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On Writing and Thinking, and Conversation Too: The Research Process, Entry 2

When I think of note-taking, a few words spring to mind: jotting, sketching, even doodling. When I home in on my own note-taking, the associations are less carefree: particularly here at the Newberry Seminar, frenzied scribbling comes to mind.


A professor once described writing as something like the “most intense form of thinking.” His words stuck with me. Writing has always been the way I hash out, organize, midwife my thoughts. Thoughts, it seems, that I cannot be aware of -- cannot, that is, truly call mine -- until they are transmuted into words on a page. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates insists that his grand speeches are not really his but those of the Muses, poured into him as into an empty jug. A clever rhetorical strategy on the part of Plato-cum-Socrates, perhaps, but not far from my experience of writing.


Plato, famous skeptic of writing that he was, would of course blanch at my appropriating his metaphor thusly. And I wonder, reflecting on my research process thus far, if he wasn’t right.


I’m thinking in particular with this evening’s conversation with two of my fellow Newberry Seminar students. Our topics, as they tend to do in this group, ranged far and wide -- precisely the opposite of the intense focus writing involves.  Along the way, I found myself considering ideas I hadn’t previously pondered. Looking at the ways scientific discoveries influence popular metaphors, for instance (brains as “information processors”, anyone? ideas that “infect?) An idea that suited my tastes perfectly yet grew organically out of this shared conversation.


But in other ways, the experience was not unlike writing. A peer’s nod or smile resonates in a not dissimilar way to a well-crafted phrase or compelling coinage. Both experiences validate your thoughts, granting them significance social or artistic. Both experiences give your thoughts permission to exist. After writing my first post for HASTAC as well as after talking with my fellow students, I walked away more confident in the direction my research was going.


That direction, needless to say, has changed somewhat since that first post. I’ve narrowed my focus within the history of science to museums, expositions, and other public arenas of learning. Will narrow my focus further still as I delve into the Newberry’s collections this week, where I hope to find something interesting on the 1893 Columbian Exposition and/or the Museum of Science and Industry. Bringing my ideas to the computer screen and coffee shop table has been my first task, but submitting these ideas to the archive will be my first true test.


Still, I hope I’ll turn to conversation and writing alike as my research progresses. In the meantime, I think I’ll continue unabashed with my frenzied note-scribbling. And throw a healthy dash of conversation in there for some balance.


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