Guest Post, Part 1: Are Archives Graduate Programs Adequately Preparing Students for Publishing, Researching, and Writing in the Profession?

Thank you to Joshua Zimmerman, lecturer at San Jose State University’s iSchool, for this fantastic post. His in-depth perspective is in 2 posts and I encourage everyone to read it thoroughly. Josh has great strategies to help emerging professionals prepare for and contribute to the intellectual discourse of archival scholarship. (Read Part 2)

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Are archives graduate program adequately preparing students for the profession? As an adjunct lecturer in the Masters of Archives and Records Administration (MARA) online master’s degree program in San José State University’s iSchool, this is a question that I’m constantly asking myself as I hear from students and other professionals. For readers of this blog, perhaps a more relevant but related question would be: are archives graduate programs adequately preparing students for publishing, researching, and writing in the profession? As the one responsible for teaching MARA 285 Research Methods in Records Management and Archival Science, I’m extremely concerned with this question. I thought that readers might be interested in how our research and publishing culture is being taught in one small corner of the profession.

As you read this, I want you to think back to how you were introduced to the norms of researching and publishing in our profession? Were these skills taught in your graduate program, did you already have them, or did you have to pick them up later? Finally, what do you wish you would have learned about writing, researching, and publishing in the archives profession as a graduate student? Keep the answers to these questions in mind as you read below. I’d love to know how MARA 285 stacks up to your experiences, good or bad.

Assignments and Assignment Format

The overall structure and framework of MARA 285 is one that I inherited from a colleague, Jason Kaltenbacher who is also an adjunct professor in the MARA program. While my lectures significantly differ from his, I’ve kept the assignments and overall structure basically the same. Other research courses in the iSchool (and in other MLIS programs), I have found, employ a similar assignment format. I ask students to complete an annotated bibliography, topic proposal, literature review, and final proposal. These assignments build on each other and help students complete the steps in putting together both a formal proposal and the framework of a major research project. Since the internet survey has become the preferred data gathering tool of the profession, I also ask them to complete a group survey project where they develop a short internet survey, cover letter, and rationale statement for each question. 

Social Science Focus

When I first took this course on and looked at the assignments and overall structure, I felt that I wanted to radically change the end project to a publishable article. This would be immediately usable to students as they could submit it to journals and present it elsewhere at conferences or on professional or personal blogs. Within the last couple years, my alma mater (Western Washington University) changed their MA thesis requirement to a much smaller publishable article which, I think, seeks to address this aim. Yet, after using the old proposal assignment structure that I inherited for two years, I’ve completely changed my tune.

I discovered just how important it was to snap students out of what I call the “term paper mentality,” an assignment format that most students are particularly used to and, as I’ve discovered, often revert to if given the chance. This course structure offers students the chance to approach a topic systematically, more like a project than a paper. Instead of writing a term paper and trying to wrap up all the loose ends up by the end of the semester, the objective is only to build the structure in order to execute it after the course concludes. This means, that they design the research, but they stop short of sending out the survey, conducting the field work, or digging into records in an archives. I feel that this format ties in better with the assigned textbook chapters that break down different aspects or approaches to research. It also forces students to step back and formalize what they are doing and more importantly, how they plan on doing it. They are asked to put together a research schedule and justify why they are qualified to conduct this research as part of the final proposal.

Challenges, Problems, and Issues

One problem that I encountered during the first year concerned appropriate topic choices. Other courses in the MARA program such as Enterprise Content Management and Digital Preservation or Management of Records and Archival Institutions have clearly defined topic limits. These are built into the course. For instance, you probably can’t write a term paper on medieval recordkeeping for the Enterprise Content Management and Digital Preservation class.

MARA 285, however, is wide almost wide open as far as potential research topics go. That medieval recordkeeping topic is fair game in MARA 285. While there are endless opportunities for topics, there are nevertheless some limitations. I ask that students choose a topic related to the archives, RIM, or library science fields. I encourage students to bring in their interests and give it a records twist. For instance, last year, one military historian in the class designed a project around military recordkeeping. Though the course is taught from a social science perspective, I want students to specifically engage the professional literature of archives and RIM. This year, in addition to some clarifying language and a preemptory blog post on the MARA program website, I’ve added the typology of archives research topics by Couture and Ducharme (1). This typology spells out all the flavors of research conducted in the archives profession (and by extension, RIM). This seemed to have helped students frame their research within the profession.

