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.

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.

Dealing with Writer’s Block

When I started this blog my goal was to post at least once a week (other than CFPs and news about publications). The last few weeks have been quiet, as I’ve had writer’s block with my book, which affected this blog. Thankfully, I’m in better writing and researching habits again.

I have no evidence, but I expect that all writers are blocked at times. For me, there are different levels of writer’s block. While writing my dissertation, sometimes I’d turn on my laptop, sit down, and suddenly several minutes would go by before I realized that I could not even focus on the screen. That type of block was more fatigue than anything, and I’d shut down my laptop and not write that day. The next day I’d try again and it would be fine.

Another type is just needing short breaks to process and think. At those times, I’ll write a little bit, take a short break, then write more, take a break, etc. Often, not writing but thinking about what to write helped sort my ideas into something more coherent, therefore easier to write about.

Then there’s the major writer’s block, which is what I just went through. It encompasses frustration, insecurity, lack of focus, wondering if I’m going in the right direction, and a whole host of mostly emotional obstructions that inhibit writing. I ask myself numerous questions: is this I topic I should address? will the details be helpful or too much? how do I make a dry topic interesting? will this information be outdated sooner rather than later?

What helped me move past this is talking out some very specific questions with the series editor. I can’t emphasize enough how immensely helpful it was to have a conversation where I voiced my concerns and talked through the depth and direction of specific topics and sections. As I wrote in an earlier post, it’s very easy to go down the research rabbit hole. I truly enjoy learning and reading about archives, but not everything I read about reference and access needs to go in the reference and access book. I’m getting better at deciding what needs to be addressed in-depth, and what can be mentioned and then suggest further resources.

I expect that in the next year while I write the book, I will continue to have bouts of writer’s block. Hopefully, it will happen less and less or not last long. Just know, that you are not alone when you struggle with writing and while there are many ways to handle it, one of the best is to talk it through with a friend, colleague, family, or whomever. It truly helps.

Learn Everything Pt. 2: Review a Journal or Article!

I’ve been thinking more about the challenges we all face in keeping up with scholarly literature. This came up on the SNAP Twitter chat and I wrote more about it a couple weeks ago. Eira Tansey has a great calendar she uses (which she graciously allowed me to add here).

We all know it’s overwhelming to know where to start. Do you start with the latest issue of American Archivist? Read that Archival Issues that’s been sitting on your desk for four years? Look at the plethora of online journals? Or find articles about a certain topic of interest?

As I thought about this, it emphasized a gap: there are few reviews of journals or articles, the focus is more on books, exhibits, software, or other tools. The American Archivist reviews portal has a review of the Provenance Advocacy issue, and I did a profile of VIEW. After I wrote that post, I intended to continue to feature journals (besides CFP or new issues/articles). But it’s a lot for one person to do.

So here’s my proposal: I’d like anyone interested to contribute to this blog by reviewing articles and/or journals. You can write as many as you want, as often as you want. You choose what you want to write about and I’ll post it. All along, I’ve wanted this blog to have multiple contributors and I’ve had a few guest posts (for which I’m grateful for). Think about it: it encourages you to read the literature AND gives you an opportunity to write!

I created a sign-up sheet to avoid overlap. Feel free to add anything. Know that it won’t be my intention to moderate what you write (though I’ll gladly offer feedback if you want it). For all the guest posts so far, I haven’t changed a word. I believe it’s important to have multiple voices and perspectives, so I see my role as only posting what you write.

I hope you like this idea and I especially hope to hear from you!

Guest Post: Developing a Research Agenda

thank you Eira Tansey for your contribution!

When I was on the academic archivist job market a few years ago, I interviewed at one institution where I was warned during lunch to have a very narrowly focused answer to the dean’s inevitable question about my research agenda. I was strongly advised to make it clear that I had a tightly-defined research agenda, that my research interests weren’t all over the place, and that I was aiming for high-profile titles in which to publish my work. The only problem was that at the time I was searching for my first professional position, and as a paraprofessional I had only just started dipping my toe into publishing — all I had in print with a chapter in Kate Theimer’s book on description. Furthermore, my graduate program did not heavily emphasize or acculturate students into pursuing publishing opportunities. I don’t recall how I answered the question during my meeting with the dean (however I do remember his bone-crushing handshake!), but the broader question of “What is my research agenda?” is a question where my answers are rapidly evolving.

