Research Update

Since my last post, I’ve begun my dissertation research in earnest, which is why I’ve been off the grid for a good while in terms of this blog. For those of you who don’t known, my dissertation explores the ways that free people of color in the urban Atlantic World engaged a common discourse on race, freedom, and respectability—and developed what can be viewed as a “pan-American” protest strategy—carving out a place for themselves within their communities and nations against a broadly similar ideology of white supremacy, one that viewed the mobilization and civic participation of people of African descent as a destabilizing influence. To get at such an expansive theme, I am comparing the lives and experiences of free people of color in two port cities of the Greater Caribbean: Charleston, South Carolina, and Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.

Having already spent a few weeks researching in Charleston, I spent the majority of April and May conducting researching in Columbia, South Carolina, primarily at the SC Department of Archives and History, but also at the South Caroliniana Library on the University of South Carolina campus. I was quite disappointed to discover that the records of the Court of Magistrates and Freeholders for Charleston (where free blacks would have been tried) no longer exist, but I was able to find a great deal in legislative and court petitions, various legal documents, tax records, and other municipal records. In addition, the papers and records of various free black voluntary associations in Charleston have been particularly helpful.

At the end of June, I relocated to Bogotá, Colombia, where I’ll be living for the entire Fall 2013 semester. I’ve begun researching at the Archivo General de la Nación, where most of the documents for the late colonial and early republic period are housed. I’ve been working through early census returns so far, but plan to move on to criminal and civil court records, military and militia records, and a variety of other sources soon. I’ve also enrolled as an external graduate student at the  Universidad de los Andes, which will be my academic “home-base” while living in Colombia.

So that’s kind of what’s going on with me right now. I’ve made a lot of progress researching, but am still in the process (obviously) of really working through it all and putting it together. I hope over the next few months to provide more regular, and more substantive, updates on what I’m finding. One will certainly be coming this week, so stay tuned.

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.

End of the Semester

Ah, the end of the semester. Classes are basically over, and all that’s left to do is finish writing some 60-90 pages of research papers and historiography reviews. What do I do? Anything else. I will do anything and everything to not finish assignments until the last possible moment.

This week I’ve emptied out the carrel I rent in the library and moved everything to my newly acquired office space. I’ve renewed all the library books I have checked out. I’ve looked into applying for some federal loan assistance for next year (more on this another time, perhaps). I’ve looked into the possibility of getting a new car (1997 Nissan Pathfinder with 190,000 miles is no longer getting the job done. It’s been a great 7 years, car!). I’ve filed my tax return. I’ve done my laundry, cleaned my apartment, and tied up loose ends for some other errands. And now I’m writing a blog post about procrastination.

I’m not really sure why I do this, but I think it has something to do with the anxiety I feel when the semester is over.  Yes, you read that correctly.  As much as the mountain of reading and writing that builds over the semester causes me a great deal of stress, I think I get more anxiety when the semester ends, everything has been handed in, and for the first time in 4-5 months, my time is mine to do what I see fit.

Like a lot of people, I seem to work best under pressure, with a deadline looming.  Knowing that I work best under pressure, and that the free time when I’m done with work gives me an unbelievable amount of anxiety, I think I fill these last days of the semester with so much extra crap to make sure that I don’t finish anything earlier than I’m able to.  The closer to my deadlines I hand things in, the longer I put off the semester-is-over anxiety.

Did I really just say I prefer the stress of lots of work to the week or two of anxiety I get when I don’t have any? Yikes. At least I study for comps this summer, maybe that will keep me occupied.