Having been in China conducting archival research for a few months now, I’ve settled into a little bit of a routine. Since this blog is supposed to give an idea of what life as a graduate student is like, I thought it might be appropriate to write a post describing what I actually do on a week-to-week basis. Along the way I’ll point out some of the differences I’ve noticed between my weekly schedule on archival research versus back around campus.
In recent weeks, I’ve spent about four days per week split between the Shandong Provincial Archives and the Jinan Municipal Library. At the provincial archives I’ve been reading materials related to the early-20th century Shandong School of Law and Politics. The materials honestly aren’t terribly interesting, at least in the sense that 99.9% of the people in the world use the word. I’ve mostly been gathering data related to the number of students who graduated from there. At the municipal library I’ve been searching early 20th century periodicals for information about how political reforms in this period (like the founding of the school mentioned above) affected Jinan. This past week I also read materials related to flood control in the late 19th century.
One of the major differences between life in Jinan and Chicago is that here I have to commute to the archives. Making things significantly less convenient is that these two institutions are on opposite ends of the city. We live quite a bit closer to the provincial archives: a fifteen minute walk through Hundred Flowers Park (right across from our apartment) takes me to a bus stop where I board a “rapid transit” bus that gets me right to the archives after a twenty minute or so ride. The municipal library is a bit trickier since it’s on the western outskirts of the city. After a bit of experimenting, I’ve decided that the best way to conserve time and money is to take a bus from my apartment to the north-central part of the city where I can hail a car on Didi chuxing (like Uber) and jump straight on the highway to the library.
Since I don’t have access to refrigerators at either place and there are affordable food options nearby, I usually eat lunch out. At the provincial archives this means walking down the street to a large supermarket, where I’ll often buy some “chow mein” for about $1 or get a jianbing (like a savory crepe) from a vendor outside. I splurge a bit more at the municipal library, where the closest place to eat is a plaza that serves a variety of Chinese and Korean style dishes.
When I’m not at these places, I’m usually closer to or at home. The Shandong Provincial Library is a 15-20 minute walk from our apartment, and I quite enjoy working in the local documents reading room there, even though it’s not nearly as elaborately furnished as the provincial archives or municipal library. (I’m actually shifting to spending a bit more time there.) I’ve found that conducting research in the archives has led me to value the time I have to work at the apartment, which I use to organize notes and scans of documents, utilize electronic resources and a “few” books that I may or may not have purchased already, plot subsequent expeditions to the archives, look up information about topics I run across in my research, practice my other languages, etc.
I do really enjoy being able to devote entire days to my dissertation research. I have to remind myself that is a luxury that I cannot take for granted in the future. (Thank you, Fulbright!) In some ways, though, the daily routine has taken a bit of a toll on me. I think of my ideal schedule as having the day broken up into three 3-4 hour blocs (morning, afternoon, and evening), so that I can switch up what I’m working on while still having a significant amount of time to dedicate to specific tasks. In Chicago, this ideal broke down because of the variety of smaller (in terms of time, not importance) things that came up throughout the day. While I enjoyed doing all (ok, most) of those things, balancing them was stressful.
In China, though, I have a bit of the opposite problem. If I’m going all the way across the city to the municipal library, for example, then I’m just going to work there all day and get as much done as I possibly can. That would be absolutely fabulous if my research consisted solely of one great discovery after the other. Alas, my work is often tedious and frustrating. In fact, archival research reminds me just a little bit of the rhythm of a 9-5 job, which I figured (somewhat correctly) going to graduate school would get me out of.
Ironically, this different rhythm has reinforced to me the importance of evaluating my progress and accomplishments from a longer-term perspective. In Chicago, there was only so much progress I could make on my research in a given day because of time limitations, making day-by-day progress seem glacial. Here, I’ve got much more time to put into research, but the payoff isn’t as exponential as I fantasized. In both cases, though, schematizing how the bits of work I’m doing fit into a larger whole has helped motivate me to keep moving forward.
I’ll save my spiel about project management, graduate students, and dissertation writing for another time. If you’re not in academia, hopefully this post gave you an idea of what “archival research” actually looks like on a week-to-week basis. If you are in academia, then I hope you learned something that you’ll find useful for the future or at least had occasion to reflect on your own fond memories of dissertation research. If you’ve got any thoughts or suggestions to share, I’d love to hear about them in the comments or on Twitter (@dknorrhistorian).