little by little, brick by brick

After Friday’s rather angsty post about feeling unsettled and unsure about my work … I’m pleased to say that I now feel vastly better. I feel more in control, although little may have changed to the average onlooker! Over the weekend, I’ve:

  • Assessed various different notetaking tools, including Evernote, Onenote, Readcube, and Mendeley. I’ve not truly been happy with any of them, or rather, I’ve not been happy with how my current laptop set up is able to handle them (i.e. not very well, very slow – and thats with just a few PDFs loaded). That may change when and if I get my new computer, but I have to make the decision now for the next three years. I also feel that with these tools there’s a certain level of redundancy – I’d be typing bibliographic information into RefWorks, into a word document, and into this – its one layer of typing too many.
  • At the same time, I’ve also revised my understanding of what I think I should be achieving right now. This is partly prompted by an article of Pat Thomson’s over on Patter, the rather timely and well titled – ‘Can you do too much reading’. One very specific paragraph in there really spoke to me and made me realise that at this point, it’s not (or shouldn’t be) about taking copious notes on all the secondary literature, that’s pointless, slow and cumbersome. Rather, it’s about reading widely, jotting down the occasional note if it’s really important, but otherwise, its about recording your reactions to the material. Do I agree with them? Do I think they’ve proved their point? Are they talking rubbish, left something out? Have I spotted a gap? What’s the theme? How does this work with my project, my ideas? The specific paragraph from Thomson’s article begins: ‘Reading ought not to contaminate our thinking, but rather enhance it. Writing about what we are reading, as we are reading it, and writing about our reading in relation to our project, can go a long way to helping us sort out our own ideas, bouncing off the texts in our field.’ I feel it’s so critical I’ve copied it onto a post-it note that will eventually find a place on the wall above my desk which is where all the really critical stuff goes (and I’m very selective about what goes up there).

So, put those two together, and a suggestion from a friend on FB, means that instead I’m going all luddite and doing it with good old pen and paper. I’m going to be using a B5 notebook from Black and Red which is split into two columns, so that I can use the double-entry notetaking method (there’s a video here which is rather good on that method), and usefully, has the pages numbered, as well as a space for the date at the top. The time may come, later, for more indepth notetaking and for that I may resort to more technological methods, but we’ll see. I know one person who built an entire notetaking system for her PhD within MS Access, which I’m full of admiration for! But the handwritten books have another advantage: I can do them anywhere, as long as I have the book, a pen, and something to read, which helps with my current, rather on-the-go life.

I’ve also started something I’ve been putting off for a while, writing in my PhD journal. This is an A4 sized book, which feels massive and beautiful and clean (fellow stationery aficionados will understand this) and I’ve not wanted to write in it for fear of spoiling it, but I’ve hoiked myself up by the chinstraps this afternoon and bravely put pen to paper! This book is intended to manage the entire PhD: it has the nuts n bolts of information about the various deadlines I have to meet in the front, so I can check at a glance if I’m on course with something, as well as a research diary and a section of basic information about each and every parish in Herefordshire. I have a feeling this journal may well be worth its weight in gold by the time I finish the PhD, at least to me.

I’ve also sort of cleaned up my desk a little, although I suspect I may need to wait till the Christmas break to have a really good go at it. I did sort out some of the paperwork and coursework I’ve been sticking into a pile; sorted them into groups and filed them away in lever arch files so it all feels a bit better. That, coupled with sorting out my planning system a bit more means I feel much more in control of things ahead of the week to come. Lets hope I maintain it.

Next week I’ve more time to do the things I should be doing (reading and writing) and I hope I can make some serious inroads into the work that I should be doing. If I can do that, I think it will vastly improve my situation, and really contribute to building that foundation I was worrying about on Friday. It’s not much of a foundation yet. Maybe the foundation of the foundation. But it’s getting there, slowly!

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One thought on “little by little, brick by brick

  1. Thanks for the thoughts here Liz. Somehow I hadn’t heard of ReadCube, but it looks very interesting and incredibly similar to Mendeley‘s set up and functionality. I’ve been using Mendeley for quite a while now and am reasonably happy with it, particularly being able to use their bookmarklet to save things for later and then do reading and annotations within the material. If researchers in your area are using Mendeley’s social features, this is also a potential added benefit, though platforms like Academia and ResearchGate should be explored as well.

    Given their disparate functionalities, you may be better off choosing one of Evernote and OneNote and separately Mendeley or ReadCube. Personally I don’t think the four are broadly interchangeable though they may be easier to work with in pairs for their separate functionalities. While I loved Evernote, I have generally gone “all in” on OneNote because it’s much better integrated with the other MS Office tools like email, calendar, and my customized to do lists there.

    Another interesting option you may find for sorting/organizing thousands of documents is Calibre e-book management. It works like an iTunes but for e-books, pdfs, etc. If you use it primarily for pdfs, you can save your notes/highlights/marginalia in them directly. Calibre also allows for adding your own meta-data fields and is very extensible. The one thing I haven’t gotten it to do well (yet) is export for citation management, though it does keep and maintain all the meta data for doing so. One of the ways that Mendeley and ReadCube seem to monetize is by selling a subscription for storage so if this is an issue for you, you might consider Calibre as a free alternative.

    I’ve been ever working on a better research workflow, but generally prefer to try to use platforms on which I own all the data or it’s easily exportable and then own-able. I use my own website on WordPress as a commonplace book of sorts to capture all of what I’m reading, writing, and thinking about–though much of it is published privately or saved as drafts/pending on the back end of the platform. This seems to work relatively well and makes everything pretty easily searchable for later reference.

    Here are some additional posts I’ve written relatively recently which may help your thinking about how to organize things on/within your website if you use it as a research tool:

    Notes, Highlights, and Marginalia
    A New Reading Post-type for Bookmarking and Reading Workflow

    I’ve also recently done some significant research and come across what I think is the most interesting and forward-thinking WordPress plugin for academic citations on my blog: Academic Blogger’s Toolkit. It’s easily the best thing currently on the market for its skillset.

    Another research tool I can’t seem to live without, though it may be more specific to some of the highly technical nature of the math, physics, and engineering I do as well as the conferences/workshops I attend, is my Livescribe.com Pulse pen which I use to take not only copious notes, but to simultaneously record the audio portion of those lectures. The pen and technology link the writing to the audio portion directly so that I can more easily relisten/review over portions which may have been no so clear the first time around. The system also has an optional and inexpensive optical character recognition plugin which can be used for converting handwritten notes into typed text which can be very handy. For just about $200 the system has been one of the best investments I’ve made in the last decade.

    If you haven’t come across it yet, I also highly recommend regularly reading the ProfHacker blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education which often has useful tips and tools for academic research use. They also do a very good job of covering some of the though in the digital humanities which you might find appealing.

    Like

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