I Think I’ve Thought Myself to Death: One Woman’s Mission to Organize a History Dissertation

It has been a long, but productive 5 months away from Royal Seal. From dissertation work to conferences to just about everything, I can’t believe how time flew by. However, while I am currently writing my dissertation I’m going to have to backtrack a little bit to discuss something we never talk about in graduate school–at least adequately.  Right before summer vacation began, I was lucky enough to receive one of George Mason University’s coveted Provost Summer Fellowships. Long story short–for the first time since I was 14-years-old, I didn’t have to have a summer job because GMU funded my final research trips and dissertation work. It was glorious. It’s amazing how much work you can get done when you get to sleep in until 8 am, enjoy a peaceful cup of coffee, and organize your dissertation on a sunny porch without having to check your e-mail every 20 seconds. It was also nice to have back-to-back research trips and not have to worry about who might be interested in buying my kidney on the black market.

This fellowship allowed me to get so much done, and yet opened my eyes to the harsh realities of the dissertation that I hadn’t quite accounted for. You see I’ve spent years working on this project thanks to my MA thesis. I assumed that once my research was over–which happened around June–that I would immediately start writing and voila! Committee, meet my dissertation! Well– that is definitely not how this worked.  I mean how was I supposed to be prepared for this. Any time you talk to a professor or graduate student, the whole “organization” topic gets lost somewhere between comps, archival trips, writing, and defending. No one talks about organizing or the massive amount of time or energy it takes to go from archive to writing.

First, when you are conducting historical research, all of our sources come in different shapes, sizes, and formats. For the basis of my dissertation, I use the Loyalist Claims Commission papers, wills, deeds, probate records, newspapers, inventories, personal letter collections, Virginia Convention documents, etc.  I am incredibly fortunate that 4-years-ago Stephanie was a highly organized machine. When I held my fellowship at the Rockefeller Library in Colonial Williamsburg, I kept massive binders of every document I made a copy of. I’m talking, I had these things indexed (yes indexed) by year, subject matter, they were color coded, etc. They were beautiful. They belong in a museum. An art museum. I would marry these binders if was legal. And yet I wake up every morning and wonder–what happened to that organized lady? I miss her.

Look at that smile! Old me was so cute… all binder organized and ready to take on the world–thinking it was still ok to sit in Jefferson’s lap. This was pre-graduate school defeat. RIP old Stephanie. We hardly knew ye.

However, not every research trip went that way. Admittedly, I even had issues with organization at that fateful Rockefeller trip. At the Rockefeller library, you are allowed to take pictures of archival documents, however anything else you find in the library you have to make physical copies. So when using their newspaper databases or their microfilm collections I had to make paper copies–hence my gorgeous binders. But what about the pictures I was taking in the archives? Once again that Stephanie I used to know was pretty organized and kept an Excel document open, making sure I had rows and columns filled with info of the images I took and had a corresponding folder in my Dropbox. That’s great! But add a couple dozen more research trips, and a bunch of different formats for gathering sources that add up to a couple thousand documents and now all of a sudden I have binders, images, excel sheets, pdfs, physical published primary source books with tabs, etc. On some trips, I’d organize my sources by year. Some by theme. Some by whether I’d had enough coffee that morning to make well-educated decisions.  By June, I had almost a decade’s worth of archival trips and sources in front of me and I probably stared at it all for a few days wondering what kind of a monster I’d created and how in the world I was ever going to make sense out of all of this. Don’t even get me started on secondary sources…For some people, this might not be that difficult of a problem. However, around mid-June I was having an identity crisis between the Stephanie I used to be and the person I’ve become. Binder Stephanie was pre-Digital History person. In the years since that fellowship, I learned all sorts of neat online tools for how to organize and interpret sources. However, there was this voice deep down in me that kept screaming for binder organization–old school!

Naturally, like any red-blooded American Millennial, I reached out to social media to get advice from other candidates, traditional historians, and digital historians.

