Notes from an Accidental Scholar

" title="Notes from an Accidental Scholar"> Notes from an Accidental Scholar

Posts tagged with ‘research notes’

The Distraction Machine.

September 13, 2011

Notice any­thing miss­ing? That’s right, I cleaned my lap­top away. Here’s the thing: my lap­top is always open. Whether I need to use it or not, there it is, glow­ing at me, taunt­ing me to tweet, Google+, or more likely, end­lessly research minu­tiae until I go blind. Because of this prob­lem, I’m going to make the best effort to keep my lap­top in my desk until I absolutely need it. I read and take notes pri­mar­ily on paper (tran­scrip­tion into Scrivener comes later), so this shouldn’t be too dif­fi­cult. What was dif­fi­cult was try­ing to con­cen­trate with my lap­top in front of me — a star­ing con­test I’m des­tined to lose.



September 12, 2011

A few months back I started a blog about get­ting the dis­ser­ta­tion done called Fuck Yeah Dis­ser­ta­tion!. Rather than leav­ing it to mum­mify on the inter-webs, I’m going to repost some entries here from time to time.

Adding to my reviews of best apps ever, I present to you Scrivener, a robust note-taking and draft­ing appli­ca­tion that is a cru­cial step of my dis­ser­ta­tion process. It’s cur­rently Mac-only, but they are beta-testing a Win­dows ver­sion.

Above is a screen grab of my Scrivener win­dow, includ­ing some of my favorite fea­tures that deserve attention.

  1. Col­lec­tions. This is like your Finder in OS10 or Win­dows Explorer. It allows you to nav­i­gate your fold­ers and doc­u­ments while also giv­ing you a visual sense of your project. The “Binder” is your main col­lec­tion of doc­u­ments, and then you can cre­ate cus­tom “sub-collections” of select doc­u­ments (like chap­ters, top­ics, etc.). The “Col­lec­tions” pane doesn’t make copies of your doc­u­ments, so when you cre­ate a sub-collection with selected docs, you’re edit­ing the orig­i­nals, not copies.

  2. Com­pile. My favorite fea­ture. Let’s say you have 5 doc­u­ments selected in your “Col­lec­tions,” Scrivener will assem­ble all of the doc­u­ments sequen­tially in the edit­ing pane. You can then edit all doc­u­ments together as one, change the doc­u­ment order, or delete entire sec­tions. Finally, when you click “Com­pile,” Scrivener allows you to export all selected doc­u­ments into one file with a choice of numer­ous for­mats includ­ing .rtf, .txt, .pdf, .html, .doc, et al.

  3. In text link­ing. I’ve known about this fea­ture for a while, but my Table of Con­tents is the first time I’ve imple­mented this fea­ture. Basi­cally, you can link any of your text to any other file in your Binder, like cre­at­ing your own wiki. I can also see this fea­ture com­ing in handy for cre­at­ing a lit­er­a­ture review, mind-mapping, image ref­er­enc­ing, etc.

  4. Foot­notes and Com­ments. One of my com­plaints about other note-taking pro­grams like Devon­Think or Ever­note is the lack of sub-annotations. Scrivener allows you to make foot­notes and com­ments, that you can then export into var­i­ous for­mats. Liz from Con­fec­tious offers a pretty sim­ple hack to import your Zotero ref­er­ences into Scriver rich-text files.

  5. Word/Character Count Tar­get. I like to work in con­tin­u­ous page blocks (no vis­i­ble page breaks), but the prob­lem with that is you can lose track of your progress. The Count Tar­get fea­ture allows you to set a word count goal per doc­u­ment and it gives you a nice visual to com­mu­ni­cate your progress.

  6. Extra stuff. A great full-screen edi­tor (although I really love Write­room for dis­trac­tion free writ­ing); The “Quick­ref” fea­ture allows you to open a doc­u­ment in a small, float­ing win­dow above your cur­rent doc­u­ment; “Snap­shot” let’s you to save a ver­sion of your doc­u­ment and use it to com­pare to future versions.

Over­all, Scrivener is a pow­er­ful tool for dis­ser­ta­tion writ­ers, but I can see it used for any writ­ing project. Scrivener is not free, but they do offer a stu­dent dis­count and pro­vide a 30-day free trial. (And this is a “real” free trial, not the CS5 crap trial that counts days when you don’t use the program.)

