Yesterday, in a rush of Hermione-esque academic over-achievement, I completed the first research project of the year.
About a week ago, I was given the syllabus to our class in Popular Entertainment and Iconography. As such, I was also presented with this assignment.
As an exercise, the professor presented us with a list of 68 quasi-random items. These items were presented simply as they were without any further explanation; just a list of words. Upon further examination, it became evident that these items ran the theatrical gamut: some were people, some were phrases, some were theatrical devices, some were plays or the titles of variety acts, etc. The assignment was simple: find out what each of these things were, their relative cultural importance, and cite a reliable print source for each item.
And so began the great academic scavenger hunt.
This assignment has easily been the most useful thing that I’ve been asked to do in my entire graduate career. It required me to acquaint myself with library resources (some of which I knew we had available, some of which I did not); it demanded that I utilize lateral thinking to uncover what I didn’t know about a topic from what I knew (“I know this has something to do with popular theatre, likely vaudeville or circuses, maybe in the late eighteenth century… why is it on this list?”); and it prompted me to really think about how I research and how to research most efficiently (where would be the easiest place to look for this information? What will yield the best answer in the least amount of time?).
The word “exercise” has also become important in this enterprise. To call something an “exercise” implies a repeated action which makes you stronger. It implies that you’re going to sweat, struggle, and do things that scare you. It implies that you will do these things until they come more easily. You’re working out a muscle and, by doing so, making that muscle stronger. Thinking of this assignment in that way made the assignment not only make sense, but also hold a great degree of import. Doing things like this will, in the long run, improve me and my work. This notion also positions my professor as a sort of coach; shouting at me to do one more set of pushups even though I don’t think I can get through the set I’m currently on, assigning me new creative ways to do things which will improve my game, and always always making me hurt so that so that I will emerge stronger.
Research methodologies are something one develops throughout one’s career and, often, not something that can be taught. Certainly I can be shown where to find databases via my library’s website, or what archives may be useful to me, but how I document and catalogue the information I find is a system which is extremely personal to me, and one that I have cultivated through my years within academia. Research is also rather personal; while we may talk about the things that we’re actually researching, we don’t tend to talk about the ways in which we process these things. Often times, the processing portion is unable to be articulated. How do you deal with information? How do you change raw data into something that is useful to your project and presentable to a reader?
The research process is one that is rapidly changing. When I was first introduced to a
library, I was told to write every fact down on an index card with a citation on the back of each card. In this way, my research was portable, traceable, and easily manipulated. Now, I just take my netbook to the library (on the rare occasion when I need to even set foot in the library) and work almost exclusively out of word documents. My iPad is also a valuable resource since, once I compile my information into a large word document, I can then keep my outline available while I’m writing. Because of these changes in technology, research becomes both easier and more difficult. While information is more readily available at my fingertips 24/7, it also means that I’m expected to know more and go deeper with this research. Anyone can do a Wikipedia search; it takes a researcher to understand where the wiki article is wrong and why it’s not credible.
I’m not going to say that this weight-lifting session wasn’t stressful. It was extremely time-consuming and, being the slightly obsessive creature that I am, that meant that it was life-consuming. I had a moment of weakness in which, after I had pulled out every trick in the book to try and uncover a credible source for the origin of the word/concept of “pastie” (that would be the burlesque accoutrement, not the yummy snack) and still came up empty, I began to devolve into an unraveled ball of perceived academic failure. How could I call myself a scholar if I couldn’t even uncover this simple fact? What was I doing with my life? Why were pasties eluding me?
And it was at that moment when I had to lean back in my chair, and laugh. I was stressed out over pasties. I couldn’t measure my success in my career by a set of nipple shields. It was time for a break.
Valuable lesson here: zoom in close enough and everything becomes daunting. When this happens, take a few steps back, walk away from the computer for a couple hours, and remember why you’re doing this and what you’re gaining from it. If that doesn’t work, make yourself some tea and hit the gym for a while. If that doesn’t work, it may be quitting time for the day.
So here I am, my efforts boiled down to 15 pages of notes to myself and a list of citations as long as my forearm, and I can’t be more proud of my efforts. I did it. I conquered it. There were only a few minor freak-outs along the way, and I even managed to have fun during the process.
This exercise has gotten me pumped for the semester. Research, especially target and stalk research, is like a treasure hunt. Each successful finding was a new chance to feel accomplished, a new chance to learn something, and a new chance to feel like, despite any misgivings that may crop into the recesses of my mind, I can accomplish.
So take that, semester. I’m onto your tricks. You had best watch your back.