Sometimes we all feel the weight of “information overload” or the “anxiety of influence.” We have an ever-expanding list of books we want, or feel compelled, to read; films we need to see; journal articles we need to track down and skim; etc. Not only do we need to devise a strategy for prioritizing what warrants our attention, but we also have to develop a system for managing those resources. Sociologist C. Wright Mills, in The Sociological Imagination, emphasizes the importance of setting up a “file”:
In such a file as I am going to describe, there is joined personal experience and professional activities, studies under way and studies planned. In this file, you, as an intellectual craftsman, will try to get together what you are doing intellectually and what you are experiencing as a person. Here you will not be afraid to use your experience and relate it directly to various works in progress. By serving as a check on repetitious work, your file also enables you to conserve your energy. It also encouraged you to capture “fringe-thoughts”: various ideas which may be by-products of everyday life, snatched of conversations overheard on the street, or, for that matter, dreams. Once noted, these may lead to more systematic thinking, as well as lend intellectual relevance to more directed experience…
Under various topics in your file there are ideas, personal notes, excerpts from books, bibliographic items and outlines of projects…. [S]ort all these items into a master file of ‘projects,’ with many subdivisions. The topics, of course, change, sometimes quite frequently….
By keeping an adequate file and thus developing self-reflective habits, you learn how to keep your inner world awake. Whether you feel strongly about events or ideas you must try not to let them pass from your mind, but instead to formulate them for your files and in so doing draw out their implications, show yourself either how foolish these feelings or ideas are, or how they might be articulated into productive shape. The file also helps you build up the habit of writing. You cannot ‘keep your hand in’ if you do not write something at least every week. In developing the file, you can experiment as a writer and thus, as they say, develop your powers of expression. To maintain a file is to engage in the controlled experience.”
The “file” isn’t merely a means of documentation; it can also be a source of inspiration: “Imagination is often successfully invited by putting together hitherto isolated items,” Mills says, “by finding unsuspected connections…. It is a sort of logic of combination, and ‘chance’ sometimes plays a curiously large part in it.
Carole Gray and Julian Malins argue that a similar resource is necessary for artists and designers. The “reflective journal,” they say, should serve as an “off-loading device” to allow you to “take stock, evaluate and ‘deposit’ ideas”; and as a dynamic “depository for a range of information in a range of media” (58-9). This journal might include an activity and development log (a chronicle of work in progress, including a record of challenges and failures, periodic self-evaluations), contextual references (e.g., visual examples of other practitioners’ work, with discussion of how it might inspire your own), and a bibliographic database, etc.
Mills, writing in 1959, envisioned material files — notebooks, scrapbooks, binders, etc. Many people still keep paper files, for a variety of reasons. Some say that paper copies serve an important intellectual and phenomenological function: they’re a concrete index of the weight and scale of one’s ideas and labor. The Taking Note blog and the “Notes, Lists and Everyday Inscriptions” special issue of The New Everyday address the historical, epistemological, and cultural implications of different approaches to resource-management and notetaking.
Today we can also make use of all sorts of digital record-keeping and resource-managing tools. There are dozens to choose from: EverNote, OneNote, Scrivener, DevonThink, etc. You could even use a WordPress blog or a Tumblr to chronicle your thoughts and references. Some citation managers, like Zotero (which is free!) and Endnote, allow you to link notes to your citations. There are lots of web resources about creating a “digital workflow.” Miriam Posner has posted some tremendously valuable tips about managing your research assets, and GradHacker regularly review various note-taking applications.
I prefer to store all my notes in DevonThink (see right), a personal database. I collect these notes by transcribing (either by typing or by using voice recognition software) passages from hard-copy materials and cutting-and-pasting passages from web resources or PDF’ed articles that I’ve previously annotated. It was Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good for You and Interface Culture, who sold me on DevonThink; he described his own use of the software in a blog post (the original post is gone; we’ll have to settle for a post about the post), and again in the New York Times Book Review (See also Rachel Leow‘s and Chad Black‘s discussions of how they use the software, and various other users’ video tutorials). I use DevonThink to search my notes by keywords, generate topical or thematic reports, find connections between seemingly unrelated sources, and draw connections between those notes and relevant multimedia I’ve filed away in the database — photos I’ve scanned from books, videos I might use in an interactive project, etc. The software helps me work with my raw material; it does essentially the same things I used to do when I wrote all my notes on index cards, then arranged them in various orders to test different organizational schemes.
But one needn’t feel obligated to go high-tech with note-taking. A legal pad and a pencil are no better or worse than a custom-designed database; it all depends on what works best for you. All the technology in the world can’t make someone a great note-taker. In fact, with the increased ease of note-taking, it’s much easier for a researcher to simply record everything he or she reads, often copying directly from source text to computer file. This can be a recipe for disaster.
