Last year I used a mind-mapping software called FreeMind productively. Mind maps start with a simple core from which one can have multiple nodes that lead to multiple nodes and so on. Free mind allows the user to link different nodes, make comments on certain nodes, link them to files, insert a number of images, etc. Last year I did a course on Social Movement Theory. Towards the end of the semester a friend and I sat down and tried to put all the major themes across our readings into one mind map to enable us to take a unified view of the entire course.
In the process of putting ideas into free mind we had to constantly shift around our nodes to make it look logical, and in the process our ideas became much clearer. Diagrams also help us understand the differences between different perspectives: what are the ideas that a certain perspective includes or ignores, how does it see processes differently, etc. become clear once we put ideas into diagrams.
Two other interesting utilities are CMAP Tools and Gliffy. CMAP Tools is an offline utility to produce concept maps (see example below). Concept maps are slightly more complex than mind maps and can help explain more complex relationships. That is its advantage and disadvantage over mind maps. The simplicity of mind maps compels us to simplify a morass of ideas. When it’s carried too far, the ideas loose their power.
Gliffy is an online “diagramming tool” that allows us to create a large range of diagrams by dragging and dropping. It is also very friendly with keyboard. The diagrams can be stored online or can be exported in a variety of formats.
All three utilities are free and are very well designed. All of them allow the maps to be exported in a variety of formats such as PNG, JPEG, PDF, SVG, etc. These are wonderful tools to use if you’re looking to digest a complex set of ideas especially from many different readings.