Setting Reasonable Goals: Planning Short Research Trips, part III

This post, the last in a series of posts about planning short archival research trips, deals with setting realistic goals. The previous posts were about scheduling trips and traveling well. I have also written about archive photography technology and archive survival tips.

Of course, the ultimate goal of any short research trip is to get access to the documents needed for the project, and to capture that information in the most convenient format available: digital photography, photocopies, or transcription. Collecting is the objective for any trip, but I am convinced that I need to make personal, well-considered, intermediate-level goals to reach that broader target.

Before and throughout my series of short research trips, I did not actually make specific goals for what I wanted to accomplish. But I did have some implicit expectations for myself, and looking back I am able to say what they were. I did not always find myself able to meet them, and I felt guilty and disappointed because of that.

This is what I thought I should be doing during my research trips, but I realize now that these expectations were not realistic.

  1. I will be working productively in the archive every day it is open during the entire time period it is open.
  2. I will write a daily reflection or digest on what I saw that day, just after leaving the archive.
  3. I will capture everything I could possibly need from the archive for my dissertation.

Here is how I would reframe my goals.

  1. Over the course of a week, I will plan to be in the archive approximately 80% of the time it is open.
  2. While I am in the archive, I will make a helpful index of what I am photographing. At least once a week, I will spend at least one hour writing about my impressions of what I have seen.
  3. Before my trip to an archive is finished, in addition to the material I collect, I will have detailed knowledge of exactly what that archive has that is relevant for my topic.

These goals also reflect what I was actually able to accomplish. They represent what I think is truly reasonable and necessary for me to achieve the overall aim of an efficient, economical, and fruitful trip.

Why 80% of the time? I am giving myself permission to work fewer hours than the archive is open. Roughly, 80% means that over the course of the week, I may take a whole day off from the archive if I want, or I can work shorter days all week long, or take two mornings/afternoons off.

Having a weekly archive-time target means that I can exercise some flexibility in deciding what I do each day without feeling like I am slacking off if the archive is open and I’m not there. If I end up working more than 80% over the course of the week, that’s fine!

For the note-taking and reflection side of things, my new goal is based upon this realization: I did not find the daily summary helpful because it required me to put in an intense burst of thinking and articulating at the time of the day when I was least interested in doing this (right after leaving the archive).

Now, I am more conscientious while I am actually in the archive to add information to my index every time I finish looking at a folder. The index is a guide of where to find things (file names, citation information) with very skeletal remarks about the contents of the folder, and occasional comments only as deep as, say, “really interesting!!!” Making this index in the archive slows down the rate of processing material, but it will certainly speed up the work of locating evidence when I am writing the dissertation.

For more substantial reflection, I choose a time and place to write that is better for me than the late afternoon after spending all day staring at documents. Sometimes my writing time is on the weekends. I might also use a weekday morning to write a bit and arrive at the archive an hour or two after it opens.

In addition to a weekly reflection, I also take advantage of other opportunities to synthesize what I have been seeing, like preparing for an upcoming meeting with my advisor, writing a grant application, or drafting an abstract for a conference. This work sometimes happens after the research trip ends.

Finally, my last goal reflects the fact that it is not realistic to expect to look at everything I could possibly use unless the archive turns out to be a dead end. What is possible though is to manage my time so that even I do not see everything in detail, I become very familiar with what is available and where to find it even if I do not go through it. This way, if it turns out later that I need something else from the archive, I can either get it myself very quickly or hire a research assistant to obtain the material.

As I prepare for my upcoming research stint in Mexico, I am working on new goals and strategies for a much longer trip. What is not changing, though, is my conviction that maximizing the potential of a research trip is not the result of obeying rigid, self-imposed rules. Goals that build in flexibility seem to work much better for both my productivity and happiness.