Paper-based Productivity and Digital Research
As I dive into the world of Digital Humanities, I am exposed to an increasing variety of programs, apps, coding languages, and platforms to digitize my research and see my work in new ways. I’ve always been interested in productivity, and paper and pen or pencil have long been some of the most valuable tools in my academic life. For the last few years I have become interested in thinking about digital tools not just as the end result of research, but also how they shape my workflow and daily routines. I’ve found Zotero to be quite helpful in organizing the thousands of newspaper articles on my hard drive, I use Evernote for organizing just about everything related to my teaching and research, and Scrivener is without a doubt my favorite program for writing articles and dissertation chapters.
Yet, the more I use digital tools, the more I continue to appreciate to my analog systems of paper and pencil. While most of my research puts me in front of my laptop screen, I find being tied to screen all day far from ideal. My laptop and other gadgets often seem as efficient as they are distracting. When I teach I run my sections as a laptop-free zone and I explain to my students the flaws of assuming we are all “good at multi-tasking.” I also find it funny to be in an academic meeting of some sort and see many in attendance using their laptops to check Facebook or email, rarely even making eye contact with the presenter.
Key to designing and maintaining a productivity system is to think about what goals you want to accomplish and what are the ‘tools of the trade’ you will enjoy using on a daily basis. I’ve found one of the most challenging things about being a PhD student is keeping on top of all of the little things, while also keeping an eye on the big picture and making steady progress towards my overarching goals. This is especially true because I have to balance both my research and my work as GTA, in which I am usually assigned to a class of about 100 students. Before I was ABD, I had all of my coursework to balance as well. I have adjusted my analog system as I have worked my way through my program, and here are two major components of my current system:
1. Daily Tasks Journal: While I keep all off my important dates and deadlines on iCal, I also have a notebook in which I have to-do lists for each day of the week. I’ve found this very helpful in managing small tasks so they don’t eat up my day and developing an manageable plan for the week.
2. Dissertation/writing/research Journal: My advisor (and lots of grad student blogs) suggested I start a dissertation journal when I became ABD, and this was very good advice. I don’t use this journal to collect any actual research, but rather to document how the process is going, including my work on my digital project for this fellowship. I have a pretty loose format for this journal. I document what I am working on, what seems to be going well, and what challenges I am encountering. I use this journal also to explore ideas or connections I’m seeing in my sources, as well as for topics or questions I’m just starting to think about. I find it helpful to be able to look back and see the patterns of days in which I was more productive versus less productive, and days when I felt stressed while writing compared to the days when my writing came pretty easy. When I became ABD, one of my biggest challenges was getting used to a completely different kind of schedule, in which I have tons to do but it is all on my own time. Documenting my day-to-day process has been very helpful in trying to figure out what works (besides lots of great coffee) and what hasn’t been as successful.
Both journals could easily work in a digital format. I prefer using paper not just so I get a screen break, but also because I feel that break allows me to think more deeply about my work while I am visually away from it. I like being away from email, social media, and other distractions so I can thoughtfully assess my work, even if I am just writing for ten minutes. Field Notes are my favorite notebooks for paper-based productivity. Not only are they beautifully designed and made in the USA, but I’ve found the size is small enough so I can easily carry both with me but large enough so I don’t feel cramped. Clearly I’m not the only person using analog tools to think about digital research — I’m looking for an excuse to buy these awesome stencils. I am more of pencil person versus pen, and I am a huge fan of Blackwing pencils. Many scholars and students may find it easy to give up on paper, and ultimately we should all develop systems that work best for us. But I’ve found that as I become more well versed in digital tools, I find that they greatly compliment, not replace, the joys and tangible benefits of writing by hand in a notebook.