Category Archives: Research and Writing

In which I gripe about reference management software

Here’s something I wish I’d known before I started using Zotero: While it’s handy for generating footnotes and bibliographic entries, it suuuuuuucks when it comes to note taking.  In fact, I don’t even know why Zotero, EndNote, and other reference management programs include a note taking function.

When I’m writing, I want all the information I need in front of me and in the order in which I must enter it into my draft.

Consider the old fashioned, physical index card, a humble tool employed by generations of historians past.  An elegant weapon, one might say, from a more civilized age.

Andrew Powers at English Wikipedia [Public domain]

Sure, writing out hundreds or thousands of them over the course of a research project is laborious.  And if you lose them or your office catches fire, you’re screwed.  But in terms of flexibility in organizing and sorting information, you can’t beat them.  You can stack them, shuffle them, and tack them to a board in whatever order best suits your project.  When you’re ready to write, each little nugget of information is right where you need it.

Now consider Zotero’s electronic “note cards.”  You can fill out as many as you want for each source.  But what if you need one piece of info from that source in your first dissertation chapter, and another piece from the same source in your third chapter?

I mean, Zotero’s notes are fully text-searchable, but who wants to do a word search to find a particular piece of information while you’re writing?

What this means is that Zotero and other reference management applications add an unnecessary step in the research and writing process.  After you’ve assembled your sources and taken notes, you then have to pull your notes out of the application and rearrange them into the proper order, either by printing them out or exporting/pasting the contents into another application.

Next time I take on a major research project, I think I might try taking notes in Scrivener, or perhaps just a standard word processing program.  Either way, the only thing I’ll be using reference management applications for from now on is generating footnotes and bibliographies.

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John Mack Faragher’s Boone research now online

Check this out, frontier historians:

Aficionados of Daniel Boone may recall a 1992 biography of the frontiersman written by John Mack Faragher, professor emeritus of history at Yale University. For that milestone study, Faragher, my former adviser, conducted research throughout Kentucky and the broader region, spending months digging in archives held at the Filson and Kentucky historical societies, among others. In so doing, the author consulted hundreds of sources, taking nearly 5,000 notes comprised of 350,000 words.

These annotations are now available online via the “Digitizing Daniel Boone” project here. As the compiler of this resource, I believe this will be a “boon” to Kentuckians and to historians alike, for two reasons.

First, Faragher’s meticulous notes (the word-count equivalent of nearly four books) shine a bright light on the state and region’s archival holdings. Have an ancestor among the early settlers or indigenous peoples of the region? You can conduct a full-text search within the historian’s files. Users can also run reports based on keywords and people. This allows one to peer into the author’s mind between primary-source research and the crafting of paragraphs, to witness the first layer of historical interpretation.

Until now, the public typically could access only the source materials, on the one hand, and the published text, on the other. This has obscured the vast majority of historical work, like the nitty gritty of taking notes and organizing them into themes and eventually chapters. Now, we can better understand exactly how a historian went from consulting the files of missionaries, officials, and 19th-century historians like Lyman Draper to synthesizing them into a narrative. Equally important, we can better identify silences and the ways that the scholar’s perspective leaves some actors on the margins of history.

It’s pretty darn handy.  Faragher transcribed a lot of material from the Draper Collection of Manuscripts and other sources, and it’s a lot easier to access this stuff online than it is to locate it in a repository and then grapple with microfilm.

Because the database basically consists of Faragher’s own research notes, it’s a bit like looking over his shoulder as he works on his Boone book.  I would’ve loved to have had access to something like this before starting my dissertation, so that I could’ve had a glimpse at how an accomplished historian went about organizing material for a major project.

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“There’s no important human information being imparted…”

If you’re a Batman fan, you probably know that Alan Moore’s graphic novel The Killing Joke is one of the definitive works in the canon.  (And if you’re not a Batman fan, I just told you.)

Via ign.com

Surprisingly, Moore himself isn’t a fan of TKJ.  Here’s what he told one interviewer (from The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore, p. 123):

The Killing Joke is a story about Batman and the Joker; it isn’t about anything that you’re ever going to encounter in real life, because Batman and the Joker are not like any human beings that have ever lived. So there’s no important human information being imparted….It was just about a couple of licensed DC characters that didn’t really relate to the real world in any way.