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Bespoke Research Methods.

September 7, 2011

There’s plenty of dis­cus­sion out there about ref­er­ence man­age­ment. The indus­try heavy­weights include End­note, Mende­ley, Papers, and Zotero (here’s a handy com­par­i­son chart on Wikipedia for those inter­ested). Back in 2005, when I started my doc­toral pro­gram, I used End­note. The pro­gram had recently enabled its library data­base search fea­ture, but it was slow as molasses and crashy. I aban­doned End­note in favor of a word doc with a list of my ref­er­ences which I for­mat­ted one at a time. Tedium, at its best.

Then Zotero qui­etly arrived in Fall 2006 and I was smit­ten. The devel­op­ers, aca­d­e­mic researchers them­selves, inte­grated the expe­ri­ence of research with the prac­tice of col­lect­ing ref­er­ences. The devel­op­ers under­stood that a large por­tion of aca­d­e­mic research is per­formed on the inter­net and so they designed Zotero to import sources and cap­ture web pages directly from the browser. Sites includ­ing uni­ver­sity libraries, aca­d­e­mic data­bases, and Ama­zon could be imported using Zotero. You can then export a col­lec­tion or entire Library to a bib­li­og­ra­phy in your pre­ferred for­mat. Need­less to say, I became a Zotero evan­ge­list — I sang its praises to any­one who would lis­ten (sorry husband).

It’s now 2011, I’ve used Zotero for 5 years now, and my ref­er­ences are a hot mess. There are dupli­cates, ref­er­ences that lack suf­fi­cient tags or have too many, pdfs all over the place, and I’ve sim­ply for­got­ten why I have most of these ref­er­ences in the first place. But this isn’t Zotero’s fault, it’s mine. I for­got the car­di­nal rule of dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy: tech­nol­ogy is a tool, not intelligence.

Since I mis­tak­enly thought Zotero was my own sen­tient ref­er­ence assis­tant, “con­duct­ing research” became brows­ing the inter­net and import­ing every­thing that was remotely rel­e­vant to my project. When I was “done,” I had a stack of pdfs and library books that would go mostly unread and a messy list of sources full of ran­dom tags and incom­plete infor­ma­tion. Then, in the time between “research­ing” and acquir­ing the sources I for­got why these sources were impor­tant to begin with. I didn’t have a very good work­flow and I thought Zotero was some­how doing it for me.

So what is “con­duct­ing research?” There are a num­ber of great resources out there that offer great advice on how to do research (see below). Some work for me and oth­ers don’t, but in the process of read­ing and prac­tic­ing, I learned my own method. Here’s a breakdown:

1) What is the research prob­lem? Exam­ple: gath­er­ing a sur­vey of the Indus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion, specif­i­cally, any over­laps between the I.R. and caricature/print culture/conspicuous consumption/slavery. This is the ques­tion I should have in mind while per­form­ing my research. It’s my anchor and my pri­mary tool for vet­ting sources.

2) Spend 30 min­utes dig­ging for 10 sources. This means brows­ing the inter­net and sav­ing my find­ings in Zotero. Why 30 and 10? Because it’s a bound­ary. If I don’t find 10 sources in 30 min­utes, there are two rea­sons: I need more time or there likely isn’t a lot of infor­ma­tion on the topic (which is note­wor­thy itself). Plus, if I’m miss­ing some­thing glar­ing, I’ll find it later or a com­mit­tee mem­ber will point it out to me.

2a) Be sure to note why each source is rel­e­vant. Which part(s) of the answer in 1) does the source inform?

2b) Tag each source with a key­word (also called “coding”)

3) Rank the sources in impor­tance, skim, and take notes. How do I know how to rank? I go with my gut. (My “gut” is based sim­ply all pre­vi­ous knowl­edge and research I have on the topic. Put another way, it’s an edu­cated guess.)

4) Revise tags after skim­ming. I almost always have to do this because books and arti­cles don’t nec­es­sar­ily give you what’s adver­tised, so to speak. Maybe the book is redun­dant but has a killer bib­li­og­ra­phy on the role of enslaved Africans in the Indus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion, so I’ll tag it (e.g., “bib­li­og­ra­phy,” “enslaved Africans,” and “Indus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion”) and move on to the next one.

