Prepping for the Archive

How do you prepare for independent research?

If you’re anything like me you dream all year long of the rare opportunities you can dive head-over-books into your research.  And if you’re anything like most graduate students, adjunct instructors, lecturers, and even some junior faculty, you spend a great deal of time researching and teaching works and genres that maybe don’t directly line up with your research interests.

So, when you have time–or the illusion of time, at least–to focus on yourself and your work, it’s easy to kick yourself for not protecting that sacred-seeming time through out the academic year. Sure, I maintain consistent writing hours and writing groups, but I just finished course work, co-teaching a course on seduction fiction of the C18 for the first time, and dealing with other external pressures, so my spring semester (like most spring semesters) was fairly rough.

But despite all of the stress of the regular semester, I crave the return of Fall semester, rigid schedules, and freshly sharpened pencils. I like to think I’m not the only one who misses the smell of new binders and lesson plans.

That being said, I’ve been using some time to prep for my year-long research fellowship in Ireland, Scotland, and England. The itinerary is already developed (if your campus has a Global Education Office then you should go give them hugs and become a friend) and reference numbers were pulled months ago, but there still remains the task of contacting librarians with information about my exact arrival dates, how long I will need materials, and how these materials will need to be handled (most archives have general guidelines, but some collections refuse any type of image scan, etc.).

Tips for the Archive

I’ve been fortunate enough to use a short term research grant to gather materials at the Harry Ransom Center at University of Texas, but I ask nearly everyone what advice they have for long-term archival work. Here are the tips I’ve gathered and used myself, if you think of anymore, please share! There are also great tips here.

  • Statement of research. Make sure you have a concise and clear statement of the work you plan to do in the archive; this is for your peace of mind and will help you quickly and clearly speak with librarians and curators about what materials you will need and why. Also, if you haven’t found funding yet this will be crucial to getting any financial aid.
  • Do your homework. Do as much work/reading/researching as possible BEFORE you arrive to the archive. You’ll feel much more confident entering the research center.
  • Take advantage of training or learning sessions. Nearly every research center has some version of training session to acquaint visitors with their resources. Sometimes these are online, in person, or both. Use these no matter how much you think you know what you’re doing. If you’re new to the institution, there’s likely to be something important there.
  • Create a time table. You will need to know your anticipated study dates when you contact archives, museums, libraries, etc. Again, this will help with writing proposals for grants or scholarships for funding your research.
  • Find funding! If you don’t already have financial funding for your research, try to find some through national scholarships, the particular library or archive you wish to visit, and most certainly though your academic institution.
  • Find reference numbers. Save these somewhere convenient, as research librarians will want to know both the titles and the reference number you’re looking for.
  • See if you need a Letter of Introduction; if so, talk to the research librarian or see the archive’s website on what they’re looking for.
  • Talk to research librarians! This is so important and the number one piece of advice I’ve received. Sure, depending on where you’re researching many librarians will be quite busy and may not be able to do more than find the materials that you’re looking for, but the research librarian is vital to getting the materials you need. Also, if any of the materials you’re looking for are circulating or on loan elsewhere, the librarian will need to know.
  • Review Archive Guidelines. When you get to the archive, you won’t be allowed to scan most (or any) documents or manuscripts. But many research centers do allow computers, phones, and tablets. One excellent app for phone or tablet is CamScanner —  which turns your phone or tablet into a portable scanner. CamScanner essentially converts non-flash photos (ideal for the archive) into a scan-like pdf.
  • Others? What methods do you employ while using archives?

These are a few tips I’ve gathered on hitting up archives and how I’m preparing for this over the summer–it may seem like a lot of groundwork, but the payoff (at least in my experience with short-term grants) is worth it. Feel free to chime in with your own experiences, advice, or tips. Anything different for those working with long-term fellowships?


Writing Camp: It’s Like Summer Camp, But Not Really At All

When I was a kid I loved summer camp. 

It didn’t matter if it was day camp, sleep away camp, or pitching a tent in the back yard, I loved the smell of sunscreen early in the morning. Perhaps more importantly, I was a country bumpkin–I grew up down a dirt road in a town without traffic lights–and I loved the community feeling of all us waiting to start each day, new activities, new songs, new people, and of course unlimited bug juice.

Today I started one of the university sponsored writing camps offered by my institution’s Graduate Resource Center. This experience was, in some ways, similar to those delightful camp memories: the early morning wake up call (first timers were asked to arrive at 8:00 am), the obligatory sunscreen (I live in New Mexico, duh), and the distinct feeling of uncertain possibility that I find so often accompanies early morning activities.