And from another interview, in which Moore compared TKJ unfavorably to some of his other work:

But at the end of the day, Watchmen was something to do with power, V for Vendetta was about fascism and anarchy, The Killing Joke was just about Batman and the Joker – and Batman and the Joker are not really symbols of anything that are real, in the real world, they’re just two comic book characters.

So Moore’s issue is that Watchmen and V for Vendetta touch on deeper themes and speak to the human condition, whereas The Killing Joke isn’t “about” anything except Batman and the Joker.  I’m not sure I agree with thatI think TKJ raises some interesting and provocative questions about madness and depravity, grappling with the senselessness of the world, and that old saying whereby those who fight monsters risk becoming monsters themselves.

But The Killing Joke‘s profundity or lack thereof is a topic for another time.  What struck me about Moore’s comments is the implication that a work’s quality depends on it being “about” something deeper than its ostensible, immediate subject matter.

Maybe TKJ is “just” a Batman and Joker story, but it’s a superb Batman and Joker story, and one that’s had a lasting impact on the characters.  Isn’t it enough that for what it is, it’s one of the best?

I bring this up here on the blog because I think it bears on how we evaluate works of scholarly history.  Some monographs are “about” more than what their Library of Congress sub-headings would indicate.

Take Ron Eller’s excellent book Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, for example.  As its subtitle indicates, it’s partly a regional history of the postwar era.

Via kentuckypress.com

But it’s also a critique of the ways we think about progress and development. We tend to associate these ideals with economic growth. We assume that “development” itself is an intrinsic good. We trust that it’s a remedy for poverty. We don’t stop to consider whether poverty might be rooted in structures that benefit some people rather than others, whether the remedies we propose will reinforce these structures, or whether the end goal of “development” is even desirable for the targets of our good intentions. We don’t question our assumptions about what “progress” means.

Eller’s work has implications that are relevant to much more than Appalachian history. It’s applicable to much of the recent past beyond Appalachia or America, and raises important questions for the present and future, too.

Stephen King has said that when you’re writing a novel, story comes before theme.  You tell the story first, and then later you can go back and figure out what the implications are and whether you need to tease them out more. I suspect something along those lines is true for most historians whose projects take on big thematic implications.  You start out with an interest in a particular topic, you investigate it, and only then do you figure out what the broader implications are.

I’m still trying to work through whether my current project will have implications for anything besides the American Revolution or the early frontier. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. For now, at least, I’ll be satisfied if I just end up saying something worthwhile about the topic at hand.

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Chiseling out a dissertation topic

John Fea poses a question well worth considering: “Must an applicant to a Ph.D program have a fully-formed dissertation idea in mind when they apply for admission?  I am not referring to a general field of study or even a particular topic within that field of study, I am referring to an actual dissertation topic.”

Never having served on any graduate admission committees, I can’t say whether a locked-in dissertation idea is a credit or a debit on an application.  But in terms of going through the process once you’ve been admitted to a program, I can share my experience, for whatever it’s worth.

As I’ve said before, I think the hiatus I took between finishing my master’s and starting a doctoral program has made my Ph.D. experience a lot more enjoyable.  Now that I’m in the dissertation stage, I’m even more glad to have had the benefit of that extra time reading and sharpening my research interests.

But I also think a certain malleability is necessary.  Your graduate coursework is all about initiation into a guild.  You’re learning what historians do, and how other historians have framed questions and figured out ways to answer them.  If that doesn’t have an impact on how you frame and answer your questions, then what’s the point of doing coursework?

When I started my doctoral work, I knew I wanted to study Appalachian settlers’ involvement in the American Revolution.  I was interested in the centripetal forces that pulled them into the Revolution and the centrifugal forces that pushed them to its margins.  I had a topic, and I had some questions I wanted to answer.  But I wasn’t yet framing those questions precisely, and I didn’t have a clear plan of attack for finding answers to them.  That came later, with a lot of guidance from my adviser, conversations with other professors, and engaging with a lot of historiography in seminars.

You know that movie The Agony and the Ecstasy, where Charlton Heston plays Michelangelo?  There’s a scene near the beginning of the film where these guys are dragging a massive block of marble into Rome.  When Michelangelo sees it, he says, “Look!  Moses…here in the marble.  Moses down from Sinai.  God’s anger in his eyes.”

