Dear future CURI Student,
Warm Salutations! I hope this letter finds you well. If you are reading this, you either are a future CURI student or are interested in what I have to say to a future CURI student, so I will direct this letter to the former. First of all, take a moment and process what is happening – you have been offered the most fortunate opportunity to collaborate on a summer research project! Rightfully, you should celebrate. This will open so many doors for you and offer you a chance to hone your skills as a scholar and as a team member. It really is quite exciting! If you are not sold on the hullabaloo and wonder of such a project, worry not, ye of little faith. You will be convinced henceforth.
I would like to offer you some suggestions, if you do not find that too forward of me. To be quite honest, I am no expert in research techniques. However, I do have experience with a project of this nature, and have learned a few things along the way.
Understandably, it can seem overwhelming and intimidating at first. The sheer amount of data you may be working with might seem like a mountain, especially with this project that has spanned years. I urge you to pause and take a moment to look through the project (which will be shared with you via google docs at some point). Start with the big picture – what is our purpose or our goal for the summer? Then, work from the general information to the specific information. Do we have the literature we need to review? If so, where? Where have they entered data in the past? What are our methods? If you can acquaint yourself with these things before the project begins (and if you have time to do this), you should do so. Professor Epstein had a very detailed schedule with readings and map-making assignments for the first few weeks of the summer to get us started into things and to catch us up on the project (which was very helpful).
The next aspect of the project, once you find yourself a few weeks in, is to learn how to independently schedule your time and figure out how to best utilize your 8 hours a day (though if I’m to be quite honest, it usually comes to more than that). Though I struggle myself with following such a schedule, it works better to work in chunks of time and to arbitrarily set apart a time to take a (productive) break, rather than to enter data for a consecutive four hours. We must keep working, though. Since you alone are accountable for your work hours, it is essential that you discover how to heighten your productivity. One of my favorite quotes from Victor Hugo reads:
“Nothing is more dangerous than to stop working. It is a habit that can soon be lost, one that is easily neglected and hard to resume. A measure of day-dreaming is a a good thing, like a drug prudently used; it allays the sometimes virulent fever of the over-active mind, like a cool wind blowing through the brain to smooth the harshness of untrammeled thought; it bridges here and there the gaps, brings things into proportion and blunts the sharper angles. But too much submerges and drowns. Woe to the intellectual worker who allows himself to lapse wholly from positive thinking into day-dreaming. He thinks he can easily change back, and tells himself that it is all one. He is wrong! Thought is the work of the intellect, reverie is its self-indulgence. To substitute day-dreaming for thought is to confuse a poison with a source of nourishment.” (Les Miserables, Penguin Books, 741)
I apologize for the length of the quote, but our friend Mr. Hugo is quite the florid writer and takes quite some time to actually get to the point.
Alas, now comes the data entry aspect. Here is where I may impart some wisdom to you. There are many routes you can take, but what has worked for me is using the form that Sam created. It’s fast, easy to navigate, and lets me quickly enter all the data. I wish I had waited to use the form before I started cataloging all of the Ballets Russes data – it took me hours to catalog a little over 100 performances in a google spreadsheet – that now takes me about half an hour with the form (if I am in prime data-entry mode). Even though it can be tempting to jump right into the data entry and map making, it is very difficult to find all the data you will need so that your spreadsheets aren’t missing large pieces of information. I recommend looking over your resources (catalogs, programs, etc) and figuring out what you are missing. For example, do you need to find the venues of the premieres? Work on the data collection before the data entry if someone on the team is working out a new data entry form or a faster way to enter the data. That way, when the technology is ready for you, you will likewise be ready for it. Additionally, you then don’t have to go back and scan your spreadsheets for errors before you try to upload them to a new platform (a tedious and exhausting task). However, if there are no highly-anticipated and exciting new technological feats headed your way, it’s probably safe to start data entry as soon as you feel like you’ve collected enough data. Also, make sure to make note of the sources of your data. Write down either in a section of your journal or a google doc what archival sources you used – then cite them in the form. Our authority is only as sound as the sources we cite.
Another word of caution to this tale: Errare humanum est and all that. It would behoove you to double-check your data.
Finally, I would encourage you to take advantage of the incredible opportunities before you. Not only will you find a wonderful faculty mentor in Professor Epstein, but you will also find an exceptional team around you. This time is wonderful to work on collaborative skills along with your own personal development as a researcher. If you let it, this could be one of the most exciting summers of your life; I know it has been the most memorable of my own. There is something about the collective goals, the striving for knowledge, and the passion for history that makes this project truly all-encompassing. Your reality will change. You will no longer be a student at St. Olaf college performing research. You will be an active participant in creating how we see history, you will become a part of this 1920’s world we crave to have lived in, and you will feel thoroughly enriched by the culture of this experience. Essentially, you will have lived in 1920’s Paris. This is the closest you can get, barring traveling back in time like Claire in Outlander, to truly experiencing and living in a world full of such vibrancy and zest.
What a true joy it is to surround yourself with others who, like you, seek knowledge with fervor and vigor.
With fond hopes of self-discovery and merriment in your near future,