Sarah Manekin and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, “The Accountability Partnership: Rendering the Solitary Social and Turning Mountains into Molehills”

In 2007, we, Sarah and Natalia, were two Spencer Pre-Doctoral Fellows struggling to write the dissertations that stood between us and our Ph.D.s in History. Studying different centuries and working in distant cities, we were both frustrated with our lack of writing progress and desperate to find strategies that could help. So we decided to experiment with an “accountability partnership.”  Never could we have predicted how well our experiment would work.  But, three years later, we can honestly say that our partnership sustained us through two job searches, two moves, two articles, one engagement, one baby, and, most importantly, two dissertations.

This is the story of how we did it together and some of the lessons we learned along the way.

It was the fall of 2007 and I could not write my dissertation.  While I was perpetually busy, the pages never materialized. I was stuck.

Such stagnation and massive procrastination felt totally new. Thus far, graduate school had been a series of formidable but manageable challenges.  I had of course started late on my share of reading assignments and seminar papers and worried whether I would “get it all done” for oral exams while TA-ing and beginning my research.  I had even wondered whether it was a wise decision to devote most of my twenties to getting a degree for which even the best jobs paid less than I had made in my first job out of college. Yet despite these inevitable detours and doubts, I had always finished the book, written the paper, and passed the exams.  I even managed to keep my spirits high enough to do it all with a sense of purpose, often even with joyous gratitude for being able to spend these years reading, writing, and discussing the historical questions which animated the rich intellectual journey I knew I was so lucky to be able to pursue.

The first few months of my dedicated writing time passed without my finishing so much as a complete chapter draft I was proud of, yet without any apparent consequence: my funding checks kept appearing in my bank account, my family, friends, and even colleagues continued to believe my weak assurances that “things were moving along great,” and my boxes of archival documents remained untouched beside my desk. For the first time in my five years of graduate school, I began to doubt my ability to complete the Ph.D.  I also began to yearn for an interruption to what was becoming an unproductive and unfulfilling pattern: the fewer pages I produced, the greater my doubts that I had the power to do anything else. As I realized how solitary, amorphous, and apparently interminable the writing endeavor could be, I also knew that if I wanted to complete my dissertation at all, much less with any of the passion and enthusiasm that had led me to the project in the first place, I needed to find a way to do it differently. And then I met Sarah.

In the fall of 2007, I too was starting my third year of full-time dissertation work and was stuck. I felt unmoored and unfocused and, more importantly, I suffered from a severe case of writing angst: How could I tell if I was making progress? What did it mean to have a “good” writing day? I wrestled with how to move forward because I often couldn’t tell where “forward” was, let alone if I was heading in that direction.

Seeking a reprieve from my computer screen, I went to meet a friend for coffee and she shared with me the new writing strategy she had adapted from her father’s engineering lab. Each week, the researchers at her father’s lab wrote detailed reports of what they had accomplished, how they’d spent their time, and what next steps they needed to follow to achieve their goals.  Recognizing the weekly reports as a valuable strategy for charting progress, my friend had spoken with her father about replicating those weekly write-ups.  Each week, she promised to send her father an “accountability report” of what she had accomplished and where she was headed.

The idea resonated with me. I needed a mechanism to reassure myself that I was getting somewhere, that the days I spent reading over archival notes and muddling over sentences and paragraphs constituted progress.  I needed some of the structures that a more typical “day job” provided: start and stop times, deadlines, colleagues.  And I needed to make my work public, not in the sense of applying for more conferences and fellowships, but in the sense that I needed to find a way out of my own internal monologues to tell somebody that I was going to do something. I’m a social person, and I needed to find away to make writing my dissertation a more collective endeavor. And then I met Natalia.

The Partners:
To be fair, we had met a couple years earlier at a History of Education Society Annual Meeting, but at the Spencer Foundation Conference in Los Angeles in the fall of 2007, we realized we shared more than a fellowship and a field. We were both struggling with the enormousness of the dissertation task, and were seeking strategies to help us structure –and survive — the process that could easily last the next 1-2 years of our lives.  We didn’t know each other well, and while we were friendly, we were hardly friends.  Looking back, each of us recognized in the other a similar kind of intellectual drive and a similar enthusiasm for life and for learning.

At the Spencer Conference, Sarah sketched out the “accountability partnership” she had envisioned based on her friend’s “weekly reports”, and we devised some basic ground rules and committed to launch the endeavor as soon as we returned home. By the end of the conversation, we could barely wait to put our system to the test.


The Partnership
Daily morning sign-in.
From the outset, we began each day of our partnership with a morning email sign-in. As both of us worked mostly from home, we didn’t have the obvious “Now I’m at work and thus will begin work” structure to our working life, and the sign-in became our way of artificially creating that structure. Whether at 7 am (Natalia) or the more reasonable 9 am (Sarah), we announced to each other the moment our workday officially began. It was a public declaration (and, occasionally, confession) that we were sitting down to work.  It also had the benefit of reminding us that we weren’t alone: even if we worked in different places in different cities, we were engaged in a common enterprise.

