Friday, 5 April 2013

Writing things down... what a concept

I found Keith Thomas' article this week super interesting. I'm completely unfamiliar with the concept of doing research on anything and everything that interests me and making a bank of information for when I do have a paper to write. If I were to commit to a life of academia past a masters I would probably try out his method. It strikes me as very traditional to write down excerpts, or I guess to manually write in general. These days it's so easy to search for the electronic version of texts and articles and to peruse them will our special pdf software or ipad apps. While Thomas' way may take longer, I think it is more detailed. With all his historical examples of the importance of physically writing something down to internalize it better I do believe it is a method worth preserving. Not long ago, I was still writing everything down. I'd attend undergraduate lectures with a pen and paper and sit in the first row, and this sounds crazy, but I was actually fully engaged. Our computer screens have pulled most of us away from this level of engagement, but they're fast and convenient and allow us to divide our attention in all sorts of directions. I appreciate that Thomas continues this seemingly traditional take on the literature review. As a historian, I think it's a good fit. However, as an information student technology beckons to us. Thomas, K. 2010. Diary: working methods. London Review of Books, 32(11), 36-7. []

Structure vs. Risk-Taking in Creation

As I read Thomas' article "Diary", about his personal research process as a historian, it occurred to me how personal writers' process is. Probably more so for historians and less for scientific researchers. As Thomas says "But no two histories will be the same, whereas the essence of scientific experiments is that they can be endlessly replicated". Which is why as a social science researcher your methods must be systematic, well documented, defended, and you must be able to talk about and justify them. 
It has been a challenge for me and a completely new way of working, being part of this class and learning to write research proposals. Coming from an arts background (literature and theatre) I am used to improvising the process and coming up with something that works for me at any given time (which can differ from project to project) without needing to discuss it or break it down systematically or defend it. I have definitely gained more respect and insight into the work researchers put into their writing and the way of thinking and approach it requires. Luker's "Salsa Dancing Into The Social Sciences" is a call to mix and match approaches and methods and make it more unique to you and take risks with this systematic process. It is tricky to do that in academia because of the concern for following rules that get you a good grade. 
From my experience in theatre school at university, I learned that it is not easy to work creatively in academic institutions because of the result-oriented nature of academia (your performance is always evaluated and value is placed on that). Because you want to do well and 'get it right', there is fear around taking risks and trying new things and experimenting because at the end of the day you have to fit into the structure, and taking risks is not synonymous with fitting into the square box. 
So it is interesting, this duality of structure vs. risk-taking and creativity, which I found to be a theme in this course from the beginning. It is definitely useful to learn as much about how to work in each of these two ways, and at some point get comfortable enough with both (from practice) that you can blend them together in a way that works for you. 

Thomas, K. (2010). Diary: working methods. London Review of Books, 32(11), 36-7.

Late Thoughts on Ethnography

William Shaffir's essay "Doing Ethnography" got me thinking about the numerous times, in my time at the ischool, the term ethnography has come up in a variety of different courses. Most recently, we discussed it in Colin Furness' Information Architecture class as a means of studying users in order to fully understand their information needs when it came to making website schemas. We concluded that although ethnography is both as detailed and thorough as you can get, but it is too time consuming, and no company would invest in this sort of research. Shaffir ends his essay on a hopeful note saying that ethnography is becoming a tool in the professional setting, but I'd have to agree with my information arch. class about how tedious and inconvenient of a method it is for "the real world." Another thing Shaffir mentions is how much the experimenter can subconsciously affect his/her results even when embedded in the world of his/her research. This seems to be a concern that we keep coming across in different social science research methods, but how do we remedy this? For me, the results of ethnographic research can vary greatly depending solely on the experimenter and how he/she chooses to behave within the context of the practise being studied and this makes me uneasy about the method. I like the idea of ethnography but there may be too many factors going against it for me; factors that the experimenter may not even be aware of. Unlike Shaffir, I'm a lot less hopeful about the future of this method. 

Research Method Induced Nostalgia

As I read the article ‘Diary’ by Keith Thomas I am flooded with fond memories of being an undergraduate history student. I remember back to my historical methodology course. I was taught the method of using index cards as medium for my notes and citations described by Thomas in his article. To be honest I have never utilized this method in the process of my research. I always took my notes down on continuous pages. I do identify with Thomas’ feelings of nostalgia. Thinking of these methods reminds me of my time as an undergraduate student. They remind me of the people I knew as well as the experiences I had there. Now as our research methods class comes to a close I think about the future. As time passes I think the ardour of proposal writing I perceive will diminish (or get worse only time will tell). I wonder however that on some later date will, the use of some research method bring me back to the first time I learned about it in our class.

