note taking

Dissertation Productivity

Princeton has recently given its graduate students free membership to the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. This online community offers support for academics in many forms, and I have just participated in one of their 14-day writing challenges. The goal was to incite us to write for at least 30 minutes a day, so that we could see that even a minimal amount of work could lead to large accomplishments after two weeks. However, I had already developed these habits much earlier.

Beginning with my research year in Paris, when my days were no longer structured by seminars and I had satisfied all departmental requirements before the dissertation defense, I honed specific strategies to define goals and accomplish them:

  1. Collaboration: While writing a dissertation is individual work, writing with others makes a huge difference. I try to schedule regular writing sessions with fellow scholars no matter where I happen to be. Working on individual projects together is not only good for mental health, but also allows us all to be more productive.
  2. Clear goals: The best part of the challenge was that it asked us to define specific writing goals at the beginning of each week. I took a very specific approach, breaking up larger projects into smaller chunks that I knew I could accomplish on specific days. In fact, I was able to finish this entire website in those two weeks, as well as almost completing my chapter 2 chapter draft! For defining goals, I have found that the “pomotodo” app on my phone is a comprehensive to-do list combined with a timer. I found that dividing my work into different tasks and measuring how much time I spent on each helped me understand my overall process.
  3. Habit forming: Although I already wrote for far more than 30 minutes a day before this challenge, habit forming is key to real productivity. One of the best ways I found to build the habit was the mental jump from evaluating my productivity in terms of actual production. Once I began to count reading books, spending time in archives, going to museum exhibitions, watching documentaries — essentially anything remotely related to my work — as my work itself, I was already on my way to being more productive. I also began to understand my own process more, what times I write the most effectively and what times I would be better off reading and taking notes. I can always be getting some sort of work done, but that work is better if I prioritize well.

Digital OuLiPo: Unexpected Results

The Structure

The purpose of my 5th annex was to create an interactive table of contents that could simultaneously house both the text of Calvino’s Le città invisibili (in the original Italian and English translation) and academic work on the novel that deals with each of the individual cities. Since there is so much academic criticism on this text that covers a variety of topics and spans multiple disciplines (like the novel itself), I wanted to create a rigorous structure in which I could house this criticism along with relevant source texts that Calvino used in the composition. As Calvino’s text is meticulously ordered according to a geometrical structure indicated by the table of contents, I thought this would be an appropriate way to organize this information.

The table of contents of Le città invisibili gives way to the following parallelogram (Source):


The tool I used to create this interactive table of contents was TinderBox, which produced a hyptertext from Calvino’s novel structure (which could already be considered a hypertext in many respects). TinderBox allowed me to reproduce this structure, but with the text inside each box. Now, a reader can navigate throughout the novel in a linear fashion or a nonlinear one (I indicate possible paths with arrows), in Italian or English (I included the text in both languages).

While pondering how to collect the data for the next level — scholarly work on Invisible Cities as well as source documents — I realized that this was the exact scholarly research that I am already doing for my dissertation. Accomplishing this research, while important for my dissertation, is therefore outside of the scope of this digital humanities project.

Through this project, I have gained a great appreciation for TinderBox as a note-taking tool, and I will continue to use this unique digital space for my own personal use. This new way to organize information is an unexpected result of my digital humanities. However, as I will not be able to make this annex publicly available (as it contains numerous documents that are still under copyright), I have decided to drop it from my project.