Documenting the Research Process: Keeping Track of Higher-Order Concerns

In a digital humanities project, the most important task is the one that is also the easiest to neglect: the documentation of the research process. Documenting the process is important because it preserves the hard-won insights, trials, and most importantly, errors, that enable another person to replicate or adapt the project. The documentation is especially critical in the process of writing up a project, which can take place months or even years later, after memories have faded and the details have been forgotten. 

For the purposes of discussion, we can distinguish between at least two levels of documentation: 1) the lower-order concerns that consist of granular details, data, and discrete steps in the process, and 2) the higher-order concerns about how the project hangs together and whether the lower-order concerns are contributing to the project’s overarching objectives. In the earlier phases of my project, lower-order concerns included keeping records of measurements for 3D models of Dead Sea scrolls, 3D printer settings for fabricating models of scroll fragments, or notes about what happened in each research session. There is a greater incentive to record lower-order concerns because failing to document this kind of data or steps in the process has serious and often immediate consequences that may disrupt or derail the project. 

The higher-order concerns, however, are easier to overlook. There are not the same consequences for failing to document higher-order concerns frequently since the overall perspective of the project may not change appreciably from session to session. When a task is not urgent, it is easier to neglect, defer, or forget. Consequently, it is tempting to keep diligent records of lower-order concerns in a research session without taking a step back to reflect on how the day’s work fits into the bigger picture. While short lapses in higher-order documentation may not be especially problematic, a long-term hiatus can have severe consequences, resulting in many of the issues that often plague DH projects: mission creep, loss of focus, muddy objectives, and mismanaged time and resources. The remedy is simple but not necessarily easy: researchers should write about the higher-order concerns regularly, even if it seems unnecessary at the moment.

Documenting higher-order concerns is a lot like keeping a personal journal. I can think of several times that I have firmly resolved to keep a journal only to slack off a few weeks later because I ran out of time, discipline, or interest in the subject matter. The same challenges apply to documenting higher-order concerns in research projects. Self-discipline is always more difficult when the consequences are not immediate.

I have tried several approaches for journaling higher-order concerns for my Sherman Centre projects, including physical notebooks, text file logs in my project directory, and maintaining a private blog. I found it was far too easy to neglect my journals because they were often out of sight and out of mind. I have, however, had much more success using personal journaling apps. In the past, I used the app Day One because it automatically attaches metadata about the time, date, location, and even weather conditions, which can serve as an aide-mémoire. It also supports tagging, which makes it easier to track concepts and issues across the entire journal. Perhaps its best and most annoying feature is its regular reminders to write. These notifications appear as a text box that prompts the user to write on the spot. Normally, I disable annoying app notifications, but in this case, it is helpful to be constantly reminded that the journal exists and to be prodded to take five minutes to type up a quick reflection. Despite the benefits of Day One, there is a subscription fee for syncing between devices and other features, which I found hard to justify financially. 

Lately, I have begun to use Agenda, a recent (as of March 2018) note-taking application for macOS and iOS that is well-suited for journaling. Like Day One, its primary framework is chronological, but entries are secondarily structured by projects, tags, and flags. One thing that Agenda does especially well is that it allows an entry to be linked to an iCal event, which facilitates higher-order reflection after research sessions. For example, when I book a 3D printing session on my calendar, I can write-up a reflection after the fact and link it to the event in the calendar. It even deposits a link to the Agenda entry in the note area of the iCal event. This makes it much simpler to retrace and cross-reference the details of the research process after the fact. Unlike Day One, Agenda is not based on a subscription model, so I find that it is a more sustainable option that syncs between devices without requiring a monthly fee. Syncing across devices is crucial because I find I am more willing to engage in reflection when I am on a bus or in a waiting room than when I am at home or on campus.

If I had to add one more feature to Agenda to make it better for higher-order reflection, I would include the delightfully annoying prompts to write on a regular basis. It is true that I could set up my own reminders, but having a text entry box invade the screen makes it more difficult to click past the notification and the sense of obligation that it symbolizes.

My point is not that every researcher should use the journaling app that I am using; rather, I am suggesting that it is worthwhile for researchers to keep searching for writing supports, tools, and strategies that will make documenting the higher-order concerns in their projects more frequent and reflexive. For my purposes, Agenda has been a convenient and sustainable alternative to Day One and the many other digital and analog alternatives that I have tried. This is not a breathless endorsement of Agenda—the app works particularly well with the other digital tools that I use to plan and document my research, but I recognize that what works for me, my project, and my devices does not work for every situation. Rather, I would recommend that researchers explore how to make the practice of documenting higher-order concerns as frequent, painless, and hard to ignore as possible.

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