I think one of the things that makes a good doctoral adviser is the ability to look at a student’s interests the way Michelangelo looked at that block of marble.  Somewhere in there is a viable research project that can contribute something to the field.  You might not be able to see it yet.  But a good adviser (and the other members of your committee) will be able to discern its outlines, and will help you figure out where to apply the chisel.

By Jörg Bittner Unna [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

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Military history and the art of setting up an argument

I’m revising a draft of the first chapter of my dissertation, and one of the things I need to work on is clearly and concisely articulating from the outset what I’m trying to do in that chapter and how.  It’s a matter of putting into practice the old adage that you have to tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em before you actually do it.  In my first chapter draft I didn’t do this nearly as effectively as I should have.

Since the goal of any work of historical scholarship is to make an original contribution to what we know—or an intervention into a conversation about what we think we know—writers of history have to state what it is they’re bringing to the table.  In grant applications and paper proposals it’s the difference between life and death, but it’s important when sitting down to complete the actual project, too.  Ironically, some of the best models I’ve found of setting up a book-length historical argument come from a genre that a lot of academic historians dismiss: military history that focuses on campaigns, battles, strategy, tactics, and leadership.

Take, for example, Scott Bowden and Bill Ward’s Last Chance for Victory: Robert E. Lee and the Gettysburg Campaign.  It’s a hefty book, more than 600 pages and very closely argued.  But it only takes about four of those pages for Bowden and Ward to explain what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and why.  Let me note that I’m not necessarily saying I agree with the authors’ conclusions regarding Lee’s generalship in the invasion of Pennsylvania.  I’m just saying that the way they set up their book’s purpose, organization, and methodology is as clear and concise as you’re likely to find in a work of historical scholarship.

Another example is Joseph L. Harsh’s Taken at the Flood: Robert E. Lee and Confederate Strategy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862.  In ten pages, Harsh explains how attention to Antietam has waxed and waned over the years, why the campaign matters, the approaches earlier writers have taken, and how his own approach corrects some important interpretive problems.

Maybe Antietam and Gettysburg have been the subject of so much writing over the years that these authors had to be especially conscientious about explaining what they were doing and why.  Or maybe this genre just lends itself especially well to explicit argumentation because it involves questions of contingency and individual responsibility.  Whatever the reason, those of us looking for examples for our own projects could do a lot worse.

By Captain James Hope (d.1892) (Hope Paintings at nps.gov) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Two lessons I’ve learned about writing a dissertation

In the past few days I’ve learned two things about writing a dissertation.  The first lesson is something I had to stumble across on my own; the second I got from somebody else.

By Marco Verch (Notizblock mit Stiften) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I always had this notion that research and writing were two distinct stages in any project like this, with the writing coming after most of the research was finished.  I’d spend a long time accumulating evidence, and then I’d sit down, sort it all out, and turn it into finished prose.  I’d still have some material to consult while working on early drafts, of course, but I thought I’d have the bulk of it done by the time I started stringing words together.

It hasn’t played out that way.  Writing itself—at least when you’re dealing with a project of this sort—is a process of discovery.  You can’t finish your research before starting to write, because your sense of what material you need will develop as you write.

Right now, for instance, I’m writing a foundational chapter on the meanings of eighteenth-century manhood, both in the English colonies in general and on the Appalachian frontier in particular.  Manhood was closely bound up with ownership of land.  I knew this when I started writing, and I’d acquired some good material on the links between land and manliness.  But once the writing commenced, it became apparent that I needed to explore these ties in more depth, and to do more digging into the historiography of land ownership.

Being OCD, I don’t like the idea of trying to compose text around ideas I haven’t fully fleshed out yet.  It feels a bit like trying to put a puzzle together while looking through a keyhole.  But finding out that I have no choice in the matter—that I can’t have the ideas fully fleshed out until I start assembling them—has been liberating.  It’s eased some of my anxieties about doing historical research and writing.  Since I can’t plan out the whole route ahead of time, I might as well go ahead and start putting one foot in front of the other.

The other lesson is something Christina Snyder told a group of us grad students yesterday during her visit to campus: “A page a day is a dissertation in a year.”  That came as a revelation.  Another assumption I had about a substantial writing project is that you should do it in big chunks.  When I sit down at the keyboard and can’t produce anything more than a couple hundred words, it’s discouraging.  But sometimes productivity means something less like an avalanche and more like the steady drip-drip-drip of mineral-rich water that creates stalagmites.

