Organizing Information for Dissertation Writing – Part 1 of 3

I’m coming into the home stretch of my two academic years of field work for my dissertation on treason and political retribution against accused collaborators with Japan in Korea and China from 1937-1951. I spent the first academic year in Korea, a summer in Taiwan, and I’ve just begun my last month of research in Jinan, China. I’ll try to wrap up some unfinished research in Korea and Taiwan this spring and then begin the actual writing of my dissertation this coming summer back in my hometown in Norway and while staying with family in the US. My goal is to wrap things up and hopefully complete my history PhD program by the spring of 2011.

I had always hoped I would have at least one chapter written up by the time I returned from the field, but at this I have failed. My primary excuse has been the fact that I have never had all the materials I have collected in various places in one place. In honesty, however, it is probably more due to the fact that I have never been able to combine the “research mode” and the “writing mode” into a single daily routine. I have deep admiration for graduate students and scholars who can do this effectively: spending their days at the archives and libraries, then shifting to chapter writing in the evenings. I haven’t even done what some professors have suggested: write a few disconnected pages here and there as you get enough material to weave a few tight threads. I confess cowardice, having not overcome the fear of composing such fragile and isolated pages.

Since I’m not, like those model students, immediately converting my daily discoveries into chunks of narrative and analysis, I am increasingly concerned about the fact that the hundreds of note files, outlines, and references to various archive images or PDFs themselves have become a considerable corpus that will require a nontrivial amount of processing and mining to reconstruct the argument and narrative of what will become my PhD dissertation.

To put it another way, I have two rich layers that form the foundation and roof of my research. The former is the dense web of primary source materials, notes taken from these source materials, and other timelines or “notes on notes” which organize some conceptually related materials. This is where the truffle hunter can happily prance about. The latter is the dissertation outline. This is an increasingly detailed macroscopic view of my planned chapters and arguments which has taken concrete form in a dozen different formats and lengths as it gets distributed as a dissertation prospectus, various fellowship application essays, emails to professors, and, in its most detailed form, a hierarchical outline document full of barely intelligible bullet points. This overarching top-down view is born of that creative destruction that is the clash between the starting assumptions that feed the “fire in my belly” which brought me to the study of history and my chosen topic, and my intuitive understanding of what my research in the sources permits me to argue in good faith as a historian. It is, of course, at exactly this point where many of the historiographical crises of our time find their point of entry but this is not the issue I wish to address in these postings.

While in the field, the gradual thickening of the web of notes and sources on the one hand and the increasingly detailed and structured outline on the other might suggest progress, but I can already feel the heavy weight of a void that lies between them. PhD students I have talked to who have returned from their research in the field give me the impression that the greatest frustrations that lie ahead for me are to be found in two areas. One is the challenge of writing itself, of synthesis and analysis on a scope never before attempted in our long career as students. The other, however, seems to be found in bridging the vast and dangerously incomplete “middle zone” between the above described layers: Exactly what evidence and what sources will be deployed for precisely which points we think we can persuasively make? Which book, newspaper or archival document was it that demonstrated this or that phenomenon? For every argument I wish to make, must I be reduced to searching through a large subset of my notes and notes on notes, which now number many hundred pages?

I’m very much open to the advice of graduate students and professors who have developed successful strategies for this but in my next two postings, I’ll share a strategy that I’m attempting now that I hope will help me overcome some of the worst of the middle zone nightmare I have described above. I don’t think it is very original, as I suspect many, if not most PhD students may have attempted or used something similar themselves. In fact, some may accuse me of describing the obvious common sense approach. If, however, it indeed is an effective approach – and this remains to be shown in the coming two years of writing I have ahead of me – then I wish it had been explained to me before I launched into my lonely existence as a student roaming the archives of East Asia.

In the next posting, I’ll explain how I’m using my task planning software (OmniFocus) as a bridge between my notes and my dissertation outline, creating a kind of index that links sections of my notes on specific sources, to certain arguments I think I can and will make in my dissertation chapters. While what I’m doing doesn’t require any kind of specific software, this process has integrated relatively smoothly into my existing methods for organizing tasks on my Mac and my iPod Touch. The third posting will probably only be interesting to a more technical audience who are familiar with various specific software solutions. In that posting, I will suggest how, if my current experimental approach is sound, how I think an even more ideal software-based organizational system might work which I have yet to find fully or satisfactorily implemented in any existing soclution I have seen out there. I’m sure there will be dissenters who believe they have found the perfect solution for their needs, but I will attempt to articulate what I have found lacking in what is out there.