Daily Schedules
The morning sign-in email quickly evolved into a space for creating and sharing a daily schedule.  Sometimes the schedule would be as loose as:

Morning: Work on Ch. 4
Afternoon: Work on Ch. 4

But even that schedule was useful, especially for Sarah, because it brought a basic structure to the workday and a reminder that the workday would end. Sometimes, though, the schedules were far more detailed:

8-8:30: Reply to email
8:30-9:30: Review/edit stuff from yesterday
9:30-11:30:Draft new prose for Ch.3 middle
11:30-12: Walk to library and pickup books
12-1: Lunch with Jo
1:30-3:30 Draft new prose for Ch. 3 middle
3:30-5:30 Read books from library/Take notes on connections
5:30-6 email

This kind of specificity helped us find the gaps in our day and how to make the most of them.  Sarah realized fairly early on that she liked writing in the mornings but that by mid-afternoon her attention waned considerably.  As a result, Sarah’s schedules usually protected the mornings for writing time and put less creative-intensive activities later in the day.  For Natalia, the recognition that she would be spending large chunks of any given day on subways in Manhattan enabled her to see “subway time” as the perfect time for revising and editing drafts.

As our friendship evolved, we began to be more honest about our daily schedules.  Doctor’s appointments and hair appointments, trips to the gym and lunches with friends began to appear in our emails. And after we got over our initial embarrassment (“I didn’t want you to know that I was such an exercise freak!”), we began to realize that our schedules could be a tool to manage the competing priorities that pulled us from our work.  We learned quickly that it’s impossible to write if your day is filled with meetings, errands, talks, and yoga classes.  At the same time, we needed to do those things too, and the schedule helped us see where we could consolidate trips and use the gaps between our other commitments.

Manageable Goals
The daily schedule also became a vehicle for goal setting, or more appropriately, goal managing.  We both wanted to finish. Yesterday. And so the practice of breaking down the big goal (finishing) or even the smaller big goal (finishing chapter 4) was a necessary act of realism and sanity.  We began to say things like “need to read these two new books and figure out how to incorporate them into my analysis.” Or “need to write three paragraphs that can bridge this section to that section.” This shift in precision and clarity in our goal setting allowed us to feel more in control of our progress.  Moreover, by stating those goals publicly we knew there was another person aware of our intention.  There was no punishment or disciplining for failing to meet the goal – and often goals weren’t met as new ideas generated unforeseen writing and new reading led to a hunt for additional sources.  Still, by stating our small goals publicly in the morning, we gave ourselves enough focus to begin the work. (For more on the value of small goals, see Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.  Indeed, Sarah strongly suggests rereading the first three chapters at least once every six months of dissertation writing!)

Just as signing in to start the day was important, signing off to end the day brought necessary closure.  It enabled us to say: “I did all I could do today and now it’s time to stop.” Sometimes we would send each other long emails celebrating what we learned or accomplished that day.  Other times we would share our frustrations with what we hadn’t accomplished and write at length about what we needed to do the next day to remedy the situation.  Usually, though, we were just too tired and bleary-eyed and so dashed off a quick: “I’m done for the day. Catch you on the flipside.”

But we found that regardless of how we signed off, the value was in doing it. Part of our goal of feeling less overwhelmed required that we learn how to walk away from the work, even when the work wasn’t finished.  We knew it would be there the next day. And we knew that our accountability partner would be there too.


Unintended Consequences
When we embarked on our partnership, we thought the benefits would be pragmatic and concrete: less procrastination, more pages produced, hopefully with substantially less anxiety and more quality and organization to boot. We imagined our daily dispatches to be so structured that on the first day Natalia tentatively asked Sarah, “I think it would be a good idea to not only write what we accomplished, but also how we feel about what we accomplished and what lies ahead. Is that OK?” Revisiting those initial, formal emails, it is clear we could not fathom how much more we would derive from our partnership than a mere time management mechanism.

Bringing Transparency to the Writing Process
Before the partnership, to the extent we even thought about it, we both considered our writing processes abstract and opaque: it was the mysterious alchemy that somehow transformed an idea into the 35 pages that garnered the adviser’s approval to proceed to the next chapter and commence the mysterious process all over again. The structure of the daily schedule changed all that. Having to articulate exactly what we would be doing all day long, and about how much we could reasonably be expected to accomplish, forced us to think deliberately and precisely about our individual writing methodologies, and to identify best (and sometimes, worst) practices. Natalia hadn’t realized that for her, the most effective approach to a chapter was to make long conceptual outlines of 10-15 pages, then to insert quotes and references to digital archival notes, and then finally to “prose-i-fy” into a full-length chapter.

Emails like this were evidence of a precise series of steps Natalia adopted to move through a chapter, and were lessons of how to streamline the process for each ensuing chapter:

Today was productive- the outline has morphed into about 14 single spaced pp, with quotes slotted in and some prose. I think I’m (as usual) overestimating how much I need to “fill” the chapter, especially since this one covers so much ground. I’m going to finish getting thru my notes on the Mary Calderone papers tonight (most likely tomorrow) and then start stringing everything into prose… Enjoy the evening and congrats on productivity!
:-) Natalia

Being able to distill these distinct steps made it far easier to get started on writing, and also to maximize the stray hour or two of the day that had previously been easily written off as “too little time to get anything done.”

One day Natalia wrote sheepishly:

I’m embarrassed to say it was a day of veeeery low productivity. Took me forever to get rolling (to the extent I got rolling at all) on the chapter. What I did was collect all (probably not all, I’ll go thru again tomorrow) strategy notes for chap 8 and put them in one document. Yup, I just mean “put.” As in cut and paste. That’s it. Hey, it is SOMETHING, right?!

She hadn’t even “written” anything, but because she knew she had time and energy enough to complete this one, manageable piece of the process, she could move forward, even in this small way.

