Academic Skills, history, Technology

Reading, Organizing, and Synthesizing Vast Quantities of Information

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambr...

Graduate Education: It's all about the quest for medieval fur-lined robes! Image via Wikipedia

I feel like this title needs and “oh my” at the end as some sort of Wizard of Oz homage that will dress up an otherwise pretty wonky name for a post. Oh well. We’ll just have to be content with the circumlocution as it stands.

I’ve decided to return from my self-imposed blogging exile (which is really the result of too much other stuff going on. I know — lame excuse) to write a little bit about the aforementioned issue of reading and dealing with the information one gleans as a result of said reading.

Last week I met with my doctoral advisor to talk about my courses for the fall and my schedule for then taking comprehensive exams in the spring. In order to achieve the august (and all too frequent in today’s world of graduate education) status of A.B.D., I’ll have to pass a written an oral exam in three specific fields related to transatlantic history. Essentially these fields prepare you for further research on the dissertation and provide you with a solid foundation in the subject areas so that you could teach courses in those field as well. Preparations involve reading and synthesizing information from 20-30 books and articles in the given field, though at other universities things are often run quite differently.

Important aspects of this step in one’s doctoral studies involve figuring out how to work and review independently and discovering how to effectively manage a vast array of information about different authors, their arguments, methods, and sources. For historians, this means dealing extensively with the issue of historiography and thinking about how the era in which a work is written influences the author and argument and how those works respond to and challenge earlier scholarship. This task is manageable when dealing with a relatively constrained quantity of works, but as that list continues to expand and figuring out how to wrangle all those sources becomes a more arduous task.

I was further reminded of this conversation when I read an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this morning about how trying to teach students to love reading is essentially a fruitless task and that deep reading isn’t necessary for all the work with which we interact. While I’m not going to touch the former issue, I did think the latter issue had relevance for me as prepping for comps necessarily means figuring out ways to get the essentials out a text so that you can move onto the next one and think about them (and all the others you’ve read) in conjunction with one another.

As usual, when thinking about large-scale intellectual endeavors — particularly researching and writing seminar papers or articles — I like to consider how various computer programs or online resources can be of assistance. The preparation for comps seems like a sufficiently grandiose intellectual endeavor, and my advisor and I talked a bit about how she approached this task during her own doctoral studies. Her approach involved creating a Word document for each book she read for comps and within that document cataloging the following:

  • A summary of the argument
  • The sources the author used
  • The historiography for that work, particularly
    • Other works that the author agrees with or builds upon
    • Contrasting works that the author disagrees with or refutes
  • A critique of the work that could address any and all of the above categories.

I thought this framework made a lot of sense and provided a clear direction for what to be looking for in books as one read them — a crucial element, I think, for fostering engagement with a text when the reading isn’t purely for pleasure. However, I’m not a huge fan of using Word for this task, as Word generates a lot of separate files and doesn’t do a great job of making interconnecting the works very simple.

To these ends, I’d thought that using Scrivener might be an ideal solution. Since reading about Scrivener and downloading it earlier this summer, it’s become an indispensable part of my workflow, particularly for the research and writing I’m doing this summer on a U.S.-Mexico War digitization project.

Scrivener at work for translation of documents for a U.S.-Mexico War digitization project

In this case, I’d be able to create a Scrivener project for each of my exam fields, create a document for each of the books I’m reading, easily port in PDF files of book reviews and other documents about that work, and link the documents together. Also, I’d only have to open one project to then have access to all my writing about these works and could use the search feature to quickly and easily find things I’d written about earlier. For all those reasons, I think Scrivener is probably the tool I’ll use to get myself organized as I prepare for exams next spring.

However, today I also read about Notational Velocity in a post on ProfHacker. While Notational Velocity has the advantage of being free, its functionality of auto-identifying frequently used phrases and passages from other notes makes it appealing. This element would enable me to have the program prompt me as to when I was making a note about a topic, issue, or interpretation that I’d written about before, perhaps making the historiography linkages portion of my prep easier. I’ve downloaded and launched Notational Velocity, but need to play around with it a lot more before I can more definitively say how it might be helpful to me in this process.

Notational Velocity -- Useful in preparation for comps? Discuss! (note: this caption must be read with a Linda Richman accent)

How have others prepared for comps, either with newfangled programs and technology, or through tech-free approaches and time management techniques. Any guidance or (even better) examples of how to implement these approaches would be great! This seems like an area GradHacker might have touched on, so I’ll have to check that out. I’ve also got a lot more to learn about Scrivener and its multifaceted applications and powers, so if people have suggestions about uses for that program that would be life transforming, I’d love to hear about that as well.

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One thought on “Reading, Organizing, and Synthesizing Vast Quantities of Information

  1. Pingback: Modeling Scrivener via Screencasts « The History Channel This Is Not…

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