Monday, October 06, 2008

Notetakers Anonymous: A Fuller Description of My Research Process

I left a couple of comments to this post over at Flavia's yesterday, but this blog has been so bereft of actual content lately that I thought I'd write an actual post (gasp!) about how I do research and organize notes and files and such, which, for as much as I've written about writing here, I don't think I've ever done. This could turn out to be as boring as, or more boring than, the stupid to-do lists and self-flagellation that I've currently been featuring, but at least it will be a change of pace.

Let me preface this with the fact that I learned how to do research back in olden times before note-taking software, bibliographic software, and all other such newfangled technologies that ostensibly make one's life easier. Hell, I didn't even have my own computer until I was in my first year of my Ph.D. program. Remember word processors? Dude, I was totally excited when I got one of those to replace my typewriter. I never actually composed on a machine until I started my dissertation and realized writing the whole initial draft longhand would give me carpal tunnel or arthritis or similar. With this being the case, how I conduct my research note-taking and writing has morphed into a weird hybrid of the old and the new.

The Idea Phase
So any project for me begins with some sort of "assignment." In school, it began with a paper assignment to write for a class or seminar. Now, it begins with the "assignment" of writing an abstract in response to a call for papers. At this point, I typically start with the primary text or texts that I want to examine, and I don't think too much about the research side of things. I'll write (longhand) a draft of an abstract, and then, once I think I figure out what I'd like to do, I figure out what theoretical texts would be appropriate for helping me to do what I want (a) and I do a search for secondary sources in databases (b). Should I feel like I've found enough to support what I'd like to do, with minimal reading around, I revise the abstract and send it off.

Phase One of Research - Reading and Taking Notes
So then it's time to do the bulk of the reading/note-taking on primary, theoretical, and secondary material. I do each of these in different ways.

1. First, in looking at primary material, I typically do a sort of indexing system with post-it notes in which I mark each passage that addresses a portion of my outline. I don't use those little page reference ones - typically I like the "mini" ones with a bit more space, so that I can write what part of my imaginary outline each passage corresponds with. So let's say my essay has three main kinds of examples I'd like to consider - kittens, cantaloupes, and cuttlefish. I'll go through and mark each passage with a post-it note of a different color that has a small notation about why it makes me think of whatever it is in relation to that point on the outline. Note: this is actually a less anal-retentive adaptation of what I did for my oral qualifying exam, in which I did a thematic index - with page numbers - for each of the novels on my list. No, I'm not kidding. And yes, that was nuts, but I will say it's really helped with prepping for teaching, that crazy notebook.

2. From that point, I actually don't turn directly to the theoretical stuff. Remember, I've already glanced at it when coming up with the idea, and so I tend to leave that until last. Next, I look at secondary sources. My first order of business is to turn to my Big Binder of Dissertation Madness, if I'm writing on anything connected to the field of my dissertation. (If I'm writing on my New Area Not Related to the Dissertation, I turn to Big Bins of Madness from previous projects.) I just reread the notes, and I make notes on another sheet of paper (any sheet of paper will do) about what might be useful in a very general way. I similarly look through my Personal Library of Scholarly Tomes and note what from it might be useful. Then, I turn to the new database entries that I've got. I print out everything available electronically, make sure the full citation is listed on the front of the article (sometimes it's not clear when you print them out) and stick it in a big bin. I skim the articles, and divide them into two piles - useful and not. The not useful for this project I stick in another bin, for future reference. The useful, I read (typically while in front of the TV watching something like an America's Next Top Model Marathon) and make notes directly on the article (underlining, marginalia, etc.) I also make notes to myself on a sheet of paper (any sheet will do) if I get some kind of idea that is too brilliant to be lost in the margins. Once that's done, I get all of the books that the library has and do ILL for any articles and books that aren't local. I then sit in front of the television (maybe while watching a What Not to Wear marathon) and take notes on them all on regular paper, listing the complete bibliographic citation on the first page (I used to do a whole notecard thing from olden times with the books, but even I have given up notecards). When I'm done with each source, I staple the sheets of notes together and put them in the bin with the articles. Also, any sheets of brilliant ideas go into the bin as well. You will note that with this system, most research happens on the front end of a writing project for me. And yes, I do some version of all of this even for conference papers - so much do I fear that somebody will ask a random question that I will be clueless about. Of course, 99% of this never makes it into the conference papers that I write, but it does help to have it all compiled if I decide to expand the conference paper into a fuller publishable thing. Or if I do another related project in the future.

3. There is then an interlude where I return to the abstract, and only then do I go over the theoretical underpinning sorts of sources in a concentrated way. I use the same system for these that I use for primary sources.

Phase Two of Research - Figuring Out What To Do with the Mountains of Notes

The primary and theoretical books that I own are in a big stack, the Dissertation Binder is at the ready, the books I own are in a stack next to that, and all of the rest of what I've got is in the Big Bin of Madness. Now what? You may be asking. Well, if it's a conference paper, I pretty much stick to the primary and theoretical sources, maybe throwing in a thing here or there from a secondary source if it just fits. The point is, though, it's all there in my head, and I can usually write the conference paper really quickly having done all that thinking. So I slap something engaging (one hopes) together, and that is that.

