Saturday, March 10, 2007

Conversations with colleagues on research practices, (or advice to the gradlorn, part 2)

Among the most compelling kinds of blogposts I read are those in which people talk about their research and their research methods; those are like chocolate to me, and there is no higher praise. A lot of bloggers have written about their research practices, including good recent posts by Dr. Crazy, Tenured Radical, Flavia, Dr. Virago, Mel, and Professor Zero.

My IRL colleagues talked about similar methods when we talked a couple of weeks ago.

  • Both mentioned that they used freewriting and other methods to get started and that ideas had to be worked out over weeks, not written up in a mad dash a la the old days in grad school. (This is the "advice to the gradlorn" part of the post.)
  • One said that she often would write actual proposals based on various ideas she has, even if she hasn't seen a call for papers for that topic; in that way, she's ready if a call does come up. I'd never thought of doing this before, since usually the CFP and its promise (threat?) of a deadline spurs me to action rather than the other way around.
  • One also mentioned having some special program that allowed her to search her hard drive for materials related to her project. I mentioned using Google Desktop for a similar purpose, but it may be that her program is more specialized. I'm all about the free when it comes to software, so I probably will never know whether the special program does a better job.
  • We all agreed that reading and taking notes at the same time was disruptive; you read differently if you're stopping to write every few minutes. Of course, we were talking about reading primary texts; it's different, I think, if you're reading secondary sources.

    A few of my own methods:

  • The Post-It note is my best friend; I should have bought stock in 3M years ago just based on my own use of it to mark passages that later get transcribed into a file for use. Sometimes, if I'm in the midst of writing, the passages just get used even without being transcribed. Usually, though, I try to prepare a file of notes as well as quotations as part of the preparation; if I'm working with a short story collection, I write summaries, too. I always think I'll remember the stories, character names, and so on, but if I get pulled away for a several months because of department business, teaching, or other projects, I'm always glad that I took the time to note the particulars.

  • Dr. Virago mentioned putting questions into her research preparation files, and I do that as well. ("Preparation file" is my term for it; what do you call those things that aren't yet a draft but are more than notes?) The preparation file usually looks like a mess, with some paragraphs that are more formal in tone, some running dialogues in which I argue with myself about the validity/relevance/originality/logical inferences of points that I'm writing about, and notes about "didn't so and so say this in X?"

    About a research journal: I recently began to keep a record of words written for various kinds of tasks, including letters of recommendation, department service obligations, manuscript reviews, work on the main project, and so on. The idea behind this was to keep track of how much writing I'm doing is necessary but isn't going to keep my own work moving forward. It's been useful, but it's not a research journal.

    I'm working my way into keeping one, though, and am looking for advice, so if you keep one:

    Are these kept in a notebook or on a computer?
    Do you write in it every day, and if so, do you make yourself write a set amount?
    Do you go back to these and mine them for ideas, or does the mere fact of writing down the information help to spur on your writing?
    Do you keep your research notes in these, too, or do you just write about the writing process itself? Or do you write about the ideas?

    Thanks for any ideas.

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    Professor Zero said...

    Research journal - notebook! I use the computer for everything, I'm not computer-o-phobic, but the notebook is magical and is not just one more research file. Set amount of words: no.

    I don't think I said before, responding to the CFP is pernicious, to me. I mean, coming up with an article idea *just* because somebody is putting an edited book together and says oh you can easily whip something up, or a paper idea because it is in field and will fit X conference (usually the MLA), where one needs to go anyway.

    I have done this last a lot because I have needed to hire or be hired, etc. I always say, this will just be a small excursus from what I am really doing, or this will be a nice deadline to have, but actually it ends up just being a big distraction. Current policy is: stick to what I am doing, *then* figure out where it is going to be presented ... etc.

    undine said...

    I'm starting to come to your conclusion about the CFP trap, Professor Z. It really does become a big distraction from the main project. Thanks for talking about the research notebook, too; since we do so much work on a computer, writing in an actual notebook does seem to have more importance.

    Professor Zero said...