Intellectual Sounding Board
The more familiar we became with the details of each other’s working lives, the more invested we became in each other’s intellectual worlds. Prior to the partnership, our primary interlocutors about our dissertation progress were our advisers, our peers in our cohort, and the occasional writing group. But in one another, we found a consistently available perspective on not only our process but also on the specific intellectual questions with which we grappled. We enjoyed a circumstance virtually unknown to anyone who doesn’t have a roommate or significant other in their field or program: constant access to someone who knew our project and our field, and who could knowledgeably and empathetically appreciate the particularities of the various epiphanies and problems we encountered along the way.  We began to supplement our daily emails with occasional phone calls to comment on each other’s drafts, but there was something different – and differently valuable – in connecting with someone who could appreciate the raw, unpolished idea:

From: Sarah Manekin
To: natalia mehlman-petrzela
Sent: Jan 21, 2009 6:49 PM
Subject: big idea

Hey there, I’m signing off — gotta go to a dinner! — but wanted to share an interesting epiphany from today’s research/thinking… So remember how I was all into the idea that Lindsay was exporting Tuskegee style schooling to PR? Well, I FINALLY found stats that broke down enrollment figures by race/sex and it turns out that guess who was the majority in those Tuskegee-styled schools? WHITES! That’s right. Not only were the schools racially integrated, but the majority of students in both agricultural and industrial schools were white… How’s that for complicating our assumptions about race and education? Pretty cool… Ok, gotta run!

Champion Extraordinaire
Natalia’s response to Sarah’s “big idea” epiphany, not twenty minutes later, reveals the least scholarly, but perhaps most fulfilling, unintended benefit of the partnership. We championed each other’s progress:

From: Natalia Mehlman-Petrzela <>
To: “Sarah Manekin” <>
Sent: Wednesday, January 21, 2009 7:04:58 PM
Subject: Re: big idea

Wow, that is so awesome. I guess you now know that race is def a major part of the chap 7 narrative! How satisfying to finally nail the LINK – YES! YES! YES!

These kinds of connections – brief, frequent, and unfiltered – were the fuel that energized us to take on one challenge after another. They reminded us that there was someone else out there to check in with, to share in celebrating the milestones that were far too minor to merit telling our advisers or even the effort of explaining to our partners or friends who probably wouldn’t “get it”. Celebrating these triumphs together, however tiny they might be, inspired us to persevere.

Having a champion just a click away also made it easier to reengage after long absences from our work, whether those absences were due to vacations, teaching, or changes in life circumstance.  “Re-entry” was a lot easier with the knowledge that we could just pick up the conversation with our accountability partner.

Here is Sarah during winter vacation:

Hey, I think you’re probably still off on vacation somewhere, but I’m writing to officially “sign-in” for diss day 1! The plan for today is to begin getting my head around ch. 7. I need to go back over my notes from the summer and the various reports I read to try and figure out where I was, what I was interested in doing, etc. The paper I proposed for the AERA conference contained a good bit of the big picture-type questions, but the specific goal for today is to get through that proposal and re-familiarize myself with the Brumbaugh and Lindsay material. I’ll probably go to the reports tomorrow.  More than anything else, I need to remember that right now I just need to put words on a page, that I need to get stuff down on paper, that I just need to get started! Ok. Here goes…

Especially when time away, or even a missed deadline, made re-engaging with writing seem overwhelming, uninspiring, and far too easy to keep putting off, we had created a light, playful space for even the most guilt-ridden procrastinator.

Subject: hi!

I am back in action! We got back last night. General game plan is to re-engage with the interminable chapter 6. I am embarrassed at how long that one is dragging on. Don’t judge me, accountability partner!

As these latter emails demonstrate, what began as a tentative, online experiment in time management and productivity became a central part of our writing lives, helping us over the daily hurdles of writer’s block and isolation.  In the process, our partnership developed into one of the most important intellectual relationships (and friendships) of our graduate school years, and our dissertations and lives are surely all the better for it.


In Sum
When we initially told friends and colleagues about our accountability partnership, the responses ranged from admiration of our self-discipline to revulsion at what seemed like stultifying rigidity. Natalia’s mother, an academic and writer herself, was an early skeptic.  She pointed out that the beauty of the writing process was the space to ruminate, to change course, to pick up a book that catches your eye, to go for a walk if it felt potentially more inspiring than sitting tethered to the laptop.  She contended that imposing any sort of accountability rubric, and the attendant threat of “failing” that rubric, could only stand in the way of producing inspired work. Unquestionably, we gravitated toward each other and the experiment because we both thrive on organization and structure. It is crucial to remember, however, that there was never any “punishment” for failing to meet goals – which were all self-determined – and that our sign-off emails often reported that we had switched strategies or taken up an entirely different aspect of the project. The point was to do something, and to have someone to share it with. The writing process is, of course, foremost an individual, creative journey impossible to segment into a neat series of tasks; therein lies its beauty and its power. It can, however, be a daunting and solitary road, and our partnership enabled us to navigate that path together.

With the dissertations behind us and our energies focused on our full-time teaching jobs, our accountability partnership has necessarily waned. We remain very close friends, of course, and we summon up our strategies when we’re working on articles or applications and need a little boost. But for the most part it exists as part of the “how I got through grad school” narrative.