Another problem that occurred this year was students’ lack of confidence in their professional experience. Unfortunately, due to scheduling, some students take this class as a first year student and in their first semester. To those working in the profession, this might not be a big issue, but for someone who is brand new to the profession, this course might be a bit daunting because it asks students to choose a topic in the profession and develop it over the course of the semester. As mentioned above, I provide guidance on choosing topics in the lecture, but especially for the literature review which asks students to isolate the major literature on their particular topic, this has been stressful or at least it has been related to me as such. This is sometimes daunting for seasoned archivists, let alone first year students. 

Incorporating Perspectives

In addition to the assignments and readings mentioned above, I’ve added a video series called Research in the Wild. In it, the class gets to hear about the research and writing process from other archivists and records managers. I launched it late in the course in 2015 with a few videos, mostly 5-10 minutes. This year, I have a video for nearly each module and hopefully a lot more for next year. Video submissions have addressed specific project-related research challenges as well as more broadly, research agendas, theses, the editing process, differences in publishing in and out of school, and Fulbright Scholarship research among others. In my own archival program, I enjoyed hearing from guest lecturers and talking with archivists and RMs on field trips and it’s these experiences that I’ve tried to recreate. I felt a bit uncomfortable asking archivists and records managers to do free work for me, so I decided to donate to SAA’s Mosaic Scholarship on behalf of those who submit videos. If you’d like to submit a video for next year or know someone who might, please let me know (zimmerj6@gmail.com). From some early feedback from students this year, I’ve learned that the writing process might be more important than I initially thought. So as a result, I’ll be seeking archivists and RIMs who want to talk about this aspect of the profession.

When is a Chapter Done?

I officially submitted my first chapter (yay!). I have chunks written for all the chapters, but am now focusing on finishing individual chapters rather than writing bits and pieces throughout.

Finishing a chapter is a challenge, because how do I know when it’s actually done? It’s easy to keep tweaking, to check “just one” more article or book, and to wordsmith every sentence. There are definitely parts that I don’t consider quite done, but at this point I need feedback before I finalize. My rationale is that I don’t want to spend extensive time on a certain section if it will be removed or I need to take it in another direction.

This is a different process from writing an article, which needs to be very solid before submission (though editing and feedback will occur). The AFS series editor provides feedback throughout the whole book process, which is extremely helpful. I included notes and questions about my thought process, as well as specific parts I want advice. As I wrote previously, writing and feedback is a conversation. An editor’s review raises points I didn’t consider, and answers the questions I have.

There’s no particular way to know when a chapter is done. Truly, no chapter will be officially done until the book goes to press. Right now, it’s when what I’m doing is more tweaking and refining, instead of writing. While I want the language to be professional and clear, at some point a copyeditor will refine the text for consistency and to meet SAA’s standards. I strive to achieve those standards, but I also recognize that a fresh review will fix what I overlook. Plus, setting it aside for a while will give me a new perspective when I receive feedback and go to revise it.

It is a good feeling to officially have one chapter done, though I have several to go. It’s progress, and motivation to move on to the next chapter. Writing a book is a slow and long process, but it’s definitely moving along.

Which Comes First, Research or Writing?

As I write the reference book, I continually have the conundrum compared to the which came first, the chicken or the egg. In this case, it’s the research or the writing.

Reference and access is a large part of my daily duties, as with many archivists. It comes naturally to me, and I have my routine to provide good reference and customer service. When I agreed to write this book I thought “Great! I get to write about what I do every day.” Because reference is one of my favorite parts of my job, I initially thought it would be easy. Not that writing an entire book is easy, but I already have solid knowledge about reference and access.

What I’ve discovered, not completely unsurprisingly, is that it’s easy to write about what my staff and I do every day, but that doesn’t mean it encompasses all aspects of reference and access. I knew that I’d do extensive research to make sure I address all types of institutions, practices, policies, history, context, etc. The research is crucial also to provide resources to archivists who want to learn more about specific aspects, as well as demonstrate developments and foundations of reference.

