Thursday, December 28, 2017

Tuchman on the Mechanics of Research

Barbara Tuchman in Practicing History (1982) explains her methods of research. Index cards play an important part in her approach:
I take notes on four-by-six index cards, reminding myself about once an hour of a rule I read long ago in a research manual, 'Never write on the back of anything.' Since copying is a chore and a bore, use of the cards, the smaller the better, forces one to extract the strictly relevant, to distill from the very beginning, to pass the material through the grinder of one's own mind, so to speak. Eventually, as the cards fall into groups according to subject or person or chronological sequence, the pattern of my story will emerge. Besides, they are convenient, as they can be filed in a shoe box and carried around in a pocketbook. When ready to write I need only to take along a packet of them, representing and chapter, and I am equipped to work anywhere, whereas if one writes surrounded by a pile of books, one is tied to a single place, and furthermore likely to be too much influenced by other authorities.
The limitations of physical index cards she lists as advantages do not exist for electronic index cards. You cannot store them in shoe boxes, you cannot carry them around in your pockets, and you are not limited by the size of the cards. But I don't think the lack of these limitations makes the approach to store research in discrete bits of information any the less important. It just means that you have to use even more self-control. Don't let your topics or records increase to unwieldy length and summarize rather than quote (unless you really want the verbatim record).

Friday, December 8, 2017

William Gass on Writing and Rewriting

William Gass died on December 6, 2017 at the age of 93. I was drawn to him (or his work) for all the wrong reasons, at least at the beginning. Like him, I taught at Purdue in the Philosophy Department for many years. Like him, I ultimately moved elsewhere. He taught "Greek Philosophy," I taught "German Philosophy with special emphasis on Kant." He became I writer, I didn't. But I really appreciate his essays, and I wish I could write the way he does [did].

Gass had to say the following about Purdue: "I was at Purdue [1955-1969], which was a good school if you were in engineering or things of that sort. It had a really weak humanities group. But by the time I left Purdue, there was tons of money, because of Sputnik, coming into the university for a period of time. We had a graduate program, but when I came to Purdue it was just two other guys, and the department was called “History, Government, and Philosophy.” I mean, it was just nothing. And when I left, it was a Ph.D. program. So it was lucky that it was an expanding program." So much for Gass. I was myself hired by Purdue in 1983. It was—and is—still a good school "if you are in engineering." Philosophy was—and is—a relatively strong department in the Humanities.

About his writing process he said: "Something gets on paper, and then it gets revised, and then it gets revised, and then it gets revised. And then I’m finally at the end." That also resonates with me, though I find it hard to determine when I am "at the end."

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Foucault on Index Cards

There is a remark by Foucault on index cards that escaped me, even though I came across it several times. The Atlantic article referred I called attention to in the last post reminded me. Apparently, Foucault "ironically" remarked that the “appearance of the index card and the constitution of the human sciences: another invention little celebrated by historians.” in Discipline and Punish. It is not much of a remark—more like a throwaway line. It's true but trite, even though this book review claims that Foucault's "ironic remark" has been moot by Markus Krajewski's on work on index cards.

In researching whether there was anything more substantial in Foucault's attention to index cards, I came across this passage in a book:
Foucault had [sic] often been accused by critics of being cavalier in his research. The French historian Jacques LĂ©onard asks in relation to Discipline and Punish for example: When a philosopher engages with historians, they wonder ... whether he is a sufficiently erudite scholar to dare to talk this way: does he have enough index cards, are they comprehensive, well-catalogued? Are his files as thick as our own?
The author obviously thinks they are. I am less sure, but I would like to know more about whether Foucault used index cards, and if so, how?

On the History of the Index Card in the Atlantic

How the Index Card Cataloged the World. The claim is that "Carl Linnaeus, the father of biological taxonomy, also had a hand in inventing this tool for categorizing anything." It's interesting, but there is not much that is new in the article. It perpetuates false claims. See also History of the Index Card.