And no, there wasn’t a Parent Trap situation at Writing Camp.

Well, there was no bug juice. 

But they did have coffee and tea! Which was totally necessary, because I *had* to stay up half the night reading reviews of Jurassic World.

When I arrived to the *early* morning orientation, which consisted of introductions and suggestions on developing realistic writing goals, I was hesitant about exactly how this would help me with my writing.

I already participate in a writing group that meets weekly to share writing goals and progress–both long and short term–but we rarely write with one another. The camp offered by the Graduate Resource Center is one that emphasizes writing at any phase. Although I think this is a fantastic resource, I usually work well at home (must be the isolated bumpkin in me) and I was concerned that this would be, not to put too fine a point on it, a gigantic waste of my time.

But it was actually really great.

I took a project with me that I’ve been dragging my feet on: a revision of a chapter of my dissertation. After receiving comments from one of my committee members, I was proud of my product and felt like the revision process wouldn’t take so long after all. And then I moved on to other tasks: book reviews, other chapters, studying for comps, reading Jurassic World reviews, and so forth. And then all of the simple revisions became part of a longer process.

After getting some helpful hints from the group (which was thankfully, for whatever reason, comprised solely of women) I felt jittery and motivated to begin writing. The “veteran” writing camp members were able to impart some great advice that extended beyond the usual “shut up and write.” Each of the members offered advice and support regarding whatever you’re working on that day. It sounds sort of like a nightmare, but for some reason I really liked getting this type of advice/feedback from strangers.

Within the first three hours I was surprised to learn that I had completed well over my writing goals for the time allotted. What I thought would take lots of tedious time–expansion, clarification, etc.–was somehow made easier through the collective clacking of my fellow peers. When I became listless or bored (prime pacing time at my house; Oh, hey does that cactus need watering?), I found motivation from both the continuous working efforts of my peers and the crunch of the clock. Setting artificial time goals doesn’t seem to do anything for me on my own, but if you tell me lunch is at noon then I’m going to be ready for lunch.

Final Word

There is so much written about the benefits of participating in a writing group, and I think there’s something to be said about entering into a room full of supportive, likeminded writers who are not in your discipline, but simply share the need and desire to write.

While it wasn’t as fun as zip-lining or canoeing at summer camp, I would certainly recommend participating in such a writing group–if even only once–just to see how it works for you. See one of my previous posts on joining an accountability/writing group. So often we firmly believe we know what’s best for ourselves, but more often than not stepping outside of what we know is exactly what we need.

While Watching the French Open…

No, this isn’t a sport-related blog post.

And no, I don’t truly know enough about sports to make it one. That being said, it occurred to me yesterday morning, while I half-watched Serena Williams versus Lucie Safarova and had my morning cup of tea, that I get a tremendous amount of work done while I have what I perceive as mindless television on in the background (again, not a statement on tennis, just my lack of understanding). 

Yesterday morning, for example, as Williams and Safarova expertly slammed neon yellow balls at one another, I opened my computer and picked up editing a document that’s been weighing on me. A project I agreed to complete, but one that I’m not totally in love with. But I had tea and television; I was feeling pretty good about myself.

So, as I was editing (Williams takes a bathroom break and it shocks everyone), I click, copy, paste, select more politic words, I’m struck by the obvious: I’ve done basically nothing. My self-congratulating ego immediately deflated.

The task of editing, which I completely ignored yesterday in favor of procrasticleaning, was nowhere near complete. I looked around and considered my hour of “work” and how much of it was  left unfinished–Um, how? I even looked to Williams’ powerful serves for answers.

Is Watching T.V. Multitasking?

Despite that many articles have effectively argued against multi-tasking, it certainly does make me feel better. And I often pride myself on being able to multitask–I’m baking muffins AND I’m writing my proposal?!? But in this particular context I’m not sure if I’m exactly multitasking; I mean, if I were catching up on, well, anything, maybe that would constitute multitasking. Doesn’t the term “multitasking” imply that multiple tasks are being completed?

In this particular example, I accomplished nothing in nearly one hour. I brought the question to a couple of my writing group galpals: How do you accomplish annoying and tedious tasks promptly?

I got a variety of answers: watching television, taking breaks, setting a timer, and just, well, doing the damn thing, like Serena.

Because I have a tendency to be overly reflective about my writing process, I want to think about why I tend to privilege multitasking? And how is my multitasking any better than what my students do?

