few ways. First, bullet journals bring together multiple sub-genres like to-do lists, calendars, brainstorming notes, and more into single texts; each section is labelled by page and noted in the index so that the user can return to that information later as needed. Second, some bullet journalers use their bullet journals to collect different kinds of materials for future reference, including quotes, interesting ideas, or even what shows they’ve recently watched on Netflix. And while the bullet journals shared online rarely include journal pages in the conventional sense (meaning pages full of writing about oneself and one’s experiences, usually marked by date), some users do collect brief daily memories in the form of “one-sentence-a-day” entries.
So bullet journals in themselves can be seen as collections of interests, memories, experiences, schedules, and mnemonic texts. As I mentioned earlier, Carroll suggests returning to past bullet journals because they collect past “data” about oneself (TEDx Talks, 2017); to Carroll, even bullet journals no longer in use can serve as sites of self-reflection and definition. Similarly, Rohan similarly considers collecting to be “a lifetime, identity-forming process that leads to new collections through annotation and can connect school, personal, and even professional identities” (2010, p. 56). When reflected upon, past collections serve as starting points for new projects or new practices and help one understand oneself. Bullet journals offer a site for similar work: old bullet journals allow us to refine our bullet journal practices, while also seeing patterns in past practices and interests.
Bullet Journals As Extended Mind
In the sections above, I’ve proposed that 1) we can think about bullet journals as constituting a genre that individuals call on for the purpose of crafting specific kinds of futures for themselves, and 2) as a sort of collection that allows for self-reflection and identity building. Finally, I would also suggest that bullet journals serve as an example of what Andy Clark and David Chalmers call “the extended mind” (1998). Clark & Chalmers draw attention to “the general tendency of human reasoners to lean heavily on environmental supports” as they go about their work in the world (1998, p. 8). For them, writing to-do lists or sketching out mind maps in a bullet journal would constitute “epistemic action”: action that “alter[s] the world so as to aid and augment cognitive processes such as recognition and search” (Clark & Chalmers, 1998, p. 8).
Clark & Chalmers are primarily interested in how such tools can complicate our idea of where a person’s mind ends or resides (1998). Kristin Marie Bivens and Kelli Cargile Cook are, on the other hand, more interested in how an individual might use such environmental supports in their writing process in “Coordinating Distributed memory: An Environmental Engineer’s Proposal-Writing Process Using a Product Calculator” (2018). Bivens & Cook’s case study shows that Beatrice’s (the engineer whose work they were studying) writing process relies on a product calculator to store and access her distributed memory, which helps her to “manage her cognitive load” and “coordinate her cognition” (2018, p. 301).
Bullet journals are clearly examples of these concepts. While to-do lists, calendars, and money trackers can all serve as distributed memory which can be returned to as needed, more ruminative practices like freewriting, brainstorming, and goal-planning can all serve to clarify one’s thinking and intentions. To borrow the language of Bivens & Cook, writing things down in a bullet journal is a way to manage one’s cognitive load and coordinate one’s cognition (1998, p. 301); trusting that the ideas are stored somewhere permanent is a good way to allow oneself to mentally move on to something else.
The physical act of writing things down might be helpful for this, as well. Novelist Siri Hustvedt describes how writing by hand can serve as a tool for both memory and thought (2010), whether the written words are meant to be returned to or not. Hustvedt describes how having students write down sentences that repeatedly begin with “I remember” causes them to remember things long forgotten, seemingly out of nowhere. This applies to her experience with the practice, as well:
“Writing the words ‘I remember’ engages both motor and cognitive action. [. . .] My hand moves to write, a procedural bodily memory of unconscious knowing, which evokes a vague feeling or sense of some past image or event emerging into consciousness. Then the episodic memory is present and can be articulated with startling suddenness.” (Hustvedt, 2010, p. 63)
“Joe Brainard [whose book of poetry Hustvedt based the writing exercise on] discovered a memory machine,” Hustvedt writes (2009, p. 64). Perhaps writing by hand serves as a sort of memory or thought “machine” that incites both recall and reflection in the writer, and this is part of the appeal of writing by hand in a bullet journal.
If we take these three ways of thinking about bullet journals, we may be able to define bullet journaling as a textual practice that serves as a tool for distributing memory, cognitive coordination, and reflexive identity-building that collects a variety of recognizable genres in one notebook, creating an artifact that can be returned to for future reference and reflection.
Bivens, K. M., & Cook, K. C. (2018). Coordinating Distributed Memory: An Environmental Engineer’s Proposal-Writing Process Using a Product Calculator. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 32(3), 285–307.
Clark, A., & Chalmers, D. (1998). The Extended Mind. Analysis, 58(1), 7–19.
Hustvedt, S. (2010). The Shaking Woman, or a History of My Nerves (First). New York, NY: Henry Hold and Company, LLC.
Medway, P. (2002). Fuzzy Genres and Community Identities: The Case of Architecture Students’ Sketchbooks. In R. Coe, L. Lingard, & T. Teslenko (Eds.), The Rhetoric and Ideology of Genre: Strategies for Stability and Change (pp. 123–153). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc.
Rohan, L. (2010). Everyday Curators: Collecting as Literate Activity. Composition Studies, 38(1), 53–68.
Talks, Ted. (2017). How to declutter your mind--keep a journal | Ryder Carroll | TEDxYale. United States: TEDxYale. Retrieved from