Ending a research project with/out panicking
There comes a point in a research project – all projects, whether small or big – when they suddenly seem no longer beginning or proceeding but, gulp, heading towards completion. And that means – tick-tock goes the countdown clock – being able to come up with the goods (aka outputs in UK REF-speak terms) that were airily promised in those heady days before it had actually started, when all things seemed possible. I seem suddenly to have reached this point in the Whites Writing Whiteness project, in particular because, strictly speaking, it should end on 31 December 2015, the end of this current calendar year.** On returning to the UK two weeks ago, I woke up to the fact which being in South Africa for over two months had masked from me, that it is now not 2014 but 2015. Tick-tock. So how not to panic?
(1) Take stock: I’ve spent a couple of days taking stock of all work done on the South African archive collections, and whether this has been started, is in progress, is nearly completed, or is fully completed, and made lists of all of these. And for each of them, I’ve made sub-lists with their ‘still to-do’ aspects detailed. These lists are clear, ordered, and composed of ‘to do’ points which can be satisfyingly ticked off as things progress. The result is that I now know exactly what I have done, how far I have got in each piece of interconnected work, and what still needs to be done.
(2) Plan priorities: Taking stock in this way has led to me making a reassessment of what future priorities should be, in terms of planning the essential project work that should (in analytical terms) and realistically can (in time terms) be undertaken and completed in the time available. More lists! and these too have tickable ‘to do’ bullet-points. If you’ve made rash promises to funders, time to confront these! At the moment I have five (which became six) priorities in terms of completing work on particular collections, and immediately instituted some focused working days on them, which has resulted in four now being substantially completed or becoming so in the next week.
(3) Clear finishing procedures and a rolling timetable: The first priority is to identify specific pieces of work – sub-elements of the overall project – that can be completed in short order and have a line drawn under them. For this purpose I have a checklist (computers are terribly fussy) of things to check and standardise, and this is a form that gets completed. These quick to finish things have then come to the top of the priorities pile, around a timetable that is a rolling one. That is, as some things are finished and roll off, so others roll on and are fitted into the timetable. From this, I’ve drawn a line through some interesting sub-projects as non-necessary, and also confronted the need to zoom forward in the priorities a set of things in the Natal archives which have not yet been started at all. Also back into frame has come delivering stuff (databases and accompanying jpegs) to HRI and making sure the VRE is delivered as requested.
(4) Dovetail data-prep and writing: A lot of the above concerns the nitty-gritty of getting archival data, recording it, checking it, and finalising the resultant datasets (one dataset per collection) ready to go to HRI at Sheffield, the technical partner for the Whites Writing Whiteness project as it was for the Olive Schreiner letters. As well as getting and preparing data, there is of course also using the data gathered to produce the analysis made of it so far (a further stage will follow when all the data is on the VRE) in writing and publishing. Some five or six WWW publications will appear in 2015, all already at post-proof stage (see the project publications page), but I want three or so more to be progressed in tandem with the data-prep processes. Two are quite well advanced in the thinking process and I’ll start writing one of these in the next couple of weeks.
(5) Re-visit all overviewing activities: Things change as more project research gets done, and some things may fall by the wayside or others take on a greater importance than earlier. Without being overly managerialist about it, the above activities should be carried out at helpful interviews, say at every six weeks or so, by doing a look-see about progress and priorities to make sure there is a plan still on course for finishing the most important parts of the planned work. At the moment, I’ve done this twice in two weeks and intend to do it again next week – my scratty ‘to do’ lists on my desk and in the kitchen have had things added to them that I’d forgotten about, and these have then been slotted in.
And – very important – none of this requires fancy bits of software to learn and use! Indeed, this might impede making progress. Word files, A4 sheets of lined paper, post-its and those scratty bits of paper with lists on them that can be easily added to and ticked all work well, and there is no learning curve in using them.
[**In fact, for reasons connected with extra professional duties when WWW first started, there is an agreed ‘no cost extension’ to the project to end December 2016. However, the point is the same – some roubust time- and project-management is a good thing, for time is always finite.]
Last updated: 24 March 2015