tentatively taking stock

now that the thesis is largely done (and if anyone here is feeling industrious & interested in a humble & v. narrow MPhil thesis, I could always use a pair of fresh eyes to proofread!), and now that I’ve read John Lewis Gaddis’s wonderful book, The Landscape of History, I’ve decided that my reading between now and the start of the PhD in October will be devoted primarily towards historical method & practice. The MPhil has been a ridiculous & exhilaratingly steep learning curve, and it’s a good time to take stock before I embark on something on a much greater scale. In no particular order, and certainly not to any degree of comprehensiveness — some things I’m thinking about:

Logistics. How best to take notes in archives. Source selection and categorization; databasing, perhaps. How to make all my source notes searchable or indexed, or tagged. Applications like EndNote or LaTeX, which can automatically construct bibliographies. Timelines. Keeping comprehensive enough notes of articles and books (main arguments, bibliographical details, quotes) I’ve read that I won’t have to revisit them unless necessary.

Contingency of sources. Sometimes a source viewed at the beginning of historical inquiry looks very different when viewed at the end of it (in which case, how can one simply take notes in the archive? — historical understanding too, it seems, is historical). Sometimes a source only appears relevant in certain light; for example, reading a certain book that causes you to realize the importance of a previously dismissed folio. What if I had not read that book? And what of all those folios I have dismissed because of all the books & contexts I have not yet absorbed? Should one revisit sources? Also, to be wary of the perils of the keyword.

The role of intuition vs. the inescapability of perspective. I’ve come to trust a lot in intuition — instincts and immediate gut-reactions I’ve had at the beginning of my research inquiry have been confirmed by the end, for example; or while on archive research, my intuitions about which sources were relevant and illuminating turned out to be uncannily accurate. But I’m also thinking about how it may rather be that my intuitions have themselves shaped my inquiry, and more obviously, how my choice of sources have shaped my conclusions, which is, to say the least, problematic. Thus: how to constantly reassess my subjectivity — both inside and outside of the archive.

Prejudice. Linguistic or otherwise.

Structure. The creation of my thesis structure was a ghastly exercise in trial, error and panic. How to frame and present information is a constant problem. A strong argument/hypothesis gives you something to cling onto while marshalling sources and information into structural coherence. But clinging too tightly renders the argument dogmatic — this will not do, as hypotheses are by nature to be supple, flexible. There is, I believe, a dialectic here, which I have as yet to achieve an intuitive grasp of. The balance to be struck is problematic & requires further thought & practice.

Prose. I am aiming for a kind of zen place of academe — a PhD that is both intellectually rigorous and not dry. I read two PhD theses this year that seriously bored me to tears. Good, clear & interesting prose — something that I feel I have not achieved yet to satisfactory levels w/ the MPhil.

What to include & when to stop. Increasingly I’m thinking, writing a thesis is like watercolour painting — one selects a level of detail, washes imprecisely over some, leaves others out, and most importantly, one must know when to stop adding detail. The thing is to not become too attached to any one source, I suppose — but again it’s a dialectic: one lets the sources inform the argument, but the argument must also select the sources.

probably there shall be more to come. but today was ecstatically sunny & I sat out in Trinity Fellows’ Garden and read the rest of Gaddis’ book in nearly one sitting and the thesis is largely done, and I am making summer reading plans, and everything is quite wonderful.


10 responses to “tentatively taking stock

  • rAchel

    (seriously, if anyone does have some time to spare proofreading a thesis — I’m at the stage where I can’t see errors & plain idiocy anymore — leave a comment) 🙂

    (please, though, only offer if you can realistically get it done by this week (that is, wednesday or thursday). it’s not so very long, 23000 words or so, but I know it’s a busy time of year for academics)

  • Jason

    I can’t promise that I’ll be much help in terms of the argument etc as I don’t know much about your field, but I can definitely read over and check for generic things like writing, spelling, flow … Will it make sense if I don’t know anything about malaysian history?

  • rAchel

    I hope so — at least one of my examiners will be a non-specialist. Thanks much for your offer. Drop me an email and I’ll send you a copy (writesomethingnicetome at gmail dot com) 🙂

  • Gavin Robinson

    Always use a digital camera in any archives that allow it. Then you’ve got an image of the original document that you can refer back to, and you don’t have to make so many arbitrary decisions while you’re in the archives.

    Don’t worry about style. Everyone expects a PhD thesis to be boring and dry. You certainly won’t be penalised for it.

    And have you tried Zotero for keeping track of bibliography and notes?

  • andrew weiss

    I won’t be able to proof by this Thursday, but I don’t suppose you’d let a random and well intentioned stranger read it anyway? =)

  • rAchel

    @ Gavin: my PhD thesis will not be boring and dry! — or at least, it will try very hard to disguise that it is 🙂 Thank you for the Zotero tip — I’m looking into it, and it seems splendid.

    @ andrew: it really isn’t all that interesting! — but if you’re really interested, drop me an email & I’ll mail it to you 🙂

  • Brett

    I’m using LaTeX and bibTeX for my own thesis. I like it, but there are pitfalls to be aware of … I’ve discussed some of the pros and cons here and also here.

  • rAchel

    thanks much for this, brett — I have been prodded quite persistently by several mathematically-inclined friends of mine to use LaTeX, and it’s good to see it has its appeal outside the sciences (although I do notice that’s where you came to history from). it doesn’t look too much harder than HTML & CSS, which is good.

  • Kyle

    I have recently become enamored of Mellel (for word processing) and Bookends (for reference management), written by different developers to play nicely together. There’s a bit of a learning curve, particularly for the styles paradigm Mellel uses instead of ad hoc styling. This round of final papers, though, I swore by them.

  • rAchel

    surely better than swearing at them, which is what has been happening with me and Microsoft Word 🙂

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