    It is really useful to think about this stuff, in my case because research has been so crashed lately because of service/administration - now I'm getting to scale back on that and reform, and I realize I used to have some d***** good habits.

    The thing I struggle with is the when: I want 15 hours a week and they are not easy to find. Many people have a sacrosanct research day but those are too easy to have ruined by candidate visits, etc. I want some time every day, it doesn't have to be a huge amount.

    I just figured out that the amount of time I am supposed to spend on research according to my contract is 700 hours a year. That works out to about 9 a week when classes are in, and abojut 35 in the summer, with 4 weeks a year off. And what is amazing is, that 48 weeks at my desired 15 hours a week is 720 hours, so presto: all I have to do is insist on this time and say I need it to fulfill my contract!!! :-) And 15 hours may be unrealistic when classes are in, but 9, they are findable, YES, it is magic!!!

    undine said...

    I like that idea about figuring out the hours and breaking them down to x/week.

    Professor Zero said...

    It's developed from my brilliant dissertation strategy, wherein I figured out that if I got only one perfect page per day, I would be finished in a year. I then figured out that revising + planning + writing so as to get 1 perfect page (plus other imperfect writing) took 2.5 hours, and thinking + looking things up took 2.5 hours, so it was a mere question of finding 2 blocks of 2.5 hours each. This realization made it non-scary to start work, and possible to fit it in among teaching, housework, etc.

    Everyone was shocked when I said I was going to write only 1 page a day, so I said no more until the year was over, when they were really shocked to see that I was finished, having written only one page a day. (They were not finished.)

    I think my problem is that in graduate school I never threw things together the night before, but once I became a professor I started to have to (I am about to throw 4 class preps + grading together for tomorrow). I have good performance skills and I can write a *good* conference paper in my head on a plane, and recite it with pzazz. This is lucky for emergencies, but not actually helpful in the long run.

    The whole issue, if you have a really busy job (I've had visiting gigs in R-1 departments where you have calm time during the week, but never a real job in such a venue), how do you keep up a *continuous* research rhythm - which is necessary for practical purposes but which I also need for my friggin' own satisfaction and amusement. Thence the guerrilla tactic of stealing *research hours*.

    HAHAHA: during our dissertations, we had even more severe guerrilla tactics, as in, we signed a document (in my house) saying we would not spend more than 90 minutes per 24 hours having sex until our dissertations were done. Current partner and I just resurrected this, *no* activity until we each have our desks and files clean and our taxes done. This has been since Friday midnight and as I gaze over the house, it appears we will be finished tomorrow. :-) Although very tired, since I am about to go in and teach 4 classes, 4 topics, none in research field(s), 1.5 hours each, which I am going to start working on getting together right about now.

    On these classes: I have taught them all before, many times. That is why I can afford to do this. But I think new faculty should have reduced course loads just because it is all new. Coming up with a bunch of upper level classes you have not taught before, when you are not even used yet to having the letters Ph.D. behind your name, is a Major Deal.

    undine said...

    Professor Z, that "one perfect page" idea is fascinating. I'm impressed that you figured out the 2.5 hours to write/2.5 hours to think about it idea. It's still tough to come up with a research rhythm, though, since as you say, when you're in a department, life interrupts.

    I think that those performance things you mentioned (pulling together classes, writing conference papers)are important skills and would be helpful in the long run. There's a Puritan streak in academics that causes us to believe that everything has to be a long, hard slog. Please. Writing is enough of that; if we get better at teaching and writing short pieces so that it can be done efficiently (i.e., right before class or on a plane), why not incorporate this as part of a strategy? Any other profession would see this as smart time management. Academics see it as unworthy because it involves insufficient suffering for the product generated.

    Professor Zero said...

    Key is the idea that one must suffer.
    I remember one key moment in very late graduate school where people were telling me and another dissertator that our lives were too easy because we were in too good a mood. Mine was sort of easy, actually, because I had a fellowship that year, but the other dissertator was adjuncting in 2 places, not an easy life. But we had the same reaction: our lives, too easy? But we got into this in the first place because it was fun!