Still, it resurfaces occasionally in surprising new ways.  In a wonderful twist of fate, Sarah has stumbled into a new “accountability group” at Johns Hopkins, in which a small number of young faculty have forged a writing group based on the concept of supporting writers engaged in the writing process. Unlike traditional groups where members gather every month to read a chapter of one another’s work to critique the work in progress. Our group does that AND adds a different layer. We meet every two weeks and, at each meeting, we talk about the process of writing.  At the conclusion, we state an intention for what we will accomplish before the subsequent meeting.  These goals range from writing a first draft of a fellowship application to taking a dissertation chapter off the shelf and “blowing it up” to begin the process of revising for manuscript.  And while this new group is quite different from what Natalia and Sarah worked out—no daily schedules, no twice-a-day emails—at its core it’s the same: it breaks the writing process down into discrete parts; it sets smaller, more manageable goals, and it enables collaboration and support in taking the small steps that ultimately amount to a finished product. Each of those acts requires courage – to begin something new, to face something old and start over – and we continue to choose to develop that courage with the support of an “accountability partnership.”

About the authors:
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela completed her Ph.D. in History at Stanford University in 2009 and is Assistant Professor of Education Studies and History at the New School University.  Sarah Manekin completed her Ph.D. in History at the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 and is a Lecturer in the Expository Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University.

How to cite this page:
Sarah Manekin and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, “The Accountability Partnership: Rendering the Solitary Social and Turning Mountains into Molehills,” Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age, October 6, 2010,

Creative Commons License This web page from Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License. You may freely distribute this work under the same terms for non-commercial purposes, but you must include a citation similar to the one above.

— How do you organize your research and writing?

Tell us more about your own research and writing process. What tools or approaches have you found to be successful for organizing your historical thinking and writing? Use the commenting feature to share ideas and experiences with others.

How to cite this page:
“How do you organize your research and writing?” Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age, October 6, 2010,

Creative Commons License This web page from Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License. You may freely distribute this work under the same terms for non-commercial purposes, but you must include a citation similar to the one above.

Ansley Erickson, “Historical Research and the Problem of Categories: Reflections on 10,000 Digital Notecards”

Some historians must proceed through research in tidy fashion: frame research question, gather sources, develop argument, write up narrative and argument. A quick survey of guidebooks on historical method shows that to be the accepted order. Yet my own experience has never been so neat. I’m more likely to find some situation curious, to have vaguely-formed questions of different magnitudes in my head, and then identify interesting source material to roam through. In that roaming, some questions come to seem more relevant, important, or productive than others. Others fall away entirely. And my writing is similarly non-linear, as I move between pieces of narrative, using writing as a way to test out what I am arguing, what glues the pieces of the story together. I often work backwards toward the big questions I want to address.

To research my dissertation, ultimately titled “Schooling the Metropolis: Educational Inequality Made and Remade, Nashville, Tennessee, 1945-85,” I started with a bunch of questions about desegregation in Nashville – why did black students ride buses more, and longer, than white kids? Who was to blame? Was this about planning, or power, or what? Was Nashville’s heavily “post-industrial” economy relevant to this story? – and worked my way backwards to the big question I ended up addressing – how the politics and economics of growth feed educational inequality (Erickson 2010).

I suspect I am not the only historian who feels that they are engaged in the work of research and writing unsure of what their final product will be. I recall standing at the snack machine at an archive alongside a senior historian embarking on a new project. She sighed, and said that she had forgotten how hard it was to be back at the point where you don’t know anything yet. Some of this uncertainty seems to me to be central to what we do as historians, as it means we are genuinely guided by our sources. Yet, how do we proceed to do research –the real nuts and bolts of it – if we acknowledge this uncertainty?

Here I tell the story of my own dissertation research process. I use my own experience as the base for this essay because that is the story I know. I do not claim to have been a model historical practitioner or to have done anything cutting edge in my research. This is an example, hopefully one that can prompt some discussion. I will first lay out how I organized my research process and how this process related to my thinking and writing. Then, I’ll venture some connections between that research process and questions in the social history of knowledge and the scholarship of the archive – questions about the making and impact of categories in thought.

In the summer of 2006, I had a viable dissertation prospectus, and was about to embark on the first of my research trips. And, simply, I was scared that I would forget things. I knew what it took to manage the information involved in a seminar-length paper. I had filled notebooks, pages of word-processed text, and then flipped through them as I built an argument.  But what of a project that would extend over years of research and writing? I needed something that would back-stop my own memory, allow for flexible organization of my material, and yet be accessible to lots of different kinds of searches, to make sure I didn’t lose material. I also wanted to make sure I was seeing information in the context of the source it came from, and taking notes in a way that clearly distinguished between what came directly from the sources and what was my own analysis.

I turned to FileMaker Pro, a common database program. In my graduate program, a few students had already made use of this technology, as had one of the junior faculty, so I had some examples to work off of. (There are now newer, still powerful yet more user-friendly and streamlined database programs that probably suit our work better – Bento is one example, and other historians have used qualitative research software like AtlasTI.) I created a FileMaker layout that looked like this. I had one screen for each source, and then another relational layout for notes from that source. No doubt, it was not the most elegant approach, but it reflected what I thought I needed at the start of the project.

FileMaker layout for each source
FileMaker layout for notes, automatically populated with information from source layout. If you would like a copy of this FileMaker template for your own use and adaptation, please email me at

Guessing at what my needs for analytical categories would be before I had done much research, I put in a few features that I hoped would let me sort notes efficiently. I added a keyword field, for example, where I set up about 15 key terms that I expected to show up a lot in my research – state, for state-level policy, for example, or vocational, for vocational education, or McGavock, for one high school that I thought would figure prominently.

