Last night, I think I started a dissertation. The problem was (is?) that I don't really know exactly what I'm writing about, and so rather than get through this exam with a whole bunch of post-it flags sticking out of books that I've read (and an extreme inability to recall what each color stood for), I'm going back to the basics: index cards. Yup, index cards.
I've done this before--not with index cards precisely, but with the same idea. The most successful papers I've written have been the result of recording in a word processing document all of my observations and important points of fact and interpretation--anything that interests me, really--and then printing it all out, cutting the individual notes, facts, pieces of evidence, ideas, clever turns of phrase, anything that occurred to me as I was reading, and laying them all out on the living room floor in logical hierarchy:
piece of evidence one
pieces of evidence two and three, which need to be understood together
----uh oh! I have no evidence for this; better reconsider!----
You get the idea: it's a very concrete way of determining whether or not you've proved what you set out to. And to get an idea of what is provable within the scope of your paper.
This time, it's a little bigger, but I'm organizing the index cards as I go. Category cards get written up in portrait rather than landscape format so that they can act as dividers--but if the category proves unuseful, then that card gets set behind the 'no longer useful' category card.
It's flexible, and it allows me to take all the things that I find interesting and see what I can make of them. And it will, I hope, mean that at the end of taking this exam, I'll be well on the way to proposing rather than just knowing more but having no idea what I'm going to write on.
(Wish me luck.)