Amy Martinellli, “Writing and the Dissertation Process: Notes from conference panel breakout session on ‘Writing History’ at the History of Education Society Annual Meeting, November 5, 2010″

Stages of scholars and scholarship in this breakout group:  Dissertation: 8; Pre-Diss: 5; Articles: 3; Manuscript: 3.  “No Book, No Legacy!”

Q: How do you keep track of archival sources?  I don’t really know how to organize.  What do you put down?

A: Most of the sources were photocopied in an archive, but I wasn’t living where I was researching so I took too much.  In the cases of archives in which there were restrictions on photocopying I spent time reading.

Q: How do you figure out what to put on the page?

A: Be careful to distinguish direct quotations from other information from the sources.  [Looking at layout of notes template as provided here.] The yellow box shows notes about sources but also direct quotations.   You can search across multiple fields and would do that across her notes and the source.  The downside of the process is that there is a lot of typing.  There are other, less user-friendly packages designed for qualitative research that work with pdfs to take snippets so you don’t have to retype, but unless you are using certain documents you may not be able to use that kind of software.  The reason that I had two interfaces is that I wanted to be able to distinguish between sources.  What was important was not doing what Endnote does, where all the information is collected in a SINGLE place.  This separated the data into other sections.

Q: At what point do you start writing as you collect data?  I started writing my draft and then I had to go back.  My stuff is in Singapore and I had to go back.  At what point do you stop writing?

A: (Ansley Erickson):  I wrote as soon as I could. Sometimes I started writing when I thought I’d mastered a section, chronologically.  I would look sometimes at 800 notes.  For some people the feeling of being “not ready to write yet” becomes a problem.

Other responses:

  • You have to start soon so that you see where the problems are and what the questions are.
  • You have to let go because you don’t know what you’re trying to write or what your argument is when until you start to write.
  • Find your body rhythm.  I can’t write in the morning but I can write at night.  Guard that time jealously; that is your sacred time.  Don’t fret if you only write one sentence today.  Tomorrow you might write ten pages.
  • Consider trying voice recognition software or a transcription service to enable you to talk your writing.  There was a discussion about interviewing, including people who’d done oral history and could code without transcribing.

Q: How do you know when you’ve already done enough research?  There is a difference between a dissertation and a book.  You’re writing for the committee but when you’re writing on your own, who am I writing for?  Do I want to write for a different audience?  Who do we want our audiences to be, ultimately?

A: I would write a lot of descriptive narrative, more than I would need in the end.  This way there is a process of having something way too long and then working it down.

Other responses:

  • Transcribing and transcription Tools
  • Zotero is something we should be talking about.  I want to be able to use it but how can the small pieces of information be grouped together?  All of the pieces have to be seen through the one source?  How can I organize?  I can do this with FileMaker.
  • Remember 20 years ago when computers were against us?  And now computers are with us.  When I started doing this research people were trying to push me toward SPSS and FileMaker but I used Word and Excel with my method from high school putting note cards into word.   I didn’t have to spend too much time on learning software; the software isn’t as important as the process. Software might be useful for some people but might be useless for others.

Concluding Comments

  • Those at the beginning of the research and writing process should invest the time to get to know new technologies when doing small-scale projects.  The system you use for an article might be different than a dissertation.  Graduate school coordinators and peers might share strategies for studying and writing.  You needn’t reinvent the wheel.
  • Force yourself to present to your peers early in the process, even if your committee doesn’t see it.  There is accountability when you present to each other.
  • Ask your department chair if you can receive funding for technological aspects of your project and for presentations to peers.  “Publish and Flourish” luncheons are one way to do this.
  • Ansley Erickson is willing to send the FileMaker template she used, upon request.