In trips to several archives over a year, I collected tens of thousands of pages of documents. I read and took notes on a portion on-site, in those collections that prohibited digital copying or charged exorbitantly for physical copies. Most of my notetaking happened once I was back at home, as I read digital copies on one screen, like this:

One page of a court transcript from Nashville's desegregation trial

while entering direct quotes, my own observations and questions, and tentative analysis, into the FileMaker layout on the other screen like this:

The vast majority of my notecards were descriptive, but when I had a thought about how pieces connected or another general idea, I made a new notecard, titled “memo to self,” and then these entered the digital stack as well, tagged with keywords.

In the end, using FileMaker in this way did accomplish the most basic of my goals. It proved a reliable and convenient way to keep notes and contextual information in the same place, and it helped address my most basic fear of forgetting by allowing me to search for information in myriad ways – titles, content of my notes, direct quotations, keywords, dates. Once I sat down to write, though, I came to appreciate more how fully text-searchable databases allowed me not only to follow my original questions, but to explore ones that I hadn’t anticipated at the start of my research.

Once I had read through nearly all of my documents, I had nearly ten thousand note cards. I used FileMaker to help me organize my notes to get ready for analysis and sense-making. I first ran large searches based on my keywords: hundreds of notecards on curriculum, for example. I would organize these cards chronologically – which FileMaker does instantaneously – and give them a quick read-through in that order. As themes or patterns began to emerge, or there were connections to other sections of my research that weren’t under the “curriculum” heading, I ran separate searches on these, and would incorporate that material into the bin of quotes and comments I was building by cutting and pasting into a new Word document.

Grouping notes in Word; later, I used strike-through to mark items I had included in text.

(I am sure that FileMaker’s report function would do a better job of this, but I never invested the small amount of time it would have taken to figure out fully how this worked).None of this, process, of sorting information into relevant groups, has to happen with a database.  But it happens more quickly and more easily with a database, by my lights.

Once I had identified the pool of notecards I wanted to work with, I began to write. I begin writing before I am sure of exactly what the structure of the argument is. This is how my brain works – I often don’t know what I’m missing, whose perpectives are in or out, until I’ve tried to sit down and write a basic narrative. I try to keep moving in my writing by thinking, “who did what, and when, and with what result?” Then, why? (For more on this see, “Keeping the Writing (and Thinking) Going”).  As I write in this fashion, I often need bits of information that may not have made it into the first batch of notecards I was working with, so it was easy to flip back to the database and get those pieces when I needed them.

Beyond the benefits of convenience, I think that the fully-searchable, digital mode of notetaking I chose allowed me to see things as I wrote and thought that I would not have seen otherwise – likely only because of the difficulty of tracking things down without such a database. Let me illustrate this with an example, in which the database helped me to quickly trace the how various participants used the phrase “inner city,” an inquiry that helped me to sort out how geographical labels related to divisions of race and class.

One central problem in my work has been understanding the multiple layers of inequality at work in Nashville’s desegregation story. There are of course salient and central differences by race and by class, but these divisions were often expressed in the language of geography. By the mid-1960s, residents, planners, and educators used the phrase “inner city” to indicate predominantly black neighborhoods, or neighborhoods where planners anticipated that the black population would continue to grow. I had noticed this pattern in my own reading, and captured examples of such language and other descriptions and imaginings of geographic space and with a key word – cognitive map, as I chose to label it. When I went to read about this phenomenon, I read through all of my “cognitive map” notes, in chronological order, and over several iterations of papers and chapters developed an argument about how what I called pro-suburban bias was informing Nashville’s busing plan. In early versions, I seemed to imply that in Nashvillians’ cognitive maps, the correlation between suburban space and white residents, and urban space and black residents, was absolute. But I wondered about whether the boundaries between these cognitive maps of the city and of racial residential patterns fit that tightly. What could I do to test this? It occurred to me that I could read all of the instances where my sources used the phrase “inner city.” Of course, I may not have not written down every single instance, as I did not imagine this textual analysis to be a part of the project from the outset. Nonetheless, I had enough to provide a basis from which to work.

When I read my sources in this way – some of which I had labeled as about “cognitive maps” and some of which hadn’t made it into that category – I saw something that I hadn’t seen before. Among the critics of schooling in the “inner city,” and the smaller group of its defenders, there was a case that proved that the identification of urban space with black residents wasn’t complete, at least for some city residents. I had made earlier notes about, but had not remembered to come back to, the story of a central-city school that was historically segregated white, remained largely working class, and had a local council representative fighting to retain the school in conjunction with what he labeled its surrounding inner city neighborhood. William Higgins, the council representative, asked, “You’re taking children from the inner city and busing them to suburbia. Why place the hardship on them? Why not bring children from suburbia to the inner city?” and later proposed that “All new schools … should be unified with the inner-city, otherwise the city finds itself a lonely remnant, disunited and eventually abandoned.” (Ivey 1977 and Higgins 1979).

Notes from text search for "inner city"

When I read the first passage, in the first year of my research, I had managed not to tag it as about “cognitive maps,” and thus it would not show up in that search when I began my writing over two years later. But, because I could use a broader search based on a phrase laden with meaning and insinuation, I found this instance. It was one that ended up being quite important in my understanding how these categories of race, geography, and class overlapped, and where they diverged, in my story.

