Organizing Research

If you started your dissertation or book project again tomorrow, from the beginning, how would you organize your research?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately. Time and again, historians and other scholars come in to speak about their research, and offer some type of lament about the way they began organizing their research when they started their project x number of years ago.  Whether their research is in some form that is inefficient to access, or they had to spend hours converting crappyprogram files to lesscrappyprogram files, I have heard from a number of different scholars over the last few years about how they wouldn’t organize their research if they did it again, or mistakes they will avoid for their next project.

No matter how much I think about this problem, though, I still can’t seem to come to a solution that I really like. For about the past year or so, I’ve been using Evernote, and really enjoying it.  Aside from being the perfect program for studying for comps, it seems to work really well for seminar paper-sized research projects, where I can have to notebooks, one for primary and one for secondary sources, within a larger “notebook stack” for that research project.  I’m not sure, however, that this is the best way to organize my research for a project as large as a dissertation.  Since I’m only now beginning my dissertation research, I really want to organize things in a way that I’m not going to hate 2 years from now (or 6 months from now).

In trying to use Evernote for the preliminary dissertation research, I’m creating new notebooks for every archive I visit, and then separating each collection I view into a different note, but the notes have become somewhat unwieldy doing it that way.  I feel like I need stacks of notebook stacks, but that kind of seems like it’s getting ridiculous, and that perhaps there’s a better way. The other major problem with Evernote is the way it organizes photos, which I’ll probably end up having a lot of, due to limited archive time.

So how did you, or how would you, organize your research for a dissertation or book project if you were starting today? Any suggestions, digital tools, other blog posts about this subject, are very much welcome. I realize that to a certain extent, every project is different, and should be organized in a different way, based on the types of sources involved (for what it’s worth, I’ll be accessing a lot of legal records, will have a lot of document photographs, and will also probably have to do a good deal of transcription). But I think to a certain extent, all projects of this size probably across similar problems in terms of research organization.

Paper Machines

Last week, I attended a workshop offered by Jo Guldi on Paper Machines, Paper Machines as part of the Digital History Master Class here at Rice. Caleb McDaniel has a debriefing post on what we covered in the workshop, and some thoughts on how we can use paper machines, but I wanted to offer some longer thoughts here about how I think I can make paper machines useful for me.

First, I think Paper Machines could be really helpful for me in the project I’m working on right now for the American Historical Association annual meeting coming up in January. I’m presenting a paper on the panel Manipulating Freedom: Liberty, Enslavement, and the Quest for Power in the Southwestern Borderlands discussing Texas’s voluntary enslavement law of 1858.[1] I will be analyzing how Texas newspapers (and southern newspapers more generally) discussed instances of free blacks voluntarily enslaving themselves as a way of analyzing Texans’ views of black freedom and the growing sectional crisis of the 1850s. One of my initial observations has been that when these stories are discussed in the newspaper, they are very formulaic, and often feature what seem like stock characters. Using a database like America’s Historical Newspapers, I could download OCR-ed articles discussing voluntary enslavement in Texas newspapers, and assess this general observation more systematically using Paper Machines. I’d be interested to see what kind of word clouds and phrase-nets these articles produced, even if it only functioned as a way to visualize what I thought I was reading in these newspapers.

Secondly, I think Paper Machines would be helpful as well in developing a comparative project like my dissertation. Even if it I used it to analyze secondary sources and journal articles, I think Paper Machines could offer some direction on fruitful avenues of research when going into what seems like a pretty ambitious project. If I downloaded to my Zotero library all the articles I will be using for my dissertation on free people of color in Cartagena, Colombia and in Charleston, South Carolina, I could use Paper Machines to see if my focus is in the right place, or if there are potential areas of research that I hadn’t yet thought of exploring. For instance, I would expect terms like “Haiti” and “respectability” to be featured fairly prominently in any word clouds, but perhaps there are terms I wouldn’t expect as well. Further, since the concept of respectability will play such a central role in my argument, it would be really interesting to see what kind of terms and ideas are connected to respectability (using phrase nets and topic modeling) both when the articles on both regions are analyzed together, as well as when Cartagena and Charleston are analyzed separately. I would likely have to separate out articles in Spanish from the articles in English, although keeping them together could perhaps still work if I was careful about analyzing cognates/false cognates.

Jo Guldi emphasized to us that Paper Machines is in a “pre-Alpha” stage, so I look forward to exploring what Paper Machines can do as she and other programmers begin to cater it more closely to their research needs.


