Prioritizing Propensities

Wall Organization

When working on a large research project, with thousands of individual stories and major overarching themes like migration, gender, discrimination, and tragedy, how do you know where to begin once it’s time to start writing?

As we near the end of the first phase of the GMM Project, we have had to ask ourselves and each other some basic but loaded questions:

  • Who and what do we prioritize at this stage? 
  • Which stories are the ones that deserve to be heard first?
  • Do we lead with quantitative data or qualitative histories?
  • How can we ‘package’ this material in a way that best communicates our goals for the project?

Every academic – be they established professors with a long publication track record or first-year graduate students with major imposter syndrome (hint: all of us suffer from that particular demon, no matter how old we are) – reaches a phase in any project where the research starts to give way to the analysis, and the need to organize thoughts becomes paramount. 

And thoughts can get very, very messy.

I’ve often told my undergraduate students (and quite a few of the grads, as well) about my personal wacky system of trying to bring together extended periods of research.  Joanna, my PhD supervisor, was a big fan of the index card system when I worked with her.  It allows you literally to shuffle pieces of information around on a floor or a wall in order both to visualize and to feel physically where the research is going.  I’ve adapted it for post-it notes several times in my Montreal office as an inescapable ‘to do’ list up on the wall.

Closer to the actual writing of words on a page, I have a mad system that involves keywords, numbers, letters, and colour-coordinated markers or pencil crayons.  I make a list of all of the key terms I’ve come across in that phase of the research, trying to standardize and collapse whenever possible, but, let’s face it, the list is always going to be very long.  Sometimes it has sub-sections.  One time, I had 70+ different categories through which to sort.  It’s a task that can really be enhanced by having something to binge-watch or -listen in the background.  This week, for instance, I would recommend The Witcher, You Must Remember This, and/or Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. It’s been that kind of a week.

Once the keywords are all there, I then re-order them by hand (that’s essential, though I’m not sure why) until I have a rough outline or thematic thread working through them, to which I then assign numbers.  Then I go through every page of every file and document until all pages, bullet points, and quotations have been labelled and given a coordinating number in the margin. 

And then I colour-code them.  (Child of the ‘80s, FTW!)

When I get to my desk to start putting fingers to keyboard, I theoretically have the entire chapter or article sitting next to me in a deconstructed-yet-accessible state amongst my pages and pages of notes.  The outline is also nearby, ready to prompt me to search for a certain colour in the margins until I have everything pulled out and can then organize it as I like in the moment.

Invariably, I will ignore whatever specific outline I came up with earlier in the process for something that feels more organic as I write, but at least the original effort for more ordered thinking was there at the beginning.

And that’s the stage that we’re now at with the GMM Project.  It’s time to start organizing.  What are we going to prioritize?

2022 is going to see new archival and library adventures (on site!!!) and the development of more specifically-gendered questions about our pre-Confederation Irish Canadian case studies, and we also have a writing deadline, freshly set yesterday afternoon at our team meeting.  Our leading focus will be the Famine years at Beauport and Toronto’s Provincial Lunatic Asylum.  The Christmas break will see our related quantitative regressions taking proper shape across various laptops; then we will decide which qualitative stories from the asylum papers should be featured in our first journal submission.   

It’s going to be a lot of colour-coding, but I’m definitely up for it.  That’s what pencil crayon sharpeners are for.


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