Workflows

Toward an Integrative System of Information Management

I am sitting at my desk in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Some allege that summer has begun, but I’ve paid no mind to whispers that threaten the threads of tenacity remaining in my psyche to finish seminar papers, take language courses, do research, and prepare for the third year of a Ph.D. program in history at the University of Michigan. With two years behind me, I have a virtual ocean of books, articles, conference papers, dissertations, and lectures to read and review before my comprehensive exams at the end of the 2021 academic year. To my left, an unkempt pile of assiduously documented and extensive book notes brushes against my 2014 laptop—ancient now, according to Apple. With corners fraying, the pages of yellow legal paper are well worn—some are tattered.

To my right, a book rests open with a flock of check marks, circles, and marginalia vying for my attention. The book is Benjamin Claude Brower’s harrowing 2009 monograph, A Desert Named Peace: The Violence of France’s Empire in the Algerian Sahara, 1844–1902. This book, along with a stack of others, will eventually end up in a review article synthesizing recent scholarship about French colonial violence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A sweaty Collins glass is empty, it’s just behind the yellow legal paper. One sheet sticks out and now has a semicircle of water at its top edge, more abuse as the ink smears like an impressionist account of graduate school trauma. A scented Paperwhite candle flickers at the extreme right of my desk, reminding me of the jasmine plant that grew in the ground floor “backyard” of my parent’s apartment.

This semester has been one of considerable reflection for me. If, as a historian, a historicist historian, I can do away with questions of essential identities and properties, if I can question the very supposition of the nature and the features of any given dynamic, then why is it so hard for me (for us?) to talk about our own work reflexively? We treat our research—or more properly—we treat our research methods like carefully guarded secrets. That is, until someone asks us to talk about it. Ask us to tell you about our adventures in the archive, or our process of manuscript preparation, or to get a drink with us and to share what it is exactly about our research topics that makes us not quit the game entirely—we’ll gladly share, for the most part.

If you search for tips about how to succeed in graduate school, if you search for how to read books and articles, how to take notes, how to visualize and understand the content to which you’re relentlessly exposed, how to manage all of our information, you’ll find a panoply of superficial blog posts and discussions, YouTube videos, and how-to guides that reiterate the same general truisms that have been known since the early years of the ‘00s: Highlighting doesn’t do very much, Reading is writing. Organize your notes well. Always record bibliographic information. Endless note taking and information management softwares abound across operating systems of all kinds, eager to take just a little bit more of your money to offer a transformative, life-changing experience. They never do. What I intend to do, over the course of the next few years, is to share my experience of doing historical research in a top graduate program in the United States. While I’d be lying if I said something coy like “I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m on a learning journey, let’s go through it together,” or something like that, I am only 24 years old and have quite a bit to learn. The tools I’ve used and misused to get to where I am today have been indispensable, and I’m eager to begin thinking through them reflexively to work towards something more meaningful: a method, a practice, and a system of dissertation research that could one day be useful for a more intelligent mind who lacks the boredom and obsessiveness to document passing thoughts and critiques of the order of things.

My goal is to regularly document my research practices and workflow towards the end of envisioning an integrative system of knowledge production that doesn’t waste time and makes the most sense for people who have to deal with texts all day long. I’d also like to share my experiences with graduate school and academic life in your 20s and 30s.

Stemming from college conversations with friends and colleagues in Los Angeles and carrying forward to the present day, I have come to the realization that a fundamental transformation in the way we think about and organize the information we consume is necessary. I am by no means the first person to suggest the necessity of such a transformation. A few years ago, NPR did an entire series on information overload: we’re getting sick because of our inability to cope with the amount of content and media that surrounds us. If you’re like me and struggle with problems of volume and scale regarding your research, coursework, and daily obligations, maybe this series of posts is for you. The plan for this series of posts is listed below: if you’d like to contribute your voice or thoughts, please drop a line and let me know.

Intellectual Debts

It started with my (now almost ruined) copy of Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers’ A Writer’s Reference (7th ed.). Then I had to learn what it meant to be a good student—I purchased and religiously read What Smart Students Know by Adam Robinson: this book was infinitely more useful to me than Cal Newport’s neoliberal manual of opportunism and intellectual laziness, How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets for Success from the Country’s Top Students. I should mention, Newport isn’t very fond of Robinson’s methods and views the work of intellection attached to reading a source with the nuance of a dried mango. From there, it went to learning how to use the Chicago Manual of Style, in print and online (you can’t just walk into it). Things began to spiral from that point on: Booth et al.’s The Craft of Research (4th ed.), David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen’s Writing Analytically (6th ed.), Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools, Turabian et al.’s A Manual for Writers (9th ed.), Mortimer Alder and Charles van Doren’s How to Read a Book, Umberto Eco’s How to Write a Thesis, and Frank L. Cioffi’s The Imaginative Argument (2nd ed.). 

Then I made the mistake of watching YouTube videos about productivity—watching attractive, charismatic people with too much time on their hands talk about how they go about being productive. Isn’t it interesting, though, that you always want to learn more about productivity when you’re procrastinating? I got my copy of the fat blue book, Pierce J. Howard’s The Owner’s Manual for the Brain (4th ed.), which was quite helpful for understanding how thinking actually works (parts 4 and 5 are the most useful). Then I started thinking about what the core of our experience for (many) scholars in the humanities and social sciences: text and textuality. If we don’t get a grip on texts, we’ll always be harried and our minds will be racked with turbid assemblages of misquotations and vague ideas. Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot and Fiona McPherson’s Effective Notetaking (3rd ed.) were useful in thinking through the ins and outs of thinking reactively with my source materials. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life reminded me not to take life seriously, but to take reading and writing extremely so. Among all of these books, Sönke Ahrens’ How to Take Smart Notes, based on the research practices of German sociologist Niklas Luhmann and his Zettelkasten method, was the most influential and transformative in my thought.

The Outline

  • Welcome to Graduate School: The Problem of Information Management
  • Life in your 20s and 30s in Academia: The Problem of “Time Management” in Neoliberal Institutions
  • Niklas Luhmann’s Revolution: What Zettelkasten Teaches Us (and Doesn’t)
  • From the Ground Up: Commonplaces and Knowledge Spaces
  • A Cacophony in Terabytes: The Perils of Information Management Systems in the Humanities
  • Doing Scholarship Together in the 21st Century

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