[1]I’ve written previously about my work on this law here (go back)

Is this thing on? Digital History, Programming, Python

*MICROPHONE FEEDBACK* Whoa, whoa, hot mic here! Sorry folks.

So, I haven’t written a blog post in 5 months. Here’s what happened in that time: I studied for, took, and passed my comprehensive exams; I submitted an article to a journal, got it back, made revisions, and resubmitted it; I went to Bogotá, Colombia for a two-week preliminary dissertation research trip; I applied for research fellowships from Fulbright-Hays, Fulbright, Social Science Research Council, and the Council on Library and Information Resources; I started revisions on a paper I’m presenting at the American Historical Association annual meeting in New Orleans in January. I’ve been a little busy.

I am also taking a Caleb McDaniel’s Digital History Master Class, and doing some of the lessons/tutorials over at The Programming Historian and that’s what I want to write about today.

Last week, Chad Black (@parezcoydigo) came to Rice and delivered a lecture about criminality and institutional profiling in colonial Quito, but also talked/worked with us about Python. Much of what we discussed in our workshop had to do with using digital tools like Python to solve problems. We seemed to come to a consensus (or at least I thought we came to a consensus, perhaps because this is what I was thinking) that you need to have specific problems that need solving in order for digital humanities to “work” for you, but at the same time, you need to have some kind of familiarity with digital tools in order to think of digital solutions when these problems come up.

With this in mind, I have started the Programming Historian tutorials. It seems like Python could be really helpful with a lot of text-based issues/problems that might come up while trying to research, organize that research, and write over the next few years while writing my dissertation (and over the course of my career). I’ve only gotten through the first two lessons, but so far the process reminds me of when I first learned HTML. I’m hoping that these tutorials will get me to a point where I have enough of a base to go rogue, and start looking up my own Python-based solutions as problems arise. I plan on periodically posting back here to give updates on how learning a new language is going, ask questions, etc.

I swear (to myself) it won’t be another five-month hiatus. I’ll be here every week.

Try the meatloaf. Tip your bartenders.

Free Black Exclusion Laws and Illegal Immigration

I haven’t posted anything here in a few months because I’ve been studying for my comprehensive exams, but when the Supreme Court of the United States starts talking about southern states excluding free black immigration and residency in the Old South, I guess that means it’s time to start writing again.

As you surely know already, the Supreme Court, in a 5-3 majority decision, struck down three of the provisions of Arizona’s harsh immigration law, while upholding what many consider the most controversial part of the law, the provision allowing law enforcement officials to demand proof of immigration status, the “show us your papers” provision.  Some are viewing this as a “reasonable accommodation of various views.”

Justice Antonin Scalia, in partial concurring opinion, argued yesterday that the entirety of Arizona’s strict immigration law should have been upheld.  Justice Scalia attempted to support this opinion, in part, by noting that during the antebellum period, southern states passed various immigration and residency restrictions on “freed blacks.”  Scalia is right to draw parallels between the situation of undocumented immigrants in the twenty-first century U.S., and free blacks during late eighteenth and early nineteenth, but for a completely different reason.

Free blacks have long fascinated historians as the seeming anomaly of southern race relations, and have gained increasing scholarly attention since the 1960s and 1970s.  Since that time, however, scholars have noted that these laws, which barred free blacks from residing in, or immigrating into almost every southern state, were only intermittently, if ever, enforced; rather, free blacks continued to live, and sometimes prosper, in southern states, establishing deep, lasting ties to communities across the South.

While these laws represented the legislative concretization of a racist ideology that viewed people of color as a threat to the stability of slave societies, they were rarely used to forcibly deport free blacks from southern states, or to deny them residency.  Instead, free blacks frequently performed menial labor that whites felt was too dirty or too demeaning, especially in urban areas.  They cut hair, they laundered and mended clothes, and they served as housekeepers and personal servants; they worked as painters, carpenters, and day laborers.  Some free blacks found wealth and success through mastering a skilled craft, laying the foundation for the black entrepreneurship that would prove so crucial in 20th century; most did not.  Because they provided such crucial labor to the southern economy, and perhaps more importantly, because they were able to establish individual, personal relationships with whites in southern communities, free black exclusion laws were almost never enforced in the Old South.  As Melvin Patrick Ely notes in his 2004 study of a particularly stable community of southern free blacks in antebellum Virginia, “many southern whites felt secure enough to deal fairly and even respectfully with free African Americans partly because slavery still held most blacks firmly in its grip.  That paradox helped make room for a drama of free black pride and achievement to unfold in an Old South where ties of culture, faith, affection, and economic interest could span the barrier between black and white.”[1]

