A million tiny pieces (of paper)

The day before my senior thesis was due, Chapter 5 – the analysis chapter – was lying in pieces on my floor.  Literally.  After months of researching, analyzing, and writing about language used in farm bill debates, my organizational capacities were completely gone.  Finally, I just wrote a brain dump chapter, saying everything I wanted to say.  Then I printed it out, got out my scissors, and dissected and then reassembled it on the floor of my room.

At some point during this process, my friend Steph walked in.  Her voice rose as she asked what I was doing, and I’m sure her concern was justified:  I was probably still wearing my pajamas at some point after noon, and was sitting on my floor, surrounded by a blizzard of little scraps of paper.  I was holding scissors, possibly at a dangerous angle.  Despite the fact that I appeared to be a crazy person, however, this method of organization actually worked pretty well.  Once sorted, I taped all the pieces of paper together in order, then reordered them on my computer.  There are some things that I just cannot reorganize on a screen.

I relate this story because I’m in a similar position with my current project.  As the page count on my Microsoft Word document climbs past the 30s (single-spaced), I can feel the organization coming apart at the seams.  However, since in Malawi I have neither free ink nor unlimited printing, I am resisting for the moment.  So, in an act of procrastination (or, optimistically, organization), I thought I would write a little about my project.

My research project basically asks the question, “How do NGOs and donor agencies promote crop diversification in light of the Malawian government policy that supports all maize, all the time?”  I’m also interested in crop diversification as a food security strategy; how can a smallholder farmer manage risk so s/he has something to eat all year?

To answer these questions, I gathered data on all the donor-funded projects in the agriculture sector, then focused on those that specifically addressed or included a crop diversification component.  For each crop diversification project, I interviewed staff members and gathered more information, mostly on program implementation and effectiveness.  I also took whatever written documentation they offered.  Everything is data.

After data collection comes analysis.  Sounds simple, right?  Except that I am working with about 10 different donor-funded projects on a wide range of topics.  Though I administered the same questionnaire for each interview, the responses (and tangents) I got covered even more issues that I originally thought to query.  While I won’t include everything, of course, there are some really interesting topics – like the association of maize with modernity – that are simply too relevant to leave out.  And so now, 40 pages in, I feel that I have a million tiny pieces of paper instead of a coherent report.

It will eventually come together – it always does.  But if only I had some scissors and a roll of scotch tape…

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2 Responses to “A million tiny pieces (of paper)”

  1. Nancy M Says:

    On a similar but very different note of frustration US style, I’m trying to fill the last ad space for the yearbook. I’ve played phone tag for three days and today the number I’ve been calling isn’t working at a very busy truck stop. I contacted the man through the service shop phone; I’m still not sure how. He agreed to ad (yea!) but asked me to contact the ad part of an area newspaper and acquire the ad from them. The very helpful ad agent said I have many, many ads for them. I wonder which he wants. We settled on something which she is now going to email me. The problem is the ad is for a full page magazine size and he wants a half page. Scissors won’t work!! Plus my room at school is well over 80 today and the fans aren’t quite helping me. Good luck.

  2. Rachel Says:

    I love the story of the scraps of paper all over the place. Luckily I just had reels of video stored on an external hard drive for my undergrad final project…a much easier medium to work with sometimes–othertimes not. Anyways, have fun with the report and hope you don’t have to take to literally “cutting and pasting”.

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