The Numbers Game

When I was first starting out as a graduate student in history, I was deeply suspicious of numbers. Give me real people, I said, not statistics. Meaningful stories, not graphs. Feelings, not pie-charts.

You get the picture.

Like many of my deepest convictions about research, this one was knocked out of me by that productive process of always doubting absolutely everything you think you know (in short-hand: being a graduate student). I came to realise that numbers really do matter, and I realised in the way that only people with strong, foundless convictions can: epiphany. It matters a great deal whether we are talking about 1% of the population or 10%, whether people scraped by on just enough, or the shape the financial crises took.

That’s right, the economic historians got to me.

I also came to realize that doing numbers well is actually really, really hard. I’ve seen a graduate student who works on economic and social history present a graph that pretty much adds up (as I understand it) to three years’ work, the findings of her thesis. It’s a visual representation of a huge data entry endeavour, itself dependent on specialised archival work. And it’s amazing. The numbers can tell us something concrete about the issue she’s looking at (I’ll leave aside the new doubt my numbers fetish breeds: isn’t it deceptively concrete?).

So I did my bit of dabbling with numbers in my own research, which I thought was pretty brave, considering my research is into folk traditions, stories about werewolves and witches, tales about youngest sons, and bawdy love songs and lullabies. I wear those numbers like a badge of pride: 759 individual folklore informants, whose births, marriages, deaths, conscription records, marriage contracts, and employment records I hunted. Graphs of dates of birth, gender, occupation.

But these last few days I’ve been confronted with a different set of numbers, the secret numbers that will never appear in my doctorate, nor in anything I publish. There is the most basic one: the word count. No monograph lists the word count at the beginning (though sometimes I wish they did), and might it be fair to say that no doctoral thesis accurately represents its own word count? (To be discussed…) Right now, however, that number seems like one of the most important numbers from my research. I have a whole draft of the final thesis open in my word processor, ready to do a bit of chopping. The maximum permitted length at my university is 100,000 words, and here I am facing 104,886. I’m actually pretty pleased with that, seeing as I once cut 40,000 words down to 15,000  for my master’s thesis, then trimmed another 7,000 out of that to make it into an article. Getting rid of 4,886 words will probably just be a matter of taking out all the outrageous adverbs, a few footnotes to comparative examples from twentieth-century Polynesia and ancient Rome, and maybe pruning some of my most flowery descriptive passages.

But this almost-final word-count for my doctorate also got me thinking about the other numbers hidden behind the final piece, numbers I’ll never use in publications, numbers that are, instead, perfect for this venue. I apologise in advance: these are totally my boasting numbers. But then if you can’t boast on your blog (especially the same day you receive yet another job rejection) where can you?

160 different versions of my thesis plan. The first dates from 3rd April 2011, which is 1144 days ago, so I’ve only averaged a “new” plan once a week (most are just minor refinements).

48 thematic “notebooks” where I kept track of various things in my sources that I thought I might write about. “Literacy”, “Violence”, and “Religion” still make sense to me, but I wonder what possessed me to keep a notebook of references to “Suicide and selfhood”..?

62 conscription records. Perhaps the most disappointing number from my research. For whatever reason, it turned out to be very hard to find the conscription records of many of my male subjects. Perhaps some were volunteers, paid to replace other local men, which is why they don’t show up in the period when they should? Out of the 62  I  found, just 37 of the singers and story-tellers were fit for service. Of these 37, 31 received a clean bill of health, while 6 did have medical conditions, but ones not considered serious enough to dispense them from service. These included swelling on the neck, an unhealed fracture, colic and scars, and “weakness of constitution”. A further 3 were later later released from service for developing bronchitis, tuberculosis, and “Anemia, weight loss, and general weakness”. The remaining 25 men were exempted from service for conditions ranging from short-sightedness to an “anal fistula”. The most common motives for exemption were bad teeth (8 men), insufficient height (5 men), and  “weak constitution” (3 men). Grim.

1,264 footnotes, spread over the 154 pages of my current thesis draft, or 8.2 footnotes a page, making me a clear victim of academic conventions. The bonfire of the footnotes begins once I have stopped procrastinating with this post.

About 100 marriage contracts (331 photos of contracts that average about 3 pages), which I’m a little more proud of. I photographed most of these in one day, in fact the last day I spent in the archives, surrounded by tens of boxes as the extremely kind archivists bent all the rules to let me finish with minutes to spare.

In total 79.9 gigabytes of photos from the archive. Some I have returned to again and again, such as the crumbling census I found in a town hall after being repeatedly told that town halls don’t have any records like that any more because they had to give them all to the departmental archive. This particular census covered the village where many of my 759 singers and story-tellers lived. Time and again, I have referred to it for details about their families, where they lived, and what they were doing. Other photos I am certain I have never looked at. A pamphlet on bee-keeping, the photos I took in local cemeteries of gravestones bearing familiar names.
390 annotations for books or articles I have read during my doctorate. I started with such good intentions. I can’t remember the last time I had the leisure to annotate something I read.

4,643 word documents saved in the folder I called “Doctoral Research” (so not including teaching, publications, grant applications etc). These files are divided between 297 different folders. I am quite sure I would be unable to name 10 of these folders.

At this point in my project, I’m kind of short on tangible results for the work I’ve been doing. No job, no doctorate, I haven’t even submitted any spin-offs or sections of my thesis for publication. But these numbers give me something concrete (deceptively concrete?) which I can point to, reflect on, blog about.

I’m just glad it’s all backed up to Dropbox…

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