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How do you systematise your knowledge?


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Dear all,

My field of interest is Russian history. I am following a reading list, and have read over 60 books on medieval to late imperial Russian history. I feel, however, that my knowledge is 'scattered' all over my brain and isn't systematised. How did you integrate all you know into a cohesive body of knowledge? In short, how do I connect the dots into a larger picture?

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It will come to you as you read.  Just read and keep notes of each book's arguments and contributions to historiographical debates.  You'll see patterns and connections.

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I dissect the books and keep what I’ve written in zotero with the source. Dissection is usually about .5-.75 pages, has main argument of book, place in the historiography, sources, etc.

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I use OneNote because I can have a 'Russian History' tab with sub-tabs for each book. Zotero is a little scattered for me still. Also, I also take other notes on OneNote so if I'm looking for a specific author, say 'Smith', I can search them and see if I took notes in class and/or as a book. 

For each book I write

1. Title and year

2. Summary, main argument, historical context

3. Attach three reviews

4. Contents

5. Main points in intro/concl

6. Historiographical notes

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  • 4 weeks later...

I sort information by asking myself three broad diagnostic questions.

  1. How does new information (from a secondary work or a primary source) help me to understand the immediate subject at hand. 
  2. How does my refined understanding of the immediate subject at hand help me to understand one or more larger historiographical debates in my primary fields?
  3. How does my shifting understanding of larger historiographical debates in my fields help me to participate in debates that impact all professional academic historians?

Two examples.


A community study (a secondary work) on Cincinnati teaches me:

  1. The lives as lived by working class people over the course of a century. 
  2. The impact of E. P. Thompson and others on the practice of American social history. The efficacy and limitations of social class as a primary interpretive lens.
  3. The trans-Atlantic influence of post 1960 social history on the practice of history in the U.S, Britain, and Western Europe and how "history from the bottom up" differs from traditional top-down approaches to the past. In what ways have the traditional approaches risen to the challenge? 

IME, the application of this multi-tiered approach is generally useful in getting through works efficiently and establishing a dialog among works. The approach probably emphasizes (2) and (3) at the expense of (1), which some professors will mind less than others.


Declassified documents from the [x] administration (primary sources) teach me:

  1. How matters of naval policy and strategy were handled by the civilian policy makers and armed service professionals.
  2. How a refined understanding of naval affairs during the [x] years helps us to understand that period of the Cold War and post World War II naval history. Does the "new" military history have greater relevance for the Cold War than traditional approaches? Did this president's approach to naval affairs reflect a "naval renaissance" or something else? Did this president's naval policy materially enable America to win the Cold War? Was the Cold War a chapter of American naval history or is post World War II American naval history a chapter of Cold War history?
  3. How does the study of contemporary naval history help advance debates over the power of culture, the military revolution debate (MR), the debate over the revolution in military affairs (RMA)*, civil military relations, presidential leadership, the efficacy of war as an instrument of policy, and the militarization of American society and culture?


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