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Shouting into the Void: Brainstorming Methods and the Birth of Research Ideas

As the move-in date for the Newberry Seminar approached, I had many of my friends and family members asking me what I would be researching while I was at the library. Indeed, my potential topic seemed to haunt every conversation I had in the weeks building up to my arrival in Chicago, and I couldn't seem to find an answer. Comforted by the fact that finding a topic is part of the research paper writing process, I brushed aside the questions with a "we'll see what's in the Newberry's holdings!" and carried on. 

Now that I'm here, however, that question is ever-looming over my head. A tour with Chicago History Museum's Peter Alter gave me a spark of an idea, however; his mention that the Dil Pickle or Dill Pickle Dlub, catty-corner to Washington Park, was a center for queer discourse, or at least questioning of hetero- and cisnormative culture, struck a deep chord in me. I immediately tweeted a reminder to myself so I would remember what I wanted to talk about, and back at my apartment, started to troll through the Newberry's catalog, which is where I came up with the first stumbling block. 

LIke most cases when one is looking at queer history, the catalog seemed to have few answers for me. I came across two secondary sources, the papers of the Dil Pickle Club, and the papers of a man who seemed a part of the community there, Slim Brundage. Neither secondary source seemed to make reference to anything queer going on at the Dil Pickle Club, and with the time crush that comes with orientation, I haven't yet had the chance to take a look at the Special Collections, where the papers are held. Somewhat discouraged, I left for the weekend on Friday and received my usual Friday-night phone call from my father, a professor of labor history who has always encouraged my academic work in whatever direction it has headed. He had seen my tweet, and asked me if I had heard of a specific book he knew of about the topic. When I admitted I didn't think I had seen it, he set to work (in typical dad fashion) to get as much information together for me that he had, and called me again on Sunday, in theory to talk about my birthday, but added on more things he had discovered in the interim- like the names of other books he had thought of, as well as professors in the Chicago area whose work might pertain to my own. The difficulty with talking to my father on the phone, though, often takes shape at my own inability to pay attention to auditory information; I work much better when I can see what is being said, and being on the phone means I'm often distracted by the computer in front of me. 

In despair at the seeming lack of information, I turned to the usual way I think out research topics or even just the bigger questions about history that are bothering me: I sent an email to my high school US history teacher, Mr. Ong. Mr. Ong has been an incredible influence on my life, mostly by encouraging me to keep pursuing history and never once telling me to shut up. In the time since I've graduated from high school (now two years,) I've averaged one email to him about every two weeks, incluidng one every few days while in the final crush of museum exhibit construction last spring term. Although his time commitments to his current students and campus mean that he rarely gets the chance to respond, he has never once discouraged me from writing emails to him, and I use his inbox as a kind of soundingboard, where I can exhaust my ability to be articulate about a specific topic without worry, and still have everything that I write down be accessible to me. I love sending emails to Mr. Ong, in part because I know he probably won't respond--I'm shouting into the void, essentially, with the assumption that he might read it if he has time (althoug he insists he always does read them, and does a good job of remembering the last email I sent when I see him in real life!) Emailing Mr. Ong lets me talk all over the place with no real worry, lets me express my concerns and frustrations about searching for that which so often is buried underneath history and heteronormative assumptions--a history for myself. Although emailing Mr. Ong rarely leaves me with an answer to my problems, but it provides me with a one-on-one academic community, with the focus being on my favorite person to worry about in my academic career: me! 

Thanks to both methods of communication, I have a better idea of how to go about my research; I intend to use my resources and consult the librarians as well, given they probably have a much better idea of what the holdings are than I do. I'm hopeful that by continuing these kinds of conversations, especially the use of email, as it works much better for me personally, will give me a record of how my research is progressing and give me a greater overview of that progress than merely continuing onward blindly. 

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