While you are reading this, I am going through the footnotes and bibliography of what I damn sure hope is the final draft of my dissertation.
There are fabulous digital tools that, when used correctly, automate much of the labor of footnoting. I never managed to learn how to use those tools, correctly or otherwise, and I’m not about to start trudging up that (or ANY) learning curve at this late date. So I am doing what I have always done: formatting every single footnote, every bibliographic entry, from scratch, by hand. I will probably live to regret this digital backwardness, but I expect I’ll live through it.
In any case, even as I make my way slowly through these footnotes, I find myself leaping suddenly backward and forward in time, backward and forward in thought, thanks to a pesky little detail to which attention must be paid: access dates for online sources.
Since I cite while I write – starting when I take my very first note on any source – the access dates in my footnotes often reflect the actual dates on which I first looked at those sources. I say “often,” because when I revisited a source or reworked a passage in revision, I frequently consulted the online text again; in those cases I changed the access date in the footnote accordingly to reflect my most recent visit to that webpage. But a lot of times when I revised or re-used a passage I’d composed at an earlier stage in the research and writing process, I didn’t need to look at the online source again, so I kept the access date unchanged in the footnotes.
So what I have in these access dates – at least in the ones I haven’t revised to reflect a more recent visit to the webpage in question – is a record that helps me reconstruct the order in which I pursued my research for this project, the order in which parts of my argument took shape (or didn’t!) as I turned all this stuff over in my noggin. Because of these access dates, which I diligently recorded to satisfy my obligation to the profession to provide an accurate and complete evidentiary trail for others to follow, I accidentally preserved a way for me to retrace the history of my own ideas, such as they have been, such as they are.
The earliest access date in my footnotes is March 12, 2011. The first source I looked at was Richard Bernstein’s 1988 New York Times article, “In Dispute on Bias, Stanford Is Likely To Alter Western Culture Program.” I first looked up that oft-cited article before I even knew that this project was going to be my dissertation topic. I was just working on a standalone research paper for my intellectual history PhD seminar. Little did I know what I had gotten myself into. And the latest date in my footnotes (so far) is September 21, 2015. That was the day I cited my colleague Andy Seal’s wonderful blog post, “Out of Circulation: Finding or Making an Archive.” That was the day I finally figured out how to frame the introduction to my manuscript – how to bookend my argument, as it were — and so how to bring my labors to an end.
In between those two dates, two bookends marking the beginning and end of my process of inquiry, there’s an awful lot of history, including but not limited to four years, three drafts, two archival research trips, and Saint Augustine in a pear tree. (I’m not kidding – Augustine makes at least a cameo appearance in every single chapter of my dissertation.)
Right now, I am more than ready to put all that history behind me. And pretty soon (please, Clio!) I will in fact be able to finally set this damn thing down: revised defended printed bound signed sealed delivered recorded awarded and that’s-all-she-wrote-DONE. Eventually, though, I’ll pick it up again – either because I’m ready to think about revising it, or because I’m going to fling it as far as I can out into the deep blue sea. Either option seems equally possible at this point, though the second one sounds far more appealing. But before I change it or chuck it, I will read through it again. Thanks in part to the access dates (not to mention the fact that writing a dissertation scars you for life, which would have been nice to know before I did it; but of course how can you know this really unless you do it?), I will be able to recall the history of how I came to think as I do about this history I have tried to tell as best I can.
I guess that moment, however far off it seems, when I will be able to look back not just at this history but at this historian with real understanding, is something to look forward to. Whenever I get there, a trail of access dates in my footnotes will help me find the way back to the beginning of my journey, so I can see everything I missed the first time through — and everything I didn’t.