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Heather VanMouwerik is a Ph.D candidate in Russian History at the University of California, Riverside. You can follow her @HVanMouwerik or find her at her website.



“There is no earthly way of knowing,” muses Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, “in which direction we are going. Is it raining? Is it snowing? Is a hurricane a blowing?” While hurling through the darkness with ever-quickening images streaking across the walls of the tunnel, Wonka’s voice reaches a fevered pitch, something bordering on terror and ecstasy. “YES!” he shouts. “The danger must be growing for the rowers keep on rowing! And they are showing no signs that they are slowing!”


As a child, I loved this scene from Willy Wonka, because it was weird and there were creepy bugs everywhere; as an adult, this scene carries more meaning, because I realize that it is actually about adulthood. It is making the point that everything in life should be equal parts exhilarating and terrifying, creative and dangerous. And that every experience builds on top of the last, creating momentum and energy.


I try my best to carry this ethos into my dissertation. Yet, after weeks and weeks of typing, alphabetizing, transliterating, and correlating, this sort of rote grunt work leaves me intellectually unfulfilled and bored. Yes, I am still productive in a general sense (750 words a day or bust!), but after a while my work starts to feel like all of these discrete units that I am just mindlessly plugging into my dissertation. I cannot see, for example, the forest for all the trees or the “so what” for all the research.


I call this sort of intellectual boredom thinker’s block. Just like writer’s block, the inability to write for a protracted period of time, thinker’s block is the inability to think of interesting ideas or build meaningful connections in one’s scholarship. It feels like you have all of these beautifully painted wooden blocks, but, when you go to stack them together, they keep tumbling down. To keep your blocks together, you need good ideas that link all of the data, text, or research together. But sometimes those ideas just will not come.


To address this problem and overcome thinker’s block, you need to take a terrifying boat ride with Willy Wonka—step outside of your comfort zone, set aside some time, free yourself from quantitative results, and expect to be unproductive. In other words, play with your research for a little while. Rather than approaching your material with specific goals, expectations, or preconceived narratives, let your material, your imagination, and your creativity guide your inquiry for a few hours. This will reorient your perspective, spark new ideas, and bring back a little excitement into your day-to-day writing.


To get you started, here are a few different ways you can play with your research. All of them require a computer and either programs you already have or free software that is easily downloadable. Remember: the key to fighting thinker’s block is to have some fun, so the more creatively you approach these tools, the more potential you have to generate some really innovative and interesting ideas.


1. Create a Map! My dissertation relies heavily on maps, so I might be a little map-happy; however, marking places, people, or any sort of data visually and spatially may reveal previously invisible features or forces in your research. And they are a ton of fun to put together! The easiest way to do this is with Google Maps, where you can mark certain locations, add text to the marked points, and share your maps with anyone you want. For a little inspiration, check out the Mapping the Republic of Letters project from Stanford or the University of Virginia’s Spatial Humanities initiative.


2. Graph It! Last spring, on a rainy Saturday in April, my partner was bored. So, he compiled his iTunes library into a spreadsheet and created a frequency graph of his music by year. It turned out to be fascinating! Although his collection represents the early 1960s, mid-1990s, and 2000s through to now quite well, his taste in music completely skips over the late-1970s and all of the 1980s. My graph, however, showed the opposite: I just can’t get enough punk, New Wave, and early alternative. Using graphs to visualize your information, even if it is just the frequency of people named John in your research or the number of letters someone wrote, a graph might show you something new and interesting. Better yet, you already have everything you need to get started—Excel or Numbers will work just fine.


3. Make a Knowledge Tree! Mind maps are the key to my productivity. Whenever I am stuck or overwhelmed, I diagram all of my thoughts into a spider-like hierarchy with lines, circles, and multiple colors. This same technique, creating a knowledge tree as a way to visualize connections, could yield some interesting results in your own research. For this, I am a huge fan of Scrapple, a project management program that you could use to draw out relationships between your subjects, timelines of events, or any other hierarchy-based connections. Though not free, Scrapple has a generous trial period, but you could also do much the same work with any paint program already installed on your computer or a pen and some paper. For inspiration, I love looking through The Book of Trees.

4. Mine your Text! At its most basic level, textual analysis is a process of tagging certain terms, phrases, characters, or locations in any type of text, emphasizing the specific content over the general structure and story of your document. This allows you to see the material you have grown so accustomed to in a much different way. A very professional example of this is from the Biblioteca Nacional de España, which is an analysis of Cervantes’s original Don Quixote. If you just want to spend an hour or so on this, then something easy like Wordle, which generates word clouds, might yield interesting results. For something more intensive, take a look at the collection of (mostly) free programs put together at TAPoR 3.


These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. For even more inspiring examples, check out the super exciting Dear Data project or Scott Christianson’s 100 Diagrams that Changed the World.


Although writing a dissertation is not always fun, it is important to prevent yourself from falling into bout of thinker’s block. By occasionally letting yourself play and embrace your creative side, you can keep your ideas fresh, your interest piqued, and your dissertation thoughtful.


Have you ever played around with your dissertation? Did you get some interesting results? We would love to hear about it, so please leave a comment!

[Image by Flickr user Ed Menendez and used under the Creative Commons license.]