October 2014 update: On thesis-writing and time tracking.

I’ve decided to keep up with these posts every month to make sure I stay on track with life projects.  I only have one major project going on now so here goes.

I had ADHD as a child.  As in, I needed Ritalin to focus in school.  Thankfully, somewhere along the way my frontal lobe caught up to the rest of my brain, and now I can focus.  But I still have one major ADHD trait: I don’t switch tasks well.

So this quarter, as I’ve been working on my senior thesis #1 — about Herakles in Gandharan Buddhist art — it’s absorbed me so thoroughly that I haven’t been around here much.  (For the curious, my thesis is an analysis of the appropriation of Heraklean iconography in Gandharan Buddhist art from the 1st-3rd centuries CE.  Herakles appears as himself, but far more often as a converted chthonic deity named Vajrapani, who becomes the bodyguard of the Buddha.)  I’ve started keeping track of how many hours I spent working on it per week:

  • Week 3: 12.5 hours
  • Week 4: 12 hours
  • Week 5: 12 hours
  • Week 6 (so far): 15 hours

What I’ve learned so far about doing research:

  • I spend way more time than I thought I would on tedious matters.  My primary sources are all in art catalogs, many of them obscure and difficult to acquire.  One took a month to arrive via interlibrary loan.  I spend more time than I would like on tracking down sources and scanning books for my reference.  I am also creating an excel spreadsheet to keep track of all the sculpture
  • I am getting really good at topical triage.  One of the most thorny problems in Gandharan art is chronology.  Countless monographs have been written on the topic.  As far as I can tell, most of them are worthless, since they are based on a subjective stylistic analysis with little proven dates or archaeological evidence.  I am ignoring this topic entirely and only looking at the art from a synchronic perspective.  I might miss some piece of the puzzle by ignoring one approach, but I am okay with that.  It’s a sound cost-benefit analysis.
  • I am learning to distinguish between low-level, high-level, and impossible questions.  As I read scholarship, I am constantly finding and inventing new questions.  I write them down and sort them out according to level of analysis.  For example, some low-level questions: what scenes from the Buddha’s life does this figure appear in?  what expressions does he have on his face?  Some higher-level questions: why does his appearance change from image to image?  why did Buddhists artists use the iconography of Herakles in the first place?  were the images of Herakles drawn more from Greek or Roman art?  And then, the impossible questions: how much did Buddhists artists know about Herakles’ myths?  were the artisans who made these Herakles-Vajrapani images Indian by origin or were they immigrants from Rome on the Silk Road?
  • I am setting clear deadlines and finding a happy medium of pressure.  Every classics major at my school is required to write a thesis.  Last year, many of the theses were very late.  The students were stressed out, the professors were frustrated, and nobody was having a fun time.  I don’t work well under last-minute pressure, so I am pacing myself.  I work on the thesis from 7-10 four days a week.  I am also forcing myself into a deadline, as I’ve applied to present it at the Pacific Northwest regional AAR meeting.  So I have some pressure, but not so much that I explode!

Fellow researchers, what have you learned over the years?

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