On the one hand, I can easily make notes and outlines about what each book section/topic needs, but on the other hand I need to read what is the vast amount of literature out there for citations. So I find myself again in the same place as when I wrote my dissertation – where to stop researching and write, or do I just write and fill in with research.

Truly, it’s best to go back and forth; do some research and write about it, then write about your ideas and find the research to go with it. I love doing research. Searching through databases, reading footnotes to find more literature, exploring the non-archival writing to see how others use/view archives, and reading what I find. I especially love learning – how reference evolved through history, how different institutions provide services, ideas for outreach, and I even enjoy reading policy manuals. Some of this is not just for the book but also how I can improve and evolve services at my own institution.

I really enjoy writing as well, but that of course is much harder. Sometimes the thoughts are there but don’t come out. When I’m on a good writing spree, I just let the thoughts flow. It can be harder to find literature to justify what I wrote, but I also do not need a citation for every single sentence or idea. I know I have something to say, and I will say it so that readers can use, interpret, and reconfigure the content to best serve their needs.

I see this struggle in many people that I talk to and article submissions I read: too much research without enough analysis or interpretation. We are all adept and finding information, so we don’t need just the references, but why that literature matters. In the case of this book, I don’t need to make an argument for reference and access, but instead provide a wide array of concepts, theories, policies, and practices so anyone who reads the book is able to find something that will help with their job or possibly for future scholarship.

So, there is no one solution of which to do first – research or writing. But it is important to not get too caught up in the research so that the writing doesn’t happen. Currently, I’m at a point where I need to step away from the research for a while and just write. I have a lot of notes, quotes, and so far 263 citations in 71 pages. Likely, some of those will be removed, combined, or moved to “works consulted,” and I want to make sure they don’t disrupt the reading. Writing should reflect the author’s thoughts and ideas, and the research is to enhance them and provide further reading. So here goes!

Writing Progress

I recently received feedback on my reference and access book draft. A previous post describes my writing process, and of course several times I’ve mentioned the importance of feedback. The notes I received are extremely helpful, as there are thoughts, questions, and suggestions that never crossed my mind but once I read them, make perfect sense.

Naturally, some are easy fixes and some require more thought and/or research. As a pretty scattered writer, meaning I jump from section to section, I expect that makes it difficult for the reader. I think frequently about the book’s organization. The aspects of reference and access overlap continually, and at times it’s difficult to sort out which points should go where. I also make a lot of notes about ideas and thoughts, and even questions about what should be included, what requires more in-depth discussion versus making a reference and referring to other literature.

Feedback is not a reader stating do-this or do-that and the writer complying. It’s a conversation about how to develop, organize, expand, eliminate, cite, reference, discuss, and write. That conversation leads to the writer achieving a better understanding on how the text is read and interpreted, as well as the reader gaining a better understanding of the writer’s goals and thought processes.

For me, this conversation increases my motivation. Notes and feedback provide clarity in my mind about how to proceed and if I’m on the right track. I’ve spent the past few days reviewing the comments, rewriting, reorganizing, and rethinking. And all this has now led to a milestone – 25,000 words (about 65 pages). While I still have a long way to go, I see what I’ve accomplished so far.

And writing is about accomplishments: the first page, first chapter, first draft, first feedback, etc. So as you write, don’t just think about where you need to go, think about what you already achieved.

How I Write

I have several posts that address writing. The most important point is to write, write, write. So how to write? There is, of course, no one answer. Everyone has different methods, discipline, style, etc. Each person must decide what works best for him/her.

Writing is a process. One needs to figure out what process works best for him/her. MIT has a good outline of the process, as does the Purdue OWL, and here’s a fun little video. The process is difficult, time-consuming, and challenging. But it’s also rewarding, confidence-building, and achievable.

My process, if it can be called that, is to write in a scattered way. Meaning, I’ll spend some time writing about reference interviews, the next day perhaps I’ll write about ethics, then the next day I’ll write about research methods. There isn’t necessarily a rhyme or reason, but that works for me. Some authors succeed at writing in a linear fashion, but I learned a long time ago that does not work for me and only causes stress and angst. I succeed more at jumping around to different topics.

Part of why this happens is that I’ll be reading a book about all aspects of reference and I want to make notes in different sections and chapters of my book. I’ll jump around so I don’t lose or forget those thoughts. It’s more important for me to get ideas and thoughts down, even if they are a bit jumbled, so that I can go back and revise it into coherence.