Thank you everyone I have enjoyed my time in this class.


Thomas, K. 2010. Diary: working methods. London Review of Books, 32(11), 36-7. []

Thursday, 4 April 2013

A quick post about content analysis

I just realized that I missed doing a post on discourse analysis. This shall be remedied at once!

I found it strange that Thomas (1994) has to defend the practice of content analysis of artifacts. Maybe this is just the historian in me (my undergrad was in History), but it seems to me that studying what a culture leaves behind is very valuable. Thomas obviously agrees with me as well.

I also like the point that Thomas makes about the directness of various methods--questioning the claim that some methods offer a more direct and true window into the subjects under study. Of course nothing is direct! Even in something like an interview (which some might consider to be quite direct), Luker (2008) points out that what the subject says is just their version of events. It is up to the researcher to interpret from these statements.

Works Cited
Luker, K. Salsa dancing into the social sciences: Research in an age of info-glut. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Thomas, S. (1994). Artifactual study in the analysis of culture: A defense of content analysis in a postmodern age. Communication Research, 21, 683-697.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Last day of class!

Congratulations to everyone who feels good enough about their research proposals to come to class today... I wonder if anyone has ever done a study about who comes to class on the day that a big assignment is due?

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Patrick Collinson "I had no method"

In the article titled Diary: working methods by Keith Thomas, the author notes in his opening statement that
"it never helps historians to say too much about their working methods. For just as the conjuror’s magic disappears if the audience knows how the trick is done, so the credibility of scholars can be sharply diminished if readers learn everything about how exactly their books came to be written."
As we continue reading we learn that in History of a History Man,  Patrick Collinson reveals that  when asked "what his research method [were], all he could say was that he tried to look at everything which was remotely relevant to his subject: ‘I had no 'method'." As the article continues we read about notes on scrap paper, cutting pages out, turning book page edges down, highlighting text, penciled in notes, and text being underlined.

This article reminded me of Elizabeth Gilbert's TED Talk Your elusive creative genius, particularly the part of the article that recalls Hobbes "always [carrying] a note book in his pocket, and as soon as a thought darted, he presently entred it into his book, or otherwise he might have lost it. He had drawn the designe of the book into chapters, etc., so he knew whereabout it would come in.’

In her TED Talk, Gilbert notes that at one point,
"people believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons.The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity "daemons". Socrates, famously, believed that he had a daemon who spoke wisdom to him from afar. The Romans had the same idea, but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius."
As time passed we began to internalize the concept, referring to ourselves / the human being as the genius.

Where Hobbes's methods remind me of her talk is where she relates an encounter she had with the American poet Ruth Stone. Stone's account is related by Gilbert as follows:
"She told me that when she was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields, and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. And she said it was like a thunderous train of air. And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, "run like hell." And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem,and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn't be fast enough, so she'd be running and running and running, and she wouldn't get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it "for another poet." And then there were these times --this is the piece I never forgot --she said that there were moments where she would almost miss it, right? So, she's running to the house and she's looking for the paper and the poem passes through her, and she grabs a pencil just as it's going through her,and then she said, it was like she would reach out with her other hand and she would catch it. She would catch the poem by its tail, and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page. And in these instances, the poem would come up on the page perfect and intact, but backwards, from the last word to the first."
Gilbert goes on the relate other stories of genius, but what stuck with me most about her talk on the writing process was this, that it's hard work. It reminded me of Luker's advice to break it down into 15 minute segments.  Either way, Gilbert says the when she's feeling dejected and uninspired, she calls on her genius, which she disembodied from her self.  She
"lifts her face up from the manuscript and directs her comments to an empty corner of the room, saying "Listen you, thing, you and I both know that if this book isn't brilliant that is not entirely my fault, right? Because you can see that I am putting everything I have into this, I don't have any more than this. So if you want it to be better, then you've got to show up and do your part of the deal.O.K. But if you don't do that, you know what, the hell with it. I'm going to keep writing anyway because that's my job. And I would please like the record to reflect today that I showed up for my part of the job."
It's an absolutely wonderful talk for anyone who hasn't internalized the concept of genius, but may need to call on one from time to time.  Particularly those of us who will be expected to come up with graduate (genius) level prose in the not too distant future. 

Gilbert, E. (2009, February). Elizabeth Gilbert: Your elusive creative genius. Retrieved from

Luker, K. (2010). Salsa dancing into the social sciences. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Thomas, K. (2010). Diary: working methods. London Review of Books, 32(11), 36-7.