One step at a time, and if you can’t see the whole route, you can at least see where to plant your foot next.  That’s what it boils down to.

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The abject dread of putting words on paper

I’m at that point where it’s time to take the notes and outlines I’ve generated for my dissertation and start putting readable text on paper.  I should be psyched, but I’m terrified.  It’s like jumping off a cliff using a bungee cord made of dental floss.

Up until now, my dissertation has existed only in my own head, and as long it stays there, it can remain the platonic ideal of everything I want it to be.  But once I actualize it, it’ll never live up to that ideal.  It will only be as good as my own shortcomings as a researcher and writer allow.  The longer I delay putting words on paper, the longer I can avoid the dismay of realizing how far short of the ideal it’ll fall.

That’s always been the single greatest obstacle to my productivity.  The same fear of actualizing a project plagues me whenever I try to write something.  After I finished my master’s thesis, I could’ve turned it into a couple of scholarly articles in a matter of months, since the research and writing was more or less done.  But it literally took me years to send one of the chapters off for publication.  It didn’t take years to do the revisions, mind you, but to muster up the gumption to sit down and see it through.  I had the same experience trying to turn a seminar paper into an article draft this past summer…and again this past week, while trying to figure out how to articulate this dilemma for the blog post you’re now reading.  A good third of the posts I start to write for this blog end up in the trash bin for that same reason.

Lyman C. Draper, via Wikimedia Commons

This is one reason I’ve always felt a kind of kinship with nineteenth-century antiquarian Lyman Draper.  Like me, Draper was fascinated by the early frontier.  Also like me, he had a special affinity for the King’s Mountain; the only book he saw through to publication was a history of the battle.  He accumulated enough material, however, to write a shelf full of books on pioneers and frontier battles.  In fact, he conceived a number of book-length projects over the years: biographies of Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark, a volume of “border forays,” collected sketches of prominent frontiersmen, and so on.

But he couldn’t bring any of them to completion.  Even the one book he managed to get published was plagued by delays.  Draper set out to write his King’s Mountain study at the instigation of colleagues who wanted him to get it out in time for the battle’s centennial.  He missed it by a year, in spite of his publisher’s incessant pleas to hurry things along.  He just couldn’t stop tweaking, double-checking, and accumulating more and more data.

Historians have attributed Draper’s lack of publications to a number of factors.  First and foremost, he was a collector and aggregator, happiest when he was transcribing manuscripts and interviewing pioneers and their descendants.  He was also an obsessive fact-checker who insisted on verifying every obscure scrap of local tradition he came across.  Finally, he had a streak of hypochondria a mile wide, and his repeated bouts with illnesses both real and imaginary interrupted his workflow.

But I think part of the problem was simple anxiety of the same sort that paralyzes me when I try to write out a piece of research.  The problem wasn’t that Draper had a poor work ethic.  He approached the task of chronicling frontier history with an almost religious zeal.  And I suspect it was that very zeal that helped do him in.  He knew he was sitting on a goldmine of material, and I think he feared that when he set pen to paper the results wouldn’t do his sources justice.  It was easier to go on collecting, and to let the platonic ideal of his book projects live on in his head and in his notes, where they could remain unsullied.  And, to be honest, Draper was a much better aggregator than a writer; his King’s Mountain book is more valuable for the material contained therein than as a work of historical literature.

Draper is one of my personal heroes, but he also serves as something of a cautionary tale.  For as long as I can remember—for much longer than I’ve wanted to be a historian, in fact—I’ve wanted to find things out and then write books about them.  But I’ve idealized the process of research and writing to such an extent that actually doing it paralyzes me to the point of inaction.

Being in grad school has helped, since I’m accountable to people who don’t hesitate to kick me in the pants when I’m not generating drafts.  And I feel better knowing I have access to professional mentors who can critique my work before I send it off for publication.  Once they tell me it’s up to snuff, I can let go of some of my own nagging feelings that it’s inadequate.

They say a pretty good project that’s completed is better than an outstanding one left undone.  And as far as one’s CV is concerned, I’m sure that’s true.  The hard part is internalizing that fact enough to put it into action.

And on that note, I need to get back to work.

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