Later, I found that the database allowed me to reframe an initial research question about school location into a broader one about the distribution of public goods – schools and otherwise – in the metropolis. Such a topic links my work to the broader matter of what political and economic structures support metropolitan inequality.

From the start, my dissertation was centrally concerned with why schools were built where they were, how locations got chosen, to meet whose interests. I understood that in this way schools were a kind of good being struggled over in political and economic terms. But it wasn’t until I was through the process of analyzing the local politics of school construction that my story was not just about schools, but about the distribution of public goods generally in the metropolitan area.

I had been tracing how urban renewal funds subsidized school construction, and how, in the context of a metropolitan government, such subsidies could allow a municipality to shift more of its own tax revenues to its suburban precincts. I suspected that this use of urban renewal dollars to reduce the local commitment to supporting city areas in favor of suburban ones was visible in other areas of city services as well. How could I illustrate that, provide some evidence for this broadened claim? I could see what my sources – planning reports, maps, records of community meetings– said about another kind of public good, to see if the dynamics were similar. I knew that I had made some notes about the building and repair of proper sewer lines for the city and surrounding suburbs, but I hadn’t expected to write about them, so I hadn’t made them a keyword. Text searchability of the database meant that I could very easily track down everything I had about sewers, organize it chronologically, and test if the pattern I saw for schools fit for sewers as well. Without fully searchable notes, I would have been looking through stacks of notecards, organized to fit another set of categories entirely. I may not have felt I had the time, at least at this stage of research, to expand my original question to a broader one.

In each case, the database helped relevant information jump out of noise of 18 months of research, and helped make that information available relationally, easily connected to other information. It’s possible that I am overvaluing what the program did, however, as my appreciation of it comes from my contrasting its use with other approaches I have used before. That is, I am not able to reckon with the ways other researchers have kept their own systems of information-gathering flexible. I can only compare this method to others I know.

Categories and the making of historical knowledge
Whether or not this specific database tool is useful broadly, I do think that reflecting upon it has led me to what I think are some interesting questions about how we think about our research practice and how we understand the relationship between how we research and what we learn.

Recent works in the social history of knowledge and the history of the archive share a core interest in categories – where they come from, what assumptions or values they represent, how they can be reified on paper or in practice. I think these interests are relevant to our thinking about research methods. In the writing of my dissertation, I felt fortunate to be able to set out initial categories of analysis, but to have technological tools that made it possible, at no great expense of time, to throw these out. Sometimes I used my initial keywords, and sometimes I skipped over these to evaluate new connections, questions, or lines of analysis. If I had used pen-and-paper notebooks or a set of word processing documents, regrouping information would have required a great expenditure of time. I would have been less likely, then, to consider these new avenues, and thus my earlier thinking about categories of analysis would have been more determinative of my final work, even though those earlier categories were set out early in the project when – like that senior historian – I really didn’t know anything yet. As it cost me virtually not time at all to try out new questions, I could do so easily and in an exploratory fashion, without commitment. That is, thinking about how FileMaker works and how it helped got me thinking about how historians construct, use, and rely upon categories in our own thought and analysis.

It makes sense that we historians would think about categories, as we encounter them in many ways in our work. A few quickly come to mind: as new graduate students, we learn to identify ourselves by sub-field – “I do history of gender,” or “I’m an Americanist,” for example. Then, we’re trained implicitly and explicitly to organize information and causal explanations into categories of analysis – race, class, gender, sexuality, politics, space, etc – when in fact these categories are never so neat and separate, whether in an individual’s life or in a historical moment. Then, we research in archives that establish and reify their own categories – legal records divided by plaintiff or defendant, institutions that keep their records with an eye to confirming the institution’s power or reinforcing its independence. And, to make sense of sometimes overwhelming volumes of fact, all of which needs to be analyzed relationally, we rely on categories that we create as we research and analyze – like my database keywords.

This matter of categories connects to at least two fields of scholarship. Scholars of the history of knowledge like Peter Burke have examined the organizational schemes embodied in curricula, in libraries, in encyclopedias, and have shown us how these structures and taxonomies represent particular ways of seeing the world. Burke shows us that such schemes reify or naturalize those ways of seeing, thus helping to reproduce the view of the world from which they came. They also make some kinds of information more, or less, accessible. Think, for example, of the encyclopedia. We are accustomed to it’s A to Z organization of topics, but this structure in fact represented a break away from previous reference formats that grouped subjects under a structure of classical disciplines. The alphabetized encyclopedia came about at a point when the previous disciplinary categories were no longer so stable as to be able to contain growing knowledge, and a new, more horizontal or less hierarchical model took their place, a model that allowed readers access to information by topic, outside of the hierarchies of a discipline (Burke 2001, 184-7). Burke is pointing us to the importance of how we categorize information, where these categories come from, and how those categorizations then affect our access to and experience of information.

Anthropologist Ann Stoler comes to the problem of categories from a different perspective.  Stoler thinks of the archive as an active site for ethnography, and seeks to understand how archives are live spaces in which the colonial state built, among other things, social categories. In Dutch colonial Indonesia, she traces how colonial administrators through their archiving categorized, and assigned particular rights and privileges to, people with different national heritages. As they categorized, they made some peoples and experiences of the colonial state visible and obscured others. Stoler writes that categories are both the explicit subject of archives and their implicit project: “the career of categories is also lodged in archival habits and how those change; in the telling titles of commissions, in the requisite subject headings of administrative reports, in what sorts of stories get relegated to the miscellaneous and ‘misplaced.’” She then frames the archive as a place to understand “how people think and why they seem obliged to think, or suddenly find themselves having difficulty thinking,” in certain ways.  (Stoler 2010, 36, emphasis in original).