One hurdle I overcame while writing my dissertation was to not attempt perfect writing (see above resources). At first, I got stuck on trying to make a sentence perfect and I spent too much time on that sentence/paragraph that I lost thoughts and ideas. Most of the writing process is actually editing and revising, so struggling at the beginning to be perfect causes frustration and stress. The more one writes, the better it will become over time. There are many variations of the quote “There’s no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting.” Plus, an editor will always change, edit, suggest, and revise.

To someone else reading it, my writing appears very jumbled. Sometimes I write full sentences, but I also write thoughts, ideas, questions, notes, and quotes. When reading, I’ll find a good quote, copy and cite it. Later, I’ll decide which quotes are appropriate in full, which can be combined, which can be deleted, which should be a footnote mention only, and which I’ll revise into my own words (keeping proper citations, of course).

Much of my early drafts are notes: include this idea, don’t forget to talk about that, brief outlines, asking myself questions, and lists of topics. It’s more important to me to get those thoughts down than to flush out every idea. I find it much easier to write through revision than try to achieve complete and coherent writing at the beginning.

Other times, I’ll just write. One tip I learned while writing my dissertation was to cover my monitor so I couldn’t see my spelling and grammatical mistakes. I did this in 15 minute chunks over many days. This was a great help to get me started and to just get the ideas written. Over time, I no longer cover my monitor but I still use that tactic. It’s gratifying to do this because I see the page numbers continue to increase, which makes me more motivated to continue.

I can’t emphasize enough to dispel the idea of writing perfectly. Just Google “there’s no such thing as perfect writing” and you will see that every author abides by it. Overcoming that obstacle takes time, but is most liberating. So go forth and write!

Identity Crisis: Archivist vs. Historian

When I started library school I knew I wanted to be an archivist. I went on to get a PhD because it would complement my library degree. Also, I scoured job postings while in school and saw that often the head/director level required or preferred a second advanced degree or a PhD. My PhD is in Modern History and Literature, with an emphasis on history. I didn’t plan to be a historian, I only wanted to be an archivist, but I ended up being both.

My writing as an archivist consists of one peer-reviewed article, several in Archival Outlook, book reviews, finding aids, blog posts, and news updates for my campus. My writing as a historian consists of one peer-review article and a dissertation. I find that while writing a book, it’s the historian in me that currently leads my writing. Yet, I am not writing a history book.

There are many benefits to this, much of it technical: using passive voice as an exception rather than a rule, citing (overciting?) everything, mostly clear and concise writing. That’s not to say that I won’t need editing help or that I write perfectly, but I learned much when I went through the writing wringer with my dissertation committee.

One of the challenges I keep facing while writing the reference and access book is the desire to prove everything. I don’t need to “prove” that reference and access are needed – we all know it, believe it, and live it. While of course I cite my sources, the purpose of this book is to provide both broad and in-depth theories and practices about reference and access. I want to include a wide range of resources, both for evidence and further reading.

What I frequently catch myself doing, however, is the I-need-to-find-as-many-sources-as-possible-to-prove-this-thought/idea/theory/practice/history. I finished my dissertation five years ago and I’m a bit surprised how this impulse lingers. As anyone who wrote a dissertation or thesis can attest to, there is a compulsion fueled by committee expectations to be overly thorough so they believe you know what you’re writing about. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be very time-consuming and often unnecessary.

I am learning much as I write this book: about my writing style, time management, and what historian habits I need to break. What I find most interesting is deciding what archivists need to know about reference and access. It’s impossible to write about everything, though I’ll do my best to come close. There are times where the in-depth analysis is necessary, and others where it’s a mention with suggestions with further reading. The latter contributes to my I-need-to-find-as-many-sources-as-possible-to-prove-this-thought/idea/theory/practice/history. But really, it is not my responsibility to point out every single resource available on the topic. Instead, I raise the topic and point to a few key resources and, if appropriate, even mention that there is much written about a topic.

I do have to pare down some of what I already wrote, but it’s easier to have too much then reduce instead of the other way around. Plus, I really enjoy reading the voluminous amounts of literature that I never read before. It will be hard to not include every single book or article I look at, but I hope what I do include entices interest to delve further.