Dissertation Work, July Update

I’m currently in Florida on vacation with Brandon, so today’s post was written before we traveled to Pensacola.

Rather than take on new readings or other research, I decided last week was a good time to pause and take stock of what I’d done since completing the prospectus, both to see what I’d learned and where I need to go next. Given the overall reflective state I’ve been in, then, I’ll spend today’s post discussing the importance of review to my research practice, especially concerning the dissertation.

Gustave clearly isn’t impressed with my process.

Review is crucial to my overall working process. For each day that I do dissertation research (Monday-Friday since I take the weekends off), I take time at the end of each day’s working session to reflect on what I’ve been doing through freewriting. This is different from the notes I’ve been taking on books, articles, or other documents. In these freeform essays, I talk about what I’ve read in terms of how they relate to my larger interests or dissertation project. It’s less about their individual content than how they add to or change my perspectives on my work. I also write down any questions I have, and speculate on what I should research next to answer those questions. These freewrites usually span about two pages and are informal in tone, but they offer an important record of my thought process at a particular time.

I also do longer reflections at the end of the week. First I spend time writing in my dissertation journal, reflecting on what I worked on during the week as a whole, as opposed to a single day. Aside from reviewing what I did, I try to tease out major ideas or themes relating to my work, and plan out what I should do the following week to continue developing those themes, whether it’s tracking down certain books, looking up specific archival documents, or overall widening or narrowing my field of consideration. I then type up these notes into an essay resembling an expanded version of the freewriting I’ve been doing throughout the week. All of these documents I then title using both the date I wrote them and the major topics or themes they discuss so that I can easily look them up again.

Writing can be hard, but like exercise, doing it consistently makes it easier to endure.

I developed this approach while I was working on the prospectus, and it proved extremely helpful when it came to putting that document together. What I like about this method is that it allows me to trace my thought process as it changes over time. Essentially, I’m creating an archive of my thinking as I go about my research. Depending on what I was reading on a particular day, I can get a sense of what I was thinking about at a specific time, and how it changed according to my research. Yet it also allows me to keep track of continuities in terms of interests or questions, which is extremely helpful when trying to define arguments or perspectives. It also gets me in the habit of thinking and writing about my dissertation topic on a consistent basis, which will hopefully make it less intimidating when it comes time to start drafting actual chapters.

Will this process change over time? Possibly, but review will remain an important facet regardless. Given the duration of the dissertation process, it’s important to keep a record of both your research and your reflections on it, as your thinking is likely to change as you get more familiar with the material. Keeping track of what you’ve been thinking about will make it easier to discern how you got to your conclusions. At least, that’s what I noticed when I was drafting the prospectus.

Gustave being far more interested at whatever is outside the study window.

Would this process work for everyone? Probably not, because everybody works differently. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post on my writing, I don’t expect my approaches to academic research to appeal to everyone because they can be a bit rigid and demanding. They work for me though, and that’s what counts.

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