Monday, October 6, 2008

How to Take Dissertation Notes: One Cog's Story

There is no better way to put oneself in a better mood than to completely ignore and avoid whatever is currently troubling you; hence, instead of working on (or even thinking about) my stupid job letter, I will post here about my note-taking and writing habits, as inspired by Flavia and Dr. Crazy.

Let me start by heading off any complaints about my advice giving and state that there are two basic rules to dissertation writing: 1) do whatever works for you and 2) there always could be another method that works for you even better than what you currently have, so keep one eye peeled for possible ways to improve your system.

So, I had a dissertation topic and felt extremely, anxiously, paralyzingly ignorant about the historical background of my time period and the stuff I wanted to write about. So I read things and tweaked at my prospectus. And then I would read more things and move things around in my prospectus and then my advisor would make me move them all back the way they were before. And then I would read even more things, but then discover I had actually read them once already and just not remembered anything (and I must say I am seriously concerned about accidental plagiarism because of this. Or, more accurately, that there are probably lots of scholars who accidentally plagiarize ideas and don't even know it because they would swear on a stack of bibles that they had never actually checked X Scholar's book out of the library. Yes, paranoia is a large part of my writing process.)

At this point I realized I should be taking notes and storing them somehow, and I somehow managed to "acquire" a copy of Endnote. Which it then, possibly realizing I wasn't it's true owner or maybe just following Murphy's Law to the letter, promptly died after I had entered in all the bibliographic info from about three shelves of my bookshelves and a box of articles. Dammit. It's still on my computer. It still won't open. Grr.

I decided instead to simply create a Word file for each book I wanted to take notes on, and made a Notes on Library Books folder inside my Dissertation Folder, and then as I took more notes and background, I made further subdivisions within the Notes Folder, by topic and theory and discipline and time period and country and whatnot. As I read through the books ---- and I took notes more heavily at the beginning of this process, when I knew less about the basic facts of the case (Shakespeare wrote in English, eh? And this Elizabeth chick was Queen then? Who knew?) ---- I typed in notes and quotes, sometimes some dates and context, sometimes entire paragraphs if they were particularly good and well written, or conversely if I hated them so much I wanted to spend about 20 pages close reading why they were wrong.

I put quotes and page numbers around anything I quoted (and I wish I had put page numbers in when I summarized events, cause I often went back and wanted to turn a side note into an actual quote, and ended up rereading the book). And I wove in my commentary as well, in italics. If I could have figured out how to do dual columns, their quotes and my comments, my notes would have looked like Derrida's Glas. At the end of the document I'd pillage through the bibliography and make a list of "More to Read." I don't think I ever went and pulled all the stuff I thought I should pull from these to read lists, but, hey, it's the thought that counts, right?

About halfway through this process, I figured out that it was really helpful to put the entire bibliographic heading instead of just the title at the top of each note file. To the end of the dissertation writing process, I was still opening up files and going, "I cited this guy for ---- dammit! Now I have to look up this shit on Google!"

Now, the good part about this was that my writing process involved a lot of easy cutting and pasting --- I was the Queen of Many Windows (two or three open at once with my thought process going on, four or five more opened to pull out some background or a quote from my research, another one open for the biblio and every time I copied a quote I'd paste the bibliographic stuff in the works cited, and probably some more open with all my musings and notes on the primary text. Oh, plus the windows labeled Cut From the Draft But Don't Get Rid of Yet! that popped up a little later in the drafting process).

But the bad part about this method is that you pile up a huge amount of quoted material very fast, and then you feel like you have to use it, regardless of how appropriate it is to your argument. You might need something that goes off that direction --- 30 North --- and you have this fantastic block quote that tilts off in a slightly different direction, which is not where you wanted to go, but you use it anyway and then the transition you write to get you to the next point leads even further off track and then finally you fall off an ice floe. Sad. And besides the quotes leading you off in tangents, they can overpower your writing and analysis, leaving your point as the thin mortar holding together big bricks of block quotes. Although, thinking back to my MA seminar papers, they were definitely like this, so I probably got better even at that even before I started writing the dissertation.

I've been thinking that, now that I'm done (hooray! huzzah! Set of more celebratory fireworks! This shit never gets old! Yay!), maybe I need a new system. Or maybe I need a new set of folders on the hard drive, for whatever new project I start. Hmm. Or maybe you shouldn't teach an old dog new tricks and I should just stick to this "electronic notecard" system, which it basically is. (PS I type way faster than I write, which is partially why I like this method.) But then again, my next project, which will use all the old research material, is to turn the dissertation into a book, right? Ugh ---- I don't even want to think about that. Nope! Off to ignore that disturbing thought for a while now --- I think I'll go eat chocolate instead.


Earnest English said...


Starting new system=Bad.

Okay, this is what I do: I have an annotated bib that I keep running of pretty much everything I read. When I'm working on a particular article, I usually have an annotated bib on that particular article as well, then I smoosh the one into the other when I'm done or have given up or whenever it seems like I'm not going to finish but I'd better get it all together. I don't want to look in a hundred files, trying to remember which project it was where I read THAT thing. I want it all in one place. I say that, but at times I have gone into an old annotated bib only to find a bunch of notes from cool articles that I didn't put into my larger bib. I find that aggravating. I don't follow my own system well. But what else is new.

And so I go back to my initial comment: Chocolate=GOOD. My turn now. (Yes, still pregnant. Due Saturday. I don't care. I need chocolate.)

gwoertendyke said...

But the bad part about this method is that you pile up a huge amount of quoted material very fast, and then you feel like you have to use it, regardless of how appropriate it is to your argument.

this is hilarious and so true to form. it helps when you write it all longhand (it helps me, anyway), maybe because the effort it took to do so was greater, the material absorbs when things take that long to write, processing takes place while compiling quotes. who knows.

but the longhand note taking has always worked better for me.

isn't it nice that you can now reflect on your dissertating process???

kermitthefrog said...

I have an almost identical system, except I usually print out all those notes (or at least those I think I'll be referring to) and try to make them fit together by using numbers and symbols that I then forget what they mean. But I wonder, in my case at least, whether the overuse of quoted material isn't more related to the genre of the dissertation ("I must prove my knowledge of X field and Y historical background") than to the notetaking process itself. It's so easy -- again, at least for me -- to get into a defensive mode of writing, where there's a felt obligation to use sources simply to prove your familiarity with those sources.

Dr. Crazy said...

Oh, your next project does NOT have to be the book (indeed, probably it's good to do a wee something (series of conference papers and an article?) off-topic in the next year or two so that you can give the book some time to "breathe" as it were). That was the coolest thing for me about being done (and no, it never does get old): being able to think about something else!

Sisyphus said...

Kermit ---- yes, I noticed this getting a lot less prominent over the course of my chapters, and it flared up more when I moved into new areas of study (arthist, for example) than the areas I had worked up more of a comfort with. I think it's also exacerbated by the whole interdisciplinary/cultural studies thing as well (which I think you work in too, no?) --- dealing with areas of study that aren't quite your strength or having to fulfill the requirements of evidence for multiple disciplines.

kermitthefrog said...

Yes, exactly -- and coming into a field where you're unfamiliar, it's harder to know what knowledge has to be demonstrated, and what has to just remain implicit as a background for whatever you're actually writing.

By the way, I kept on reading "arthist" as "arthritis," and trying to recall why you'd be writing about the history of medicine.