Monday, February 13, 2006

Writing the Dissertation

If I spend time writing the blog (and of course a novel or two in odd moments), going to the dentist, and socializing, how do I work on my dissertation?
Well, strangely enough, it’s easy. Not for everyone, I admit, but for me. And not easy all the time, but then just about nothing is easy all the time.
First off, I like my topic. That’s right, I do not get tired of Toyen or early Czech surrealism. I’ve been interested in this stuff for more than ten years, and have only gotten to spend much time on the dissertation itself rather recently, so I don’t anticipate major nausea setting in any time soon. The basic plan is to finish the PhD in the next couple of years, and what with the way that time flies as one gets older, dissertation overload seems unlikely.
Second, I like archival research. Some people find this character trait positively bizarre, as they regard the prospect of sitting in an archive or library all day as a horrendous form of torture, but then, I’m just strange. I find it exciting to dig through old papers, wondering what I might find. I feel a certain awe in knowing that I’m touching a postcard or manuscript written by an interesting historical figure.
Third, I like to write. We all know, in fact, that it is hard to keep me from writing. As a rule I don’t know what I think until I’ve written it. Unlike some people I know, I don’t think out loud very efficiently. While I do get some benefit out of talking things through with people, as they force me to see things in new ways, for the most part I have to write. I don’t know how a story will end until I write the ending. I don’t know how I will analyze data until I’ve written the analysis.
These things said, I wouldn’t claim that I am the most diligent or most efficient person in the world. Far from it! Several things, however, help me keep working productively with a minimum of effort.
First, I use bibliographic software. Really, I don’t see how any graduate student can live without it, but I have found that many do. (They should change their ways immediately and save themselves much grief.) Initially, I used Endnote because my university offers it at a steep discount. Endnote is a good product, but Endnote 6 and 7 (the versions I used) were not designed with my needs in mind. That is, the software is designed more for scientists and social scientists than for humanities scholars, so even though it will create citations based on MLA and the Chicago Manual, many of them cannot easily be correctly formatted. (You could say a work was translated by or edited by somebody, but not translated and edited by the same person. You could not list someone as the compiler, or say that X wrote the text “with” Y. There were hosts of these issues.) This meant that I just used Endnote as a place to store bibliographical information, not to create actual citations. Which was not so bad. What was much worse was that Endnote didn’t support several Czech characters and I was always having to type weird things like c^ to remind myself how a word was spelled. This really drove me mad while I was working in the archives during the summer of 2004, and led me to switch my dissertation work to Nota Bene, a word processor designed for scholars that has its own bibliographic software component, Ibidem. Ibidem is very flexible and I could even type in Hebrew if I wanted or knew how. It also did a good job of importing my Endnote databases, once I figured out what needed to be done.
Second, I take all my notes directly onto the computer. This does make me reluctant to read away from the laptop, but it also means that anything I’ve taken notes on is right where I need it. Sometimes I take the notes in Ibidem (which allows you to open special note-taking documents for each source), and sometimes directly into the rather unwieldy dissertation document. In the latter case, I footnote obsessively. When I later move around or consolidate those note-taking sentences, I won’t have to look at the source again to check the exact pages.
Third, I actually keep a lot of my sources on the computer. This is mainly because a) interlibrary loan books never arrive when one has time to read them and b) I was not about to lug a hundred pounds of books and photocopies to the Czech Republic. Instead, I ran my photocopies through a magic machine at school called the Digital Sender, which made PDF files of them. I also used the copy stand in my department to take digital photographs of quite a few books. This was time-consuming, but an hour or so to photograph a 500-page Czech-language small-font anthology is an hour or so well spent, as was the time it took to go through and enter all the articles in Ibidem. I can easily see whether I have something on my laptop or need to order it at the library here (or have it but would like to see it in its original context). I made all the photographed books into PDF files for ease of use. (Scanning would have made a better end product, but would have taken far, far longer.) I also download every PDF dissertation that might conceivably relate to my work. PDF files with very legible English, French, or German text can be “captured” in Acrobat, which means that they become searchable text and I can apply yellow highlighting and other note-taking features, which is a splendid thing. (Unfortunately, Acrobat doesn’t have a Czech capture module, although if I had Finnish text it would handle that.) So… if I’m at home or at the library and suddenly want to see what Nezval said about Toyen in his memoirs, I can look it up in an instant. Or, when I started looking at the Janský-Brouk lawsuit, and found it a bit baffling, I was able to find the disputed Brouk article immediately.
In a move akin to putting lots of sources on the laptop, I also tried to scan as many works by Toyen and other Czech surrealists as I could manage. Scanning is a slow process, so I have been gradually adding to my collection over the past three years. In Photoshop, I try to enter useful keywords for each one. The scanned images then get catalogued in an image database (I use iMatch for this, but Cumulus is also very good). I can search by medium, time period, or iconography, depending on how well I’ve done my cataloguing. Mainly, I can quickly look up works rather than wondering which book they were in and which library had that book.
As regards the writing itself… Well, I have one big dissertation document rather than separate ones for each chapter, which may not be optimal. When I work on novels, each chapter has its own document, but then, novels are different. I am more likely to write most of a novel chapter before going onto its successor. With the dissertation, I add incrementally to various chapters, and material sometimes gets moved around from chapter to chapter as I try to figure out where it fits best. Perhaps something seems to belong in chapter three, but might ultimately go into the introduction or the conclusion or some other spot. One does not advance to candidacy (ABD status) without having had one’s prospectus approved, and the prospectus is much like a book proposal, but the whole thing does change as one works. Furthermore, after reading one of Dawn’s books about dissertation-writing, I gained a better understanding of how to conceptualize chapter sections, so that led me to examine my tentative section headings, revise them, and start moving text into the appropriate spots. This made me feel so smart and productive that I went ahead and wrote introductory text for several sections, as, if a section is optimally 2000-2500 words, that’s like a short story, and that’s not a daunting length at all (yes, short stories can be longer or shorter, but most magazines prefer them under 3000 words).
So, that’s how I write my dissertation. I research and write simultaneously, I take notes in full sentences and usually in paragraphs, and I footnote as I go. Thus far, it’s gone pretty smoothly, so we’ll just hope that continues. Also, my dissertation relies less on archival sources than some, and hardly at all (we’ll see) on interviews. Every dissertation is different.


Blogger Kristen said...

Oh, the guilt!!!!!

February 13, 2006 7:46 PM  
Blogger Karla said...

Kristen, if reading illegible handwritten correspondence in Russian isn't heavy duty dissertation work, I don't know what is. You get NO guilt trip from me! (Especially when you can't plug in your laptop in the library or whatever.)

February 13, 2006 8:24 PM  

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