Twitter yielded an excellent, yet short discussion. All of the advice seemed reasonable and relatively easy. However, my similar Facebook question was answered by 17 academics who are either working on this process or have multiple books to their name. While I’m not publishing that conversation, I got two polarized answers–go back to binders and note cards or accept Zotero. Zotero is something that I’d considered for a while. After all–I’m a child of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason—literally the organization that created Zotero. Even better, in the fall, CHNM released Tropy which was almost exactly like Zotero but meant to organize archival images. Two incredible mechanisms for the organization. So what gives?

Touch the document. Remember the document. Save the world.

Out of all this advice, I had to come to terms who I actually was vs who I wanted to be. Yes, I am a digital historian and I use digital methods for most of my professional life. I’m the Digital Humanities Specialist for Data Services at GMU. Three of my four assistantships at GMU have been in the Digital Humanities and/or Digital History. However, when it comes to organization, consuming, and understanding what I had, going digital for the purposes of organization just didn’t work for me. (Don’t worry–I’m still all digital for my visualizations and statistics) Even with cool tools like Zotero and Tropy, I know deep down who I am as a researcher. I have to see and be able to touch my sources while marking all over them in purple flair pens. I needed it all lined up and made pretty. Holding something in my hands makes a huge difference for me when it comes to understanding and retention. I could never use Kindle over a paperback book because for some reason physical paper vs. a screen made more of an imprint on my brain.  I knew I was more at war with who I wanted to be and I could have saved myself a lot of blood pressure had I just taken the time to stop being embarrassed for being old school in an age of digital everything. It turns out old Stephanie wasn’t dead—just a little dormant. Welcome back, lady.

However–I will admit my decision was expensive. All of those photographs and microfilm pdfs? Once I went through and picked what I needed I drove my happy binder butt to GMU and printed them off for $0.10 a copy. When you are talking about that many copies, even $0.10 a copy can get a little pricey. But comfort in writing a dissertation was worth every penny–and I still get to keep my kidney.

My dissertation chapters are lined up pretty much chronologically. Even with the overlap in theme and years, I was able to divide each section via a divider for each chapter. And there I sat on a laminate wood floor for hours deciding what source went in which pile and taking notes of sources that may need to appear in multiple chapters. There went all of those newspaper articles, claims, wills, etc.


I’m still picking the pug hair out of these dividers.

70 sources organized. Infinity more left to go!

After I was finished I shoved (lovingly) each section with their sources into pretty binders. For the next few days, I went through each chapter individually and organized them chronologically and by theme–including secondary source comments I didn’t want to forget. So long, tabbed books! And in case you are wondering, yes my husband is glad to have our living room floor back.

Now that all of my sections are organized, I am in the process of going back to each chapter and outlining my chapters based on my prospectus (with a few changeups) to make sure I know where I’m going with all of this.(Thank you Dr. Andrew Weist–one of my old USM professors!)

This process might not seem that difficult and yes I will come across problems when one source crosses multiple chapters. However, mining through all of this did take much longer than I expected. I am incredibly grateful I had this fellowship because my lack of judgment on organization would have severely put me off schedule any other summer. Now that I’m organizing, the chapter writing is going down.

If I can give any advice from my experience with the organization is to take your time exploring your options, but don’t try to force yourself to be a person you aren’t. If you aren’t hyper-organized like these binders–don’t force yourself. If you can’t handle all of your sources in a digital format–don’t do it. If having stacks of papers gives you anxiety, go check out options for digitizing your research. What I learned through this entire process is that there is NO perfect way to organize–digital, traditional, or otherwise. I have people that look at me like I’m crazy for my binder method and folks who look at me like I was crazy for taking so long to come to that obvious conclusion. No one is going to completely agree with your decisions–but they aren’t writing your dissertation. After all, your subject matter is what should make you uncomfortable. Your organization of that subject matter should not. While the Ph.D. is meant to broaden your horizons, you should remember that a good dissertation is a done dissertation. In the words of my best friend–“You do you, boo boo!” And don’t look back.

Oh snap.

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