Please take precautions to make sure you distinguish quoted passages from passages in your own words; perhaps you could color-code each differently, or simply make sure to begin and end each quoted passage in your notes with quotation marks. This practice will help you to avoid accidental plagiarism later on, when you write up your research. It’s also good to get into the habit of stepping away from the words on the page and periodically paraphrasing the author’s argument, or summing up various sections or chapters. Forcing yourself to regularly insert your own voice into your notes helps get you into the practice of reformulating your research material, making it your own, and priming your brain to organize that material into an original format or argument.
Of course we don’t only read at the sentence or paragraph level; we’re engaging with the text as a whole — and we want to make note of our impressions of each text at this “meta” level. In the previous guide, on “Reading Effectively,” we closed with a few questions that you might ask yourself as your read through your research resources. These aren’t rhetorical questions. You should actually make note of your responses, for future reference. On my very first day of graduate school, my classmates and I were encouraged to pose the following questions to every text we read throughout our graduate careers. The following is adapted from that list, with a few hints from John Cresswell’s Research Design thrown in:
- In two or three sentences, what is the central thesis of this work, or what is the major problem it is addressing?
- In two or three sentences, on what assumptions or points is the thesis of the work built, in logical order?
- What are the major terms or concepts central to this work, and how does the writer define these terms? Interrogate buzzwords. How are key concepts related to each other?
- What are the methods of research and argumentation and kinds of evidence used to develop and support the thesis of the work? What research methods – content analysis, interviews, discourse analysis, fieldwork, etc. – did the author employ? What methods of argumentation, or rhetorical strategies, is he or she employing to make his/her case? How else could the argument be made? Is it sufficiently elaborated? How is he or she supporting his/her arguments?
- In your judgment, what are the limitations, shortcomings, errors, or weaknesses in the work?
- In your judgment, what are the major contributions of this work to your understanding of the field and your specific research topic?
Each week, in each of my graduate seminars, I was expected to submit a two-page abstract, addressing these six questions, of each book we read for that week. Abstracts are of course, as their name would lead you to believe, abstracted critical summaries of a text as a whole — they help you step away from the details and consider the bigger picture, the larger argument, of a text. I’m no longer quite so diligent in composing and cataloguing thorough abstracts of each text I read (instead, I keep notes in a research database) – but I do recognize the value of the exercise: I still frequently refer to my notebooks of grad school abstracts.
The list of six reading questions, supplemented with others we posed in our previous discussion on “Reading Effectively” and issues that are unique to your own specific projects, can serve as an effective template for abstracting the resources you review. This template will evolve as you get more deeply involved in your research and discover what you’re asking from each of your sources, what you want to remember from each source. It’s a good idea to add these abstracts to your research journal/database – ideally, in a searchable format online – so, later on, you can easily search for patterns and keywords.
Abstracts have personal value, of course, in that they allow you to keep record of what you’re reading and watching and listening to. But getting in the habit or writing abstracts is useful because they have plenty of applications in the professional world. You may have noticed the abstracts at the top of many academic articles or essays; publishers will usually ask you to provide a brief (usually about 150 words) abstract with your submission. You need to know how to distill your argument and methods and explain the value of your contribution. You’ll also commonly be asked to submit abstracts as part of your application or proposal to participate in academic or professional conferences or festivals, or to have your work considered for inclusion in exhibitions or edited volumes. In these cases, you’ll need to be able to explain, in just a couple hundred words, what your work proposes to do, what methods you’re using, what key concepts you’re working with, in what traditions you’re working, etc. Organizers and editors have hundreds – if not thousands – of proposals to wade through, so you need to be able to get across the specificity and soundness and potential value of your proposed project quickly and clearly.
In short, abstracting your work, Joseph Moxley notes, “makes you focus on what is important” (63) – forces you to “reevalut[e] your logic and…defin[e your] purpose” (63-4) – helps you “gain a firmer hold, a tighter perspective, on the nature of your work” (64).
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Carole Gray & Julian Malins, Visualizing Research: A Guide to the Research Process in Art and Design (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004).
Melissa Gregg, “Writing an Abstract” Home Cooked Theory [Blog Post] (March 15, 2011).
S.I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action (New York: Harcourt, 1949).
C. Wright Mills, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship,” Appendix to The Sociological Imagination, 40th Anniversary Ed. (New York: Oxford, 2000): 195-226.
Joseph M. Moxley, “How to Write Informative Abstracts” In Publish, Don’t Perish: The Scholar’s Guide to Academic Writing and Publishing (Westport, CT: Praeger 1992): 61-4.