As I stepped back to reflect on my own research and writing process, I came to think that the work of scholars like Burke and Stoler poses important questions about our own research process. Burke’s work suggests that we investigate how categories of thought, either between disciplines or within them, affect our work. Think of academic sub-fields, for example, which many of us are intentionally writing against, yet which still shape the literatures we read, maybe the archives we pursue, and whether we think of particular questions as in or out of our domain.

Stoler raises a different kind of question. At what points in our research, out of pragmatic necessity, out of a desire for intellectual order, or for whatever reason, do we set out categories of evidence, of thought, that end up influencing what we see and what we don’t see? What kinds of tools could help us be more aware of these categories, or have the flexibility to move beyond them when we need or want to?

I hypothesize here that tools like FileMaker offer a flexibility in working with notes, that allow us to create and recreate categories as we work. That flexibility means that we can evaluate particular ways of categorizing what we know, and then adapt if we realize that these categories aren’t fully satisfactory. When I think of building categories as part of what I am doing when I research and analyze, I am reminded to evaluate those categories, those ways or organizing or thinking, for how they help or what they leave out. I have the flexibility to adjust my categories as I know more about my sources, about how they relate to one another, about how they relate to the silences I’m finding. I have tried here to illustrate this by talking about keyword versus textual searching.

This idea of flexible categorization touches upon another strand of scholarship about archives, this one a debate among archivists about what postmodernism has meant for their work. Their question is how to link the growing understanding of archives as space in which certain kinds of power are codified and justified, and where information has to be understood relationally, to the actual practice of archiving. One archival theorist, Terry Cook, contends that finding aids and item descriptions should be constantly evolving, adapting to new relevant knowledge about the items’ sources and its relationship to other archived and unarchived materials. I think that as a historian I am striving for a way of taking and adjusting and organizing my notes that achieves this same level of flexibility and relationality, and am interested in considering what those tools might be, FileMaker or otherwise (Cook 2001).

Yet I think there are at least two cautions to think of, as well. One comes from the flat-ness of databases like the one I created. In Burke’s terms, that database is not a reference text organized along disciplinary lines. It is more like an A – to – Z encyclopedia. Without hierarchies that keep each fact locked in relationship to others – through the structure of earlier historiography, for example, or through the original order form of an archive – the historian has to be more intentional about seeing information in its context. If we can look across all of our notes at a very granular level, and make connections across categories that we or others created, it becomes to easy to look at these bits of information devoid of context – a danger visible even in my own way of cutting and pasting out of my database, which linked bits of notes only to a source code, meaning that they could be read in less than direct connection to their origins.  Digital bits seem very easily severed from their context.

More importantly, despite its usefulness in helping see things we might have otherwise forgotten or missed, no database does the work of analysis. That work still happens in our own heads, where other implicit categories of habits of thought might be shaping our analysis. Here we decide whose stories to tell first, for example, or prioritize one set of historical drivers over another. Some of these habits reflect the deepest-held of assumptions and beliefs. It’s less easy to talk of these, and certainly less easy for an author to identify their own, than it is to talk about notetaking and notekeeping. But, maybe if we are thinking about the mechanics in this way, we can be prompted to be more reflective about the conceptual, too.

In this way, I think we come full-circle to David Thelen’s article about the Journal of American History review process, an article that was one prompt for this set of essays (Thelen 1997). The center of that special issue was a submission by Joel Williamson, in which Williamson recounted his failure to perceive the centrality to, and the origins of lynching in, American and southern history. Two reviewers received Williamson’s piece with shock and dismay that he could have missed what they had known, had appreciated as central in their field, for years. Despite this disagreement, or perhaps because of it, Thelen saw Williamson’s piece as issuing a challenge to historians to “think about what we see and do not see, to reflect on what in our experience we avoid, erase, or deny, as well as what we focus on.” For me, this thinking about categories is part of that effort.

In Thelen’s introduction to that JAH issue, he explained that historians don’t talk much about method and writing process because it is very hard to do so well – hard to ensure that “the personal rises above the individual,” in Thelen’s formulation. I don’t know if I’ve managed to overcome that problem, but I do hope that some of this story might at least raise questions for you about your own.

Works Cited
Burke, Peter. A Social History of Knowledge: From Gutenberg to Diderot. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000.

Cook, Terry. “Fashionable Nonsense or Professional Rebirth: Postmodernism and the Practice of Archives.” Archivaria No. 51, Spring 2001, accessed at, Sept. 12, 2010.

Erickson, Ansley T. “Schooling the Metropolis: Educational Inequality Made and Remade, Nashville, Tennessee, 1945-1985.” Ph.D. Diss., Columbia University, 2010.

Higgins, William. “Suggestions for Development of Guidelines for a Unitary Plan for the Metropolitan Board of Education,” 1979. Kelly Miller Smith Papers, Vanderbilt University Special Collections, Box 69, File 8.

Ivey, Saundra. “School Closing Plan Draws Fire.” Tennessean, Nov. 23, 1977.

Stoler, Ann Laura. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Thelen, David. “What We See and Can’t See in the Past: An Introduction,” and other essays in the Journal of American History, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Mar. 1997), accessed at, Aug. 20, 2010.

