The Research Notebook

journalWe all have been there: or, at least many of us have. That is, the experience of having a writing brainstorm at an inopportune time. It may disrupt our sleep at 3 am, appear in the middle of office hours, or make itself known as the latest crisis is unfolding on Queen Sugar: often as a partially digested kernel of an idea. Much as writer’s block inevitably comes when we have All. The. Deadlines, that nugget of brilliance does puckishly seem inclined to appear when we are not in an immediate position to write. It has the potential to make a work-in-progress so much better, but its evanescent nature means it may not stick around until we are back in front of our computer. So what’s a scholar to do when they have a stroke of genius and don’t have a block of writing time immediately available?

As I embark on my first experiences mentoring master’s students through their MA thesis processes, I have thought more about my own research process. I consider both how to tackle common writing problems, such as the uneven writing that typically comes from disorganized brain storms. And more specifically, I have thought about how I organize my thoughts and make my output more efficient. The two students I am working with both aspire to PhD programs, and I aim to help them develop good scholarly habits now. The tools and habits that produce good undergraduate papers do not always translate well into more scholarly writing environments. The first year of a PhD program is not an ideal time to make that discovery. I also have had conversations with some current PhD students who asked about my process, so here goes…

Since my PhD program, I have been a keeper of research notebooks…and I do mean plural. For better or for worse, my brain loves to drop these little morsels when I’m sleeping, in the car, the middle of dinner, or otherwise occupied. As a result, I keep notebooks and pens in my purse, my laptop bag, my glovebox, my nightstand, and one in my desk at work, in which I can record ideas as they pop up.  I also have one primary research notebook where I try to record my thoughts after days in the archives, or even to map out the organization of a chapter or essay I have in progress when I don’t have an extended distraction-free time to write. I transfer ideas from my other notebooks into my primary research journal and may spend some time trying to develop them further. Sometimes, the mere act of putting pen to paper in service of transferring these notations to my main journal will set me on fruitful a chain of thought that helps me develop my more ephemeral ones to a point of usefulness.

I also frequently write an entry after I have read a book or article of relevance to current projects, specifically to help me process where my own scholarship fits in the historiography. (And to identify where I might need to make adjustments.) For instance, my current book project has a chapter that considers Africa in the African-American imagination, and the politics of colonization. I recently finished reading Sharla Fett’s Recaptured Africans, which has been thought-provoking and suggested some adjustments to my argument. There’s likely to be a journal entry working through those adjustments. I may also use journaling to work through a response to feedback. Black print culture features prominently in this book project, but for obvious reasons, some writers (Phillis Wheatley, Olaudah Equiano) feature more prominently than others. So in addition to bringing in as many Black voices as possible, I needed to work through how to address inevitable questions about representativeness, and also about their predominately white audience (and white control of colonial/antebellum print shops and distribution networks). Writing about these questions in my journal helped me to figure out how to respond to that feedback. In particular, it has proved a fruitful place to consider how Marisa J Fuentes‘ approach to fractured sources in Dispossessed Lives might shape my approach. Or how some of the new scholarship on Black print culture by Stephen G. Hall and others might suggest tweeks to my own work.

If I have a brainstorm for a future project (whether traditional scholarship or a digital project), I note that too. This way, I always have plenty of inspiration for new projects. With my thoughts organized, I am able speak intelligently about my work to acquisitions editors when the opportunity arises, even if the research is not yet finished. For the job market, it also serves a preparatory function. My first book is out. My ground work means I have thoughtful responses when search committees ask me what’s next.

When I do have a distraction-free time to write, I spent a few minutes flipping back through my research notebook. I have found that the notebook helps me to pick those fleeting brainstorms back up so that I can develop them further. It also helps me to identify specific, manageable writing tasks to tackle during my writing time, rather than wasting much of the sometimes 45-60 minutes I have to write that day (and I do try to write every day). Additionally, while I view myself as a teacher-scholar and do not see teaching and research as mutually exclusive, but my research notebook process has also allowed me to continue to produce, while teaching in (multiple) contingent positions at teaching-centered institutions.

Obviously, what works for one scholar may be useless for another. Still, I have decided to have my MA thesis students keep notebooks (just one each). My main purpose has been to help these junior colleagues think very deliberately about their own research, and in particularly, to get them in the habit of routinely re-evaluating where their own works fits with broader historiographical themes. It is a very necessarily skill to master, and one that takes practice. I hope too, it will help them to focus (as it has me) and produce a more polished MA thesis that helps them stand out favorable in the pool of hopeful PhD applicants. Have a process that works for you? Share it in the comments below!

15 responses

  1. Thanks for letting us browse your research notebooks, Jess! I have a similar practice, which I have still found useful even as much of my note taking has migrated to digital environments of one kind or another.

