Research: Let’s wrap it up.

28 January 2006

Right now I am in the midst of researching for a scholarly paper–what I hope will be my first refereed publication. My work is hampered by my bad habit of shuffling back and forth through documents again and again. I open a new box of documents with firm resolve to work right through it, to find and read the relevant materials out of several boxes in one long afternoon of work. In the event, it almost never works this way. I dither. I skim some things that I know I should come back to, then write down long quotations from material that may or may not make its way into the completed project. Then I waste more time wondering whether I’m doing a good job with the material, wondering why my methods are inconsistent, and so on. All too often, I end up having to go through a box two or three times–or even more–just to cover the terrain.

This is the equivalent of having the same thoughts over and over. Surely you do this, too: think and think and think again about something that you either cannot control or that you could control, yet curiously decline to act upon. The organizational expert David Allen has written that you should not handle papers again and again, because the practice is inherently a waste of time. He says that likewise you should not handle the same thought over and over, unless it’s a thought you really like and want to have over and over. Yet many of us–myself among the worst–fall into this unfruitful pattern by force of habit.

In the archive, changing perspectives can be fruitful. Maybe you skim through a box quickly to get familiar with its contents, then go back through it in detail, looking only at the documents you spotted as important the first time around. This process often uncovers interesting connections between disparate material, and it allows you to skim quickly past documents that don’t tell you anything novel or compelling.

Without method, though, this switching of perspective is fruitless, or at best highly frustrating. Sad to say, this fits into a larger pattern in my life of starting projects with one method or tempo or perspective, then randomly switching to another method, tempo, or perspective at whim. No doubt this is a key reason why so many of my projects take so long to complete: as I get an idea of where I’m headed, I change lanes, change vehicles, or change highways altogether.

Archival work is most valuable when you form tentative conclusions as you go. You do so with the understanding that your provisional understanding will change, but that some sort of interim verdict–a working hypothesis–feeds the Siamese-twin processes of comprehension and composition.

I cannot comment on the research that goes on in laboratories, and I’m sure that social scientists will cringe at my inadequately theorized approach here. But for those working in the humanities or writing essays, I say from hard experience–including the part of my time that I wasted this afternoon–that you must compose as you go. Learn enough ahead of time to get a rough outline in place, then head to the archive with the firm purpose that you will write this paper at the archive, while confronting the documents. (A laptop is the magic weapon in this fight.) Nothing prevents you, later on, from coming back to the same material again–but for some other project in some other context. Meanwhile, my fellow ditherers, get the project at hand D-O-N-E.

In his estimable book Hackers & Painters, Paul Graham asserts that ideas must be implemented rather sitting on a shelf. When they sit on the shelf, they taunt you. When you go ahead and implement them, you (1) get real feedback from the real world on how well your ideas work; (2) clear the way for the other ideas that can only come to fruition once the first one is implemented; and (3) gain the valuable experience–somewhere between an athlete grooving a new stroke and a manual laborer developing protective calluses–in the hard business of implementation.

It frustrates me that I am encountering these research problems now. I’m 33 years old and in my fourth year (cumulatively) of graduate study. You would think that I would have this down by now. But today reminded me that, however far along I may be in life, I am still an apprentice scholar. Anyway, it’s better to address these problems now than when I am two years into dissertation work.

Now if you’ll pardon me, I have to go write up today’s research.

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