5) Read through sources. Usu­ally I have a chap­ter or two per book, or entire arti­cles to read. I read closely, but with an eye for my research prob­lem which can lead to skip­ping parts. This is my favorite step because the read­ing gen­er­ates writ­ing and ideas. This is where much of my writ­ing happens.

It took me 5 years to come with this sys­tem and it’s not the “best” or uni­ver­sally “cor­rect” way to con­duct research. It’s a bespoke method, cus­tomized for me and me alone. What’s your bespoke research method? Which ref­er­ence man­age­ment pro­grams do you use?

Edit: word choice

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1K Week One

May 8, 2011

This is the first in a series of posts from my dis­ser­ta­tion. I set a goal of 1,000 words per day for the month of May and here is a sam­ple from this week. After a day of research, I spend an hour or so writ­ing up my thoughts from the day. This sam­ple includes top­ics you’re prob­a­bly not famil­iar with, but it includes con­cep­tual, dis­ci­pli­nary, and top­i­cal ques­tions. It’s help­ful to write this way because it allows me to think about specifics and big pic­ture at the same time. What isn’t clear is if this is use­ful for the long run — I hope time will tell.*

I went to the New York His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety today intend­ing to score some archival mate­r­ial on one John Almon. Almon was a polit­i­cal jour­nal­ist whose career spanned roughly 1758 to 1804. This reporter has archival papers and is con­sid­ered an his­toric fig­ure because he was arrested for libel in 1770 when he refused to reveal his source “Junius” who gave him numer­ous inside scoops and scan­dal on pro­ceed­ings in the House of Com­mons. What isn’t clear is what rela­tion this has with my work. Right now I’m focused on “The Pre­sen­ta­tion” and the arrest of its engraver and printseller so my trip to the NYHS was a bit pointless.

Despite the dead end with Almon, I did write a bit on the scope of my project. I’ve been read­ing a book, The Prac­tice of Cul­tural Stud­ies that describes research meth­ods for cul­tural stud­ies. What I real­ized in read­ing this book, is that my drive toward prac­tice as process comes out of my cul­tural stud­ies train­ing. I think writ­ing a his­tor­i­cal dis­ser­ta­tion gave me dis­ci­pli­nary amne­sia — I for­got how to think like a cul­tural stud­ies scholar because I’ve spent con­sid­er­able time try­ing to become an his­to­rian. I’m still not sure how to honor my cul­tural stud­ies side while writ­ing this his­tory diss.

Any­way, what I did real­ize today is that the Fores arrest demon­strates that print is a big deal. Libel is taken very seri­ously in British Law [I’m not sure why], and it’s because of these fierce libel laws that Gill­ray and Fores were arrested. How­ever, despite the strength of libel, why weren’t there more arrests? This was the “golden age of car­i­ca­ture,” how did car­i­ca­ture pros­per with libel laws on the books. Even the mag­is­trate who arrested Fores was appar­ently act­ing overzeal­ous, the case against Gill­ray and Fores was even­tu­ally dis­missed. How­ever, what this arrest tells us is that libel shows us that prints could pro­duce truth. Why would the king or his rep­re­sen­ta­tives be con­cerned with libel if there wasn’t a dan­ger that it could be under­stood by the reader as evi­dence to a person’s character.

Because of the power of prints to cre­ate truth, it bears look­ing at the dif­fer­ence between libelous images and text — if there is a dif­fer­ence. One hypoth­e­sis for why more car­i­ca­ture artists were not arrested is sim­ply because images are so clearly satire (was satire ok?) that it could never be mis­taken for truth. The analy­sis for this hypoth­e­sis demands more images from the Fores arrest era.

A few other obser­va­tions: * Despite car­i­ca­ture pres­ence, there is a pro­found lack of African pres­ence in prints (a few come to mind: the Cruik­shank Negro Ques­tion, the slave boiled alive, the Wedg­wood prints, “A New Union Club”) * Despite this absence, aspects of oth­er­ness are evi­dence in car­i­ca­ture * How does car­i­ca­ture pro­vide clues about big­ger pic­ture and show dis­tor­tions in the for­ma­tion of the citizen?