A class of citizens legally barred from residence, permitted to live there anyway because they perform labor essential to the local economy, and establish significant ties to the community that mitigate more abstract aversions to their residency.  If that sounds familiar, it should, and it points to the great irony in Scalia’s citation of such laws.  Perhaps his citation of these laws at the state level is in fact sufficient legal precedent to uphold the Arizona law in its entirety; I’m not a legal scholar, and I will gladly defer to someone else on that aspect of this issue.   I even agree with him that immigration in America’s past is more complex than the “‘[m]yth of an era of unrestricted immigration’ in the first 100 years of the Republic,” that is often presumed; Scalia, however, simply replaces one myth with another myth by citing the immigration and residency restrictions placed on free people of color.  Much of the last forty years of scholarship has demonstrated how and why these laws were rarely enforced, and that they represented little more than an abstract, racist ideology that viewed people of African descent as a menace to society, and incapable of surviving in freedom.  Maybe this is the United States to which Justice Scalia would like to return. The fact that these laws can in any way still be relevant legal precedent shows how much the United States has really evolved in the last 200-some-odd years, it emphasizes that the idea of a post-racial America is truly a myth, and it highlights the continued importance of the study of history.

Oh, and self-deportation? Yeah, the Old South had that too: “Self-Enslavement Laws: Introduction and Initial Historiography Review.”


[1] Melvin Patrick Ely, Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War, (New York: Knopf Press, 2004). For additional reading, see: Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South, (New York:  Pantheon Books, 1974); Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark, Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South, (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1984); Juliet K. Walker, The History of Black Business in America: Capitalism, Race, Entrepreneurship, Volume I, to 1865, Second Edition, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).  These are only four among an enormous and extensive historiography on the complicated history of free blacks in the Old South. (go back)

William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis

            William Cronon’s, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West is neither a history of Chicago, nor a history of the West.  Rather, it is how the growth and change of each of those places happened as a consequence of their relationship with the other during the nineteenth century.  Cronon argues that though the ‘city’ and the ‘country’ are often viewed as occupying separate spheres, they “have a common history, so their stories are best told together” (xvi).  Much of Nature’s Metropolis is organized around the flow of commodities—grain, lumber, meat—into Chicago from the surrounding countryside, describing how that process changed both city and country.  The development of new technologies, particularly the railroad and the telegraph, resulted in new, larger western territories being settled, their landscapes transformed to allow for the production of staple crops and the raising of livestock.  As greater and greater amounts of raw materials began to be shipped into Chicago from the West, the city developed new technological and institutional innovations to deal with them.  Railroads and telegraphs played a large role in making Chicago the access point to the West for goods from the east coast, and the way to access eastern markets for Western farmers.  Further, the growth of western agriculture (and subsequent technological innovations like the grain elevator) resulted in the development of modern financial institutions in Chicago, such as the Board of Trade, grading systems, futures commodity trading, and others.  Ultimately, Cronon asserts that farmers, cowboys, and lumberjacks all played primary roles in the growth of Chicago, just as merchants, elevator operators, and traders were essential to the development of the Great West.

First Post at GradHacker

The likelihood that someone is coming to this page that isn’t already following me on Twitter is rather unlikely, but just in case…

My first post, “On Applying for a Fulbright” is up at GradHacker.org. Check it out.

Shame On You, Chronicle

Shame on you, Chronicle of Higher Education. Shame. I truly can’t believe you would post this anti-intellectual garbage from Naomi Schaefer Riley. By now, anyone looking at this blog has probably seen it already, but here’s the link to her blog post, titled “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations.”

First of all, she phrases the title of her post as if the readers of the Chronicle have been aching for legitimate reasons to eliminate black studies. Obviously not the case, but whatever. She proceeds to spew anti-intellectual, racist garbage towards individual black studies graduate students. Real classy, Schaefer Riley. Real classy.

But even before she does that, doesn’t take her own advice: readings the dissertations. Her blog post should be titled “Are you looking for reasons to condescend to black academics? Read the titles of their dissertations and a couple sentences about them, and then judge them.” Schaefer Riley is incredulous that graduate students would even waste their time studying things like black women’s authoritative knowledge on childbirth, racism in the housing crisis of the 1970s, or black Republicans since the 1980s.

I won’t even go into how off base this is, because I shouldn’t have to. I just honestly can’t believe that the Chronicle of Higher Ed is giving space to this kind of thing. For shame.

Edit: Pressed send too quickly. Should have just said “Read this.