    I have also found the journal invaluable on archival research trips. At the end of every day in the archives, I spend a half hour or so reflecting on what I discovered (or didn’t) that day, and how that may change my research plan or suggest new directions in writing. It’s also a good space to do an initial bit of writing and reflection while still digging into the documents, rather than waiting until I get home. Something about it being handwritten and private gives me the freedom to try out ideas that will be refined later. When I return home, I feel like I already have some writing momentum.

    I really appreciate the idea of assigning a research notebook to your students, something I may very well start to do, too. Thank you!

  2. Had students keep a commonplace book in an intellectual history class once, good results for the most part. You really have to keep up with each student’s process to make it work.

    Laura Dassow Walls’ superlatives-have-been-exhausted-at-this-point-in-reviews-and-yes-it’s-that-good biography of Thoreau, a keeper of notebooks if ever there was one, has a great bit about her own process of keeping a research a journal in order to keep her thoughts separate from T’s while working on the book.

  3. Love to hear that others still use pen / paper to capture thought-gems when they appear at random moments. Mine were on scraps though– post-its, receipts, etc.– and I recently needed to review & compile them. After several trials I ended up with microsoft One Note. It’s set up like a digital notebook, with tabs, pages, etc. My thoughts are not linear, but ON allows me to organize them as such. It’s free and there’s an app- handy for dictating ideas into my phone late at night. For research & reading notes I use Zotero, a free bibliographic tool. Both of these tools are keyword searchable and allow for multiple & simultaneous organizational schemes (i.e. Folders, tags, etc.), file attaching, and exporting to word, which helps mobilize the gems once I’m ready to write.

    • This is really cool. My thoughts are often not linear. I’m familiar with Zotero, etc, and have tried out a number of different digital approaches. I find that I just “think” better sometimes when I have a pen in hand – including that I sometimes write out several pages of chapters or articles by hand, and then type them. It seems to be a quirk of my brain.

    • Great article. I have embarked on my MA thesis writing adventure. I too use OneNote and find it very easy to keep track of my notes and documents. I like that I can link pages to one another, I do this when I find documents that support each other or have a similar theme. I also use Office Lens to photograph pages from books, documents, etc. The pages become text searchable which is extremely helpful. Also I am able to directly upload the pages to OneNote from Office Lens.

      I made the mistake of enrolling in an online MA program. At first it seemed great, especially since it was a partnership with a respectable American history institute One of the Junto Members was a guest speaker on a panel discussion that was part of one of my classes. The partnership is ending and the format of the courses has changed. The greatest loss was direct interaction with the professors of the various courses. Instead you are directed to a TA.

      The issue with my thesis seminar is the lack of feedback, which I may have received in a traditional program. This thesis is very important to me for several reasons. First and foremost I need to prove to myself what I am capable of in terms of research and writing. If the quality of my thesis warrants it, I want it to serve as an entry point to a PhD program or at the least a traditional MA program.

      I am very fortunate that I have friends and contacts who have been through this process and are currently working on their PhD dissertations. Additionally, I have reached out to professors I had in the past who have been gracious in looking over my work and allowed me to bounce ideas off of them. Still, I am often left wondering if I am on the right track. Articles such as yours are very helpful during this process.

      • I say this with the warmest and most encouraging of intentions, Guy, as we have never met or corresponded, but if you are considering a doctoral program in history, be sure you know what you are getting into. Do you have ambitions of becoming a tenured professor? These jobs are few and far between. They will probably never come back like they once were as even “public” universities have moved to a business model that relies more and more on adjunct and contingent faculty. As someone who has been on the job market, such that it exists, for several years now, I can say with a fair degree of confidence, that it is slim pickings. Only about 5-10 different subfields seem to pop up frequently and it is VERY competitive with each job offering getting somewhere between 100-400 applications. In some circumstances, particularly at the community college level, you might find that instructors who only have a master’s degree outcompete those with doctorates and merely because they get better teaching evaluations (I personally believe this is a very wrong assumption, but it is there and have seen it firsthand). If you do not want to be a professor and wish to use your master’s or doctorate for other career paths, then by all means, go ahead. But keep in mind that when you encounter a professor who has “made it,” the chances are likely that you’re encountering someone who will have a more optimistic view of things; because it worked out for them. What we often don’t see are the increasingly large number of part-time faculty who may struggle for decades on end while only treading water. It is one thing to be 24 years old, idealistic, feeling like you can change the world, and believing that it’s okay to be poor your entire life. It’s another matter entirely to have the same view at 34 or 44. This is just my own perspective and there are as many legitimate perspectives out there as there are readers of the Junto. A lot of it will depend on your own life circumstances. But that’s my two cents…Best of luck with your academic ambitions.