It's more complicated when I'm actually writing something for publication. Then, I've got to get all of that junk in the stacks and bins available again, along with the conference paper that I'm writing from and its original abstract. Typically, I'll use the conference paper as the initial guide for how I'm going to structure the essay, and I'll do a reverse outline of it, adding and subtracting and reorganizing where necessary, to get a sense of the shape of the article or chapter. This is usually VERY rough - with headings like "theoretical underpinning" and "introductory example" and "the canon" - whatever. Once I've come up with this, I put the reverse outline into a word document. Then, I will do one of a couple of things:

1. Sometimes I'll just start writing, if I feel like I know where I'm heading with the piece. I'll pick a block of the reverse outline and I'll have at the draft, sometimes leaving notes for myself in bold that I need to add a paragraph of secondary support for some assertion here, or that I need to flesh out my critique there. If I take this approach, I'm pretty much devoted to the primary and theoretical sources first, and I'll add in the secondary stuff later.

2. But this doesn't always work for me. Sometimes, I need to start with the secondary stuff and write around it. In that case, I'll go through the books and the binder and the bin and I will type quotes from secondary and theoretical sources that fit into the outline, properly cited. This can be good, especially if I'm fairly far away from the idea's inception, as it makes me think through the material I've read and to figure out why it mattered to me in the first place. Once I've done that, I'll take another document with the reverse outline and do the same for the primary sources. Then I'll begin writing, copying and pasting secondary and theoretical stuff in where needed. All of this usually leads to me refining my argument, and also doing some reorganization of where the different pieces fit (and sometimes eliminating pieces, or turning them into notes).

Phase Three of Research - Notes

I don't deal with notes typically until the end. While I'm writing, I may put a placeholder note in that describes the note that I will ultimately write and lists the source in a complete enough fashion that I'll be able to make sense of it later. But really, the note stuff I do at the very end - usually I don't have more than a very few place-holder notes, and those are typically ones I put from cut paragraphs or portions of the outline. By doing the notes at the end, I find that I'm more conservative about how many notes I include, and I'm clearer about why I'm including them. Another benefit of this is that I have whatever is left over that I haven't used in the rough outline typing sources in stage as note-fodder. Whatever the case, I don't typically get into a situation where I'm trying to track down a loose thought I had while writing in one of a gajillion sources.

So that is my process. Writing it all out, I realize it's slightly obsessive, but it does mean that I'm never stressed out by not knowing where I read something or having a record of what I thought about a particular thing. And it's been invaluable as I've done projects that are slightly related to previous ones, as I can be sure that I'm not duplicating myself in what I submit for publication or doing the same research twice. And, and this is a big and, it makes me feel a lot more confident that I'm gaining mastery over new material, and it allows for me to bring that material more easily into the classroom and to translate it into something students can figure out. In other words, when I'm teaching a class in my subspecialty, as I am this semester, I do not actually do scholarly reading as preparation. It's all there in my head, and I can spontaneously recall it when it's useful. This is a huge time-saver in terms of teaching prep.

But so, this process is not for the faint of heart. And I'm trying to get used to using bibliographic software because I think it might be a positive addition to my otherwise old-fashioned research ways. The fact is, though, I don't really have the time to plug all of my current stuff into it, and so I'm doing a half-assed job with this so far. I figure if I use it for each new project that sooner or later I'll be caught up :) But so I don't know whether this lengthy and tedious narrative will be in any way interesting or useful to anybody, but there you are.

7 comments:

Sisyphus said...

I just have to say that I love the idea of Big Bins of Madness ---- I got one of those plastic lidded bins from Staples to toss all my job stuff in; it seems appropriate to label it such. And you have just inspired me further. Now, I want _lots_ of Bins to hold my Many Types of Madness! Yay!

Flavia said...

Yes, I too am interested in the exact nature of these bins--and how many spare rooms you have in which to keep them!

I'm always truly interested in other people's writing and notetaking processes, and you've given me some ways of rethinking my own (both here & in the comments at my place). So thanks!

ink said...

Just have to say that I too had a word processor, with a screen so small that I could only see about five sentences at once. I wrote my MA thesis on that!

ps: I don't usually use blogger, but it won't let me leave a comment here otherwise. Would you consider allowing the open ID or name/url option? I LOVE your blog but don't leave comments because of having to sign into a different program to do it...just a thought. Thanks for your consideration.

Dr. Crazy said...

The Bin of Madness is a close cousin of the Dining Room Table of Anxiety, in case you were wondering :) That said, there are only three bins of madness, and they're not terribly large - each like the size of a file drawer. (I have two filing cabinets that I have not looked inside of since I moved here and stuffed things in them. When I move, I'm just throwing them away because I hate nothing more than actual "filing" and so they are useless.) The trick is that you've got to weed out the bins like once a year and rearrange them depending on needs. So there's only one extra room, and only a few highly bins of highly contained madness.

Ink: thanks for logging in and leaving your comment! I know that it sucks that I require people to log in with a blogger ID, but it goes a long way to eliminating spam and random trolls, which is why it's that way. I hate moderating such nonsense. I do thank you for stopping by, though, and for being a reader!

Ben said...

A very good post. I assume that you obviously think this is a good way to go?

I'm not sure what I think about bibliographic software. There are only two benefits I really use: Switching the citation style and sorting according to year, etc. Sometimes I am frustrated because the software does not conform to what the original style book says. Also, Endnote is not really as useful in LaTeX as it is in Word.

It seems superfluous, and if mine wasn't free, I wouldn't have started using it.

Courtney said...

This post has been helpful to me too, and it's been rattling around inside my brain since your wrote it. I wonder if you are similarly process-aware of how you manage ideas/information on more of a daily basis? I can't seem to find a happy medium for my bookbag. I'm currently on a 6x file folder + composition book + to-do list (on my phone) system, and even that isn't working too well, though it's moving in the right direction. If you are so inspired, I'd love to see some discussion about how people (YOU) herd work in the short-term.

undine said...

Interesting post. I'm a fan of bibliography software, but there's still a lot of work that gets done on paper.