I lucked out and ended up at an institution that is a far better fit than the previously-mentioned one for a multitude of reasons. At my institution, librarians have faculty status and we have multiple paths to tenure (see our criteria: http://www.uc.edu/content/dam/uc/libraryfaculty/docs/criteria2005.pdf). Some library faculty choose to build their tenure case (and preceding reappointment and promotion applications) around publications, others choose different routes. Since I started two years ago, I have prioritized building up my record around “publishing or creative works.” Unlike some institutions that clearly articulate how many articles are required for a successful tenure bid, or specifications on journal rankings, our criteria is very open-ended. There are pros and cons to this. On the one hand, it allows generous flexibility in choosing experimental publishing outlets (new interdisciplinary open-access title with funky journal design layouts? sure, why not!). On the other hand, because we don’t have clear guidelines, there are fewer objective benchmarks to be evaluated against.

I should pause here to describe what I mean when I say a “research agenda.” I don’t believe you have to have faculty status, professional status, or even a full-time job working in archives to have a research agenda. You don’t have to know statistical methods or have grant funding (although obviously the more you have of both, the more you can do!). But you do have to have an idea worth exploring, more than some superficial things to say about it, and the ability to eventually sit down, tune out distractions, and write. As far as I can discern, a “research agenda” is a broad scope of work in various stages across one’s career that has interconnecting intellectual tissue underneath what might look like many unrelated interests. When I think of well-known archivists and imagine their research agendas, I think of how certain archivists are associated with certain areas of archival theory and practice (e.g., Rand Jimerson on archives and social justice, Terry Cook and Helen Samuels with appraisal, Mark Greene with processing and collection development, etc).

When I first started getting serious about committing to professional writing, I chafed against the idea of a research agenda. It seemed so restrictive, and I have so many boundless interests, why not move from topic to topic, even if they’re completely unrelated? But as I’ve accrued some publications on my CV, I’m beginning to see the wisdom of targeting my focus towards a certain direction for the foreseeable future. To contribute something worth publishing, one should be familiar with the literature written on that subject. Depending on the topic, this could mean a lot of writing — and then you have to figure out where your contribution fits into that landscape. It is a lot of work to review literature on an existing subject (https://archivespublishing.wordpress.com/2016/02/02/how-do-i-learn-everything/), and I’m beginning to see one of the greatest arguments for having a focused research agenda: you don’t have to reacquaint yourself with a whole new body of knowledge every time you begin a new project.

I should note here that I think this process of writing about a bunch of different topics, and then finding one’s calling towards a specific area is fairly common. Certainly, it echoes the many college students who have undeclared majors for a long time, or how many young professionals switch career fields. For fun, I looked at the CVs of some well-known archivists, and you can certainly see how over time, their output begins to coalesce around a few main topics (for example, Mark Greene http://www.uwyo.edu/ahc/_files/vitas/m-greene-vita.pdf).

Right now I’m feeling the call to explore the intersection of archives, the environment, and climate change. I feel compelled to build a research agenda around this in a way I haven’t felt about other topics. This is occurring while my other “scattered focus” writing projects are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I have a whole range of issues I still care about (privacy! erasure and marginalization of archival labor! everything ever to do with appraisal! public records laws!), and every day I think things like “What we really need is a comparative study of unionization among archivists! WHY ISN’T ANYONE WRITING ABOUT THIS? I WANT TO READ ABOUT IT! Should I work on this?!?!?!” so I’m at a juncture where I feel a little twinge of sadness at the idea of not trying to write about everything unexplored. It doesn’t help that I have a “future ideas to pursue” list of dozens of half-baked ideas I add to on a semi-regular basis. Mostly I just try to be vocal about the topics I think are unexplored within archives-land and trust that someone, at some point, will feel inspired to write all the articles I know I could never manage on my own, but that I so desperately want to read.

How have you decided what to write about? Do you “write what you want to read”? Do you enter the conversation like a game of double dutch (credit for this to Jarrett Drake: https://snaproundtable.wordpress.com/2015/12/17/on-the-job-training-publishing/)? Has your research focus shifted as you grow as a writer?

