Tuesday, February 2, 2010


One of the most difficult things about doing a PhD, I think, is marshalling information. There is just so much of it. I was becoming slightly concerned about becoming lost in a sea of words and wondering why it was like wrestling a jelly, when it occurred to me that my first chapter (now nearly complete) is, even as it stands, more words than my entire undergraduate dissertation and a third of the length of my MA thesis. Then I didn't feel quite so bad about it! There is a lot of info to handle and I think it behoves one to get a grip of it in the early stages. As my supervisor said to me "It's rather difficult to organise oneself retrospectively".
One of my main problems is the uniformity of digital information. I am a big fan of notebooks and my most important vade mecum is my large Moleskine soft-back academic diary. It's a wonderful, familiar, tactile object. In here I write all my meetings, references, quotes and ideas. Listening to the radio the other day, I was intrigued to hear my views backed up completely: a woman talking of her devotion to writing stuff down long-hand echoed my sentiment that she could picture in a jotter where she'd committed stuff to writing, visualising the side of the page used, the colour of pen and even the position on the page. Me too, I thought!

And that is the problem I have with digital information: it all looks the same!

When I download a PDF and mark it up or highlight text, I have an image in my head of both the marking up and content. This simply doesn't happen, even when using Adobe's finest editing tools. True, the computer stuff is neater, but it is so anodyne and I haven't had any physical interaction with the text, which appears to be necessary in my case if I am to remember it.

I am also a somewhat creeped out by the fact that digital words no longer 'exist' once they're gone from the screen. Why that should worry me, I just don't know.
I had a bit of an epiphany when I read an article (in the Times, I think) about a guy who was learning Russian and had, at the behest of his tutor, started to use index cards as aides memoires for conjugations and vocabulary, and carried them about with him. I largely abandoned the idea of index cards after my undergrad years, when my work became more diverse than just language, but I am seriously thinking of reviving their use in my studies. There's something about the act of writing that opens pathways in the brain, certainly in my brain, that is not replicated by using a keyboard or mouse.
Sure, I would not even attempt writing my thesis out long-hand - thank God for cut and paste!
I love my computer for being a portal to the world, and I think my smart phone is great, but give me a pen and paper for the stuff that I really want to remember.

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