        • Steve,

          I appreciate your candid response. You mentioned factors that continue to be part of my thought process. I am a public high school history teacher and know first hand the struggle to obtain employment in my field. I started as a part-time teacher’s aide with autistic children and worked my way up/through the current district I am employed with. There are many people who are content with what I have found, but I’ve learned a few things about myself, including my need/desire to “hit the next level.” I don’t always know what that level is or what it will entail. In short, I grew up well below the poverty line; Struggled with school; and took on responsibilities and worries that I now realize no child should have to. On the positive side, I had a mother that made sure all of my basic needs were met; grew up around great teachers and mentors; and had a library within walking distance that I spent a lot of time in.

          Little by little, I demonstrated to myself that I am capable of so much more than I ever thought.
          I really do enjoy working with students and seeing them progress. At the same time, I do not get the same deep personal satisfaction that graduate work has provided me. I like helping kids reach their potential, but I feel that I have yet to reach mine. I still find the need to better myself and reach for achievement that goes beyond the normal day-to-day.

          When people ask me why I am pursuing an MA in History, I say it is for me. There are more practical degrees I could have pursued. Degrees that would allow me to move into administration or another track outside of classroom teaching. I plan on adjunct teaching at my local community college. I often wonder if I would derive more satisfaction teaching on that level and think I would prefer teaching there full time. That being said, their latest full time hires in the History department have their PhD.

          My current thought process is gravitating towards taking classes towards a media specialist certification. I would enjoy helping and teaching students how to do research. That position would also allow me less stress during the school year and more time to work on other pursuits such as improving my writing or pursue another degree.

          At the very least right now, I want to produce a thesis that is PhD quality. I want to apply to schools that I would never dared to dream of attending. Can I afford to quit my job and spend 5 years working on a dissertation full-time? No, but I still have the need to reach and see, if that makes sense?

          • This is a really cool story, Guy. I’m not sure I have anything noteworthy to say to every part of your post, which does make sense by the way, but as I was reading, I was reminded of the phrase, “the grass is greener on the other side of the hill.” I am a lecturer teaching at two different schools–a state university and community college–without the opportunity for tenure, sabbatical, course relief, travel funds, etc. I wish that I had these things. Meanwhile, a friend of mine has a pretty good job, full-time, tenured, as a high school history teacher, but like yourself, is getting a master’s because he feels a bit unfulfilled in his current position. He probably makes more than I do with his salary so part of me thinks, what’s the point? He already has tenure and a full-time job! But reading your post makes me realize why. You seem to have a good attitude and getting the master’s seems right, though the doctoral degree, with all of its years of time, investment, isolation, angst, penury, and most often, student loan debt, entails a lot more risk. I hope you find what is best for you and that you hear a variety of perspectives about what a doctorate in history can and cannot do for you…

  4. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who does their research notekeeping entirely digitally. Surely the benefits are endless: you can search and find stuff instantly, back it up so it can’t be lost, never have to decipher your own handwriting… And yet I don’t know anyone who does it that way. We love the haptic experience of notebooks too much!

      • I find myself in a halfway house. I travel a lot for work, thoughts and connections often seem to come during that strange meditative state of being in transit. My phone is full of memos where I try to capture those ideas that worm their way up through my brain at these times. But for me it’s then necessary to email myself those memos and then transcribe them into my ‘proper’ workbook – as Jessica suggests, there’s something alchemical about this process that helps further shape and develop those ideas. Anyway, great article – thanks!

  5. They often say our minds are most creative when we’re relaxed. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience, as Jessica’s post references, of doing something like hopping into the shower and then a new idea comes to mind. When we get into the mode of thinking deeply about an issue, our brain continues to operate on the back burner, even if we’re consumed with other tasks or asleep. Paul McCartney said he woke up one morning and the melody to “Yesterday” was in his head. Since graduate school I have kept a personal diary where I occasionally write entries by hand, but for academic work, I tend to save a lot of MS Word docs as thoughts come to mind. As Tom says, one of the chief advantages is being able to use the search function on your computer to locate them easily. I also find my smartphone to be helpful. If I’m at the gym, let’s say, and a thought comes to mind, I can quickly email myself using the app on the phone. I know, this technology is getting a bit old at this point and I’ve been seeing threads lately of apps that are far more advanced, but it works for me. And in my master’s program, I recall one of my professors–a Berkeley PhD no less and winner of both the Turner and Bancroft prize with his book–was a fan of arranging hard-copy note cards (or index cards) for his writing!

    • Yep. In grad school, I also “wrote” big chunks of my dissertation in my brain as I swamp laps in the pool. Or walked on the treadmill I have at home. Exercise relaxes my brain and helps me to focus, but it can also mean more of these brainstorms. These days, my primary exercise is Taekwondo. I’ll often come home mentally focused to write after class, in part because the sport (like swimming) has a meditative quantity about it.


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