About the author:
Ansley T. Erickson
completed her Ph.D. in U.S. History at Columbia in May, 2010, and is Assistant Professor of Cultural Foundations of Education and History (by courtesy) at Syracuse University. She thanks Jack Dougherty for the invitation to reflect on research practice, and for good feedback on this essay, and Courtney Fullilove for helpful reading suggestions.

How to cite this page:
Ansley Erickson, “Historical Research and the Problem of Categories: Reflections on 10,000 Digital Notecards,” Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age, October 6, 2010,

Creative Commons License This web page from Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License. You may freely distribute this work under the same terms for non-commercial purposes, but you must include a citation similar to the one above.


Historians value good writing. All scholars construct new forms of knowledge, but we tend to hold our profession to a very high standard when writing about our discoveries. We prefer clear and persuasive prose over data tables or abstract jargon. We favor book-length monographs over the article-based publishing traditions of the social sciences. And most of all, we appreciate the importance of narrative, the ability to wrap meaningful insights about the past into a good story.

Despite the central role that writing plays within our profession, its practice remains mostly hidden from public view. By and large, historians do our work — the acts of researching, writing, and publishing — alone, rather than in collaboration with others.  While we prize the influential books that hold a special place on our bookshelves and in our minds, historians rarely reveal the underlying processes that led to these finished products. Writing is our shared craft, the glue that unites our profession, but we tend to be private about it. “Do not circulate or cite without permission of the author” is an all-too-familiar warning label appearing on drafts of papers delivered at our conferences.

Given this state of secrecy, how do we expect historians-in-training to learn our craft? How do we expect them to develop their skills as writers, particularly of dissertations and books, without openly sharing and comparing our writing processes? How can we advance the overall quality of writing in the profession without asking all of us to reinvent our own wheels?

Collectively, the ideas presented here seek to interrupt this norm of silence within our profession, pull back the curtain, and make our individual work processes more public. To help achieve this goal, we placed our first-person essays on this interactive website, which makes readers’ comments and questions about writing history visible to all. (Read more about “how to comment” and “how it works.”) In fact, after realizing that technological change appeared as a theme in all of our essays, we decided to append “in the Digital Era” to our subtitle. Computers will not make us better writers, but they are powerful tools to share texts and help us learn how to improve our writing.

None of us claims to be an expert on writing, but we all recognize that learning cannot happen in vacuum. While we prepared these essays and open questions for a conference panel at the 2010 meeting of the History of Education Society, we hope that this public website will broaden the discussion beyond our sub-field, and we welcome contributions from all who identify with the topic of historical writing. We encourage you to share your comments and/or submit your own essay during this one-month online discussion period (Oct 11th-Nov 11th, 2010). If this interactive website generates meaningful discussion, we may republish the content in a different form (or format) in the near future.

Inspiration for this collaborative project came from several sources. In the historical profession, leading journals have occasionally recognized the need to shed light into the writing — and reviewing — process. Arguably the most widely discussed issue of the Journal of American History in recent years was a controversial roundtable issue, “What We See and Can’t See in the Past.” Editor David Thelen received an essay submitted by Joel Williamson on the history of lynching, which he sent out to six peer reviewers for blind review. After receiving all of the reports, Thelen persuaded all to attach their names to their writings “to demystify our own practice.” The reviewers sharply disagreed on the strengths and weaknesses of the article and its perspective on race and historical understanding. The resulting discussion (including the numerous letters the JAH published in its subsequent issue) opened up the process of how historians research, write, and publish. Thelen justified the journal’s nonconventional approach on this topic, arguing that, “we live in an age when historians are as interested in the doing of history as in the products of that doing.” (Thelen 1997, p. 1217).

For similar reasons, we were also intrigued by sociologist Michele Lamont’s recent book, How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment (2009). A qualitative researcher, Lamont takes us inside the hidden world of prestigious fellowship competitions to reveal the decision-making processes of peer reviewers. Her study sheds light on the multiple meanings of concepts such as “excellence” and “diversity” among scholars, and the difficulties we face in attempting to converse both within and across disciplinary fields. Our essays seek to contribute to this literature by unveiling the individual understandings of “good” historical writing that we each bring into our shared scholarly communities.

This innovation in public scholarly communication is co-sponsored by the History of Education Society Graduate Student Committee and the H-Education electronic network, and we appreciate their support in making the writing process more public.

On behalf of the organizers,
Jack Dougherty, Ansley Erickson, Frank Honts, Sarah Manekin, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Michelle Purdy, and Kristen Nawrotzki

Works cited:
Lamont, Michele. 2009. How Professors Think: inside the curious world of academic judgment. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Thelen, David. 1997. What We See and Can’t See in the Past: An Introduction. The Journal of American History, 83(4), 1217-1220,

How to cite this website:
A sample citation appears at the bottom of each essay and open-response section on this website. All essays (and reader comments) can be referenced by a permalink, a permanent URL web address, which should be included in a scholarly citation.

Why we use Creative Commons licensing:
To encourage open circulation of our scholarly writing, our content is shared under a Creative Commons license, a non-exclusive agreement that allows anyone to copy, adapt, and distribute it under the same terms for non-commercial purposes, with the original source appropriately cited. As authors and educators, Creative Commons protects our works while making them more publicly accessible than conventional copyright agreements.

How to cite this page:
Jack Dougherty et al., “Introduction,” Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age, October 6, 2010,

Creative Commons License This web page from Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License. You may freely distribute this work under the same terms for non-commercial purposes, but you must include a citation similar to the one above.