The Nature of the Work

There are, of course, troubling articles that suggest a relationship between watching T.V. while multitasking and depressionI usually keep this in mind while I’m doing something such as lesson planning or writing, which typically require my full, uninterrupted attention. Not to mention that depression and anxiety are totally serious issues, in particular in the humanities.

I don’t think it’s possible for me to write while I watch T.V, (I’m extremely jealous of anyone who can), but I wonder if something such as editing or simple revisions (such as changing format from MLA to Chicago) or other tasks that I don’t exactly love could be done with a type of multitasking in mind.

This is how I should finish all of my work.

What are your strategies for completing tedious, but essential, tasks promptly? I did, by the way, finally complete the editing, but ultimately I had to just shut up and write which, as unpopular as this can be, is so often the only way.

Summer Writing, List Making, and the Concept of Accountability

It is a truth universally acknowledged…

For nearly every scholar, professor and graduate student, the end of each semester brings with it an enormous, ambitious, and totally and completely unrealistic to-do list. Ever since I joined a writing group (which offers both academic, professional, and emotional support), I’ve found myself totally capable of creating far more specific and manageable to-do lists.

How to Manage

I started my summer to-do lists with the first priority on my writing; that is, research, outlining chapters in my prospectus, completing book reviews, and other commitments I’ve already made. This list takes priority for me because I am about to embark on a year-long research fellowship, wherein I will no long be in sunny New Mexico, but instead gloriously dreary Ireland, Scotland, and England.

That’s right, you heard me: Lists

Yup. More than one list never killed anyone, right? In fact, I find that by compartmentalizing each of my summer goals by theme/topic–say, writing, reading, and moving (yeah, can’t wait for that)–I am better able tackle one terrible, difficult, challenging thing in a week if I’m allowed to flip-flop to the other list and do something easy or even, gasp, fun.

My friend and writing group gal pal, Diana, wrote a great blog post about this very subject in the Blue Mesa Review. In particular I like that Diana is willing to confront the summer for what it is: about eight weeks of work time. This is not a lot, particularly when you consider how hard you’ve worked throughout the academic year.

Get Real

This one is tough for me. I’ve been doing lots of research about how to make realistic and practical goals for myself. I checked out Paul J. Silva’s book, How to Write A Lot, and I was struck by the interesting and often obvious advice he gives on staying productive even when it’s easier to sit around, consume beach reads and Twizzlers, and just not give a damn. Some of the more intuitive bits involve writing nearly every day, including reading as a practical component of writing, expecting that you’ll fall off the wagon eventually, but finding people who will support you to get up and get back on. I feel fairly comfortable with these components (maybe too comfortable with that whole “You’ll fall of the wagon eventually” bit), but being unable to shake self-doubt and disappointment in goals left uncompleted is a powerful tool in academic self-sabotage.

One bit of advice that stuck with me from Silva’s book was about how to create realistic goals. He suggests, of course, backward planning and a fairly strict writing group. When I say a”strict” writing group, I really do mean that there must be consequences for someone who does not complete their goals; for example, Silva goes so far as to suggest that members who struggle to set realistic writing goals–and subsequently not meet them–should eventually be kicked out of the group. My group, however, has not needed to do this. Instead, we meet once a week and encourage each other to add or subtract from weekly lists as needed.

The real trick with a writing group is finding people who you trust, respect, and make you feel comfortable. I’m not sure I’d take advice from anyone else.

How to Create a Writing Group When You Don’t Know or Like Anyone

This is something I’ll have to deal with in the next year–well, hopefully I’ll like people. Since I’ll be moving around various archives and libraries away from my academic institution next year, I will be missing my writing group. We’ve discussed various options for our long-distance relationship (maybe that’s a pathetic/creepy way to describe my writing group…) such as Skype, FaceTime, and Google.doc, but I am counting on some issues, such as time change and my schedule not fitting with the rest of the folks’ in the group.

Too real, in my opinion…

There are several online writing groups, such as The Academic Ladder’s Writing Club (which costs $70, but boasts serious participants) and even a Professional Nagger, who will contact you at the beginning of your writing time and make you clearly and succinctly state your writing goals for the day. Also, at my university the Humanities Library holds writing bootcamps and accountability workshops for folks who want the face-to-face, but also a relative sense of anonymity.

These options may not be for everyone, but it’s nice to know that in just about every configuration of accountability and writing support (or nagging) there is something for you.

Feel free to share your writing summer plans and how you plan to stay accountable to those goals!