SNAP Twitter Chat about Publishing

Last week I participated in a SNAP Twitter chat (#snaprt, @SNAP_Roundtable). I’ve participated before, but it’s been a while. SNAP does a great job of hosting the chats and having prepared questions. There aren’t many opportunities for such interaction to discuss publishing and I appreciate that this topic comes up every so often for discussion. Most of the conversations I have are one-on-one and occasionally speaking to groups. I’m always happy to participate in these discussions, as are others involved in publishing. From my perspective, I don’t always know who wants these conversations (beyond SNAP) so I encourage others to just ask! I’ve worked hard to make myself accessible, but I know that other editors, authors, or others involved in publishing will also participate. So don’t be afraid to ask.

There’s always so much that comes up during these chats. I won’t be able to recap everything, but I want to touch on a few of the topics. I suspect many people outside of SNAP have the same questions so I hope you find this helpful.

How do I know what’s interesting to others?; it’s already been done. Understandably, when one is new to the profession it is hard to know what to write about and whether others will want to read it. It takes time to catch up on where scholarship is. I’ve encouraged people to write about their interests or where they see gaps. No one knows every article or book written, and that’s where a good editor comes in. Many submissions to Provenance cited scholarship I didn’t know about. However, often I and the peer-reviewers recommend additional articles if we believe it necessary. No matter if you are new or seasoned, there is the question whether others will find it interesting. So, talk to your peers, coworkers, friends, colleagues, and ask. Or email an editor and ask. Pick a topic, read a few articles, and think about it. Then write and submit. The only way you will know for sure is if you submit and accept the feedback. There’s been a bunch of new journal issues (just browse the most recent posts) so start there. Read more in a previous post.Others know so much more and I don’t want to BS. That sentiment is appreciated. The longer I was an editor, the easier it was to spot a graduate course paper submission. I don’t say that as a bad thing, because grad school is about generating and discussing ideas, learning about the profession, and engaging with scholarship. When I was writing my dissertation, I frequently felt what most grad students do – that I’ll look dumb if I forget that one book, that one article, where my committee would think “How could she not know about that?” But you know what, that seldom happens. If you do appropriate research, you become the expert and you’ll find the resources. Don’t try to read every word of everything; start by reading book reviews and abstracts. Chances are, you’ll miss something and a good editor will provide it for you. And absolutely don’t BS. As long as you can provide evidence for your argument, are clear and articulate, don’t use a lot of colloquialisms, and are logical, you’re more than halfway there. The best way to learn as much as others know is through writing and research. How do you think they became experts?

Turning a conference presentation into an article. Do it! As you prepare for a presentation, keep track of your sources, write an article alongside your presentation. But please, don’t submit only the text of your presentation. Remember, writing for publication is different from reading your ideas in front of an audience. Several times, I followed up with conference presenters and suggest they submit to Provenance. So think about it before you present and you can have a solid draft or full article for submission.

Revise and resubmit is hard. Yes, and honestly, it seldom gets easier. I did write a post about this a while ago. And this question reminded me that I meant to write more (hence the part 1 of many), so I will get back to that at some point. But if any of you want to share your experiences, whether good or bad, I welcome all perspectives and guest posts. And, as noted also below, a blog post is a great way to start writing.

Write to non-archivists. This part was particularly interesting to me. We are not limited to writing to each other. Yes, that strengthens our profession and engages each other. But what about librarians, users, historians, and others? Bringing non-archivists into our writing sphere will help us understand our users more as well as raise awareness of the archival profession. Do you collaborate with donors, faculty, users, or anyone else you can co-author with? What about asking researchers to write about their experience? When I taught classes, I always try to find non-archivist perspectives. One article I used multiple times was Joan Zenzen’s “Administrative Histories: Writing about Fort Stanwix National Monument” (sorry, I wish it was open access but is available through JSTOR or request through interlibrary loan). And a excellent book is Kate Eichhorn’s Archival Turn in Feminism. Can’t help but enjoy a book written by someone who reveres archivists. In other words, think outside the box. Also, you are not limited to archives publications. Write for disciplinary journals, library journals, digital humanities journals, government resources, or whatever falls within the scope of your interests.

Some general tips:

  • don’t let your profession define what you write
  • book reviews and blogs are a great place to start
  • write with a publication in mind instead of squeezing it into requirements
  • find a writing group

It was a great conversation and lots of great ideas came up, both about writing and topics of interest. I also keep thinking about what else we need to do to continue these conversations. Don’t forget, I welcome suggestions for topics. I thank all of you for reading this blog but I see it as only one way to share experiences. So let’s keep the conversations going in whatever ways we can!