Humanities Dissertation and Other Academic Writing

I’ve been building my DT database on all areas of my overlapping fields of medieval literature and theology for the past two years. It’s proved useful as I’ve begun to write my dissertation, but mainly just as a search and electronic filing tool–not much more than what I could do with Spotlight. I’m curious to hear about other humanities researchers’ usage scenarios.

Have you read the bog entries posted by parezcoydigo (not sure if (s)he participates on the forum here) on how (s)he uses DT for historical research? The bog is very interesting for anyone using DT for academic research. I would expect the section on fuzzy searching of early modern writing would be especially helpful for someone studying medieval literature. To my knowledge, one cannot approach being able to duplicate that DT feature with Spotlight.


I’ve found that Spotlight is just not specific, tight, focused enough to do productive searches. It’s possible to tighten it up using the comment field to tag files with keywords. If you chose to do this, make sure to add a symbol to the tag to differentiate it from full text searching (ie, @tag or $tag or *tag). Otherwise, you’ll still get lost in a morass of marginally affiliated returns.

The AI searching features of DT are sooo much stronger and focused, particularly with DT2.0’s addition of full-boolean searching on top of the AI, that I don’t think Spotlight really compares. I love Spotlight and use it all the time for find files and launch applications, but I do find it unwieldy for actual research management.

-Chad Black

Thanks, Chad. I found your blog posts quite helpful. I’m coming to realize that since my research is not data-driven (as yours and many other historians’ is), I’ll never be taking advantage of most of what DT has to offer.

The prospect of having DT turn up “new connections” for me is what gave me the initial frisson. (That great academic procrastinator: setting up systems to produce ideas automatically.) But I’ve come to see that with the kind of interpretive and conceptual work that I do in my dissertation, I usually already know what the connections are because the data set (a few literary and theological texts and a couple hundred secondary articles/chapters) is comparatively small. DT is superior to Spotlight for organization, and it goes a long way toward a paperless office. But until I start surveying a wide range of similar texts (for example, commentaries on the Bible), DT’s AI won’t be able to do anything a good filing system and Spotlight couldn’t accomplish–even though it does the same things better, and that’s why I’m sticking with it.

But perhaps researchers who are not working with large data sets–whose work is almost entirely interpretive and not archival or descriptive–have found workflows that I have not. I’d love to hear about them.

I think I understand where you’re coming from. Many of our faculty and grad students are medievalists and I’ve had similar conversations in the past. I do think that DT works really well with the large body of secondary literature I’m sure you deal with.

All that said, I also wonder if you would potentially find QDA applications helpful for analyzing smaller bodies of texts that share common features of form or content. This is an area I’m only beginning to explore in my own work, but ethnographers and cultural anthropologists have for years been using applications to code and analyze transcribed interviews and other texts in ways that I think hold a lot of promise for close analysis. The applications allow you to take a text and apply a mark-up of metadata to specific parts of the text that can then later be analyzed. So, anthros usually will apply a range of identifying and conceptual tags-- place, sex, race, date, etc. as well as more conceptual keywords/tags related to the language of informants. While not knowing your work at all, I can see how for the ancient and medieval worlds, this type of analysis could open new avenues into the mind of Menocchio, so to speak.

Anyway, the program I’m playing with on that front is the freeware TAMS Analyzer ( TAMS stands for Textual Analysis Markup System.