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If you’ve ever seen Netflix’s brilliant comedy-drama series Sex Education, you’ll be familiar with the character Aimee’s love of mind maps. And what’s not to love? Aimee’s not wrong in her description of mind mapping as “just writing stuff down, but in a fun way that engages all sides of your brain,” but the mind map (like the related concept map) also offers a useful means of (1) organizing information and (2) drawing attention to the relationships between different pieces of information.

While mind maps are often used in classrooms as a brainstorming activity, the visual aspect of these diagrams can be useful to scholars at any stage of their academic careers. As more information accumulates and mind maps grow larger, however, two interesting things occur: they become more and more unwieldy -- difficult to keep track of in any practical way -- and, in so doing, they take on the look of a database.

In this post, I’d like to illustrate how readers can take advantage of digital mind-mapping tools in order to create their own databases as a means of preparing for qualifying exams, organizing class notes or outlining their writing. Using Twine (a free online tool intended to help writers create hyperlinked stories), this post explores the benefits of having a “digital prosthesis” to help structure one’s studies. In order to illustrate this concept, I draw on my own experiences in creating a Twine database project to assist me in preparing for my general exams. While this post might be most helpful to those just beginning their exam reading lists, the ideas presented here can also be worked into any number of research methods or classroom projects.

Preparing for Orals

I began to prepare for my general exams in May of 2018, and I spent the first several months bouncing back and forth between note cards, Google Docs and a three-ring binder, in a somewhat futile attempt to keep all of my notes organized. As I continued to progress through my readings, I realized I needed a better method -- one in which the connections I made seemed less abstract and amorphous. As a solution, I turned to Twine, seeing that its ability to organize nonlinear ideas would allow me to build my own database for studying.

New users require only a few minutes to become entirely proficient with Twine. A new project is called a story, and in creating one, a user simply adds a passage of text and then connects that passage to another. In creating a Twine database of my reading notes, each passage I made contained key terms and concepts from an individual text. By using Twine to organize my notes, I was able to link these readings to one another -- the result of which can be seen in the image at the beginning of this post.

In this same screenshot, red nodes represent individual texts from my reading lists while green nodes indicate organizational structure (i.e., the categories by which I organized my lists: new media studies, data visualizations, queer theory, feminist theory, etc.). Each black line (or edge) marks a connection I made between texts, which -- as this image shows -- were many. Twine not only allowed me to keep track of these connections, it also provided a bird’s-eye view of my exam prep that, in turn, produced new ways of engaging with my readings. I hadn’t realized, for example, how many other texts I’d drawn into conversation with Kay Siebler’s Learning Queer Identity in the Digital Age (2016) until I saw the sunburst of edges emanating from Siebler’s work.

Narrative & Database

Indeed, databases are now frequently regarded as an innovative means of creating new trajectories from which a wider set of narratives might unfold. Early scholarship from Ed Folsom and Lev Manovich, however, depicted these organizational structures in opposition to one another, describing the relationship between databases and narratives through metaphors of imposition and contention. In The Language of New Media (2002), for example, Manovich characterizes the two as “natural enemies” (228). Responding to these metaphors, N. Katherine Hayles suggests that narratives and databases actually benefit one another, altering Manovich’s claim to depict the two instead as “natural symbionts.” Narratives are organized by databases, she writes, but databases give rise to new narratives.

When it comes to organizing something as wildly expansive yet interconnected as exam notes, a database is useful for keeping track of the texts themselves and the links between them. While using Twine greatly aided me in my preparing for my general exams, the database I produced has proved beneficial in the time since finishing this stage of my graduate studies as well -- continuing to function as a sustainable study aid to refer to in both my teaching and research.

Using Twine is, of course, only one of many helpful methods by which grad students can prepare for their general exams. For readers who have finished this stage of their studies, what else has worked for you? Alternatively, what other academic projects might Twine be useful for?

Photo created by the author using Twine.

Jon Heggestad is a Ph.D. candidate at Stony Brook University. Follow him at @jonheggestad on Twitter.